Thursday, June 22, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Martin Kennedy

Martin Kennedy (b. 1978) received his B.M. and M.M. at Indiana University before earning a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Juilliard School where he was a C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow. Kennedy’s music has been performed internationally by numerous artists and ensembles, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestra Teatro Comunale di Bologna, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, Wisconsin Philharmonic, Bloomington Camerata, Symphony in C, and Tuscaloosa Symphony. He is the recipient of several prestigious prizes, including the ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize, the ‘2 Agosto’ International Composition Prize, a BMI Student Composer Award, an Aaron Copland Award, and many others. Kennedy’s music is available on the Ancalagon, Anbardy, Azica, Centaur, and Riax labels and is published by Theodore Presser Company and G. Schirmer Inc.  Previously a member of the academic faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, he is currently the Director of Composition and Theory at Central Washington University in Washington State.

Martin’s piece Siren, blind was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Martin spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer and pianist Martin Kennedy

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Martin Kennedy: It was of course a great honor to be selected as a participant in this year’s Underwood New Music Readings. I was previously a part of this program in 2003 while a student at The Juilliard School, and the experience proved invaluable to my educational and professional career. I look back on that experience fondly and carry with me to this day lessons learned during that marvelous experience.

ACO: Your program notes offer three poignant quotes - from Homer’s The Odyssey, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Kafka’s The Silence of the Sirens - describing the terrifying seduction of Sirens. Why did you choose this subject as the basis for your piece? Does the orchestra take on the role of a “siren,” seducing and luring the listener, or of the siren’s victim, or both, or something else entirely?

MK: A constant refrain in both my teaching and my own composing is the crucial importance of the dramatic and visual arts as a stimulus for new explorations in musical form and narrative. With Siren, blind, I took particular inspiration from the genre of dramatic works built around minor literary characters — Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, for example — to gain a new perspective on otherwise familiar tales. The Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey famously seduced sailors to their death (or ecstasy, depending upon your reading of the tale), but my mind can’t help but wander to those passengers in the background who travel far from those fatal rocks and aren't even worth a mention. As time progresses and my own journeys unfold, I find myself far more interested in those souls who are not even given the chance of temptation. And that is, in essence, what Siren, blind is about.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for Siren, blind? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

MK: My process varies from day to day, measure by measure. Sometimes there is a short score, sometimes I write straight into the score, most often it is a combination of both. Much is dependent on the initial concept and architecture. Upon commissioning this work, Nikolas Caoile, conductor of the Central Washington University Symphony Orchestra, placed two small conditions upon me: that my piece contain both highly detailed string divisi and musical quotations. With those directives, my musical and dramatic processes ran along parallel lines, with the music offering shape to the narrative and the narrative framing the musical material. And as the work grew, yet another narrative emerged, populated with a more personal cast of characters (who deserve the right to remain unseen themselves)

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece? What do you hope to gain from the readings?

MK: The majority of adjustments regarding balance, dynamics, etc. were made to the piece during the rehearsals running up to its premiere this past December. Our university orchestra is outstanding both in their musical proficiency and intelligence, and their hard work allowed me the luxury of re-working passages during the rehearsal process. Now the ACO readings will provide me with yet another priceless opportunity to work with yet a group of amazing musicians who I have no doubt will further advance my craft.

More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to studying and learning from the work of my colleagues, all of whom are brilliant composers, possessing both fantastic ideas and sterling technique. It is a supremely talented group and I’m eagerly awaiting learning as much as I can from the orchestra members, composers, and lecturers at the ACO Underwood Readings.

Learn more about Martin at
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Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: James Diaz

New York-based composer James Diaz (b. 1990) is the winner of the 2015 National Prize of Music in Composition by the Ministry of Culture of Colombia for his Concerto for Percussion Trio and Orchestra, Saturn Lights. As winner of the 2014 Prize of Music in Composition for the reopening of the Teatro Colón, his orchestral piece Eclosion was premiered by conductor Claudio Cruz and the National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia and recently has been recorded by the conductor Cecilia Espinosa and the EAFIT Symphony Orchestra for the upcoming album, New Colombian Music for Orchestra. Diaz has also won several competitions for his chamber and wind ensemble music, including the 2015 Coral and Symphony Composition Award by the Bogotá Philharmonic, the 2013 Composition Prize of the International Winter Festival of Campos do Jordão for his string quartet Dynamics of Meteorite and the XV National Award for Musical Composition City of Bogotá by the Bogotá Philharmonic for his work Iron Curtains. Diaz studied composition with Moisés Bertrán, Harold Vázquez and Gustavo Parra at the National Conservatory of Music, where he received his B.M. in Composition in 2015. He was a two-time Composition Fellow at the International Winter Festival of Campos do Jordao, Brazil; and is currently pursuing an M.M. in Composition at the Manhattan School of Music, where he is studying composition with Reiko Fueting.

James’ piece From Infinity was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. James spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer James Diaz

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

James Diaz: I remember that I was in class when my wife emailed me that someone from the American Composers Orchestra had called, suddenly my hands started to shake. As soon as I finished my class I called back and I was informed that I had been selected, I thought I was in the middle of a dream, but it was very real. Being selected in this program is a huge honor for any young composer, it is a reward for many days and nights of time I invested.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for From Infinity? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

JD: I always need to have the whole form of the piece in my mind, or at least the overall concept of the form. I worked on From Infinity for nearly one year. The main ideas were created while I was in Bogotá but right after I moved to NYC I reordered the structure and also I reorchestrated some parts, particularly the end and the center.

For me it's impossible to consider the composition and the orchestration as different aspects. I usually compose directly to the full score because many of principal ideas are essentially colors and gestures, for that reason the orchestration is always in my mind during the process of composition.

ACO: You biography states that you are considered one of the most representative young composers from Colombia. What do you think makes your music distinctively Colombian?

JD: Honestly, I do not know. However, I strongly believe that everything around us defines us. Colombia is well-known for its ecological, geographical and biological diversity and also for its very different sorts of cultures, etc. In others words, as a Colombian I have been exposed to many contrasting factors, which have or have not impacted my musical language and artistic interests.

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

I try to be very rigorous with every single detail in the score. On the other hand, this is going to be the first time I am going to hear my piece live. Also, considering that generally I incorporate Indeterminacy in my music, there are some sections that will be new even for me, so I do know that I'll change some things after the readings.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

As I mentioned before I have been imagining this piece for a long time, but my imagination has some limits. Although theoretically I can imagine what could happen, I am not 100% certain of the real sonic impact. For that reason this opportunity is so important for me – the contributions are unlimited, not only for the all-musical experience that we will gain but also because meeting the teachers, the orchestra and the staff is an incredible privilege. They all will play an important part in our compositional learning. Their life and professional experience, their music background and knowledge, definitely will impact on our lives as young artists. I am very much looking forward to this adventure!

