Tuesday, February 6, 2018

EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings: Composer Spotlight - Nathan Kelly

Composer Nathan Kelly's music reflects his eclectic mix of musical experiences, from playing gospel piano in East Texas churches, to Broadway in pit orchestras in New York City, to bands on cruise ships around the world, to working in Hollywood with music producers and film composers. He has orchestrated for artists such as Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, Jackie Evancho, Andrea Bocelli, Jennifer Lopez; Broadway shows (Gypsy, Curtains, The Tony Awards); TV’s Macy's 4th of July Fireworks on NBC, Audra McDonald on PBS and more; and was recently a Visiting Artist at The American Academy in Rome.

Nathan was selected for the EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings for his piece Redwood, which will be workshopped and conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine in a final read-through on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. Details here.

Nathan spoke with us about the piece and what he looks forward to at the readings.

Composer Nathan Kelly

American Composers Orchestra: In addition to composing contemporary classical works, your career includes orchestrations for many major artists, Broadway, and TV productions. Can you talk about how your composing process differs when composing in these two very different settings?

Nathan Kelly: ​Orchestrating for other people is a lot of guessing what the composer's intentions are - if they really mean these pitches, these durations, these instruments, this key or is anything you're given just an approximation of an effect or are you supposed to enhance it, to re-write it and to what degree should you add or subtract.  It's a big guess and you do better, the more you work with the composer, as opposed to when writing my own things, you I don't have to guess.  

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the workshops and readings?

NK: ​I'm looking forward to hearing it and seeing how it comes to life and what things I did really work well and what things take more work or could be better.
ACO: What aspects of Redwood do you hope to improve or fine tune?​

​I anticipate possibly rewriting one section that is aleotoric notation with a deliberately thick orchestration (done so, because it's easier to subtract instruments than write them in on the stand).  There are a few spots with some cues written in that say "Cue: Play if asked" and if time allows, I might want to hear some passages on other instruments. 

The EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings culminate in a final read-through which is free and open to the public -- Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 7:30pm. Details here.

Learn more about Nathan at www.nathankelly.com

Monday, February 5, 2018

EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings: Composer Spotlight - Sohwa Lee

Korean-born composer and theorist Sohwa Lee (b. 1987) received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in composition at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul. She currently studies music composition and theory at Mannes School of Music in New York City.

Sohwa was selected for the EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings for her piece Palindrome, which will be workshopped and conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine in a final read-through on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. Details here.

Sohwa spoke with us about the piece and what she looks forward to at the readings.

Composer Sohwa Lee

American Composers Orchestra: Your biography says that you strongly embrace a sense of humor in your approach to music. Can you talk about the ways that this manifests itself? What specific musical elements might the audience recognize as humorous? Is humor a feature of your selected piece Palindrome?

Sohwa Lee: Shortly after moving to New York, I had a big realization about myself. I used to work alone and I think I made myself pretty isolated. It was bringing a sense of inflexibility to my music, almost like a textbook. Now, I have come to realize the importance of interacting and being inspired by other people and with that, how humor is always a good way to break the ice. Music is one of the languages that I can speak, so as a composer, I have found that humor is an important tool in that language as well. I want people to feel happy and to have fun when they listen to my music. In the middle of Palindrome, there is a moment to me evokes the image of toy soldiers, almost like video game music. Overall, it is a serious piece of music – a palindrome is a complex form to write a piece based on – but I wanted to include some fun and relaxed moments.

ACO: You have created a new arrangement of Palindrome for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra EarShot Readings from the original version premiered by the Mannes School of Music Orchestra. Can you talk about some of the orchestration decisions you had to make? Is there anything that you are particularly excited (or nervous) to hear when FW Phil performs this version for the first time?

SL: The new arrangement was created just for a practical reason: FW Phil has no piano (which is common) so I had to change that part of the piece. Other than that it's not very different than the version Mannes Orchestra premiered. I’m sure that FW Phil will perform it wonderfully.

ACO: Can you talk about the Gamelan music and Asian themes you use in Palindrome?

SL: I used these elements to make a contrast with the first section. I get a lot of inspiration from music from the early 1900s, when a lot of composers were being influenced by music from Asia.

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the workshops and readings? What aspects of Palindrome do you hope to improve or fine tune?

I look forward to seeing the other composers in the workshops. Meeting other composers always give me inspiration and motivation because composers always work hard.

