Music always starts early. For Bachelor of Music graduand Kip Johnson, (he/him), it began with childhood piano lessons and the French horn he played in the school band in his native Monterey, California. It blossomed when his family moved to Munich, Germany, where his mother, an academic, had accepted a teaching fellowship. “My sister and I went to German public school. I was learning to speak German but really music—music and sports—were the only ways I had to communicate. I started singing in choirs and I played the French horn. I auditioned for the Munich Youth Orchestra and I was accepted. That was an incredible experience.”
A family move to Victoria, British Columbia, in high school brought King’s into focus as university approached. Johnson wanted to be near an ocean (check) and in a city big enough to provide a range of experiences and opportunities (check). He wanted a university with like-minded, creative people and a strong sense of community (check, check). King’s and Halifax looked ideal. Though from there, Johnson’s path got a bit fuzzier. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study music or marine science,” he explains. “My mom is an academic and a science writer, my father worked at the Monterey Aquarium and I always worked on boats and at the Aquarium.” And as he leaned towards music, he was torn between voice or French horn. A scholarship to study voice at Dalhousie’s Fountain School of Performing Arts sorted that one for the time being and King’s Foundation Year Program (FYP) would give him a solid footing.
“It’s through music that I’ve stayed connected to King’s. And when things get too big, King’s is the place you can always fall back on.”
One of the gifts of university undergrad is the space to learn about who you are and what inspires you. For Johnson, that meant transitioning from performance to composition. “I realized I didn’t want to spend my life performing German art songs and opera arias. I mean, music is about connection and it’s hard to connect with people when you’re singing a genre you don’t particularly enjoy.”
Composition proved a fit, so much so that this year Johnson won the Fountain School of Performing Art’s Owen Maitzen Prize for composition. As a composer, he describes himself as a minimalist by choice and by necessity. “In composition, minimalism is about taking one idea, finding what’s at the core of the piece and extracting every single potentiality from it.” For Johnson, emotion in music comes first. “We all speak the same language of emotions and feelings. I don’t want the audience sitting in a hall thinking, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting chord.’ It has to be emotions first. You’re creating an experience.” And practically, he explains, it’s easier to find small ensembles to perform your work.
As graduation approaches, Johnson is warmly appreciative of the part King’s has played these past four years. “FYP gave me a context for the music I was performing. I could see what was going on culturally that informed the composers and the thinkers who may have influenced them and this very interesting interplay between music and thought.” With the King’s Chapel Choir, he grew as an artist and found a welcoming community. “Neil Cockburn is phenomenal,” he enthuses about the university’s new Director of Chapel Music. As well, the Chapel has been home to Johnson’s more personal music as a singer-songwriter with a traditional folk bent. He hopes to record his first album by fall. “It’s through music that I’ve stayed connected to King’s. And when things get too big, King’s is the place you can always fall back on.”
This summer, his first in Halifax, he’ll be working on a boat doing tours before focusing on creating a place for himself in the city’s music industry. “I’ve composed for short films and podcasts and I’d like to write music for the theatre and commercials. And I’ve developed my recording skills so that I can function as my own sound engineer. There are opportunities here in Halifax. It’s a great place to lay the groundwork for a career.”