Learn more about James at
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Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Alexander Timofeev

Composer and pianist Alexander Timofeev (b. 1983) has performed his compositions at the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Moldova, Thailand International Composition Festival, Hariclea Darclee Festival and Voice Competition (Romania), Oxford Piano Festival (UK), Novye Imena (Russia), and Northern Lights Festival (USA). He is the winner of the 2016 Richard Weerts Composition Competition, and a finalist of the 2016 Thailand International Composition Festival, among many other awards. In 2008, Timofeev founded the International Society of Pianists and Composers, a non-profit organization that promotes contemporary music written for piano. Started as a creative circle of composing and performing alumni of the Eastman School of Music, it now represents a growing network of musicians from over 20 countries. Alexander Timofeev completed his D.M.A. at the University of Maryland, College Park. He holds an M.M. from the Eastman School of Music and a B.M. from Rowan University. He studied composition with Lawrence Moss, Harold Oliver and Zlata Tkach. Timofeev currently resides in Philadelphia and is an Artist-in-Residence at Rowan University.

Alexander’s piece Fantasme was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Alexander spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer and pianist Alexander Timofeev

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Alexander Timofeev: One day in February I received a call from the ACO. It was a big surprise for me to find out that my piece has been selected for the readings. I knew that many talented, emerging composers apply every year and that the competition is very rigorous. Writing an orchestral piece is a big effort on the part of the composer; the work on such a composition can last for many months. The fact that this year ACO readings had over 250 applications not only speaks about the number of young American composers who are writing music on a very high level, but it is also shows that UNMR is among the central events for emerging composers in this country.

ACO: What was the inspiration for Fantasme? How did your compositional process adjust to the task of writing an orchestral piece?

AT: I believe that in order for a new composition to appear, first there must be a source of inspiration. For me, the flow of music is very much like the flow of a river; such rivers, big and small, usually start with at a tiny rill. The composer’s job is first to discover this source and then to grow the music from there. I found the source of inspiration for Fantasme in the first few measures of my favorite Mozart sonata. In my piece, the original motive receives an immediate transformation and the music goes into new territory.

Writing an orchestral composition is a great experience; it requires a lot of patience and willingness to devote more time to editing the music, something that young composers don’t always have patience for. It is very possible that the time I spent editing the full score and the parts for Fantasme by far exceeded the time I spent on writing music for this piece. Of course, the content, character and emotion is most important in a composition, but a proper framework for the musical idea can really help the performers understand the composer’s intentions for the piece.

Fantasme offered me the challenge of exploring the problem of continuity in music and the opportunity of working on a subject that I really love; it helped broaden my understanding of the relationships between the instrumental groups, find a new way of using the technical possibilities of each orchestral instrument, and finally, it allowed me to experience all the steps on the way to completing a big project.  

ACO: You are the founder of the International Society of Pianists and Composers, a non-profit organization promoting contemporary piano music. Why do you believe organizations like ISPC and ACO are important for the health of the classical music world? Besides the obvious motivation of being an accomplished pianist yourself, is there any reason you believe new works for piano are especially important to advocate for?

My involvement with the International Society of Pianists and Composers helped me realize the importance of collaboration between composers, performers and the audience. I noticed that most composers, including myself, tend to focus on themselves a lot, and learn how to live and compose with minimal interaction with the outside world. And when it comes to finding opportunities for performance, composers often discover that they cannot find musicians interested in performing their piece. This is especially true with new piano music; while there are many pianists around us, there is also such an abundance of great masterpieces from the past centuries that, unless the composer has a prior arrangement with the performer, a new work can rest on the shelf for a long time. 

Because of my experience also as a concert pianist, I believe that advocating for new piano music should start in the studio of a college piano artist-teacher. If the teacher keeps a performing schedule and includes in his/her recitals works by living composers, commissions such new works, collaborates with local as well as with established composers, his/her students will also follow this skill of collaboration in their future careers. This requires a lot more effort and responsibility on the part of the performer but it is also very rewarding as one may realize that his/her premiere performance of a new work is unique and much more important for the continuation of music as a living art form. It is an unstoppable process - the pieces that make it into the repertoire are losing their musical freshness and value and become fuel for new works, or in performers’ terms - teaching material. 

In this light, it is not a surprise than concert institutions often talk about the lack of attendance for classical music recitals, chamber or orchestra concerts and the fact that young people are slow in connecting with classical music. How can anyone expect 100+ years old music to resonate with the modern audience? It is great to perform the masterpieces as a tribute to the old masters, we will always be indebted to them for their work but, in my view, the longest accent in concert programs should be on the new works. ACO is the first orchestra in the US that started to lead in a new direction and continues to pave the path for the future of all American orchestras.
ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

AT: I have sent to ACO the printed full scores and orchestra parts last month, so, even if I wanted - at this time there is nothing I can change… I am trying to get back to running and exercising, perhaps, this will not prepare me better for the readings, but, at least it is good for my health.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

AT: The discussion, suggestions and feedback on our pieces from ACO musicians and the audience will be very helpful for our future work. I can’t wait to hear Fantasme and I am very interested in knowing more about my colleagues’ pieces; the music that will be performed during the readings will feature various strengths and stylistic directions. I am looking forward to meeting the composers and musicians that will be there.

Learn more about Alexander at
Follow him on YouTube and Soundcloud

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Monday, June 19, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Yucong (Zoe) Wang

Yucong (Zoe) Wang (b. 1993) began studying piano at age six and composition at age 11. She entered the Shanghai Conservatory as the top-ranked student in 2011, studying composition with Professor Gang Chen and Professor Huang Lv. In 2013, she entered the Eastman School of Music to pursue a B.M. in composition. Zoe’s compositions have been performed in Shanghai, the Eastman School of Music, George Eastman House, Strong National Museum, and University of Oregon. Composition awards include second prize in the Confucius Award Composition Competition (2009) for her Chinese instrumental trio, Yi, and first prize in the Young Promise Composition Competition (2011) for her mixed quintet, The Reverse of 12 Hours. She also received the Eastman School’s Belle Gitleman Award in 2016 for her chamber pieces, Five Wright Songs and The Ecstasy of Six Persian Poems.

