Part 1 – Living Composers
The COVID-19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse. As working musicians, most of us are faced with new difficulties as we attempt to maneuver through the drought of live performances. We find ourselves day after day sitting through Zoom meetings, Zoom lessons, or watching the latest Acapella orchestra concerts on social media. Though these new ways of doing business have thrown many of us into a high-speed wobble, they have also forced many of us to stop, pause, and reconsider. For me, this period has offered a particularly needed moment for reflection and has provided time to rethink and reboot.
For the last ten years my passion has been the research and performance of music by women. During this time, my interest has broadened to include composers of color and the LGBTQ community. As my excitement for music by underrepresented composers has grown, I have found that this music contributes a diversity of perspectives that has been missing from western classical music.
During the pandemic, Facebook has been packed with “10-day artist challenges.” For example, I encountered a chain that asks the subscriber “friend” to list 10 albums that changed their life. I have been fascinated to see the responses to these challenges and the importance of my friends’ racial and gender backgrounds on their musical choices.
Color, timbre, power, and beauty of music are intangibles that find a solid home deep within our souls. We all come from various backgrounds, with different stories and distinct lifestyles. I wonder what would happen to classical music if we began to embrace those stories in symphonic music and made them the norm rather than token or one-off concerts?
This question has led me on a fascinating listening journey. My “Social Listening with Anna” series was inspired by the 10-day artist challenge, which provided me a great opportunity to explore music by a variety of underrepresented composers both historical and current. Part 1 of my “10 x 10 Series” includes a snapshot of ten living composers, their credentials, and three listening examples each of their work. They are in no particular order and provide a fantastic starting point for the curious listener.
With my series, I hope that music organizations will find repertoire that resonates with their community and increase their programming of underrepresented composers. Additionally, I hope that our Everything Conducting audience members will help us expand our ever-growing database of composers.
I hope you enjoy!
Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave’s music is dramatic, vivid, and powerful. Her orchestration and musical communication to both the performing ensemble and audience is clear. This, of course, is no surprise as she had the opportunity to study with two of the great composition teachers – Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland. Musgrave continues to explore the “dramatic” in her varied catalog of chamber, choral, and symphonic compositions. Along with numerous awards including the Koussevitzky Award and Guggenheim Fellowship, she has been a mentor to countless new and gifted young composers. Notable compositions include Phoenix Rising (1997), Turbulent Landscapes (2003), and Rainbow (1990).
Born in Álamos, Sonora, Arturo Márquez is the oldest of nine children. Born in a family of musicians, Marquez‘s musical foundation was inspired by the folk and mariachi music of the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. When Arturo was a teenager, the Marquez family immigrated to La Puente, California where he began playing trombone, piano, and later violin. At 16, he began composing and furthered his studies at the Mexican Music Conservatory and later in Paris with Jacques Casterede. Notable compositions include Conga del fuego nuevo (2005), Leyenda de Miliano (2010), and Danzón No 2 (1994).
3. Vivian Fung
Born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, Vivian Fung calls her upbringing a very “western lifestyle” even though her parents were immigrants from China. After getting a Doctorate from the Juilliard School, she became fascinated with her Asian heritage. After receiving an Apex Fellowship, Fung went to Asia for the first time in her life and collaborated with twelve musicians from various traditional folk music backgrounds. She soon realized that she was the only musician there who knew how to read music and found herself changing gears and instead began learning how to play music by ear. During this time, Fung became very interested in Balinese Gamelan. Her music offers an atmospheric other world. Here are three of her notable works: Launch, A Child’s Dream of Toys, and Aqua.
4. Derrick Spiva Jr.
Educated in western classical music with the likes of Ian Krouse, Alex Shapiro, and Paul Chihara, Derrick has also studied West African music and dance with Kobla Ladzekpo; Persian music with Pirayeh Pourafar and Houman Pourmehdi; Balkan music theory with Tzvetanka Varimezova; and tala (Indian system of rhythm cycles) in Hindustani classical music with Swapan Chaudhuri and Aashish Khan.
An American composer from Ghanaian, Nigerian, British, Irish, and Native American descent, Spiva has beautifully developed his brand of “American” aesthetic to reflect “the diverse communities he is part of.” He believes the “doorway” to understand other cultures is through the education of music through other cultures. Here are several musical examples including world premiere excerpt - Prisms, Cycles, Leaps – Part III: “To be a Horizon,” A Vision Unfolding, and In Our Hands a Canvas.
