The former Conservatory of Music student brings a global array of musical influences to an album that he hopes takes listeners on a journey.

When Thomas Nazziola ’06 began composing his latest album, Distant Places, he wanted to create a musical journey that would transport listeners to different places and times. The opening piece of the album, “Cat and Mouse,” which has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition, certainly accomplishes his vision.

“Cat and Mouse” is composed on marimba, vibraphone and udu, a traditional Nigerian percussion instrument. By employing the use of exotic instruments, Nazziola is able to represent his diverse musical background in his own work.

“I’ve listened to and studied the music of so many cultures, but I don’t think about it when I’m writing. I think of an idea that I’m inspired by, and all of the influences find their way into the music. After the piece is finished, I can listen to it and identify what influences appeared in it.”

Nazziola’s style of composition also focuses heavily on how each line of the music interacts with the others and says the title “Cat and Mouse” is inspired by the musical effect of each line chasing the next.

A musician since the age of 3, Nazziola says the Grammy nomination caught him off guard.

“I couldn’t handle the anxiety of waiting for the announcement, so I tried not to focus on it too much,” he says. “When a friend texted me that I had been nominated, I was in shock, and it took me some time for it to sink in.”

It was a welcome surprise after facing the unique challenges that have come with recording music in the last year.

“During the pandemic, you could not book a studio to record,” he says, explaining how he adapted. “I would send tracks to each instrumentalist, who recorded their part and sent it back to me. I would then mix and edit the pieces together in my home studio.”

The experience of listening to the album as a cohesive piece is important for Nazziola.

“I wanted listeners to experience the album like a journey, as if they are sitting in a theater and are about to watch a show,” he says. “After the introduction, you are along for the ride, traveling to each place through sound.”

The album doesn’t fall neatly into the genres of classical or jazz, but instead mixes the two and draws from a wide range of cultural influences, featuring unlikely instruments like the pandeiro—a Brazilian percussion instrument—mixed with traditional elements like classical guitar.

After completing a degree in percussion at Eastman School of Music, he made the choice to pursue the art of composition. He enrolled in the master’s program at Brooklyn College hoping to study under Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and conductor Tania León, who is now a professor emerita.

“I believed that she could be formative in my growth as a composer, and my instincts were right. Tania León knew exactly how to help me develop and expand my writing,” he says.

He also studied percussion under Morris “Arnie” Lang, a former professor in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College who performed in the New York Philharmonic under the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. Nazziola kept in touch with the iconic percussionist until he died this past July.

“Brooklyn College is the birthplace of an important friendship in my life,” says Nazziola, who also has taught music theory courses at the conservatory. “Arnie was supportive of me past graduation. He would support my pieces and tell other people about them, and I cherish that experience so much.”

In addition to his own choral and instrumental projects, Nazziola’s work includes composing and performing for film, television, and commercials. He also performs live gigs and teaches music privately.

“You have to be somewhat of a chameleon as a musician,” he says. “In order to grow you have to see where each path takes you.”

For Nazziola, who also completed a Ph.D. in composition at Rutgers University while working on the album, the recognition is extremely rewarding after having dedicated so much of his time and finances to complete the album. He will attend the Grammy ceremony in Los Angeles next month and says he’s really just happy to be nominated.

“Whatever happens after that is icing on the cake,” he says.