Composer has humility you can hear

Grad student Jocelyn Hagen put voices, cello and some simplicity into her winning carol

Don M. Burrows

It’s easy to feel unaccomplished around Jocelyn Hagen. After all, she has published numerous musical compositions and heard them performed across the country ” all while balancing teaching, graduate school and founding a publishing company.

And she’s only 25.

Of course, Hagen’s unassuming nature and humble beginnings keep people from feeling intimidated. And that personality comes through ” intentionally ” in her music compositions.

When VocalEssence performs its holiday choral concerts this weekend, Hagen will become the youngest composer to win the local group’s eighth annual carol contest. Her composition, with its mezzo soprano and cello solos and text of Edward Caswell’s “See Amid the Winter Snow,” was one of two chosen nationwide for the honor.

VocalEssence, a local choral ensemble, asked for compositions that included solo cello, and that’s what piqued Hagen’s interest.

“One of the things that intrigued me was that it was with cello and that’s one of my favorite instruments,” she said. “I love writing melodies and that’s what I think is the strength of this carol. It has a folklike melody.”

Indeed, that characteristic played out magically at last week’s VocalEssence rehearsal, also the first time Hagen heard her carol performed. As the cello swelled above the voice solo, it hauntingly invoked the time-honored imagery of the nativity story in Caswell’s words.

This folk echo is no coincidence. A North Dakota native, Hagen grew up in a family of folk and country performers, many of whom did music the old-fashioned way ” without reading it on the page. She was a singer-songwriter herself with designs on Nashville before moving to Northfield to attend St. Olaf College. When she began orchestrating requiems and other choral works, her background elegantly blended in.

“I think that’s how I’ll always write,” she said. She said she strives to make music that people can “walk away humming.”

You’ll get no pretensions from Hagen. One of her key philosophies is that her music should be approachable. While she acknowledges the place complex academic composition should have, she chooses instead to write music that, well, simply sounds beautiful.

As she summed it up: “I want to write music that people can relate to.”

Aside from the carol contest, Hagen’s work has also been chosen in a contest by the group Juventas, with performances this month at Yale and Harvard universities.

But she does more than write the music. Hagen teaches piano lessons at her local studio. She also has taught at a local high school while pursuing her master’s degree in composition as a fellow at the University’s School of Music.

For her, teaching is another way of connecting to people through music, at much the same level she works to reach people through her compositions.

“It’s great being in there,” she said of her classrooms, “being connected to it at a real level.”

With her fiance, Hagen has also started a Web-based publishing company, Graphite Publishing, which aims to bring music publishing into the digital age. Rather than wait for companies to print music and send it to performers, Hagen’s company will provide the music digitally ” thus immediately.

“What’s so nice about this is, you buy it, you get it right then,” she said.

Although she has an undergraduate degree in education in addition to music, Hagen said she probably will write music exclusively after she finishes her graduate work. And her goal will remain the same: Making music people want to hear.

“It’s this whole thing about accessibility,” she concluded.

“I want my music to be accessible.”