I know my strengths and weaknesses in music. Palindrome is the first symphony piece that I’ve written so far. My process for composing Palindrome was meticulous and thorough, but there are always areas you know could be better. I wish I had more clear score for performers. I think that's the most important job as a composer in my side.

The EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings culminate in a final read-through which is free and open to the public -- Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 7:30pm. Details here.

Follow Sohwa on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Soundcloud.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings: Composer Spotlight - Robert Rankin

Robert Rankin (b. 1994) is an Indiana-based composer who writes music characterized by colorful orchestration, a neoclassical nod to the past, and a deep love of narrative storytelling through music. Commissions and performances have come from the Burning Coal Theater Company, the Lux Quartet, Split The Lark, and in 2015 Robert was named “Emerging Composer” at New York's Tribeca New Music for his Clarinet Quartet.

Robert was selected for the EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings for his piece Nijinsky Dances, which will be workshopped and conducted by Music Director Andrew Constantine in a final read-through on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. Details here.

Robert spoke with us about the piece and what he looks forward to at the readings.

Composer Robert Rankin. Photo by Kevin Madison

American Composers Orchestra: Your piece Nijinsky Dances is named after 20th-century choreographer Valslav Nijinsky, who choreographed landmark ballets such as Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Trying to set aside the incredibly evocative scores, is Nijinsky's choreography something you take inspiration from as a composer?

Robert Rankin: I thankfully figured out in my undergrad that an “artist” can learn a ton about the creative process by watching people from the other arts do their thing. For instance, taking a poetry class taught me so much about how to think about form and narrative in a unique way and how that relates to music. Regrettably, I know very little choreography but the one aspect that continues to shock me is that there is no formal notation per say for preserving ballet. So in turn, as a composer, it makes me think that the product that the audience hears (sees in the case of dance) is more important than the notes on the page.

Specifically speaking of Nijinsky’s choreography, I think most people are familiar with his work in Le Sacre, but there is this amazing video on YouTube that shows the original choreography for L’après-midi d’un faune and it is as radical if not more so than Le Sacre. It was really surprising to me! I watched a lot of really grainy archival footage of Nijinsky while writing the piece.

ACO: You write in your program notes that the piece makes subtle reference to the masterful orchestration of these scores. Can you talk about the ways in which you do this?

RR: The way I basically learned how to compose was by checking loads of scores out of the library when I was in high school. Most were large orchestral scores so I’ve been in love with this quintessential early 20th century style of shimmering, colorful orchestration for a long time. Ravel, Stravinsky, and Debussy all had an uncanny sense of mixing orchestral colors in a brilliant way but never overloading the entire piece with constant tutti passages to weigh it down. In turn, in my piece, I tried to give the orchestration that colorful shimmer and gestural flare that is so iconic in those early ballet scores of especially Ravel and Stravinsky. And there is a section about a quarter way through that is just straight up quotation of Petrushka and Daphis and Chole (just as nudge nudge wink wink moment to the audience).

ACO: What are you looking forward to about the workshops and readings? What aspects of Nijinsky Dances do you hope to improve or fine tune?

RR: I’m really looking forward to the whole experience to be honest. I hope to sponge up as much information as possible. The people I know that have been through similar Earshot Readings have had nothing but positive things to say about the entire experience. Additionally, this has given me the opportunity to rework a few moments in Nijinsky Dances that didn’t quite work when it was initially played.

The EarShot Fort Wayne Philharmonic Readings culminate in a final read-through which is free and open to the public -- Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 7:30pm. Details here.

Follow Robert on Twitter and Instagram.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Fellow Travelers: Q&A with composer Gregory Spears

Gregory Spears is the composer of the critically acclaimed new opera Fellow Travelers, which receives its New York premiere January 12-14 at PROTOTYPE Festival, co-presented with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and American Composers Orchestra.

The work of Gregory Spears, whose relationship with ACO extends back to his participation in our 2001 New Music Readings, has been called “astonishingly beautiful” (The New York Times), “coolly entrancing” (The New Yorker), and “some of the most beautifully unsettling music to appear in recent memory” (The Boston Globe). Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers is an extraordinary personal journey through the intriguing, gut-wrenching world of the 1950s American witch-hunts, and the often overlooked “Lavender Scare.” Tenor Aaron Blake stars as Timothy Laughlin, a recent college grad eager to join the crusade against Communism. A encounter with handsome State Department official Hawkins Fuller (baritone Joseph Lattanzi) leads to Tim’s first job, an illicit love affair with a man.