Zoe’s piece Blackbird: II. Aggregation was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Zoe spoke to us about the readings and her piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer/pianist Zoe Wang

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Zoe Wang: To be honest, I did not expect anything from my submission of Blackbird to the Underwood New Music Readings. Blackbird is my very first orchestral piece and during the time of submission, I was going through a period of time when I was seriously debating whether I should continue my music career as a composer. I was so surprised to receive an email from ACO telling me that my piece was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings. I am so thankful and this opportunity is a great encouragement to me as a young composer.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for Blackbird? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

ZW: I wrote Blackbird in 2016 during my junior year at Eastman School of Music. After I finished taking the orchestration class, I came up with an idea to write a piece for a large orchestra to challenge myself to write for as many instruments as I can. I was eager to hear what my musical vision for a large orchestral could sound like. Then I started to look for a topic that would fit the sound of a big orchestra and was reminded of a French documentary, Winged Migration, directed by Jacques Perrin. I remember that when I was watching it, I was fascinated by its depiction of the movements of birds, and struck by the power of nature that dominates all creatures. I then decided to write two contrasting movements: the first one “Migration” with smooth musical gesture in relatively slow tempo. The second one called “Aggregation,” which I submitted to the reading. “Aggregation” is more lively and energetic; my inspiration for this movement originally came from the film and the futurist painting Swifts, Paths of Movement by American artist Giacomo Balla. I started some sketches on the piano when I composed both two movements, and then orchestrated those sketches. The piece, especially the second movement, has some jazz influences. This influence comes from taking a jazz piano class and lessons with Professor Caramia and Dr. Terefenko at Eastman, and the skills I learned heavily affected the way I composed this piece. I only realized this when looking back after having finished Blackbird, and wasn’t aware of it during the writing process itself.

Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences (1913)
by Giacomo Balla:

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

I remember that ACO Artistic Director, Derek Bermel, called me and gave me a long list of suggestions in detail for revising “Aggregation.” The phone call lasted almost an hour. I appreciate Mr. Bremel spending his time to give me a lesson on my piece. After talking with him, I changed the grouping of the rhythm, and the notation for many instruments to make the score even more “readable” for the reading. Also, after having written more orchestral music this past year, I slightly changed the orchestration in the opening and the ending sections.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

I am curious to see what my piece will sound like being read by an excellent, professional orchestra. I am also hoping to receive a lot of feedback and suggestions from other composers, conductor George Manahan, all the ACO performers, and my colleagues. The experience of participating in the rehearsal of Blackbird would be helpful for me to think of revisions for the piece afterwards, and encourage me to write more orchestral music in the future. I am also looking forward to hearing the other five composers’ music and listen to them sharing the concepts and processes of their works, as well as getting to know them and their musical ideas.

Follow Zoe on Soundcloud

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Friday, June 16, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Hilary Purrington

Hilary Purrington (b. 1990) is a New England-based composer whose music has been performed by many distinguished ensembles, including the Peabody Modern Orchestra, the Yale Philharmonia, the American Modern Ensemble, and the ChoralArt Camerata. Most recently, she was featured in the 2016 NY PHIL BIENNIAL. Commissions include new works for the Chicago Harp Quartet, the Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble, and the Melodia Women’s Choir of NYC, and upcoming projects include commissions from Washington Square Winds, inFLUX, and the New York Youth Symphony. Purrington holds degrees from The Juilliard School and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. She is currently pursuing a Master of Musical Arts at the Yale School of Music.

Hilary's piece Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Hilary spoke to us about the readings and her piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer Hilary Purrington

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Hilary Purrington: I was thrilled! So many fantastic composers have been invited to participate, and it’s an honor to be one of them. 

ACO: Your selected work is named after a poem by William Meredith, which comments on, as you say in your program note, "our natural fear of randomness and our instinctive desire to find or create meaningful patterns." Can you talk about how your piece addresses this fear?

Poet William Meredith (1919 - 2007)
HP: I wouldn’t say that the piece is about fear. I’ve always been fascinated by our natural human tendency to organize randomness and find patterns where none may actually exist. Identifying and naming constellations, as described in Meredith’s poem, is an excellent example of this. The opening of my piece is sparse and unpredictable; gradually, by imposing regular patterns, I allow these fragmented materials coalesce into something identifiable and familiar.

ACO: Can you talk about your compositional process for Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky? Did you start with a broad picture of the piece, or with smaller gestures? At what point did you begin to make decisions about the orchestration?

HP: The opening texture was the first thing I imagined, and much of the work grew out of that. The piece in its current form is so different from early drafts - at first, it was very sectional and episodic. Some of that remains, but it's much more continuous.

In this piece, the melodic and harmonic materials rely on their orchestrations. So, I made my orchestrational decisions very early in the process!

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

HP: I made several small notational changes to clarify some things for the performers. The music has largely remained the same, though!

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

HP: Every rehearsal process and subsequent performance is a learning experience. Everything that I learn from the readings, whether practical or artistic/creative, will definitely influence how I approach future works. 

Learn more about Hilary at
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Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Underwood New Music Readings - Composer Spotlight: Nick DiBerardino

Composer Nick DiBerardino (b. 1989) is a Rhodes Scholar, called a “bright young star” and a “first-rate talent” by the Portland Press Herald, with awards from Portland Chamber Music Festival Composition Competition, soundSCAPE, and Connecticut’s Westport Arts Advisory Committee. Nick’s orchestral music has been programmed by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and Minnesota Orchestra, and he is currently composer-in-residence at Luzerne Music Center. Nick has studied at Princeton University, University of Oxford, Yale School of Music, and is currently pursuing a Post-Baccalaureate Diploma in composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he teaches at the Young Artist Summer Program.

Nick's piece Mercury-Redstone 3 was selected for the 2017 Underwood New Music Readings, where it will be workshopped and read by American Composers Orchestra and maestro George Manahan. Nick spoke to us about the readings and his piece.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Composer Nick DiBerardino

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out your piece had been selected for the Underwood New Music Readings?

Nick DiBerardino: Well I was certainly excited. Even when you think you’ve written a good piece, you know going into an application process like this that your odds are very slim. This piece is for triple winds, as well, meaning it calls for a slightly larger orchestra than is typical—that by itself had already narrowed down my chances of hearing the piece again. So I’m very appreciative to have been selected for UNMR!

ACO: Your selected piece Mercury-Redstone 3 is based on the somewhat under-celebrated NASA mission that first sent an American astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space. Can you talk about the narrative arc that's painted in your piece? What musical themes or gestures have you created to represent this story?

