Alumnus Q&A: music composer Oliver Caplan ’04

by Zach Cherian | 1/6/17 2:00am

Oliver Caplan ’04 is a professional composer who graduated from Dartmouth with a double major in music and geography, and served as president of the marching band.

He went on to the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he graduated with a master’s of music in 2006. Caplan is currently working on his second original album, which he expects to be released during the fall of 2017. His work will be played in concert by the Dartmouth Wind Ensemble (which is part of a nationwide Consortium Commission) on Jan. 22.

When did you first become interested in music and composing? Did one come after the other?

OC: I’d say it was one of those “hindsight is 20/20” things. I had taken piano lessons since kindergarten, and I used to play piano all the time. I could not pass by the instrument without stopping to play, but I was always playing my own music and improvising instead of practicing what I had been advised to practice by my teacher. My teacher actually complained to my parents that I wasn’t serious enough, that I wasn’t practicing. Thankfully, my mom said to him, “Well, he really loves playing Bach and Mozart at your house once a week, when he’s there.” So I think it’s funny in retrospect, because at the time, I think if there were a betting poll, I would have likely been the least likely person in my teacher’s piano studio to become a professional musician. When you look back, it’s clear that I was developing as a composer. I used to improvise. I composed pieces, but I didn’t know how to write them down at the time when I was in elementary school. Dartmouth was when I started composing more seriously.

How does the Dartmouth Wind Ensemble piece fit into your repertoire?

OC: This is a piece that connects to my deep love of nature and the environment and the outdoors. I call it a tone poem, inspired by different aspects of life in the Alpine Zone. The title is Krummholz Variations, a German word that means “Crooked Wood,” and it refers to these gnarly, twisted, funky trees — gateways to the higher world. When I’m hiking in higher altitudes, one of the things that moves me is thinking of beauty that prevails in really harsh conditions. As much as there is this nature aspect there, I think there is also something very human about that aspect of resiliency. I do hold onto things like that in difficult times.

Including myself, there are four Dartmouth connections in this project. The piece is commissioned by a consortium of 13 ensembles around the country ­— Dartmouth Wind Ensemble is one of them. Each ensemble is having its premiere performance, and this is Dartmouth’s premiere performance. The idea for the piece and the lead for the consortium was another Dartmouth alum, Andy Pease ’01. He was the conductor of the marching band when he was a senior and I was a freshman. He had this Stravinsky octet for winds and brass, and it’s a really beloved piece in the wind ensemble world, but it’s really unusual instrumentation — it’s flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, two trombones — so people love this piece that you bring together these instruments to play the Stravinsky octet. He had this idea of machining a companion piece with the same instrumentation as the Stravinsky, so that he could program them side by side ­— that’s where the idea for the Consortium started.

I think it’s worth mentioning that one of the other groups also has a Dartmouth connection — Atlanta Chamber Players, their general manager is Rachel Ciprotti ’02. [Pease] and Matthew Marsit, conductor of Dartmouth Wind Ensemble, are also conductor colleagues in the wind ensemble world. [Marsit] brought Dartmouth Wind Ensemble to the table as a Consortium member.

What are you currently working on now?

OC: I am currently working on recording my second studio album, which will be entitled “You Are Not Alone.” The CD will be released next fall, 2017. It’s a collection of very deeply personal chamber works. They raise awareness on themes that I think are important. Breast cancer is one, marriage equality and the environment — those are all very important to me. There are four different pieces — they relate those themes.

One is “You Are Not Alone,” which is the anthem for victims and survivors of breast cancer. There’s another piece entitled “Love Letters,” which is music that I wrote for my own wedding ceremony with my husband Chris. To put it in perspective, I would say that when I was at Dartmouth in 2004, we would not have been able to get married — that’s how much the world has changed since then. “To the Sea,” which is inspired by a Massachusetts community organization that worked for 20 years to build this “Rails to Trails” program converting an old railway into a bicycle path that connects communities to the waterfront, reconnecting people to nature.

There’s a final piece called “Connect All We All Connect,” which sets a text by Barry Duncan, a master palindromist. It’s a palindromic text and a poem exploring the strength and fragility of human connection. The pieces have different topics, but the overarching theme that binds them is that they’re all pieces about community and love and connection and transformation, becoming greater as a community.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

If you are interested in Oliver Caplan’s music and want to hear his work, please visit