Archived Voice Articles

Student Profile: Jansen's goal is writing music for the theater

By Andrew De Young

Mark Jansen is a musician and a composer, but he's also a storyteller. When he started piano lessons in grade school, he was more interested in playing film scores by ear than playing songs from his music books. He composed his first piece of music for a high school English class after reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Years later, nothing has changed-in his years at Dordt, he has won Meritorious Achievement awards at the American College Theater Festival for sound design in two Dordt theater productions, and written music for Ghostdance, last semester's one-woman show.

Mark Jansen

Mark Jansen

"I like writing music for the theater," says Jansen. "It really forces you to be creative within certain boundaries." When writing for a play, Jansen takes characters, situations, themes, and emotions, and connects them with melodies and motifs that recur and change throughout the music. Another benefit of writing for theater, he says, is that it forces him to grow as a composer by allowing him to write in different styles.

"When I wrote for Ghostdance, I had to learn a lot about Native American music. Would I have written anything like that if I didn't write for the theater? Probably not. Writing for plays connects me with a whole bunch of things."

Although he has only recently started to work on serious compositions, the love of music is something that has been with Jansen his whole life. His parents weren't professional musicians, but they did participate actively in church music, and encouraged Jansen and his siblings to take music lessons at a very young age.

"We were a musical family, but that's a natural thing in Reformed communities," says Jansen. "A lot of people grow up with a piano in their home and learning how to sing four-part harmony."

Jansen continued to do well in his music lessons, but what he loved most was trying to plunk out movie scores on the piano. The scores for The Lion King and Apollo 13 were some of his favorites. Hans Zimmer's score for Crimson Tide sparked an interest in Russian music, an interest that would serve him well when he composed a piece for a high school project on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. And later, Jansen was able to resurrect part of that high school composition when he wrote the music for Dordt's production of Nothing Sacred, a play set in nineteenth century Russia.

Jansen has had a good run at Dordt, but that's not to say that he hasn't had his doubts. There were times, he says, when he considered transferring elsewhere, since Dordt doesn't offer a music composition major. But he didn't transfer, and if you ask him, he'll tell you that the decision to stay at Dordt College was the right one.

"If I had gone somewhere else, I probably would have been completely immersed in the music. In a lot of ways, that would have been nice, but there are so many unique opportunities at a Christian college, especially a Christian liberal arts college. I think I'm better off in the long run."

Part of the way he's better off, says Jansen, is that he can relate his music to other aspects of life. His English classes, for example, help him to analyze scripts when he is composing music for a play.

"But it's not just plays," he says. "Even in more classical compositions, you need to have something that connects the music to the human experience." Connecting music to the human experience, says Jansen, means he always writes out of certain experiences and emotions, even when he's not writing for the theater. Last spring he performed a piece based on a friend's struggle with kidney failure, and he recently composed a piece for a contest that was broadly based on the emotion of joy.

"The music always comes from you, from your emotions and your beliefs, but in the end you really want it to reach people on a personal level. That's a really good feeling-when you compose something from the heart, glorify God with it, and connect with other people."

In the years to come, Jansen hopes to study composition in graduate school and perhaps compose film scores in Hollywood. But wherever he ends up, his goal will be the same: that good feeling he gets whenever he composes something from the heart, glorifies God, and connects with other people.