Alan Shepard in the Freedom 7 capsule before launch
ND: Sure. You know, some sense of narrative always tends to crop up in my music. It’s something that used to happen kind of automatically, but as I’ve matured as a composer I’ve actively embraced that side of my voice. I find that composing with a clear extramusical concept helps me to sharpen and refine my musical ideas. When you know your piece is about a rocket ship, for example, that significantly reduces the otherwise infinite number of sound worlds you might choose to create. I’m not usually working in a way where I’m trying to directly encode narrative ideas into sound, so you won’t find things like leitmotifs in Mercury-Redstone 3. What you will hear is that this piece weaves itself through an almost audaciously active set of musical textures, full of overlapping trills, propulsive rhythms, and whooshing scalar gestures. That all relates closely to my interest in the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and the intense activity and excitement in this music responds directly to my inner sense of wonder about the audacity of human spaceflight. For me, there is a moment in the piece where I feel like the rocket actually takes off, but you’ll have to tell me what you think when you hear it for yourself!

ACO: In addition to being a composer, you are a committed teacher. You co-founded and were director of “Back in Tune,” a wonderfully successful arts initiative which helped an underserved school in Bridgeport, Connecticut gain status as a performing arts institution and receive state funding. Can you talk about any ways in which these roles have influenced your voice, techniques, or priorities as a composer?

ND: The process of composing music necessarily involves a fair amount of solitude. I wouldn’t trade that – I’m not sure I could produce quality music any other way. That said, I’ve always been drawn to the inherently social side of music making. To realize any piece of music, it takes tremendous energies of collaborative engagement on the part of performers and audiences alike. I imagine that the power music has in our daily lives is intimately related to the way we experience it collectively, as a community. Even if we’re just listening by ourselves on our headphones, we know on some level that the music we’re receiving is a message from another person, and—as long as we like what we’re hearing, anyway—we probably enjoy that sense of human connection. I suppose that’s part of the reason I compose in the first place; I feel I have something meaningful to say, and I hope my music will speak on some level to its listeners. It’s probably that social view of music that motivates me to share my passion for our art directly in my teaching, my curatorial projects, and through the community engagement work I’ve done with Back in Tune and other organizations. That philosophy surely has an important effect on my compositions, as well, though it’s harder for me to pin down exactly how that manifests. I do always craft my pieces around the idea that I’d like someone to be listening attentively, that I’d like a performer to be playing in a live setting, as comfortably as possible, and that no matter how challenging the musical material may be, everyone involved might be rewarded with a satisfying sonic journey.

ACO: What are you doing to prepare for the readings? Are there any changes you are making to your piece?

ND: I did recently prepare for UNMR by returning to my score and reorchestrating several passages that weren’t quite speaking right. That’s a regular part of my process with orchestral music, since I always find lots of little details that can be fine-tuned during the rehearsal process. In fact, I think that may be an integral part of any orchestral premiere—even Mahler made edits to his scores in rehearsal, and he was a longtime conductor! Luckily, I had the amazing good fortune of working on Mercury-Redstone 3 with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and they have to be one of the finest student orchestras in the world. I spent a significant amount of time with my score and Curtis’ rendition of it leading up to UNMR. Mostly I was trying to rework the balance of foreground and background in the piece, rebalancing the several layers of activity that alternately vie for attention and settle into supporting roles throughout.

ACO: What do you hope to gain from the readings?

ND: From everything I hear, ACO does a fantastic job making the Underwood readings into a broadly useful learning experience. I’m sure the workshops on engraving, branding, copyright, and programming will be informative—it’s always good to double-down on the nuts and bolts of the business side of things. More than anything else, though, I’m looking forward to learning from the formidable combined experience of George Manahan, Derek Bermel, Libby Larsen, David Rakowski, Trevor Weston, and the musicians of the ACO. You don’t often get a chance to workshop your music with so many seasoned professionals! I’m looking forward to hearing as much feedback as I can get over the course of the readings, and I’m sure I’ll learn a whole lot that I’ll carry with me into my future orchestral work.

Rehearsals, workshops, and final readings are free and open to the public on June 22 and 23 at The DiMenna Center for Classical (450 West 37th Street, NYC). RSVP here

Learn more about Nick DiBerardino at
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Thursday, May 18, 2017

ACO Parables: Q&A with guitarist Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin is a multiple GRAMMY Award-winning classical guitarist, hailed as “the preeminent guitarist of our time” by Boston Magazine and “The Monet of the classical guitar ... a master colorist” by Atlanta Journal. She has appeared as soloist with over 170 orchestras and in many of the world’s finest concert halls, created and served as artistic director/soloist of several esteemed festivals, and has been profiled on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning and A&E. Among other career highlights, she performed in concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Obama in November 2009, and was the only classical artist to perform in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. Her latest recording, Alma Espanola with opera star Isabel Leonard, will be released this July. The all-Spanish album is the first of it’s kind in 40 years and includes twelve world premiere arrangements by Sharon.

Sharon is credited with expanding the guitar repertoire with some of the finest new works of the century. She has commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Among these commissioned works is John Corigliano's Troubadours, which the Academy Award-winning composer wrote for Sharon in 1992/93.

Sharon was kind enough to speak with us about her upcoming performance of Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space.

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin

American Composers Orchestra: John Corigliano has said that when you first approached him about writing a guitar concerto, he was “decidedly lukewarm about the idea.” Most performers would have shied away at the first sign of “lukewarmness” from a composer. Why was it important for you to be persistent, and what did it take to eventually convince Corigliano to write Troubadours?

Sharon Isbin: When I first met John, he had little knowledge of classical guitar, its technique, repertoire or capabilities. We met by chance at a New Year’s Eve party in New York, and two weeks later, ran into each other standing in line at the post office. It was a long line. So we chatted, and I asked if he would consider writing a guitar concerto for me. He said, “what an interesting idea, please call me about it.” I did, he again expressed interest, but said he was really busy and to call him in a year. Next year, it was the same story. Undaunted – because I loved his music and believed he would write a beautiful concerto – I pursued this annual ritual for eight years. Finally, I asked his publisher at G. Schirmer, Mary Lou Humphrey, how could I convince him? She suggested I propose an unusual programmatic concept. I woke up the next morning thinking about the colorful and romantic tradition of the 13th century French troubadours, and wrote John a letter suggesting the idea. He loved it because it wasn’t Spanish, no one had ever written a guitar concerto based on this period of history, and it offered him a rich artistic tapestry to explore.

ACO: What makes Troubadours different than the other concertos in your repertoire? Corigliano mentions that its type of virtuosity is different than his other concertos. Can you talk a little bit about the virtuosity asked of you?

SI: Shortly after ghostly sonic evocations of time travel to the past that begin the concerto, I play the longest fastest scale I’ve ever encountered. Following that, I land in the 12th century playing a sensuous, lyrical song inspired by a fragment of  “A Chantar” penned by a famous female troubadour composer, the Countess Beatriz de Dia. The journey becomes ever more colorful, including rhythmically improvisatory musical interactions with an offstage dance band, and finally a return to the theme cast at the end in a sad minor key to evoke the loss of innocence, and in the case of the once celebrated troubadours, persecution, exile and death.

