Thursday, March 26, 2015

Composer Spotlight - Angélica Negrón, 2014-15 Van Lier Fellow

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Angélica Negrón is a Brooklyn-based composer whose music has been described as “wistfully idiosyncratic and contemplative” (WQXR/Q2) and “mesmerizing and affecting” (Feast of Music). The New York Times noted her “capacity to surprise” and her “quirky approach to scoring. Angélica was selected to be the 2014-15 Van Lier Emerging Composer Fellow. As part of the fellowship, she has been working closely with ACO, participating in planning educational activities and performances, and serving as liaison with student composers.

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Angélica Negrón

Angélica has been asked to write a piece for ACO this fall. She was kind enough to talk with SoundAdvice about the piece and her Van Lier Fellowship experience.

American Composers Orchestra: What was your reaction to finding out you had been selected as the 2014-15 Van Lier Emerging Composer Fellow?
Angélica Negrón: I was very surprised and honored.  I've been following for a while the extraordinary work that ACO does for living composers and I feel very lucky that I get to be a part of this and experience working closely with this organization as well as some of the talented artists featured this season.

ACO: Can you tell us a little bit about what you are doing as a part of your Van Lier Fellowship?
AN: I've been helping sort out the unsolicited submissions. Seeing the variety of composers that submit their work for consideration has been really interesting. I've also been learning more about ACO's education division and sometimes interacting with students that come to the dress rehearsals, as well as learning more about grant writing and finding resources for funding projects. As part of my fellowship I also get to program a concert of my music, which I'm very much looking forward to, and learn about other facets of concert production and marketing.  

ACO: What has surprised you about working so closely with ACO?
AN: I would have to say the wide diversity in the artists and composers they work with as well as the short amount of time they have to put together sometimes very challenging pieces and programs.  It's amazing to see how somehow it all comes together, like magic at the end.

The most fascinating thing so far has been attending the rehearsals and observing the process of putting together pieces as well as the interaction between performers, conductor and composers. It's really interesting to see how each composer has their own unique way of communicating both verbally and musically what they're looking for in their pieces and to see how the conductor and the performers interpret this and help bring the pieces to life.  For example, seeing one of my favorite composers Meredith Monk work with the orchestra was particularly enthralling as she's a composer that often works with her performers for extended periods of time. A lot of her pieces are developed through this close collaboration with the performers.  It's interesting seeing how composers negotiate the limits of time that working with an orchestra present and also how they each approach the huge endeavor of writing for orchestra – translating their voice to such a powerful medium while retaining the immediacy of their personal expression. Needless to say, it's also a pretty amazing treat to be in close proximity to the orchestra in rehearsals and to hear everything up close and personal.

ACO: You have been asked to write a piece ACO this Fall. Anything you can tell us about the piece? 
AN: I'm very excited about writing a piece for the orchestra for ACO this Fall. I'm working on a new piece which uses the performance space as a compositional element featuring an ensemble of mechanical instruments, designed by instrument builder Nick Yulman, which will be placed in different locations in the space interacting with the orchestra to create an immersive sonic landscape that surrounds the audience.  I've been reading a lot of early twentieth century surrealist poetry from Latin American poets and have been specially inspired by the work of Argentine writer Oliverio Girondo for this piece.  I'm interested in exploring the possibilities of integrating robotics into orchestral performance and the potential of new sounds with the interaction of these two mediums. Though I've written three orchestra pieces in the past,  this new piece for the ACO is particularly important for me as it marks my first orchestra piece after a significant stylistic shift in my compositional voice which I've been developing over the past 7 years, mostly through chamber or solo works incorporating electronics combined with acoustic instruments.

I've been really intrigued for the past couple of years on how to make the live electronic performance more dynamic and engaging for audiences and for performers. Since meeting instrument builder Nick Yulman a lot of new exciting possibilities have opened up for me in this realm.  Besides this being the first time I'm exploring my current voice in such a massive medium,  I'm also really thrilled to be writing for such an exceptional orchestra and to have the opportunity to combine it with Nick's wonderful instruments.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Composer Spotlight – Melody Eötvös, Winner of First Toulmin Foundation Commission

Melody Eötvös is an Australian-born composer of both multimedia and traditional works who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. Last Fall, ACO's EarShot and The League of American Orchestras selected her and composer Julia Adolphe as winners of a $15,000 commission supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. Melody was kind enough to answer some questions about the commission and her experience at EarShot.

Composer Melody Eötvös. Photo credit: Grant Heger

American Composers Orchestra: You participated in the 2014 Underwood New Music Readings with your selected piece Beetles, Dragons & Dreamers. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in the workshop and anything you took away?

