Tag: American Composers Orchestra

A Week of New Music Celebrations: the BMI Student Composer Awards, the Ceremonial & the Underwood Readings

The 2019 BMI Student Composer Award winners with Deirdre Chadwick and Ellen Taaffee Zwilich (Photo by Amanda Stevens for BMI).

The close proximity of the BMI Student Composer Awards, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial, and the American Composers Orchestra’s Underwood New Music Readings, which all took place in New York City last week, have turned the penultimate week of May into a multi-day celebration of new music.

On May 21, the BMI Foundation celebrated the nine winners of the 2019 BMI Student Composer Awards.

On May 21, the BMI Foundation, in collaboration with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), announced the nine winners of the 2019 BMI Student Composer Awards at a private ceremony held at Tribeca 360° presided over by BMI Executive Director of Classical and BMIF President Deirdre Chadwick, BMI Senior Vice President of International and Global Policy Ann Sweeney, and renowned American composer and permanent Chair of the Student Composer Awards Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Marco-Adrián Ramos Rodríguez received the William Schuman Prize, awarded for most outstanding score, and Lucy McKnight received the Carlos Surinach Prize, awarded to the youngest winner. Another one of the 2019 winners, Matthew Schultheis, received his third consecutive award this year. In what has now become an annual tradition, prior to the announcement of the award winners, an award-winning work from a previous year was performed in its entirety. The Aizuri Quartet performed Carrot Revolution composed by Gabriella Smith which received a BMI Student Composer Award in 2018.

Here is a complete list of the 2019 award winners:

Amelia Brey (b. 1994): Ar(i/e)as for wind quintet

Henri Colombat (b. 1997): Goûts égouttés… gouttes for brass dectet

Kevin Day (b. 1996): Havana for wind ensemble

Liam Kaplan (b. 1997): 8 Preludes for piano

Lucy McKnight (b. 1998): plunge for two violas, cello, two basses

Marco-Adrián Ramos Rodríguez (b. 1995): Toys in a Field for orchestra

Matthew Schultheis (b. 1997): The Temptation of Saint Anthony for chamber ensemble

Tyler Wayne Taylor (b. 1992): Liberation Compromise for 17 players

Anna-Louise Walton (b. 1991): Basket of Figs for flute, clarinet, and voice

Additionally, 18-year-old Katie Palka received an honorable mention for her composition Stolen Flight for string quartet.

Alexandra du Bois, Jeremy Gill, Shawn Jaeger, and David Schober served as preliminary panelists this year. The final judges were Kati Agócs, Donald Crockett, Stephen Jaffe, and Elena Ruehr. (More information about each of the 2019 award-winning composers and their works is available on the BMI website.)

Eighteen composers received awards during the 2019 American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial and three composers were inducted as new members.

On May 22, the annual American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial took place during which numerous awards were given to writers, visual artists, and composers and new members of the academy were inducted.

Composers Chen Yi and Meredith Monk were inducted as the newest music department academicians. In addition, Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, who was unable to attend, was inducted as a foreign honorary member.

Four Arts and Letters Awards in Music (formerly Academy Awards) of $10,000 each, plus another $10,000 toward the recording of one work, are given annually to acknowledge a composer who has arrived at his/her own voice. The 2019 awardees are David Fulmer, Stacy Garrop, Wynton Marsalis, and John Musto. Elizabeth Ogonek was the recipient of the 2019 Walter Hinrichsen Award, established by the C. F. Peters Corporation, which is given for the publication of a work by a mid-career American composer. Gity Razaz received the $10,000 Andrew Imbrie Award, which has been awarded annually since 2012 to a mid-career composer of demonstrated artistic merit. Christopher Cerrone and Reinaldo Moya were the two 2019 recipients of the annually awarded $15,000 Charles Ives Fellowships which are awarded to young composers of extraordinary gifts. In addition, $7500 Charles Ives Scholarships were awarded to six composers—Ryan Lindveit, Sato Matsui, Paul Mortilla, Tanner Porter, Marco-Adrián Ramos Rodríguez (BMI’s 2019 William Schuman Prize winner), and Miles Walter—for continued study in composition, either at institutions of their choice or privately with distinguished composers. Two Goddard Lieberson Fellowships of $15,000, which are given annually to young composers of extraordinary gifts, were awarded to Travis Alford and Daniel Bernard Roumain. Finally, two musicals received 2019 Richard Rodgers Awards for Musical Theater: Bhangin’ It by Sam Willmott (music and lyrics), Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza (book); and The Lucky Ones by Abigail and Shaun Bengson who wrote the music and lyrics and also co-wrote the book with Sarah Gancher.

