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University of Otago forth-year music student Nathaniel Otley (22) won the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Young Composers Award in Wellington on Saturday.
He and fellow Otago student Ihlara McIndoe were among eight composers chosen for the finals.
Otley said his contemporary classical Biosphere Degradation, for full orchestra, was inspired by the work of "soundscape ecologists".
"You can tell a lot about an ecosystem by analysing the natural sounds, insects and bird calls - how they interact with each other.
"The order or disorder of that kind of soundscape that occurs naturally is a pretty decent indicator of the health of an ecosystem."
His creation was "slightly atmospheric" with unusual sounds for orchestral instruments.
"I was trying to invoke sort of a sense of stress and desperation and a desolation that is happening in a lot of environments these days."
The eight composers heard the NZSO play their pieces in Wellington at the weekend.
Otley said he was "shocked" to win the competition.
"You get so much out of getting into the finals. The other seven works were all really fascinating, you learn a lot from what other people are doing."
Otley started playing the violin when he was 4 and dabbled in composition at King's High School, before pursuing on more seriously at university.
He plays in the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra and the Dunedin Youth Orchestra.
In the next year or so he will need to decide whether to focus on violin or composing, or transition into conducting.
"I'm looking overseas for people I can learn from and to bring that back here."