ACO: You have commissioned and premiered more concerti than any other guitarist, as well as numerous solo and chamber works. Why has it been important for you to bring new repertoire for classical guitar into the world? What do you most enjoy about the process of commissioning and premiering a new work?

SI: I love the creative process of working with a brilliant composer like John, and nurturing the music to life. It’s challenging, unpredictable, sometimes torturous, but ultimately exhilarating and fulfilling! More importantly, it builds the guitar literature and leaves behind a valuable musical legacy for others to perform and enjoy.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the performance of Troubadours with ACO and conductor Rossen Milanov?

I look forward to performing with the outstanding conductor and orchestra for the first time, and sharing with them and the audience this beautiful, evocative work. For those who like to come prepared, you can listen in advance here.

And to learn more about my collaboration with John Corigliano and other composers, enjoy the documentary Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which has aired throughout the U.S. on PBS and which won the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award.

Sharon will perform Troubadours with American Composers Orchestra and conductor Rossen Milanov at ACO Parables –Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. (Use discount code ACO15 at checkout to save 15%.)

Learn more about Sharon Isbin at
Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter

Monday, May 15, 2017

ACO Parables: Composer Spotlight - John Corigliano

John Corigliano is one of the most celebrated composers of the last 40 years. He won the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for his Symphony No. 1, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 2, three Grammy Awards, and an Academy Award for his score for François Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin. Corigliano’s extensive body of work—including three symphonies and eight concerti among more than 100 chamber, vocal, choral, and orchestral works—have been performed and recorded by many of the most prominent orchestras, soloists, and chamber musicians in the world.

One of the few living composers to have a string quartet named for him, Corigliano serves on the composition faculty at the Juilliard School of Music and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Music at Lehman College, City University of New York, which has established a scholarship in his name.

At ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space – American Composers Orchestra will perform Corigliano's Troubadours: Variations for Guitar & Orchestra featuring star guitarist Sharon Isbin, for whom the piece was written. 

Corigliano was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer John Corigliano

American Composers Orchestra: You write that when Sharon Isbin first approached you about writing a guitar concerto, you felt that the instrument was one you didn't fully understand. Can you talk about your process for coming to understand the instrument better? Were you surprised by anything you learned about it?

John Corigliano: Actually, Sharon approached me many years before I wrote her my guitar concerto. There were three things that put me off writing for guitar:
  1. I knew nothing about how to write for this highly idiomatic instrument.
  2. It is such a soft instrument that I could not conceive writing a virtuoso piece that could balance the soloist with an orchestra (even if the guitar was amplified).
  3. Because of the tuning, everything strummed on the instrument took on a Spanish flavor, and I did not want to write yet another “Spanish” guitar concerto. 
To solve “1” I found a fine classical guitarist who was also a composer. He wanted to study composition with me, and so we exchanged lessons for a summer. I helped him work on an opera, and he was my “living guitar.” Every time I wrote something I thought was idiomatic, it turned out to be awkward, and we fixed it. The entire concerto was written and corrected before Sharon ever saw it. In fact, she said it was the first piece written by a non-guitarist that she didn’t have to alter in any way. But I still don’t know how to write for guitar ...

ACO: You write that the virtuosity in Troubadours is quite different from that of your other concertos. Can you talk about this difference? What kind of virtuosity is asked of the guitarist in Troubadours?

JC: To solve “2” I had to re-think what virtuosity a guitar can provide. All my other concerti were for instruments that could compete with a full orchestra when necessary. This instrument had to have a miniature but exciting kind of energy. The entire orchestra had to be reduced, and often instruments played offstage so that the soloist was in the forefront of the ensemble.

ACO: Other than, obviously, asking you to write a guitar concerto and presenting you with troubadours as an inspiration for the piece, what role did Sharon have in your compositional process?

JC: Sharon saw the concerto when it was finished. She did, however, inspire the work.

My reluctance to write a concerto had to do with the kind of “Spanish” sound that the guitar inevitably makes. I resisted writing a concerto for that reason for many years. Then Sharon, who knew of my resistance, came to me with the idea of writing a piece about the troubadours who sang and accompanied themselves with a guitar. This took place well hundreds of years before the instrument was co-opted by the Spanish (to very good effect). The lute tuning in a guitar tunes the lowest tone down a step, and the melodies that have been notated in medieval manuscripts are quite beautiful. Not only that, but there was a famous female troubadour, La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia, who wrote a beautiful melody that so inspired me that I incorporated it (A chantar) into my concerto.

Listen to A chantar m'er de so by La Comtessa (Beatritz) de Dia:

ACO: Your incredible body of work spans more than four decades. Can you talk about any particular influences, techniques or styles that were especially important for you while writing Troubadours?

JC: I have always been fascinated by spatial music in the concert hall. Earphones or stereo speakers cannot capture the beauty of music that comes from unexpected places. In Troubadours, two French horns are backstage on one side, while a “Shawm” (early music oboe or bassoon) band and percussion are on the other side. I also used a chamber orchestra to give the soloist a better chance with the balance.

ACO: What do you hope the audience will feel during Sharon's performance of Troubadours at ACO Parables, and what do you hope they will take away from it?

JC: I hope they will hear the piece as a journey to the past (and a return to the present.)

ACO and guitarist Sharon Isbin will perform Corigliano's Troubadours at ACO Parables – Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 8pm at Symphony Space. Book now!

Learn more about John Corigliano at

Friday, April 21, 2017

Q&A with Alan Pierson, conductor for Wall to Wall Steve Reich

Alan Pierson has been praised as “a dynamic conductor and musical visionary” by The New York Times, “a young conductor of monstrous skill” by Newsday, “gifted and electrifying” by The Boston Globe, and “one of the most exciting figures in new music today” by Fanfare. He is the Artistic Director and conductor of the acclaimed ensemble Alarm Will Sound and served as Artistic Director and conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic for three years. He is Principal Conductor of the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble, co-director of the Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble, and has appeared as guest conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Sinfonietta, the Steve Reich Ensemble, and The Silk Road Project, among many other ensembles.

On April 30, 2017, Alan will lead the American Composers Orchestra in Steve Reich's The Desert Music. The performance is part of Symphony Space’s free marathon event Wall to Wall Steve Reich, featuring Steve Reich himself in conversation, as well as a program spanning more than four decades of his work, culminating in ACO’s performance.

Alan was kind enough to speak with us about The Desert Music and his upcoming performance with ACO.

