James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Diana Krall — these are but a few of the world-famous musicians who have collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist who will perform next Tuesday at the 44th Presidential Inauguration. Kevin Olusola ’10 would like to see his name added to that list, and he is nerve-wrackingly close.
At the end of December , Olusola entered “Celebrate & Collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma,” a collaboration contest hosted by Indaba.com. The Web site provided a free recording of Ma playing “Dona Nobis Pacem” and welcomed musicians to add their own music to the mix. The grand prize: a chance to record with Ma — one-on one.
Olusola’s submission, which has garnered enough online to put it in second place out of over 350 entries, combines his own cello playing and beatboxing with Ma’s recording. But no matter: Whichever submission Ma likes the best will win, regardless of votes. Tomorrow at noon, the winner will finally be announced.
Olusola, a native of Owensboro, Ky., said that while he is new to composing his own music, he is no amateur when it comes to performing under pressure. By the time he turned 17, he had already played at the famed Carnegie Hall twice. The first time, when he was a high school sophomore, Olusola played the cello after winning the American Fine Arts Festival competition. When he returned to Carnegie two years later as part of the “From the Top” NPR and PBS series, Olusola played the saxophone — and even beatboxed — on national television. If Olusola wins this competition, he will take the national stage yet again.
After finishing his exams and with the fall semester barely behind him, Olusola hunkered down in the Morse Studio for a 15-hour recording session with student producer Juliet Buesing ’11. The session was such “hard work,” as Olusola recalled, because he did not compose the piece beforehand. Instead he went into the recording studio with a general idea, trusting “prayer and intuition” to do the rest.
At some point during those 15 hours, Olusola made the choice that gave his submission its edge. With a little input from Jonathan Jones DIV ’10, a friend of Buesing’s who happened to be hanging out in the Morse Studio, he added a layer of beatboxing — a kind of vocal percussion popular among hip-hop artists — to his piece, which he later titled “Beatbox Cello.” Olusola also made the “gut decision” to change the song’s time signature from a waltzy 3/4 to a “head-bumping” 4/4.
Buesing said that while her lengthy recording session with Olusola was “pretty intense,” she could not take any credit for the piece’s success. “I just sat by and watched,” she said, “Kevin is the genius.”
A contestant named Jack Dermody sent Olusola a message that read: “Your sounds sailed around my house like some heavenly gift … I won’t be surprised if you win.” Another contestant, professional composer Raffi Bandazian, told Olusola he “loved” his submission and that it “made [him] smile the whole time.”
‘music in my head’
Chances bode well for Olusola, whose invitation to the contest can be traced back (albeit with a few degrees of separation) to Ma himself. Olusola received word of the competition from his cello instructor, Ole Akahoshi, who had learned of it through Robert Blocker, Dean of the School of Music. Blocker said he first heard of the competition when he received a call about it from Yo-Yo Ma’s assistant, and was “delighted” to forward the details along to Akahoshi and others like him.
“I flipped out,” Olusola said, recalling his initial reaction to hearing about the contest and its alluring grand prize.
He also said he would have liked to have begun work on his submission earlier, had he not been so occupied studying for his final exams. Olusola was forced to wait until Dec. 20 when he had finished the last of his finals to get to work.
Meanwhile, Olusola is counting his blessings. “I am really thankful for this competition,” he said last week. “It has given me drive to do more of my own music.”
But it is not clear whether Olusola, regardless of winning “Celebrate & Collaborate,” will put what he calls his “God-given talent” to the test and pursue a musical career. His biggest obstacle may be his own calendar, full of diverse commitments. Olusola said he recently switched his major from music to East Asian Studies after spending a semester studying in China, and because he is also completing the pre-med track, his academic schedule allows little time for composing and recording his own music.
“I don’t know where I’m going to go with this,” he said, marking how his success in the competition has unexpectedly complicated his other lifetime goals, like going to medical school and becoming a doctor, “but ever since I was a kid — like 5 or 6 years old — I’ve heard music in my head, and I’ve wanted to get it out.”
When asked what he would do if he wins “Celebrate & Collaborate,” he said it was “not something [he’d] really thought about.”
Perhaps the thinking will begin tomorrow.