Music composition graduate finds her own unique voice with sonic ecosystem compositions

May 4, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Laura Brackney, Doctor of Musical Arts in music composition, views composing as a form of sonic gardening, cultivating each work’s interrelationships and sounds as ecosystemic material. Laura Brackney’s work has been commissioned by Mayo Clinic’s Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, the 78th anniversary of the UT Kniker Carillon, the New Media Art and Sound Summit, the Portland Youth Philharmonic and Collide Arts, among others. Download Full Image

Brackney is currently serving as the composer-in-residence for the ASU Wind Ensemble and recently completed a commission for solo carillon for Mayo Clinic’s Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine. The commission was requested by the clinic’s official carillonneur, Austin Ferguson, who also commissioned Brackney’s first work after earning her undergraduate degree.

 “I am grateful to be the composer-in-residence with the ASU Wind Ensemble this year,” said Brackney. “It was a great experience to work with the musicians, doctoral conductor Kristen Zelenak and Dr. Jason Caslor to write a piece about a river I love.” 

“Cloudlands,” the 2022 composition in the "Music for Mayo" Carillon Music Series, will be available in early August free of charge to carillonneurs around the world. Brackney describes the piece in the center’s news release as “inspired by the process of loss and acceptance. The music works to reconcile the differences between a persistent ostinato and freer, wave-like gestures. Competing materials drift against each other, merge and condense before ultimately dissipating peacefully. The amorphous harmonic language represents clouds of bells which collide and blur into each other. Cloudlands: a place of dreams, of ‘impractical speculation,’ of unreal skies.”

In addition to traditional concert music, she has created music for theater, film, fixed media and bicycle installations.

While at ASU, Brackney delved into electronic music and explored new compositional techniques. She has written several stunning works that extend the usual timbral possibilities of instruments and has collaborated extensively with the Wind Ensemble to develop her art.

“Laura has so many positive attributes, it’s difficult and would be unfair to just list one,” said Fernanda Navarro, assistant professor of composition in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “Laura has been very supportive of the community; she is also curious, multifaceted, creative and industrious.”

Brackney’s work has been commissioned by the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, the 78th anniversary of the UT Kniker Carillon, the New Media Art and Sound Summit, the Portland Youth Philharmonic and Collide Arts, among others.

Her work has been premiered at the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium and the Look and Listen Festival by Grit Collaborative + Oh My Ears and performed by groups such as the AURORA trio, Gamelan Lipi Awan and Quince Ensemble. In 2020, her string quartet Desertification won first prize in the ASU Mykytyn Distinguished Composition Award.

Brackney received a Special Talent Award and Teaching Assistantship, which she said allowed her to pursue her doctoral degree.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I remember seeing a friend who was taking composition lessons have a lot of fun writing, and I decided I wanted to try it too. I don’t think there was a specific “moment,” but it’s something I decide to do every day. 

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I don’t think there was just one thing specifically, but I am really glad that I got to meet so many wonderful people. I have learned a lot from my teachers, friends and other students.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: For the diversity in styles and perspectives of the composition department.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: There are so many wonderful professors, but I would really like to acknowledge my committee chair, Dr. Fernanda Navarro, for being an amazing mentor. 

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Find other students to collaborate with, try to get enough sleep, prioritize your mental health, and try to take breaks and have fun.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I share an office with Alicia Castillo, and I feel really lucky to have a space to focus on my work. It is also nice to be able to step outside and warm up in the courtyard and say hello to people.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to maintain my creative practice, have some impact on society and the community around me and to keep teaching.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I have been researching the rhizosphere a lot lately for my dissertation project, so my answer is that I would like to shift away from conventional, industrial agriculture toward regenerative agriculture. We could move toward a sustainable system that builds healthy soil — carbon sequestration via plants and healthy soil has great potential to reduce our carbon footprint — and pays farmworkers.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music, Dance and Theatre


School of Life Sciences Dean's Medalist brings together art, science, history

May 4, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Ariana Afshari epitomizes a modern renaissance student — a scientist, researcher, philosopher, historian and artist.  ASU SOLS student Ariana Afshari awarded Deans Medal Ariana Afshari is a scientist, philosopher and artist, and graduates this spring with her Bachelor’s of Science in biological sciences (neurobiology, physiology and behavior), and a minor in civic and economic thought leadership. Photo courtesy of Ariana Afshari.

A biological sciences major in the School of Life Sciences focusing on neurobiology, physiology and behavior, she also minored in civic and economic thought leadership. Then, during the height of the pandemic in August 2020, Afshari decided to push her boundaries even further and explore an entirely new discipline — she started painting

Art opened a window to new techniques to analyze and express history, science, politics and philosophy — combining her passions and bringing them to 3D life.   