In addition, composer David Del Tredici delivered this year’s Blashfield Address, a speech toward the end of the award announcements which is a hallmark of the Ceremonial. Del Tredici’s talk, “The Gift of Gayness: A Tell-All,” was provocative, heartfelt, and often extremely funny.

(A complete list of the American Academy of Arts and Letter’s 2019 award recipients in every discipline is available on the Arts and Letters website.)

Six composers were featured in the 2019 American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings, three of whom have received commissions to write new works for ACO.

Finally, on May 23 and 24, American Composers Orchestra, under the direction of Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot, read through works by six composers during the 28th Annual Underwood New Music Readings at New York University’s Frederick Loewe Theater. The six composers and their works are:

Rodrigo Castro (b. 1985): La gaviota – Essay No. 1 for Orchestra
Chen Yihan (b. 1994): Spiritus
inti figgis-vizueta (b. 1993): Symphony for the Body
Jack Hughes (b. 1992): Needlepoint
Jihyun Kim (b. 1989): A Tramp in the Assembly Line
Aaron Israel Levin (b. 1995): In Between

Following the readings, three of the composers received commissions for new works that will be performed on future ACO concerts: Jack Hughes received the 2019 Underwood Commission, Aaron Israel Levin received the 2019 Audience Choice Commission, and Jihyun Kim received the Consortium for Emerging Composers Commission. The Underwood Commission was chosen by the mentor composers and the conductor. The Audience Choice Commission, which is now in its 10th year, was determined by paper ballot at the run-through performance on May 24. The new Consortium Commission was chosen by ACO Leadership and Alabama Symphony Orchestra/American Youth Symphony Music Director Carlos Izcaray and the resulting work will be performed by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and American Youth Symphony (Los Angeles) in addition to ACO.

Jack Hughes, Aaron Israel Levin, and Jihyun Kim. (Photos courtesy American Composers Orchestra)

Jack Hughes, Aaron Israel Levin, and Jihyun Kim. (Photos courtesy American Composers Orchestra)

(More information about the 2019 Underwood New Music Readings and the six composers being featured this year is available on the American Composers Orchestra website.)

American Composers Orchestra Announces Winners of Two Commissions Chosen From the 2018 Underwood New Music Readings

The American Composers Orchestra (ACO) has awarded composer Carlos Bandera its 2018 Underwood Commission, which is a $15,000 commission for a work to be premiered by ACO in a future season. Chosen from six finalists during ACO’s 27th Underwood New Music Readings on June 21 and 22, 2018, Bandera won the top prize with his work Lux in Tenebris. In addition, for the ninth year, audience members at the Underwood New Music Readings had a chance to make their voices heard through the Audience Choice Commission. The winner this year was composer Tomàs Peire Serrate, for his piece Rauxa. As the winner, Serrate also receives a $15,000 commission from ACO for a composition to be premiered in a future season.

Tomàs Peire Serrate (photo by Jason Buchanan)

Carlos Bandera (photo by Maitreyi Muralidharan) and Tomàs Peire Serrate (photo by Jason Buchanan). Courtesy Jensen Artists

“Carlos Bandera’s orchestral writing speaks with clarity and purpose,” said ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel. “We were impressed by the expansive, colorful landscape in his tone poem Lux in Tenebris and look forward with great enthusiasm to his new work for ACO.”

ACO President Ed Yim added, “Tomàs Peire Serrate’s piece Rauxa takes the audience on a visceral ride of arresting rhythms and colors. He harnesses the forces of a large orchestra with such amazing command, and we applaud our audience’s good taste in picking his piece as the Audience Choice Commission. The commission that goes with the audience favorite vote puts a high value on the input of our listeners in the discovery of the future of orchestral music.”