A quote from Augusta Read Thomas’ website: “Luciano Berio, one of my heroes, used the phrase ‘remembering the future’ to describe his musical philosophy. He made his name as an avant-gardist and he remained a Modernist throughout his career, but he also saw himself as reinventing the past….Berio's process of reexamining the past through the present has influenced me.”
All I can say is “YES” and thank goodness. Clearly Berio has influenced her aesthetic, yet Thomas’ music has a clearly innovative musical voice. The youngest child of ten, Thomas began writing music at the age of six and became the youngest recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship ever (in addition to many other awards). For her musical studies, she attended Northwestern University, Yale University, and the Royal Academy of Music in London. Notable works are Radiant Circles (2010 - symphony), Dancing Galaxy (2004 - band), and Chanting to Paradise (2002 - choir).
6. Paul Chihara
The first words that come to mind when I think about second generation Japanese-American Paul Chihara are fascinating, captivating, and utterly charming. Intense collections of emotional and lived experiences have offered Chihara an extensive musical palette. His music has been performed in most major cities and top art centers in the US and Europe. In addition, Paul has composed scores for over 90 motion pictures and television series.
Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, beautifully described the music of Paul Chihara:
It is almost easier to think of Paul Chihara as several different composers. There is the Chihara whose sensitivity to exquisite instrumental color has made him a favorite with such performers as conductor Seiji Ozawa and the Sequoia String Quartet. There is, however, a strong theatrical side to Chihara which expresses itself in works for dance, musical theater and film. And there is Chihara’s love for American popular music of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Eleanor Alberga always knew she wanted to be a musician and decided at age five that she would be a concert pianist and composer. After her studies at the Jamaica School of Music, she won the biennial West Indian Associated Board Scholarship which allowed her to pursue her musical studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. After graduating, she performed as a concert pianist and later focused her energy towards composition full-time. My first introduction to Alberga’s music was her soundtrack to a short 14-minute black and white film “Market of the Dead.” The music immediately drew me in. I continued listening to all of her compositions on Soundcloud. I would love to introduce you to several pieces I particularly liked: “Mirror’s Dance” from Alberga’s musical score to Roald Dahl’s Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, Arise, Athena!, and Market of the Dead.
Born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, Roberto Sierra later moved to Europe to study with György Ligeti at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg, Germany. Sierra’s music came to prominence in 1987 when his first major orchestra composition, Júbilo was performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Since that time, his music has been performed by many of the leading orchestras and ensembles in Europe and the U.S.
Sierra’s music is packed with rhythmic interest and cinematic flare. Lush orchestration through his compositions offer beauty and always left me craving more. Notable works include Sinfonia No. 4, Fandangos, and El Éxtasis de Santa Teresa.
9. Stacy Garrop
The first phrase that comes to my mind when I think about the music of Stacy Garrop is “aural cinematic explosions.” Stacy’s musical storytelling is stunning. Garrop’s many awards and grants are impressive and her compositional catalog covers a wide range of scoring including orchestral, operatic, oratorio, wind ensemble, choral, art song, and various sized chamber works. She has something for everyone! Notable works include Mythology Symphony (Pandora Undone – 5th Movement of Mythology Symphony), Love’s Philosophy (choral), and Quicksilver (wind ensemble).
10. Tan Dun
As global cultural leader, Tan Dun’s journey has been full of experiences that most people from the United States cannot imagine. After being raised in a rural Hunan village in the People’s Republic of China, Tan Dun was sent to farm rice in the Huangjin commune as a teenager. While there, he became entrenched with local music and became an enthusiastic preserver of their musical traditions. After two years, Tan Dun was recalled from his farming duties and became a fiddler and arranger for the Peking Opera troupe. Subsequently, he was invited as one of thirty students (out of thousands of applicants) to attend the Central Conservatory, which re-opened at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution. In 1986, he moved to the U.S. and immersed himself in New York City’s avant-garde scene.
Tan Dun’s eclectic background provides a fantastic foundation for broad, wide-ranging music that melds his vision of musical diversity to the concert stage. Notable works include, Concerto for String Orchestra and Guzheng (Zheng), Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, and Water Passion After St. Matthew (choral).