Conductor Alan Pierson. Photo by Michael Rubenstein

American Composers Orchestra: The first album by Alarm Will Sound – “the vital, omnivorous” (The New York Times) chamber group you co-founded and for which you are artistic director – is Steve Reich, featuring his Tehillim and The Desert Music. It's considered one of the best recordings of these pieces by many (and by Steve himself!). What drew you to tackle these works for your first AWS album?

Alan Pierson: Tehillim was the first piece of contemporary music that I fell in love with. I have a visceral memory of hearing it in in a class (led by Michael Pisaro) at a Northwestern University summer program when I was 18, and then dashing out to the nearest record store to buy the CD. (I've since gotten rid of nearly all of my CDs, but I've kept that one even though it's scratched well beyond any possibility of actually playing.) The following fall, I found the Tehillim score in the MIT music library and became obsessed with the idea of performing it. Tehillim was one of the first pieces I conducted. It was well beyond my abilities at the time, but I loved the music so much that I had to do it anyway. I had developed a vision for how Tehillim should go that I felt very strongly about and that was very different from either of the recordings that existed, so I really wanted to get it out there. Then in 1999, when I was grad student at Eastman, Steve came to hear me conduct Tehillim. He came away very enthusiastic about the performance, and that helped open doors to make the album happen. So Tehillim is a piece that's I'm very deeply connected to.

I came to The Desert Music in a very different way. I had listened to the Nonesuch recording (which is of the original full orchestra version) after falling in love with Tehillim, but never really got into the piece. I knew that it was building on the same sorts of musical ideas that I'd loved in other works of Steve's, but The Desert Music wasn't doing it for me. Then when I came down to New York City in 1999 to watch my teacher (Brad Lubman) conduct Reich's The Cave as part of a series of Reich concerts that Lincoln Center Festival was doing that summer, I happened also to catch a performance of the smaller chamber version of The Desert Music. And suddenly I glimpsed what the piece could be. I've always felt that Reich was more a composer of chamber music than orchestral music; and reimagined as a massive chamber piece, I saw all kinds of possibilities for The Desert Music that I hadn't envisioned before. With just one player on a part, the piece suddenly felt much closer to those earlier works of Steve's that I'd fallen in love with—pieces like Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim. One of the orchestra members had given me a score for The Desert Music to follow along with during rehearsals, and I poured over that score all summer and began imagining what I wanted to do with the piece. I started envisioning a realization of the piece that would be very different from the Nonesuch recording, and that I really wanted the world to hear. So that was it. I knew that that had to be the album.

ACO: And what did it take, from you and the ensemble, to capture a great recording of The Desert Music?

AP: It was a huge process! We spent over 30 hours rehearsing The Desert Music, and while we had absolutely no skill at the time with recording or working in a studio, we had an obsession about making the recording absolutely what we wanted. And we didn't let up. Gavin Chuck (now Alarm Will Sound's managing director) and I hid out under the desk in the Eastman School's computer music lab after hours so that we could spend every possible hour editing and mixing that album. I was 26 at the time and most of the singers and players were probably even younger. It was the kind of process I could only imagine happening at that point in life.

ACO: You and the ACO will perform the 2001 version of Steve Reich's The Desert Music, for 10 amplified voices and reduced orchestra, with your brass arrangement. Can you talk about what it was like working with Steve on this version? Besides reducing the size of the ensemble, what goals did you have for the new arrangement?

AP: Well, I didn't work with him as much as persuade him. I was thrilled by the possibilities that the chamber version of The Desert Music offered, but I really missed one thing from the orchestral version: the brass. Reich had replaced all of the brass with synthesizers for his chamber version, and I felt that this robbed the piece of one of its crucial colors. I knew the original 12-piece orchestral brass section would overwhelm such a small ensemble, but I pitched Steve the idea of a reduced brass orchestration that would mix live players with synthesizers in order to cover all the thick brass harmonies and give the flavor of acoustic brass without having so many players. He was very skeptical! So I got a bunch of students together who volunteered to play through my imagined brass orchestration. We recorded the session and sent it to Steve. Once he heard it, he was sold, and that was it. That became the official way to do the piece.

The smaller instrumentation really transforms The Desert Music in a brilliant way. There's much greater rhythmic clarity, which is so crucial for Reich's music. Tempos can be faster. And those thick, juicy jazz harmonies that he wrote speak much more clearly. 

ACO: We hope you don't mind us quoting Twitter, but you recently said, if you're going to listen to just one track of The Desert Music, it has to be the middle movement. Is this your favorite movement? Or do you say this because, given that the piece is structured in an arc form A-B-C-B-A, the middle movement is best suited to stand alone?

AP: Yeah, I think that central movement is where it's at. Steve is a canon guy, and that middle movement has the only vocal canons in the whole piece, and they're fantastic. And in between the canon sections, he does this other thing (another technique he's developed over decades) where he takes a theme and stretches it out, making it longer and longer. And while he's doing this, he's got the harmonies restlessly beneath the tunes. It's some of my favorite of Reich's vocal writing. His typical vocal instrumentation is four voices, and there's no other piece where he writes vocal harmonies as thick as in The Desert Music. And in this section as he's stretching out those melodies, there are these fantastically crunchy tight jazz harmonies. Plus, the whole sections just barrels. It's got tremendous energy. I love it. I have other favorite spots—the luminescent first vocal entrance in movement V, the hockets in movements II and IV, the flute solos, etc...—but if you're gonna listen to one movement, the central one is where to go.

ACO: What new perspectives do you hope the marathon can offer on Steve Reich's incredible body of work? And what are you looking forward to about the marathon and your performance of The Desert Music with ACO? Why is it important that the marathon includes that piece? 

AP: I've gotten more joy from Steve's music than from anyone else's. Performing his music is pretty much always a joyful experience for me, and I hope to give some of that experience to the audience. And I've never before performed so many of his pieces on a single show, so it's really exciting to be a part of a performance that brings so broad an encounter with his music. The Desert Music is a marvelous piece of Reich's that's so seldom heard—I don't think it's been performed in New York since I conducted it here 16 years ago. For me personally, there's something special about revisiting a piece that was so important to the beginning of my life in music and that I haven't conducted since I was a student. So this is a particularly meaningful performance to me. And even after having Steve in my life for years, it continually amazes me that someone who's music has meant so much to so many of us is a an actual human being who's in the world and who you can relate to. So having Steve at this show and on stage talking with me is a very special thing.

Learn more about Wall to Wall Steve Reich, a free marathon event at Symphony Space on April 30, 2017.