One of her paintings now hangs in the School of Civic and Economic Thought Leadership Coors Texts Reading Room, which has become one of Afshari’s favorite study spots on campus. 

“It has a quaint design with chess, antique lighting, and is an intimate spot to catch up with friends, enjoy the classic literature they feature on their shelves, or focus on your studies,” she said.

The painting, a 60-by-40-inch canvas mural, is inspired by “The School of Athens” by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. Standing tall in the precise mathematical architecture alongside Plato and Aristotle are other prominent figures, including Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglas and Frida Kahlo

In light of her many accomplishments, this multifaceted scholar and artist has been selected as this semester’s Dean’s Medalist by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

This prestigious honor recognizes graduating students who have demonstrated outstanding academic excellence during their time at ASU. In addition to her artistic talents, Afshari contributed to research in developmental neurobiology, mathematical neuro-oncology, and neurosurgery. 

She also served as the director of health and wellness for the undergraduate student government, where she illustrated and published an interactive children’s guide to COVID-19. 

After graduation she plans to participate in developmental neuroscience research at Stanford Medical School and teach biology with Teach for America. 

We had the chance to ask Afshari a few questions about her time at ASU. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What was the moment when you realized you wanted to study neuroscience? 

Answer: Neuroscience itself is an incredibly versatile field of study, which is what makes it so rewarding for students who like to bounce between disciplines in academic and research spaces. For me, my “aha” moment was through a long-time exposure to what neurobiology looks like in-practice — learning the mechanics of neuron firing in the classroom, to applying that biology in a lab I worked in at Mayo Clinic studying mathematical neuro-oncology, to scrubbing into neurosurgeries with patients with the clinical phenotypes I had, in textbooks and at the workplace, studied. This is how I ultimately knew I loved studying the brain, in every domain: at school, in research, and in the clinic.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was raised just south of ASU in the Valley, so there was always an incentive to stay close to friends and family, and my four-year-old baby sister in particular. However, I was extremely fortunate enough to receive a scholarship that covered my tuition and housing for all four years. I knew I would be able to get a really full ASU experience and pursue opportunities tailored to my professional goals with that degree of financial aid, which was the primary contributor to my decision to go to ASU.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU that changed your perspective?

A: I learned at ASU the sheer importance of asking: “Can you make a spot for me?” or “Can I have _____ opportunity?” Arizona State University is the kind of university that has endless avenues for students to explore internships and research experience, but what’s not advertised is how many opportunities you can create for yourself. I became well-accustomed to advocating for myself and asking professors and faculty to make room for me or to put me in contact with someone who can make my dream position possible. Learning the power of self-advocacy is what made my ASU experience transformative, when I realized the ceiling was not the sky.  

Q: What is a life-changing lesson you learned from a professor while at ASU? Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Dr. Paul Carrese, served as a mentor for me throughout my academic journey at ASU, who always advocated for my success, but it remains that one of the life lessons he conversationally shared with me stands out. I came to him asking how I can balance furthering my career while also seeking personal happiness. He responded by telling me the story he used to read to his children about how a colony of mice worked strenuously every summer season to gather enough food to survive, while one mouse would adventure — collecting sun rays, colors and words. By the time the mice had to use their food supply in the cold months, it ran out, and the mouse who sought intangible experiences was able to distract them with his stories to survive the winter. This taught me the importance of chasing experiences, not accolades, and finding meaning and mentorship, not money and prestige so that I, too, have something of substance to get me through the “winters” of life. 

Q: Were you able to participate in any internships or research experiences while at ASU?

A: I was lucky enough to participate in many internships and research experiences while at ASU. I got the chance to be a part of a lab studying developmental neurobiology here at ASU during the academic school years and eventually became involved in a second lab studying mathematical neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic. Through these research experiences, I was able to both contribute to multiple scientific manuscripts and present my work at local and national conferences. I also served as the director of health and wellness for the Undergraduate Student Government and was honored as a Spirit of Service Scholar. In addition, I consistently worked with Teach for America to assist 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms through their IGNITE fellowship and participated in a year-long internship at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: If I could offer advice to current students, I would tell them to seek two things in all their academic pursuits: real challenge and true inspiration. They should take the time to find what communities or fields of study make them feel inspired and begin building a toolbox of opportunities and experiences that make the most sense for their interests and their narrative. I think it’s a valuable skill to be prudent and intentional with what you dedicate your time to, so that you, not only do them well, but you take away something valuable for your own story. 

Dominique Perkins

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Life Sciences