Gregory was kind enough to answer a few questions about the opera, as well as his relationship with ACO over the years.

Composer Gregory Spears. Photo by Dario Acosta

American Composers Orchestra: When did you first read Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel Fellow Travelers and what was your initial impression? Did you immediately realize its potential to become an opera, or was that sometime later?

Gregory Spears: [Director] Kevin Newbury and [Executive Producer] Sterling Zinsmeyer first introduced [librettist] Greg Pierce and me to the book, and asked whether we thought it could be an opera. I think I was most drawn to the way Mallon depicts the excitement and danger of first love, and then shows the effects of the political turmoil and homophobia swirling within the state department in the 1950s on that relationship. I also really wanted to write an opera about ordinary people, so I liked that the central characters weren’t historical figures.

ACO: In your program notes, you write that in the music you “looked for ways to express the innuendo-driven world of Hawk and Tim while maintaining a relatively cool musical surface.” Since opera is not often associated with a “cool musical surface,” can you talk about this stylistic decision? Was there any part of you worried about not having enough of the traditionally big, dramatic opera moments?

GS: Well I would like to emphasize the word “relatively” as there is still a fair share of anguished singing in Fellow Travelers as well as orchestral outbursts. But yes, in opera specifically, I try to avoid writing music that tells a listener what to feel or music that directly represents or underlines a character's feelings from moment to moment. I agree with John Cage who once said: “I don’t mind being moved, but I don’t like to be pushed.” So I think a lot about how one might create dramatic tension without underlining a character’s emotions in a typical 19th century way. For me it’s an interesting paradox to ponder. I’m also really inspired by the many American composers who use what I think of as a “cool musical surface” to create what I find to be moving and dramatic music. Meredith Monk, Robert Ashley, and of course David Lang are just a few examples.

ACO: This is not the first time you and ACO have crossed paths. You were a participant in our 2001 New Music Readings, where you workshopped your orchestra work Circle Stories, and the ACO/Penn Presents New Music Readings in 2007, where you worked on Finishing. Can you talk about the influence these experiences had on your musical career? Was there anything that carried into your compositional process for Fellow Travelers?

GS: Those were both wonderful experiences, both as a chance to hear those pieces read by pros but also as practice for all the technical and editorial challenges involved with music preparation. Visualizing an orchestra in an actual space is the best way for me to begin thinking about orchestration. And in many cases, I visualize the ACO in the same room where my orchestral piece was read back in 2001. That’s how vivid the memory is!

ACO: What has working with George Manahan and ACO been like for this production?

GS: Working with George and the ACO have been wonderful! George has the calm confidence and experience which is absolutely necessary in the theater where there are so many things happening at once. That  comes with lots of experience and sets the singers and also the composer at ease.


Fellow Travelers opens at the PROTOTYPE Festival on Friday, January 12, 8PM at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Additional performances on Jan. 13 (2pm & 8pm) and Jan. 14 (2pm). More information here

Learn more about Gregory Spears at www.gregoryspears.com

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reflected in Glass: Q&A with violinist Tim Fain

Internationally renowned violinist Tim Fain has been featured on the soundtracks to the films Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, and Black Swan, where he also was seen on screen. He has appeared internationally as soloist with many of the world’s top orchestras and performed recitals at the world’s major music capitals. He collaborated with Google on a Virtual Reality music video for his composition, Resonance, which introduced its 360 stereoscopic VR capability for YouTube, and was recently shown at The Sundance Film Festival (watch here).

Reflected in Glass: Philip Glass and the Next Generation — Friday, December 8, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall —features Fain as soloist in Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons. Fain was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.

Philip Glass and Tim Fain. Photo by Brian Hall

American Composers Orchestra: Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons, was written as a companion piece to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, but doesn't indicate which movement corresponds to which season. Glass writes that this is “an opportunity, then, for the listener to make his/her own interpretation.” Do you have your own interpretation for which movement corresponds to which season? How has this open-ended aspect of the piece affected the way you approach it?

Tim Fain: If Antonio Vivaldi depicted scenes from the seasons as a portrait artist might capture a still life — a feast, or a storm approaching — Philip’s concerto is less about the seasons themselves but rather about our struggle against, or acquiescence to the elements.