Follow Alan on Twitter

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Past Forward: Composer Spotlight - Steve Reich

Steve Reich has been called “America’s greatest living composer” (Village Voice), “the most original musical thinker of our time” (The New Yorker), and “among the great composers of the century” (The New York Times). His music, spanning a vibrant career that started in 1960s, is a staple of contemporary classical repertoire and has influenced composers and mainstream musicians all over the world. Music for 18 Musicians and Different Trains have earned him two Grammy Awards, and in 2009, his Double Sextet won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Tehillim, composed in 1981, is a work for four female singers and chamber orchestra that Reich says is quite different from his earlier works. He writes in his program note, “There is no fixed meter or metric pattern in Tehillim as there is in my earlier music. The rhythm of the music here comes directly from the rhythm of the Hebrew text.” The word “Tehillim” is the Hebrew name of the biblical Book of Psalms, from which the piece takes its text. Reich also writes that the work “may well suggest renewed interest in Classical or, more accurately, Baroque and earlier Western musical practice.”

The 2016–2017 season marks Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, with over 400 performances in more than 20 countries across the globe celebrating his music and legacy. American Composers Orchestra is proud to be a part of this celebration, and performs Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall

Steve Reich was kind enough to speak with us about the piece and his relationship with ACO’s Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording in 1981. This interview is transcribed from our phone conversation.

Composer Steve Reich. Photo by Jeffrey Herman

American Composers Orchestra: We wanted to start by talking about your relationship with ACO's Music Director George Manahan, who conducted the premiere recording for ECM Records in 1981. Can you talk about how you came to work with him and what it was like?

Steve Reich: My ensemble never had a conductor for anything until 1981 when I wrote Tehillim. We felt we might be able to do it without one but it sure would be better if we had one. James Preiss, one of the main percussionists in my ensemble, was teaching at Manhattan School of Music and knew George, who was at MSM also, and said to us, I think I have the ideal guy to be a conductor. George had the same kind of mind set so we decided to try it. George came down to my studio on Warren Street near City Hall and it was just like hand in glove. We said, this is the guy! George completely mastered the changing meters which are [laughs] well, I would never write anything with such large measures the way I did in Tehillim unless it wasn’t necessary – it accurately reflects the vocal line – but it’s a difficult piece to conduct. I think Michael Tilson Thomas said to me at some point afterwards, “Musicians like downbeats!” [laughs]

Anyway, George did a great job during rehearsals. We then took the piece to Europe and he conducted on tour with us. We all lived together, worked together, performed together. It was just a delight. Back in The States we did the American premiere at the Rothko Chapel out in Houston and the NY premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the 20th century galleries. George did all of that and then finally we went back to Europe to do the recording in Stuttgart. It was very intense. There were a lot of people and we recorded live. There were lots of re-dos. Everybody’s in the room. I think it’s a remarkable recording. George is absolutely first rate and a pleasure to work with, and to top it off we both have the same birthday! [laughs]

George Manahan conducting the premiere recording of Tehillim with Steve Reich and Musicians in Stuttgart, 1981. Photos by Deborah Reingold courtesy of the Paul Sacher Foundation

ACO: Thinking about this first recording of Tehillim vs. the many subsequent recordings that have been made, can you identify anything about George Manahan's approach to performing Tehillim that is different to other conductors?

SR: I think George was at home with this kind of musical language – the subdivisions of twos and threes – and he was familiar with a lot of 20th Century music. I would say for me, that recording and the Alarm Will Sound recording are the two outstanding recordings that come to mind. The Steve Reich and Musicians recording had [laughs] I don’t know 50 or 60 cuts. And Alan [Pierson, Music Director of Alarm Will Sound] sent me a lot of the in progress mixes. So as cohesive as it is musically, this is a testament to how correct Glenn Gould was when he recorded and re-recorded so many multiple takes.

ACO: Tehillim has been performed numerous times around the world since its premiere in 1981. Its initial reception was not as severe as say Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

SR: No no no [laughs] Tehillim was appreciated right away. It was pretty obvious that in general people were, and still are, attracted to Tehillim more than Four Organs. I enjoy it more. They are very different types of pieces.

ACO: Do you think audiences’ responses to these works have changed over the years?

SR: Of course! Four Organs created a riot in Carnegie Hall in 1973 – it’s been noted many times – but Michael Tilson Thomas did it in San Francisco in 1996 and … well, people recognized it and really liked it. There was a lot of resistance in the late 1960s and early 1970s to what I was doing and now that has changed enormously. I’m in Los Angeles right now – the LA Phil New Music Group just did Tehillim with conductor Jeffrey Milarsky. It was a great performance and received a wonderful standing ovation.

ACO: Do you think it is important for listeners to know the origins and meaning of the text in Tehillim?

SR: Yes, the text is the Psalms and, like any concert with vocal music, the text certainly should be printed in the program. They’re not that long since they’re really parts of the Psalms. The answer to your question is this: when you first heard Bob Dylan you said, “What … I can’t understand a word.” But there was something magnetic about the music. When you listen to Handel’s Messiah you don’t get all the words, but the music magnetizes you and you want to listen to it. You got some of it, got the gist of it, but later on you might say, “What exactly were they singing?”

Tehillim is of course set in the original Hebrew, which means that you’re not going to understand it by listening, so you’re either going to go to the libretto or you’re not. I think most people do end up going to the libretto and they understand it, they get it. Everybody especially understands “Hallelujah,” so the last movement is crystal clear and that may help gel a lot of the other parts. But for most people, if you’re just a casual listener, it has to work just as music. That’s a must for any composer. If you say, well, they’ve got to understand this and that and another thing, that’s just a crutch, that’s an excuse. I don’t accept it. If music is going to work it has to have legs and either it does or it doesn’t.

Now, if you’re attracted to the music and you’re interested in it, then you might listen to a recording before the performance or bring the text with you, and I think you will get more out of it, because Tehillim is definitely a setting of the text in the classical sense of that term. The meaning of the words counts and you want to capture that as best you can. So sure, the text matters, but the music comes first and then if you’re really interested you can go to the score and say, “How’d he do this?” [laughs]

ACO: You have said that you don't believe in movements, that when the music stops, it stops. Is Tehillim an exception? If so, why did you make an exception for Tehillim?

SR: It’s an interesting question because it was the first piece of mine to have a movement break, but certainly not the last. I have a lot of other pieces now with movement breaks. You Are Variations comes to mind immediately, which is very much related to Tehillim. You Are Variations is one of my best pieces, but because of four pianos and a chorus it’s performed less than I wish it was.