2018 Underwood Commission winner Carlos Bandera (born 1993) is fascinated by musical architecture and by the music of the past. His recent music explores these fascinations, often by placing a musical quotation, be it a phrase, scale, or sonority, within dense microtonal textures. Carlos’ music has been performed in the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Uzbekistan, China, and several spaces in the United States, including Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall. Carlos earned his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Theory and Composition from the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, where he studied with Elizabeth Brown, Dean Drummond, and Marcos Balter. Carlos recently received his Master of Music degree in Composition from The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he participated in masterclasses with Christopher Rouse and Georg Friedrich Haas and studied privately with Kevin Puts. Lux in Tenebris was inspired by the music of Anton Bruckner. As Bandera explained, “Upon first hearing the music of Bruckner, I felt deeply connected to the composer and his work. His Eighth Symphony in particular, with its immense harmonic landscapes, devastating silences, and profound ‘darkness-to-light’ narrative, continues to be one of my greatest influences – no doubt, in more ways than I am even aware of. Lux in Tenebris explores these elements of the Eighth Symphony by allowing Brucknerian light to pierce through a dense micropolyphonic fabric.”

The two award-winning scores. (Photo by Lyndsay Werking, courtesy Jensen Artists)

The two award-winning scores. (Photo by Lyndsay Werking, courtesy Jensen Artists)

2018 Audience Choice Commission winner Tomàs Peire Serrate (born 1979) studied composition with Salvador Brotons at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (Barcelona) and with Tapio Tuomela and Risto Väisänen at the Sibelius Academy (Helsinki). In 2013 he graduated from New York University with a Master’s in Scoring for Film and Multimedia, where he studied with Ron Sadoff, Mark Suozzo, Justin Dello Joio, and Julia Wolfe. That year he moved to Los Angeles to explore the film music industry and participate as a composer in different projects including writing the music for the films The Anushree Experiements and Prism, and orchestrating and arranging music for Love and Friendship, If I Stay, and Minions. In the fall of 2015, Tomàs initiated his PhD at UCLA, where studies with Bruce Broughton, Mark Carlson, Richard Danielpour, Peter Golub, Ian Krouse, and David S. Lefkowitz. His research at UCLA is about music, space and media, with a particular interest in new technologies and virtual reality. His concert works have been performed in Europe, US and Asia, and is currently working on the English version of his monodrama Hillary, recently premiered at the Off-Liceu series in Barcelona in June 2018. According to Serrate, “Rauxa is a sudden determination, like the impulse I had to write this piece, or an outburst, which actually is how this work begins. It is a Catalan word used in pair with another one, Seny, meaning balance and sensibleness, to describe or refer to the Catalan people and their character. This duality, like in other cultures and traditions, is essential, indivisible, and necessary to understand each part separately, which is what I tried to explore here.  I worked on sketches and sections of Rauxa in different moments and places, always away from my home country, Catalonia, and I kept coming back to it looking to improve it as well as to learn more about myself and about music.”

In addition to Carlos Bandera and Tomàs Peire Serrate, the 2018 Underwood New Music Readings participants were Lily Chen, Scott Lee, Ryan Lindviet, and Liliya Ugay. The 27th Annual Underwood New Music Readings were under the direction of ACO’s Artistic Director, composer Derek Bermel, and were conducted by ACO Music Director George Manahan, with Bermel, Gabriela Ortiz, John Corigliano, and Robert Beaser as mentor composers. The conductor, mentor composers, and principal players from ACO provided critical feedback to each of the participants during and after the sessions. In addition to the Readings, the composer participants took part in Career Development Workshops with industry professionals. This year’s New Music Readings attracted over 250 submissions from emerging composers around the country. To date, more than 150 emerging composers have participated in these readings and it has helped launch the careers of many composers including Anna Clyne, Sebastian Currier, Jennifer Higdon, Pierre Jalbert, Aaron Jay Kernis, Hannah Lash, Tobias Picker, Narong Prangcharoen, Paola Prestini, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Huang Ruo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Kate Soper, Gregory Spears, Joan Tower, and Nina C. Young.

After taking a collective bow, the six composers featured in the 2018 ACo Underwood New Music Readings applaud conductor George Manahan and the members of the American Composers Orchestra. (Photo by Peter Yip, photo courtesy Jensen Artists.)

After taking a collective bow, the six composers featured in the 2018 ACo Underwood New Music Readings applaud conductor George Manahan and the members of the American Composers Orchestra. (Photo by Peter Yip, photo courtesy Jensen Artists.)