The piece alternates between solo violin movements, which function similarly to a Greek chorus as a running commentary on the story, and larger orchestral movements. One begins to sense a lurking tumultuousness throughout those movements, waiting to grow at any moment. Spring begins gently at first, followed by a languorous and stunningly beautiful summer, a tempestuous fall, and an all-out battle against the winter elements, alluding to a larger battle we all face against time itself. From birth we are built for struggle, at first just to breathe, then later to love, and finally the struggle to die gracefully and in peace.

ACO: Reflected in Glass celebrates the monumental work of Philip Glass, as well as the influence he has had on generations of composers after him. Can you talk about the influence that Glass has had on your career, both as a performer and composer?

TF: To perform with Philip, as I have done so many times, is to open oneself up to a passion and spontaneity in his music, and I’m continuously inspired by him and his fluid and organic approach to his own music. As both a performer and composer now, Philip has always been extremely supportive of  my work; writing his Partita for me, having recently presented a theater piece (Club Diamond) for which I composed the music, at his Days and Nights Festival in Big Sur, CA, and even touring as a duo partner have all changed and enhanced not only my work but me as an artist and person.

ACO: You appear on the soundtracks for Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave, and Black Swan (where you also appeared on screen), and your critically acclaimed multi-media program Portals has been selling out venues across the world. How did you first become involved in the film music world? Can you talk about the differences, or lack thereof, between performing music for film vs. music that has no visual component?

TF: I was fascinated with film music as a kid — growing up in LA I sang in a boys choir and performed in numerous soundtracks, including John Williams’ score to Empire of the Sun. As I’ve worked more in film and VR/AR, pretty much without exception, each project has unfolded in its own unique way. From creating the diegetic music for 12 Years a Slave, to producing and performing Portals, I’m fascinated with storytelling as connection between people, among artistic collaborators, and as the connection of our various senses into a fuller multi-sensory experience.

When I perform live I am aware of the audience not only as they listen, but as they watch and feel the music physically in their bodies. One is always aware of how the music will be experienced — a transaction of emotion and storytelling which travels not only from performer to listener but back from the audience to me on stage. In these moments the music is the predominant element of the story. Performing music for film I am also thinking about the moment it will be experienced, but insofar as how the music will interact with the image and perceived as part of a complete work.

As a composer, I do think about how my music will be heard, and in what context, but this does not affect my process of creating the music itself. I don’t work much differently in writing my upcoming Concerto for Violin Orchestra and VR experience, for example, as I would work in composing or arranging a cue for a feature film.


Hear Tim Fain in Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Seasons — Friday, December 8, 2017, 7:30pm at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. Details & tickets

Follow Tim Fain on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube

Monday, November 6, 2017

40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Q&A with Artistic Director Derek Bermel

Grammy-nominated composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel has been hailed for his creativity, theatricality, and virtuosity. An “eclectic with wide open ears” (Toronto Star), Bermel is acclaimed for music that is “intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender, and extraordinarily beautiful [and] covers an amazing amount of ground” (San Francisco Chronicle). As a performer, “There doesn't seem to be anything that Bermel can't do with the clarinet” (The Boston Globe). Since 2013, Derek has brought his creative strength and engagement with myriad musical cultures to American Composers Orchestra as Artistic Director. 

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center - will feature Derek as soloist in Leonard Berstein’s Clarinet Sonata (orchestrated by Sid Ramin). Derek spoke to us about the piece, the program, and the broader picture of ACO.

Composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel. Photo by Richard Bowditch

American Composers Orchestra: Leonard Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata (later orchestrated as a concerto) is his first published work, written when he was just 25 years old. Can you talk about the piece and its character, and why it was chosen for the program?

Derek Bermel: I've played Bernstein's Sonata since I was in high school; still have my copy that Lenny signed when I was a teenager ... I waited an hour to meet him backstage after a concert at Lincoln Center! It's a joyful, brilliant work for such a young composer. You can hear the strong influence of the composition teachers with whom he studied at Tanglewood; the first movement recalls the austere, academic lyricism of mid-century Hindemith, and the second movement echoes Copland in its embrace of Latin rhythms, but with a jazzy grace that presages Bernstein's emerging voice. The sonata contains that special sound which would become so personal in later works like Candide and the Serenade; you can hear them in this early work, adapted by Bernstein's long-time orchestrator Sid Ramin.

ACO: What about the other works on the program? Can you talk about why they were chosen to be a part of ACO’s 40th anniversary celebration?