But to answer your question, writing Tehillim with movement breaks was basically a gut decision. I had finished the first half and I remember being in the car with Péter Eötvös, the Hungarian composer-performer-conductor, who at the time was the conductor of the Ensemble InterContemporain and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart [Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra]. I had finished the first half and we were going to perform it as a work-in-progress. We were driving from Paris to Stuttgart. His English was not very good and my German was non-existent, so was my Hungarian, but he said to me at one point, “So you’ll go on like before? Same tempo?” [laughs] It hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, wow, what a good question. And really, what his comment ignited was the realization that I needed a slow movement. I hadn’t yet written a consciously slow movement at a different tempo. So that introduced the idea of taking a pause. Also, a lot of concentration is needed in the first half of Tehillim – it’s a very long section. A little break to catch your breath is very much in order in a purely practical sense, and the slow movement serves that purpose very well.

Having movement breaks or no breaks is not according to some theory or principle. If Péter Eötvös hadn’t said that, I probably would have gone with the same solution, but I do remember that moment with him in the car and thinking about it. The slow movement is the most chromatic music I have written to date – after my student years anyway – and I think it’s very successful. It was really exciting for me because I had never written anything that moved that slowly. It opened up a whole world which I pursued quite a bit going forward.

ACO: As you may already know, ACO is dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation and promulgation of music by American composers, and is involved in many programs to commission and premiere works by young American composers. Can you talk about any similar organizations or programs that contributed to your success as a young composer? 

SR: To be perfectly candid, I really wasn’t interested in the orchestra. I’m working on a piece now called 20 Soloists and Orchestra, which is a concerto grosso using the first chair people and a few soloists, but basically this is a large chamber work, which I’m always doing anyway, with a sort of backup band with brass and the remainder of the strings. So I have been writing chamber music all my life. Tehillim is a large chamber piece in that it’s one to a part. Is isn’t chamber music in the sense in which that it’s conducted, but I think playing it requires having to listen to each other much like you need to with all chamber music.

When I was getting started, no, there was no organization of any sort that I relied on to establish myself. The most overwhelming important thing for getting started was founding my own ensemble back in 1966. It started with three musicians, which grew to five, including Philip Glass and James Tenney. With Drumming I think it grew to 12, and then in 1976 it grew to 18. And there it more or less stayed until 2006, when I just felt I really couldn’t have the energy to do what was necessary to keep it going. Even though I had people to help out – I had managers and so on – there was an irreducible minimum that I had to do which I felt I really couldn’t.

My ensemble was the vehicle for my music, including Tehillim and of course Drumming and Music for Eighteen Musicians and other pieces. At a certain point I began writing for other ensembles and whether or not my ensemble could do it was sort of gravy or not, depending on the piece.

On the other hand, there was and still is an organization I was a part of, which I hope benefited others, and which I felt reflected my interest in the idea of the composer performing and getting involved in the performance of his or her own work. That is Meet the Composer. Myself, Fran Richard, and John Duffy were really the very center, the core of Meet the Composer. It was an organization that I really felt was worthwhile and of course it grew and grew and grew and now has turned into New Music USA by merging with American Music Center. I think it’s a very worthwhile mission. Supporting young composers by giving them money [laughs] and commissioning works is a great thing to do. ACO came along much later in my professional life, but it’s a great addition and something I’ve been connected with from time to time.

I should say in passing that the loss of Steven Stucky was just a total shock that completely left a hole in the American musical world. I think that should be noted.

ACO: Can you talk about the vocal style needed from the four female singers in Tehillim? Should their voices sound as similar in timbre as possible? Or can different vocal timbres create a richer texture in performance?

SR: Well, first of all, singers are human beings. I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that [laughs]. Their vocal cavities necessitate, as a rule of biology and physics, that their timbral quality will in fact vary. What is essential is not that the timbre of the voices be the same, but that the vocal style be uniform. So, if you’ve got one singer who thinks that they’re going to belt it out like Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the other three are singing early music style, which is what it should be, then that doesn’t work.

The vocal style of Tehillim is definitely related to Renaissance and Medieval music, but it can also be related to Ella Fitzgerald. Cheryl Bensman-Rowe, a great singer who is now in the Midwest, was putting together singers for the early versions of Tehillim. They would ask her, “What kind of vocal style do you want?” and she would say, “Similar to Joni Mitchell and he’ll love it.” Believe it or not, I hadn’t even heard anything by Joni Mitchell and only heard her about 10 years ago – I was completely floored, she’s absolutely amazing – but I think Cheryl had it right. Basically, singers are a good fit for Tehillim if they can sing with no vibrato, sing in a small voice, are at ease with a microphone, and are experienced with early music. They need to be agile and they need to have really good rhythmic qualities, which singers in the operatic world may not have as markedly as the people I’m talking about. So – early music, good with a microphone, at ease with different styles of non-operatic music – that is a necessity. Of course the timbre is going to vary from singer to singer, but if they’re all in the same stylistic world it’s going to work just fine.

ACO: Tehillim is especially intriguing in the way it doesn’t frequently display obvious tension then resolution, dissonance then consonance, whereas this is a basic tool used in a lot of music (especially Romantic and Classical) to create drama. How is it that Tehillim creates drama? 

SR: Tehillim obviously belongs in the tradition of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music – singers who regularly sing Bach cantatas will be right at home in Tehillim – and you could say a lot of music from those periods don’t use, to quote you, “frequent tension and release.” Bach seems to be doing pretty good [laughs] and does he have that kind of Romantic tension and release? Well, yes and no.

I would say that in Tehillim there are parts of the slow movement that have dissonances that resolve, albeit in a small and understated way. The Hallelujah at the end, to me, is ecstatic. I think it’s some of the best music I’ve ever written. If you can pull off a good Hallelujah in D Major then [laughs] that’s what it’s all about. So it does create strong emotional responses which surely vary throughout the piece. The mood of the slow movement is drastically different than the Hallelujah that follows it. The first two movements are similar, but in the first movement the voices are constantly doubled by the B-flat clarinet, then right on a dime at the beginning of the second movement, the voices are doubled by oboe and English horn. It almost feels like new singers – the timbre of the singers changes drastically.

Now, of course this is something Bach did too, changing the doubling of the woodwinds that are supporting the voices. These are all old tricks that go back to Bach and before, and this is part of the reason that I think the music is satisfying. For people who have listened to a lot of classical music from various periods – who relate to anything of Bach and before, and from Stravinsky onwards, and for that matter who like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell or lots of people who are singing today – it seems to satisfy them and give emotional variety, which I think is really the essence of what you are asking.

You can learn more about Steve Reich and upcoming performances of his music at

ACO performs Tehillim with sopranos Elizabeth Bates, Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes and mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway at “Past Forward” on Friday, March 24, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. More information and tickets here.

ACO also performs The Desert Music at Symphony Space’s free marathon concert “Wall to Wall Steve Reich” on Sunday, April 30, 2017. More information here.