Melody Eötvös: My experience with the American Composers Orchestra in June last year for the Underwood New Music readings was fantastic.  I've always been a little hesitant about going to New York (that was my first visit ever) but this was the perfect reason to finally take the plunge.  Focusing for those three days on ACO, the other composer fellows, and being able to network with other professionals during the career sessions made the experience extremely valuable and a huge game changer in the way that I think about writing for orchestra, as well as how I prepare my parts, edit my score, and reach out to publishers, conductors, and organizations.  Working with ACO, George Manahan, and Michael Geller was one of the most rewarding workshops I have ever participated in. The orchestra was incredibly efficient and precise during rehearsals and were able to accomplish wonders with my piece in such a short amount of time.  

ACO: What was your reaction to hearing you had won a $15,000 commission supported by the Toulmin Foundation from the League of American Orchestras and ACO's EarShot?

ME: This is a huge honor and I remember meeting several representatives of the Toulmin Foundation during the Underwood Readings and thinking how amazing it would be to receive one of the awards. To actually be one of the first recipients of this commission is mind-blowing to say the least.  Once the news had sunk in though I began thinking about the immensity of the task ahead of me.  I was still on a high (and still am!), but I was also beginning to realize what this huge opportunity meant. I've written four orchestral works, and each of them were highly experimental and mainly focused on testing out sounds and timbres that I like.  With this commission though I know that I have to be confident about the solidarity and structure of the piece at all times... no more student writing!  It's taking a lot of preparation, thought, self-analysis, and chewing so far.  

ACO: Obviously it's still early, but can you tell us anything about the piece you are writing for the commission?

ME: Well, I'm always turning to literature and biological sources for inspiration, and this piece is still going to be connected to those places.  Because I'm focusing more on the music though, and less on narrative influences, the result is going to be very interesting, or at least that's what i hope!  The instrumentation is also a lot lighter than what I've worked with before in an 'orchestral' mid-set, so that will play a huge part in the resulting sound as well.

Monday, March 23, 2015

ACO: Blues Symphony & Beyond Composer Spotlight – Courtney Bryan

Courtney Bryan, a native of New Orleans is “a pianist and composer of panoramic interests” (New York Times). Courtney is an alumna of ACO's Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Her ACO commission, Sanctum, will have its world premiere April 9, 2015, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Blues Symphony & Beyond. Courtney was kind enough to share her thoughts about the piece and its premiere with SoundAdvice.

Composer/pianist Courtney Bryan. Photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell
American Composers Orchestra: You actually went to the same high school (though many years apart) as Wynton Marsalis. Can you tell us what it's like, as a native New Orleans composer, to now share a bill with a New Orleans legend like Wynton?

Courtney Bryan: It is very fulfilling and a reminder of the cyclical nature of life. I first met Wynton Marsalis when I was a 12 years old student at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans. Wynton Marsalis was the special guest for our performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival that year, and we were all so thrilled to have a legend like him perform with us. I will always remember how he gave me encouraging nods and words when I took my solo.

I went to the same high schools as Wynton Marsalis - the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Benjamin Franklin High School. And like many musicians in New Orleans, I sought apprenticeship with musician/educators from the various major New Orleans music families. Some of my teachers included Clyde Kerr, Jr., Dr. Daniel Weilbaecher, Dean Curtis, Roger Dickerson, Kidd Jordan, Kent Jordan, Moses Hogan, Ellis Marsalis, and the entire faculty of the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp and NOCCA. This rich experience prepared me for my following opportunities. 

I expanded upon my New Orleans experience at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, beginning with a triple major in music composition, classical piano, and jazz piano. I graduated with a B.M. in composition, having studied with Dr. Wendell Logan, Jeffrey Mumford, Marcus Belgrave, Billy Hart, and Frances Walker. Afterwards, I earned a M.M. at Rutgers University working with Stanley Cowell and Dr. Lewis Porter and began performing in New York. Meanwhile, I have always worked as a church musician. 

It was during my time at Columbia University, that I began actively integrating my New Orleans experience with my more recent ventures. My advisor George Lewis has not only opened many doors for me regarding music composition, but also has encouraged me to unapologetically be my full self in all situations and to always speak my voice. My pastor Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, from Bethany Baptist Church of Newark, has encouraged me to explore my spiritual path directly through my music and has given me a platform to actively combine my spiritual, artistic, and scholarly pursuits. As a result of my experiences at Columbia University, Bethany Baptist Church, performing in New York, and my experience at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute in 2012 at UCLA, I came to focus on notating the feeling improvisation, integrating the sacred and secular in my music, and exploring human emotions in sound.

