For Ryan Keebaugh, composing is about the depth of feeling and spirituality within the music. “I’m a constant seeker and deep listener. I strive to create music that will inspire others to find their own spiritual and religious path,” Keebaugh said.
Keebaugh holds the title of Assistant Professor at EMU, where he serves as the Music Education Specialist and Coordinator of Music Theory.
Keebaugh’s work has established him as a prominent composer of his generation, and the Washington Post has called his music “innovative and hauntingly beautiful.”
This sentiment was obvious in the performance of Keebaugh’s first symphony, “Symphony No. 1,” at the Centennial Gala for Eastern Mennonite University this past Saturday, Nov. 11. EMU commissioned Keebaugh to write this piece specifically for the Gala. Comprised of a full choir, a string orchestra, piano, and a baritone solo, the piece proved to be ethereal and moving.
The symphony began with every member of the choir reading a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer at their own pace and intensity, resulting in a jumble of words, indecipherable to the audience. As the strings come in, the choir starts the prayer again in unison.
“[This prayer] was the one that resonated most with what I was going for,” said Keebaugh. “I was thinking about what was going on in the world at the time, and I just happened to open the Book of Common Prayer, and it happened to be the one I landed on. It speaks well with what EMU’s ethos is, where we’ve been, where we want to go.”
Keebaugh wanted his work to reflect EMU’s “ethos and mission.” The sole lyrics of the song were “Dona nobis pacem,” meaning give us peace.
In the middle of the symphony, the choir falls silent and the strings and piano create a soundscape, an atmosphere for meditation and contemplation. “Music that is mine is drawn out. It’s not like going to a concert of Mozart where you know what’s coming,” Keebaugh said. “Mine is supposed to be like a moment. It places you in a place, a meditation, a prayer, that’s what it’s for … so be mindful of that moment.”
The students certainly appreciate Keebaugh’s drive and skill. “[Keebaugh’s] passion for every moment, his creative energy … and humility inspire me every day to keep working toward my own passions,” sophomore Leah Wenger said. “He doesn’t give himself enough credit for all the lives he has touched, whether through teaching or his music.”
This is far from the first time Keebaugh has had his music performed. His works have premiered around the world. Canada, Serbia, Russia, Puerto Rico, and the United States, are all places where Keebaugh’s music has been performed, and this coming spring he has pieces premiering in Scotland and England.
“I like how encouraging he is,” First-year Maya Dula said. “He has a good mix of pushing it and not settling for a sound, but he won’t make you drill it.”
Keebaugh’s presence is incredibly valued within the EMU community.