There’s Still So Much to Learn, But I’m More Confident Now

Early in 2016, one of my friends asked me to describe my career aspirations. Where do I see myself in five years, or in ten years?

I’ve always found this kind of question to be extremely difficult to answer. Careers and opportunities—especially in the world of classical music—can change so quickly, and sometimes quite arbitrarily. Often, planning and setting goals can seem like futile exercises. I’m always concerned that long-term planning will lead to disappointment, or will get in the way of larger opportunities.

So, in responding to my friend’s question, I kept my answer somewhat vague. “I want people to hear my orchestral music,” I said. “I want to write more of it, and I want opportunities for it to be heard!”

The past year has been extraordinary for me.

The past year has been extraordinary for me. Last November, I was attending rehearsals with the Yale Philharmonia as they prepared Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky for a December performance. The concert program only consisted of new works for orchestra written by composition students at the Yale School of Music. I learned so much throughout those rehearsals—not only from hearing my own piece, but from hearing my colleagues’ music as well. I didn’t imagine that Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky would have an interesting life beyond the December concert.

In February of 2017, I learned that I had been chosen to participate in the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings. Later in the spring, I received an invitation to attend the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. I now had opportunities to rethink sections of Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky and make revisions.

At this point, Likely Pictures is a strong piece, and it’s also a practical piece. The musicians of both the American Composers Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra seemed to understand what it was about fairly quickly. After several revisions, the notation is very clear, and there are very few questions regarding my intentions. I have been present at every performance of my orchestral music; ideally, a conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

A conductor and an ensemble should be capable of assembling my music without my presence and input.

In the spring of 2017, I learned that I had won a commission from the New York Youth Symphony. This was extraordinary news—I was receiving my very first orchestra commission! In my application, I had submitted Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky as my work sample. In a significant way, Likely Pictures had made this new opportunity possible.

Hilary Purrington standing outside Carnegie Hall in front of the New York Youth Symphony November 19, 2017 Concert Poster featuring a photo of her and listing her world premiere performance.

This past weekend, I heard the premiere of Daylights, my newest orchestral work. Commissioned as part of First Music, the New York Youth Symphony’s commission competition, Daylights literally opened the NYYS’s 2017-18 season. The work is a short, active concert opener. When I began composing it, I knew I wanted to create moments that capture the sensation of staring into a brilliant light. The word “daylights,” most often found as part of the expression “the living daylights,” is an archaic idiom referring to an individual’s eyes or consciousness. The title takes on many meanings—personal awareness and perception as well as the brilliant light of day.

Very often, my compositions come in pairs. I discover a sound or technique while writing one piece, and then I seek to improve upon it in a subsequent work. In a way, Daylights is an expansion of what I learned while composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky.

As I explained in a previous post, early drafts of Likely Pictures were extremely episodic, and my transitions between sections were less than graceful. My teacher, Christopher Theofanidis, encouraged me to revisit these sections and compose elegant transitions. Chris taught me to be thoughtful and deliberate when writing transitional material, and this new, increased awareness has impacted everything I have written over the course of the past year.

Similar to Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, Daylights opens with a very sparse, delicate texture. The violins sustain very high, fragile harmonics, and a solo flute sings out a melody. I add glockenspiel, a second flute, and—eventually—solo violin and a very rude bass drum. In the final measures of the work, the music returns to a thicker, more active version of the work’s introductory, chamber-like material before blossoming into a noisy, active conclusion. In both Likely Pictures and Daylights, I contrast moments of intimate chamber music with expansive orchestral passages.

When composing Likely Pictures in Haphazard Sky, I experimented with combining instruments to create percussive, staccato “hits.” It’s a defining characteristic of the piece, and I chose to incorporate this element into Daylights (although, in a less significant way). In this case, however, the “hits” are orchestrated differently, and I usually use something to lead into these staccato punches. For example, in one passage, a crescendoing snare roll and solo flute terminates with pizzicato strings and a choked suspended cymbal. This is an example of how I grow artistically: I find a musical element or effect that I like, and I experiment with it in different pieces and contexts. It then becomes something that I can keep in my “repertoire” of sounds and ideas.