DB: Everything in this concert relates to our 40th Anniversary and to ACO’s mission, which is to champion great American works and the creators of the future. We're celebrating our founder Francis Thorne, and so we're performing an imaginative work that Frannie wrote for ACO – Fanfare, Fugue, and Funk. ACO is also honoring long-time supporters James and Ellen Marcus, whose love of opera and the American Songbook leads naturally to Gershwin, Arlen, and Ellington. As a tribute to the Bernstein family, and in honor of Lenny’s 100th birthday this season, we're performing his orchestrated clarinet sonata. And in a tip of the hat to our co-founder Paul Dunkel, who relentlessly championed work by emerging composers, we've programmed an operatic excerpt by Paola Prestini and a U.S. premiere by Elizabeth Ogonek, showcasing ACO’s commitment to the music of our time and beyond. We're lucky to have our superb music director George Manahan AND our founding Music Director, the great Dennis Russell Davies, conducting this concert, as well as two rising-star singers, Mikaela Bennett and Jakub Józef Orliński, as soloists – an embarrassment of riches!

ACO: When did you first learn about the American Composers Orchestra? Do you remember any initial impressions you had about the group, and the path that led you to become Artistic Director in 2013?

DB: I've been lucky to be involved with ACO for more than two decades. Back in 1994, when I was still a masters student at the University of Michigan, I was lucky enough to be selected for the Underwood New Music Readings. The readings were a formative experience in my musical career – breathtaking in a way that was simultaneously traumatizing and deeply inspiring. Over the years, first serving as ACO’s Music Alive Composer-in-Residence (2006-2009), and later curating programs as ACO’s Creative Advisor (2009-13) and artistic director (2013-present), I've been fortunate to collaborate with so many wonderful composer colleagues, including Tania León, Robert Beaser, George Lewis, Anna Clyne and James Newton, to name a few. Some of the highlights were curating the 2011 and 2015 SONiC Festivals, which featured the work of more than 200 emerging composers; mentoring at the Underwood Readings and at EarShot orchestral readings across the U.S.; and helping design and implement JCOI (Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute), which launched in 2011 and continues to this day. Throughout these years, I have developed the deepest respect for the heart and soul of the ACO – the musicians of the orchestra – and for Maestro George Manahan. I can't emphasize enough what a special group of artists this is; we composers are lucky to have them as partners and inspirations.

ACO: In additional to being ACO’s Artistic Director (and your other esteemed positions) you are an accomplished composer and clarinetist. Can you talk about any specific instances when your work with ACO has influenced your composing and/or performing?

DB: ACO has had a lasting effect on my compositional output. In 1995, ACO offered me my first orchestral commission.  I had an idea to make the orchestra sound like voices – a huge conversation.  I had developed a rather complex system of notation to express my ideas, but I wondered how could I communicate all this to a big orchestra in a short rehearsal period? My solution was to write a concerto, devising a musical conversation between the orchestra and me that would help the musicians to intuitively interpret my notation. Plus, it was a great way to play as a soloist in Carnegie Hall (and without too much practice, practice, practice)! You can read more about it here.

ACO: What is your biggest hope for contemporary classical music in the US in the next few years, and for ACO?

DB: I'd like to see ACO continue to grow and serve the needs of composers in all genres and styles, partnering with a range of collaborators throughout the art world and beyond. There’s a great need for orchestral music and composers to connect with communities in all sorts of ways, and ACO can be a catalyst in making that happen. I'm excited to work alongside our new President Ed Yim, George Manahan, and the musicians as we begin writing a new chapter in ACO's story!


Hear Derek perform Berstein’s Clarinet Sonata (orchestrated by Sid Ramin), plus works by Prestini, Ogonek, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Learn more about Derek at www.derekbermel.com
Follow him on Facebook and Twitter

Friday, November 3, 2017

40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Composer Spotlight: Elizabeth Ogonek

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek strives to create music that is energetic, dramatic, vivid, and colorful. Often inspired by text, her work explores the transference of words and poetic imagery to music. The nature of her interests has led to several collaborations with emerging writers including Sophia Veltfort, Ghazal Mosadeq, and Jonathan Dubow.