Twenty years after that first meeting with Wynton Marsalis, I am excited to share this concert, Blues Symphony and Beyond. I am continuing the same goals and ambitions I had at 12, with the added experiences I have been blessed with between then and now. I hope this concert is part of a continuing cycle, and that I will be working more with Wynton Marsalis, as well as Uri Caine, in the near future.

ACO: You write that Sanctum is inspired by a 1973 recorded sermon by Pastor Shirley Caesar, The Praying Slave Lady. What about this sermon inspired your composition?

CB: This recorded sermon by Pastor Shirley Caesar is so powerful! I found it while browsing her music recordings on YouTube a few years ago. Sonically, what amazes me is the steady simmering intensity. It begins with a descending figure from the piano, and commences to a rumble from the bass and drums that surges like waves, with accompanying melodic fragments from the guitar, organ, and piano. Shirley Caesar and another vocalist sing Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley’s 1905 hymn Stand By Me, while Caesar delivers her sermon, The Praying Slave Lady. The sermon is about an enslaved African-American woman who insists on praying despite the slave master’s threats. When he attempts to whip her, his arm is intercepted by a host of spirits. 

Hearing this sermon reminds me of the story of Igbo (Ibo/Ebo) Landing, which I first learned about from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, where in 1803 a group of Africans captured for slavery, upon arrival on the Georgia coast, walked back into the water in a mass suicide act of rebellion. Myths of that historical event include the Africans walking or flying back to Africa, and have inspired several works of art. As one who is interested in the idea of rebellion and healing through sound, I am drawn to stories like these and the challenge of conveying those elements in my music.  

While studying Caesar’s sermon, I was emotionally taking in the recent events in police brutality, particularly the case of Marlene Pinnock, who was filmed by a bystander being brutally beaten by a police officer on a highway interstate in Los Angeles. During the media coverage of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and other victims of police brutality, I would listen to this sermon, and particularly the singing of Stand By Me, and envision a magical realism flight from this harsh reality. I began collecting and making sound collages of recorded voices of Marlene Pinnock and protestors in Ferguson, and they became part of the fabric of Sanctum along with my interpretation of the improvisation in Holiness-style preaching, particularly in the recorded sermons of Caesar and Rev. Dr. C. L. Franklin.

I thank Tania León and Alvin Singleton for advising me from conception to completion of this project! I also thank Derek Bermel, Dr. Alexandra Vazquez, and Bill Lee for their advice. Meanwhile, as a postdoctorate fellow at the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, I have had an opportunity to have stimulating conversations about exploring politics through the arts, and attend lectures on related topics. These conversations and my concurrent project, Prophetika: an Oratorio, have been an integral part of the creation of Sanctum.

ACO: Is there anything you hope to prove to the audience, or yourself, with ACO's premiere of Sanctum on April 9?

CB: “Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.” - Dr. Benjamin E Mays

At this point in my life, my main goal is to be my complete self in all situations and give my most sincere efforts. I thank my parents and family for always encouraging me to be true to myself and to take risks. I try to focus less on proving anything and more on honoring my ancestors and praising God. 

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the premiere of Sanctum by ACO at Jazz at Lincoln Center?

CB: I look forward to sharing this work with my friends and family, whose support is so important for all the work I do. I am excited to hear the premieres by Wynton Marsalis and Uri Caine, and know that this experience will fire up some inspiration for my future projects. I personally thank Michael Geller, Derek Bermel, Gregory Evans, and Alisa Herrington, as well as George Manahan and everyone from the American Composers Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center for making this event possible. I am sincerely grateful.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Summer Intensive 2015 now open to applications

American Composers Orchestra (ACO) and The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, in cooperation with the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, presents the third Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI) in 2015-16. The program commences August 8-13, 2015 with a Summer Intensive at The Herb Alpert School at UCLA. A second phase of the program includes Orchestral Readings of new music by select participants in spring-fall of 2016.
APPLICATION DEADLINE: Thursday, April 30, 2015

Read this essay with interviews by Howard Mandel – Jazz and the Future of the Symphony Orchestra – which he generously contributed to ACO's site. Howard is a New York-based writer, editor, author, and producer for NPR. For more than 30 years, he's covered jazz, blues and new and unusual musics for newspapers, magazines and websites. Howard teaches at New York University and elsewhere and consults for various arts organizations. He's president of the Jazz Journalists Association and blogs at

Watch this introductory video to the program:

Listen to past JCOI readings: