Brian O. Kepher
Composer in Residence

Brian O. Kepher (born 1994) is a conductor and composer living and studying in Nairobi, Kenya. His work facilitates the preservation and appreciation of African music and he is currently focussing on orchestrating native African folk tunes. 

During his residency he worked from the music room in Casa Mahler. He completed final amendments to his orchestrated variation of ‘Malaika’ and started new work, inspired by the sculptures of Anna Mahler and the work of Sol LeWitt. Our former composer in residence, Dr. James Cave, came to Spoleto for three days at the end of the session to work with Kepher.

As his contribution to an ‘Open Studios’ event, Kepher gave a talk about classical music in Africa. He spoke about his own work as well as the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer and conductor of mixed race from England and a contemporary of Mahler, and Florence Beatrice Price, the first African American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer.

The following text is a review of the residency written by Kepher: 

Honestly, this was the first residency of my career as a musician and composer. When I was invited to Spoleto to continue my orchestral compositions, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been to Italy, but knew of the land since my early childhood, through the Church and history books. 

In 2015, during his state visit to Africa, I had conducted a performance for Pope Francis. So it was incredible that my first excursion with the other residents was to Assisi: a visit to the great Basilica which houses the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi. When I saw the mighty works by the great quattrocento artists on the walls of the Basilica, a kind of deep understanding came to me of how life might have been then, and how the world has developed since. 

The art I came across in Spoleto was also astonishing. It profoundly affected my thoughts and imagination on subjects of art and music, religion and politics.

I was humbled to be able to work in Casa Mahler’s music library during my residency. I had books to read, scores to analyse but, most important, was the piano. As a Mahler admirer, I was thrilled to have access to a facsimile of Gustav Mahler’s handwritten Resurrection score. Working with this score proved very important to me. How does one come up with such a work of genius? Where did he start? What was happening then? One can see all his earlier markings and corrections, which now appear, finalised, on the concert prints. The facsimile of the Resurrection had letters that Mahler wrote to his friends as well as to his wife Alma. Throughout my residency I felt like I was connecting meaningfully with a rich history. 

I was pleased to have started a new work during my residency, which I had not intended. It was inspired by spending time with Anna Mahler’s sculptures and the work of Sol LeWitt. 

I really experienced a lot of things which in Korogocho, my home in Nairobi, I do not have the opportunity for. In Spoleto I had a quiet reading space and the piano was readily available. If I needed it while writing for a section, I would play it and imagine how it felt as the performer. I listened to CDs on the hi-fi and studied a variety of scores in the library, to name a few examples; Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Wagner, Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler.

What I have learnt in life so far, is how we can learn from life: How the silence of contemplation and self-reflection, as you look to make a difference in yourself, can reflect usefully into the world – if not today, then tomorrow. I think that is what the Mahler & LeWitt Studio residency program is all about.

The frightening part is when you have an idea for the music you are composing, but it doesn’t work for you. You can’t sleep because your mind won’t settle. My thanks go to Guy Robertson, our curator and the co-director of the program, who listened to me and offered guidance at such times. He also linked me with composers in Spoleto and arranged for a previous Mahler & LeWitt Studios composer-in-residence, James Cave, to fly from the UK to workshop my scores with me for three days. James and I shared a great deal and I am most grateful for his time and wisdom. 

I will treasure these experiences and memories and am sure the program will benefit other young composers in the future. Finally, I also remember fondly the Spoletini who made us feel so at home and kept our hearts warm when we gathered.

Thanks to the Mahler and LeWitt Studios team for making this time possible. 

Brian O. Kepher 14th May 2019

Kepher’s orchestration drawn from Christopher Walters’ Variations on Malaika, a popular song recorded in 1959 by Fadhili Williams, was performed in 2018 by the Nairobi Orchestra.

He also works with El Sistema Kenya, amongst other community programmes, using music as a tool for social change: His involvement with different charities and leadership projects saw him recommended as an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society. 

In 2016 he was invited as a guest conductor at the 5th International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition (Bamberg, Germany) where he took masterclasses with Jonathan Nott. Brian later participated in a residency with Jorge Viladoms at the Lausanne Conservatory in Switzerland and attended the Verbier Festival where he had a masterclass with Iván Fischer. In 2017, he attended the All African Universities Leadership Exchange Programme hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill USA, where he met and rehearsed the school’s Symphony Orchestra under the guidance of Prof. Kalam Tonu. In 2018 saw him win a scholarship to attend an academic semester in conducting and orchestration at the Haute école de musique Genève-Neuchâtel (Geneva University of Music) as a guest student under Prof. Laurent Gay.

Kepher was first introduced to music by the church, listening and singing the Gregorian Chants as he grew up. He enrolled at Kenyatta University where he studied music and later grew interested in orchestral conducting, inspired by Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle. In 2015 he conducted a performance which was attended by both the President of the Republic of Kenya and Pope Francis, during his Papal State visit to Africa.

His interest in performance was inspired by hearing the drums of the Kenya Defence Forces when they played the National Anthem of Kenya in 2010. When Brian joined the Ghetto Classics community programme in Korogocho around that time, he became a timpanist and percussionist and has since performed with the Nairobi Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra of Kenya, the Kenya Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, the SCOKENDIA Ensemble (UK), the Dar Choral Society and Orchestra (Tanzania), Seoul International Community Orchestra (South Korea), and the World Civic Orchestra (USA).