Recent and upcoming commissions include works for the London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and Fulcrum Point New Music Project for the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago. Born in 1989 in Anoka, Minnesota, and raised in New York City, Ogonek holds degrees from Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, and the University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music. In 2015, she completed doctoral studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She is currently Mead Composer in Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Assistant Professor of Composition at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center - will feature the US premiere of Sleep and Unremembrance. Elizabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

American Composers Orchestra: Sleep and Unremembrance is inspired by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s While Sleeping, one of her last works, which reflects on the brevity of life. Your music often explores the transference of words and poetic imagery to music. Can you talk about how you discovered this process for writing music, and why it works well for you?

Elizabeth Ogonek: I’ve always seen myself as being kind of bad with words. I find writing and speaking to be two of the most grueling tasks. Because of that, I’ve always admired those people for whom words are an expressive and freeing medium. I began reading a lot of poetry for that reason. It quickly became a lens through which I attempted to make sense of my work as a composer. Deep down, I think I was seeking that expressive freedom in my own work. I found myself turning to words and poetry specifically as a way of structuring my musical ideas or holding me accountable for the decisions I would eventually make. Calling on text as a creative constraint was one that was open ended enough to allow me to make my own choices but at the same time it provided a framework within which I had to work if I wanted any relationship to exist between a poetic idea and a musical one. About musical limitations, Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” I think about this a lot. 

ACO: A big part of ACO’s mission is providing composers the opportunity to work closely with an orchestra while they hone their orchestral writing skills. Can you describe the value in being able to work closely with the London Symphony Orchestra while writing Sleep and Unremembrance? How did it affect your compositional process?

EO: First of all, I’ll say that I think it’s absolutely crucial that young composers interested in writing for the orchestra have the opportunity to work with an orchestra. (So cheers to you, ACO!) In many ways, there is very little that is intuitive about writing orchestral music unless you’re immersed in it. By working one-on-one with the players, attending rehearsals, hearing the orchestra play contemporary music and the standard repertoire (for me, this really illuminated the LSO’s particular strengths) and by having the opportunity to workshop my own music, this issue of understanding how the orchestra works is one that I started to face. In doing so, I came to know the LSO as a very particular living, breathing community of musicians. I think the nuances of that community (for example, their impeccable precision, virtuosity and weightlessness, among other formidable characteristics) are what I tried to tap into while writing my piece.

I should also say that the LSO gave me the opportunity to fail and to learn from that failure, a gift not often bestowed upon composers outside of school. About eight months before the premiere, the orchestra workshopped the first half of my piece. I remember it sounding cumbersome, exceptionally dense and structurally ambiguous which resulted in a multitude of revisions. Most importantly, it informed the way I approached the second half of the piece which is much more transparent and delicately orchestrated. This new direction is one that has preoccupied my music since then.

ACO: Our season opener celebrates 40 years as the only orchestra in the world wholly dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promotion of music by American composers. Can you think of any American composers from past or present (or genres or movements of American music in general) that you especially feel should be reaching more listeners today?

EO: There are so many, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Stephen Hartke. Crawford-Seeger because she was a badass who’s incredibly expressive music is thoroughly undervalued. And Hartke because there are new things to discover on every level of his music and his compositional wit, to me, is just thoroughly disarming.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at our 40th Birthday Concert & Gala? Are there any other pieces on the program that you are particularly excited to hear?

I’m excited about the whole program, but I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Paola Prestini’s piece and the Duke Ellington [Black, Brown, and Beige]. Most of all, I’m looking forward to celebrating an orchestra that has steadfastly provided orchestral opportunities for young composers.  


Hear the US premiere Elizabeth’s Sleep and Unremembrance, plus works by Prestini, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

40th Birthday Concert & Gala - Composer Spotlight: Paola Prestini

Composer Paola Prestini is “the enterprising composer and impresario” (The New York Times) whose interdisciplinary vision is helping to shape the future of new music. Named one of Musical America’s “Top 30 Musical Innovators 2016” and one of the “Top 100 Composers in the World under 40” (NPR), her music has been commissioned by and performed at top orchestras and concert halls across the world.

She is the founding CEO and founding Artistic Director of National Sawdust, a nonprofit Brooklyn-based space for arts incubation and performance, and the “visionary-in-chief” (Time Out New York) of VisionIntoArt, the multimedia production company she co-founded in 1999 which has now merged with National Sawdust.

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center - features music from Paola’s 2016 opera production Gilgamesh, and will recognize Paola as a special honoree at the Gala celebration, which coincides with the concert.

Paola was kind enough answer a few questions about Gilgamesh, as well as her broader role in today’s contemporary classical world.