I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Following the American Composers Orchestra Underwood New Music Readings this past June, I learned that I had been awarded the Underwood Commission. Every year, one of the UNMR participants is selected to receive a commission for a future season. This is an extraordinary opportunity and privilege for me, and it will be my first commission from a professional orchestra. And, this opportunity is arriving at an interesting time for me, both artistically and professionally. I have learned so much about orchestral writing over the course of this past year. I’m a lot more confident in my ability to compose for orchestra, and I have so many ideas I want to hear realized. I also recognize that I still have so much to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for opportunities to continue experimenting and developing.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

Daniel Schlosberg, Charles Peck, Peter Shin, Nina C. Young, Hilary Purrington, Andrew Hsu, and Saad Haddad talk through details in their pieces at a session with Minnesota Orchestra musicians during the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. (Photo by Mele Willis, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra.)

Smooth Sailing: Remembering Francis Thorne (1922-2017)

When Francis Thorne’s daughter Wendy called to tell me of Fran’s passing, she said that when she read my last note to him—which I had sent a few months earlier when his memory was nearly gone—he responded, “Oh yes. I’m F and she’s R.” Here I must admit that I’m paraphrasing his comment and will not be held accountable for any factual errors herein, due to my own aging memory. In fact, when asked to write a memorial essay about F—a.k.a. FT, Franny, or Fran to me and his many friends and acquaintances—I initially refused for fear that my memory would forsake me. But it didn’t take long for me to relent.

I hadn’t even met Francis Thorne when, as general manager of American Composers Alliance (ACA), I fought against his being hired as executive director and had to be talked into accepting the inevitable—primarily by Joan Tower during some lengthy phone conversations, as I recall. Having gone through three EDs in almost the same number of years, I was more than reluctant to have another boss running the place while the staff was doing just fine on its own. (In hindsight, perhaps I wanted the job for myself, which eventually did come to pass, but that was not part of my argument at the time.)

We met over lunch, with Joan, I think. In any case this handsome, charming, composer/administrator/businessman won me over within the hour, and it was smooth sailing after that. In Fran’s case, smooth sailing isn’t a cliché. He was in the Navy during WWII and had a tattoo on his arm to prove it.  (I never did get used to seeing him in short sleeved shirts.) Come to think of it, he wasn’t all that much of a businessman: having received a sizeable inheritance, he fled Wall Street and proceeded to set up the Thorne Fund, giving away the bulk of his money to needy composers. But he was well-connected, which came in handy later on when he founded the ACO. Meanwhile, he was good for ACA, and it was good for him. The only time I ever felt that Fran was my boss was when he summarily fired our bookkeeper, whom I had hired and considered a friend. There was no discussing it with him.

To celebrate ACA’s 50th anniversary, Fran decided to mount a concert of contemporary chamber music by ACA composers. It was a huge success, and we all agreed that what the city needed now was a group dedicated to contemporary orchestra music—the now-famous American Composer Orchestra (ACO). Since F was still ED of ACA at the time, the two operations were closely connected. I was appointed a member of the ACO board, and the ACA secretary took the notes at its meetings. Until Fran left to take full-time care of the infant orchestra, he shuffled between ACA’s office and outside appointments with potential funders. He knew well the value of visibility, and sometimes he got totally wrapped up in it. On several occasions when I went with him to a party or some other affair, looking to establish or strengthen connections, we’d enter together, but long before the evening was over—having seen and been seen—F would just leave me there without a goodbye. I got used to it eventually.

Despite the fact that Franny was a composer of serious concert music (jazz-inflected as it often was), he cherished his time as a performer in the New York jazz clubs, and he continued to play piano and sing the American songbook whenever and wherever he had an opportunity. In our phone conversations during his last years in an assisted living community, he often said that performing for his friends there was one of his joys in life, even when he had forgotten the words.

Francis Burritt Thorne, my friend, my colleague, and for a while my client, there are some things my memory will always retain.

Francis Thorne

Francis Thorne, photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra


Cut off before the double bar
Like an unfinished composition
You take your final bow
And leave us in the dark
About what might have been.

The empty stage, the silent hall,
May indicate the concert’s done
But oh, dear friend, the encores never end,
For we are the singers
Who remember your song.

—Rosalie Calabrese

American Composers Orchestra Appoints Edward Yim as President

The American Composers Orchestra, the only orchestra in the world dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promulgation of music by American composers, has announced the appointment of Edward Yim as president, effective February 21, 2017, succeeding Michael Geller who held the position from 1996 to 2016. As ACO president, Yim will serve as chief executive officer, reporting to the board of directors through the chairman. He will be responsible for all aspects of ACO’s operations, including a leadership role in fundraising. He will also work in close partnership with the orchestra’s Artistic Director Derek Bermel and its Music Director George Manahan in evaluating existing activities and designing new programs that achieve and advance the mission of the now forty-year-old institution which, to date, has been responsible for performances of music by over 800 American composers, including 350 world premieres and newly-commissioned works.

“I am excited and honored to serve as the new president of ACO,” Yim said. “Composers are my heroes—ultimately everything we do in music depends on their innovation, authenticity and passion. The chance to dedicate myself—alongside the talented board, staff and musicians—to these artists is a dream. Together, we will honor the legacy of American music and, even more importantly, serve as an incubator and advocate for today’s voices. I am thrilled by this opportunity to champion American composers striving to write vital, original work for the 21st century.”

Edward Yim is currently the vice president for artistic planning for the New York Philharmonic. As the senior staff director in charge of programming, he has collaborated across the organization to create and maintain the organization’s artistic profile by initiating long-term project development, engaging guest conductors and soloists, and coordinating repertoire for a year-round schedule of concerts in New York, international touring, and media activities. He has also worked closely on the New York Philharmonic’s partnership with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Previously he was senior vice president and director of the Conductor and Instrumentalists Division at IMG Artists and served as director of artistic planning for both New York City Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Yim holds a BA in Government from Harvard College, an MBA from Case Western Reserve University, and is a graduate of the League of American Orchestra’s Management Fellowship Program. He has served on the boards of New Music USA and the International Contemporary Ensemble, and also consults to Music Accord, a consortium of presenters which commissions contemporary chamber music for American artists.

(—from the press release)

A.J. McCaffrey Wins 2013 ACO Underwood Commission


A.J. McCaffrey

A.J. McCaffrey has been named the winner of the American Composers Orchestra’s 2013 Underwood Commission, bringing him a $15,000 commission to compose a work that will be premiered by ACO during the 2014-2015 season. McCaffrey was chosen from six finalist composers whose pieces were read by the orchestra during its 22nd Underwood New Music Readings on April 8 and 9, 2013 which included McCaffrey’s piece Thank You for Waiting. (You can hear the ACO reading of Thank You for Waiting on their website.)
A.J. McCaffrey (b. 1973) is a songwriter and a composer of instrumental, vocal, and electronic music. With a background and interest in theater, fine arts, and literature, and an upbringing that fostered a love for a wide variety of musical styles, he writes music that strives to tell a story. McCaffrey’s music has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. His works have been performed by the New Fromm Players, Radius Ensemble, Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, and members of the Chiara Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. A fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center and Aspen Music Festival and School, he has been a featured composer on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s The Next Next series, Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, and the New Gallery Concert Series. McCaffrey holds degrees in music composition from Rice University, The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and the University of Southern California, and has studied with Richard Lavenda, James MacMillan, Donald Crockett, and Stephen Hartke. A passionate educator, he is an instructor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship Program and the Longy School of Music at Bard College’s Masters of Arts in Teaching Music.

“A.J.’s orchestral writing impresses at every level—the clarity of his sonic concept, the deft handling of often viscerally dense counterpoint, and above all, the energy that he gets from the ensemble through his orchestrational approach,” said Underwood New Music Readings mentor composer Christopher Theofanidis. Joan Tower, also a mentor composer this year, added, “A.J. McCaffrey is a composer with extraordinary chops. I am hoping his newly commissioned work will push the envelope further by taking musical risks that could create a formidable piece for orchestra.” Mentor composer and ACO Artistic Advisor Laureate Robert Beaser praised A.J. as well, saying, “A.J. is a composer who combines prodigious craft with a quirky sensibility. He produces works in a variety of styles—always surprising and arresting.”
Upon winning the Underwood commission, A.J. McCaffrey said, “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with ACO. I witnessed first-hand how well they tackle new music during the Readings this past spring, and I cannot wait to begin composing for them. It is overwhelming to be chosen—ACO had a fabulous group of pieces and composers to choose from and I am humbled to have been selected.”

In addition, for the fourth year, audience members at the Underwood New Music Readings had a chance to make their voices heard through the Audience Choice Award. The winner this year was composer Nina Young (b. 1984), for her piece Remnants. As the winner, Nina was commissioned to compose an original mobile phone ringtone which is available to everyone who voted, free of charge.

The 22nd Underwood New Music Readings were held under the direction of ACO’s Artistic Director, composer Robert Beaser, and were led by ACO Music Director George Manahan, with mentor composers Christopher Theofanidis and Joan Tower. The conductor, mentor composers, and principal players from ACO provided critical feedback to each of the participants during and after the sessions. In addition to the readings, the composer participants took part in workshops and one-on-one sessions with industry professionals. This year’s readings attracted over 130 submissions from emerging composers around the country. In addition to McCaffrey and Young, the selected participants were Jonathan Blumhofer (b. 1979), Louis Chiappetta (b.1989), Joshua Groffman (b. 1984), and Saad N. Haddad (b. 1992).

(—from the press release)

Singing Along

After six months of workshopping five new experimental orchestral works through public readings, collaborative feedback, and laboratory performances, the American Composers Orchestra presented them in a formal concert entitled “coLABoratory: Playing It Unsafe” at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall this past Friday evening. It was one of the most exciting ACO concerts I have attended in quite some time, in large part because of the added layers of vulnerability in most of the pieces.

Raymond J. Lustig’s Latency Canons involved off-stage musicians performing alongside the ones on-stage via a Google Hangout, exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of the medium’s requisite lag-time to create an interactive and very 21st-century simulacrum of Frippertronics or Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator. Two works required the orchestra to be completely synchronized with accompanying video that was projected above them. Composer/filmmaker Troy Herion’s New York: A City Symphony, which pitted his fast-paced and often hysterically funny film about contemporary NYC life against similarly quirky music. Du Yun’s Slow Portraits, created in collaboration with videographer David Michalek, was something of its polar opposite—both film and music were hyper-slow. Our own Dan Visconti’s Glitchscape featured vintage Speak & Spell and Speak & Read toys in the orchestration. Judith Sainte Croix’s Vision V included passages of audience participation, albeit relatively circumscribed.

Based on conversations during the post-concert party, all of the composers were extremely pleased with the results, and to judge from the ecstatic applause—particularly following Troy Herion’s New York Symphony, which concluded the concert—so was the audience. Would that there could be this much innovation and excitement in many more orchestral performances! So, should more orchestral performances feature video, some kind of technological enhancement, or opportunities for the audience to share in performing the music? I’m not sure on any of those fronts. Many of the video components I have seen in other performances over the years don’t really enhance the musical experience and sometimes they are an annoying distraction. Technology tends to age poorly, and if it’s really cutting edge, more often than not the performance venues as well as the musicians seem uncomfortable or are ill-equipped to deal with the logistics that such elements require.
As for audience participation… I must confess that I find few things more irritating than being asked to sing along during a performance that I did not anticipate being a part of. It is truly embarrassing, not quite as bad as that scene in the film About a Boy, but still! And I have no problem with pitch, can sight read well, and have sung most of my life in a variety of contexts. Still, there’s something about the joining in with a group that reeks of “Kumbaya.” Maybe that’s why I have such an aversion to “Happy Birthday”.
Luckily Sainte Croix’s Vision V did not quite use the audience that way. Rather than sing a specific melody line in unison, the audience was asked to quietly annunciate three specific sounds either once or over and over again in any rhythmic pattern they desired; the fourth and final time around, audience members were allowed to freely combine the previous three sounds. Rather than creating a garish non-unison (which is what usually happens when large groups of people are asked to sing something together when not completely prepared to do so), the result was akin to the micropolyphony that is a hallmark of Ligeti’s middle period. Of course it worked because it was somewhat unexpected. If every concert included something along these lines, it would get tired pretty quickly. But that’s why each concert should offer a different new idea. Undoubtedly some of those new ideas will be on display whenever ACO mounts its next coLABoratory project.

Rehearsing the Audience

Judith Sainte Croix rehearses the audience during one of the public performance “laboratories” in the months leading up to the April 5 concert at Zankel. (Photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra.)