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WRTI is proud to highlight the accomplishments of young artists in our local communities. You can donate now to champion and support WRTI's education initiatives! Learn more about what inspires and motivates these musicians through the interviews in this series.

WRTI Young Artist Spotlight: Composer Cecelia Olszewski

Composer Cecelia Olszewski
Joseph V. Labolito
Composer Cecelia Olszewski

Cecelia Olszewski is a composer, violinist and pianist from Wallingford, PA. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Composition at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.

Cecelia's works have been performed by members of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Her one-act chamber opera, Devoted, premiered at Northwestern University this past March. In 2022, Cecelia was selected as one of six national fellows for the Luna Composition Lab, founded by Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid. Cecelia participated in the 2020 and 2021 Wildflower Composers Festivals, and is returning to this year’s festival as an intern.

Cecelia is the founder and president of Cosmia Opera Collective, a student organization providing resources for the funding, production, and performance of new operatic works by historically-marginalized composers at Northwestern University.

10 Questions with Cecelia Olzewski:

1. What do you like to listen to?

I listen to a lot of indie singer-songwriters as well as classical music, and my work is definitely a reflection of all of those influences. My favorite indie artists are Alex G, Joanna Newsom and Sharon Van Etten. Samuel Barber is my favorite classical composer if I had to pick one.

2. What is it like to hear your compositions being played or sung for the first time? 

It’s exciting, though it can be stressful sometimes! You never know exactly how the piece is going to sound until the first readthrough; software instruments can only give you an idea.

3. What inspired you to write Devoted?  

Like any opera, it was inspired by a lot of things coming together. My biggest influences were a painting called Penitent Magdalene by Caravaggio as well as going through a breakup and leaning into the women in my life for support. I was also raised Catholic, so those aesthetics and themes have always been in the back of my head.

4. What inspired you to found the Cosmia Opera Collective at Northwestern?

My team and I faced a lot of obstacles in putting on Devoted, and we ended up with this amazing community at the end of the run that wanted to keep making art together. I also knew that I had an unusually non-male-dominated upbringing in composing (Wildflower Composers and Luna Composition Lab), and I wanted to use that to empower historically-marginalized composers like myself to self-advocate.

5. What is it like to return to Wildflower Composers Festival as an intern? 

It is such an honor! Wildflower was a life-changing experience for me back in 2020 as someone totally new to composing, and I am so excited to have the opportunity to help create that experience for others.

Composer Cecelia Olszewski
Joseph V. Labolito
Composer Cecelia Olszewski

6. What’s your favorite thing about Philadelphia?

I love how historic and simultaneously unserious it is. Last summer, my friend from school came to visit and we went on the Ghost Tour through Old City. The tour guide wore a black cape and a top hat and he carried a lantern. In the middle of the tour, everyone had the chance to use the bathroom at the Landmark Ritz Five and my friends and I got a large popcorn to carry around for the rest of the tour. Afterwards we got ice cream from Franklin Fountain and ate it in front of Ben Franklin’s grave. To me that was about as Philly as it gets.

7. Can you describe your creative process when composing?

I would describe my creative process as interdisciplinary and intuitive. I always start by making a Pinterest board and a Spotify playlist to capture my goals for the visual/sonic aesthetic of the work. Then I usually record voice memos of me improvising on violin, piano, or voice. I go on to develop whichever voice memos feel most like the Pinterest board to me. I can’t really explain how I make those decisions, it’s always just been intuitive.

Composer Ceceilia Olszewski
Joseph V. Labolito
Composer Ceceilia Olszewski

8. What advice would you give your 9-year-old self?

I would tell my 9-year-old self to try to write down or at least record those improvisations that I’m doing at the piano and that women can be composers, too.

9. Who have been the greatest champions of your career so far?

Erin Busch (founder of Wildflower Composers), Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid (co-founders of Luna Composition Lab) all lead incredible organizations for young, gender-marginalized composers that I had the honor of being a part of. They have all remained invaluable supporters of my career and I am so grateful for their mentorship.

10. Do you have any tips for people just getting started with composition?

I would recommend starting out by writing pieces for yourself that you can perform on your instrument. Try adding improvisation to your daily practice and make sure to record it.

The Wildflower Composer Festival Concert is on July 19 at 2:00 pm at Rock Hall at Temple University in Philadelphia; for more information visit Wildflower's site.

Songs that inspired Devoted:

Lydia Veilleux has worked in music education and arts administration for the past 20 years, and has taught students of all ages in various community settings. As WRTI's Education & Outreach Manager, she oversees educational partnerships, sponsorships, events, and coverage.