Composer Paola Prestini

American Composers Orchestra: Here at ACO, we are very excited about the momentum that contemporary opera is gaining, with more and more innovative and cutting-edge productions breaking through to new audiences every season, Gilgamesh included. What are your hopes for contemporary opera in the next few years? Do you think it has potential that purely instrumental contemporary classical music doesn’t?

Paola Prestini: I think that opera appeals to younger audiences in that it has many levels of interaction with the audience, so in many ways, it’s a less abstract art form. From the music, to costumes, sets, projection, design, there are different ways into the form. I also think that the entrepreneurial approach of composers and indie companies has made opera more accessible than ever, because you don't need to pay high prices as an audience member or be commissioned by large companies as an artist anymore to make grand, rich, statements.

ACO: Can you tell us a little bit about the different ways you have worked with ACO over the years?

PP: ACO was one of my first jobs when I graduated Juilliard! For a short while I worked as education director. I also was part of the reading series when I graduated Juilliard, and had a performance many many years ago on the Immigrant Voices series. But it wasn’t really until Ed came onboard that he brought me fully onboard as a composer for orchestra into the mix, which I truly appreciate! I wrote The Hotel That Time Forgot, about a hotel trapped in time on the Lebanese border for a performance this past May at Carnegie Hall. The video was by the Japanese artist Mami Kosemura. We had a great time making this work about invented memory, since neither of us had actually traveled there.

ACO: ACO President Ed Yim has said that honoring you at the gala was a necessity and a pleasure given all you have done for new music and american composers in NYC, especially since the opening of National Sawdust. How has your vision for National Sawdust evolved since the opening? Also, why do you think organizations like National Sawdust, ACO, and others seem to be finding it easier to work together and collaboratively now? Do you think that always was the case?

PP: I think companies are less territorial, and that everyone wants to assert their brand and identity while still getting the art done. Working together ensures a stronger product by allowing companies with different strengths to come together to help bring to life commissions, collaborations, and new ways of thinking. I think this is a product of the last 20 years and it is an exciting time to be creating and leading in. As far as my own role in this, I knew 20 years ago that my road as a woman composer who wanted to do rich multimedia work out of the box would be complex. And so in the words of my mentor Paul Soros, I made more pie, I didn't divide it. The challenge has always been how to exist as multiple roles in my life-composer, mother, partner, leader, etc. But balance is difficult for every human being, and I try not to lose sight of the fact that I designed my own challenges and that in many way they reflect a complex spirit and desire.

ACO: Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński will perform the Prelude and first Greensnake Aria from your opera Gilgamesh. Can you describe a little bit about what's going on in the story during these two pieces?

PP: Gilgamesh, with librettist Cerise Jacobs, is the story of Ming, the son of Madame White Snake, half demon-half man who was abandoned during his mother’s epic battle with the Abbot. He is identified with the protagonist of the Sumerian Epic, “Gilgamesh”, who was two-thirds god and one-third man. When the White Snake suddenly sends for him on his thirtieth birthday, he finds her in the form of a beautiful woman imprisoned in the Abbot’s alms bowl. The White Snake reveals his birthright and his power to control the waters. Ming tests his powers and brings the world to the brink of another devastating flood. The Abbot appears and sows the seeds of doubt about his mother. When Ming goes back to see her again, he sees a white snake in the alms bowl. Ming returns home to find that his wife, Ku, has just given birth to a white, iridescent baby girl who resembles her grandmother. He gives the baby to the green snake, Xiao Qing, who had taken him as a baby away from the floodwaters. He returns to the monastery. There is no one there. A robe and empty alms bowl are left. Ming dons the robe, takes the alms bowl and leaves.

The prologue which we are going to hear, and Green Snake’s (Xiao Qing’s) aria, introduce the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh and feature Jakub Józef Orliński as Xiao Qing, who introduces the story above.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at our 40th Birthday Concert & Gala? Are there any other pieces on the program that you are particularly excited to hear?

PP: I'm excited to hear Elizabeth [Ogonek]’s work, and super excited to hear Jozef sing! I adore his voice and vibe. It’s always a joy to hear the classics too. And Bernstein is gold standard for all he initiated in our time. He was an excellent composer, educator, visionary, conductor, and human.


Hear Paola’s music, plus works by Ogonek, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music - Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Learn more about Paola at www.paolaprestini.com
Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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 www.martinkennedy.com
Follow him on Facebook and YouTube

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 www.jamesdiaz.co
Follow James 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