American Composers Forum Announces Composers Commissioning Program Winners


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Photo of Hollis Taylor
Photo credit Carol Yarrow

The American Composers Forum has announced the results of the 2000 Composers Commissioning Program (CCP), which is funded by the Jerome Foundation. The CCP, now in its 21st year, supports the production of new musical works by emerging composers. It seeks to boost the careers of younger composers by offering them an early commission, and to aid the careers of more experienced composers by giving them a chance to stretch their current boundaries.

Composers apply with an ensemble or presenter and request support to underwrite the commissioning fee. A total of 13 projects were given awards ranging from $2500 to $7000. Each project performer is also eligible to apply for a Performance Outreach Grant to bring the new work to new audiences. Performance Outreach Grants average $1000.

The panelists for this round were Nick Demos, composers and professor at Georgia State University; Miya Masaoka, San Francisco composer/improviser; and Neva Pilgrim, soprano and director of the Society for New Music in Syracuse, New York. Applications were considered in two separate categories: Minnesota composers or composers working with certain Minnesota performers, and New York City composers.

“There are so few commissioning programs available these days,” commented Philip Blackburn, Program Director at the American Composer’s Forum. “The CCP offers opportunity for emerging composers to branch out and take new risks and be rewarded for it.” He recently completed a survey of past participants, and reported that it was “amazing to see how well they have done, and they often have CCP at the top of their resumes as one of their first commissions.” Blackburn also sees the program as “a manifestation of the ACF’s mission to link communities and performers with exciting new ventures.”

The Performance Outreach Grants are new to the CCP, which was started in 1979. Blackburn commented that the Outreach Grants “support the performer as well as the composer.” The Grants serve as encouragement to the performers to present the work in more than one setting. “It could be a second or third performance, it could be an open rehearsal, at a school, something to help people who wouldn’t ordinarily be at the performance,” Blackburn explained.

Blackburn has administered the CCP for nine years, and he admits that he was “really impressed” by this year’s crop of applicants. He emphasized that the ACF “wants people to take a risk,” and that this is reflected in the variety of projects, from “a soundtrack for an Eskimo storyteller” to a work for balloon and string quartet.

Eight projects were selected from the forty-five submitted that had a connection to Minnesota. Brian Heller of Minneapolis will write a work for multiple bamboo instruments for Bamboo Fest, a multi-cultural celebration of the bamboo arts in St. Paul’s Landmark Center to be held on April 29, 2001. Bamboo Fest is co-sponsored by the Vietnamese Cultural Association of Minnesota and the Schubert Club of St. Paul.


Brian Heller
Brian Heller
Photo by Holly Windle, courtesy of the Schubert Club

Heller is impressed with the number of cultures in which bamboo is “critical to the musical tradition.” “I am a total outsider to these cultures,” he commented in an email. “I have no personal or educational background in them. Given that, there is a major research component to the piece, as I undertake learning about each instrument and its place in the culture it comes from.” Heller explained that he is trying to “create something fresh, something that integrates the variety of traditions, acknowledges the back-drop of America, and uses bamboo instruments as a vehicle to unify: something that could only be created by an outsider.” Heller plans to feature the angklung, the shakuhachi, the mouth organ, the didjeridoo, and other bamboo instruments in the piece. He is also considering using amplification or an electro-acoustic component

One feature of Heller’s work that promises to be interesting will be his use of space. “There is a great geographical, cultural, and possibly even generational “diaspora” here. I am thinking about the connection between bamboo, these instruments and a previous lifestyle in a previous land, and how this fits in with their lives here and now. Space could play a role in representing both a the concrete and the metaphorical distance between a person’s–and an entire culture’s–identities.” Heller also thinks that his use of the space will to some extent be determined by the space itself, with its unique “timbral attraction.” “There is a wonderful 5-story balcony system overlooking a common court, so I could see groups of instruments moving up and down these balconies during the course of the piece,” he mused. “On the other hand, perhaps the audience should be moving as well.”

Heller calls the grant “a wonderful thing,” partly because it is financially significant enough that the project can happen as he and the presenters imagine it. “Almost everything involved is new to me– from the instruments to the culture to the languages– and there is a significant amount of research involved, much of it extra-musical. Given the nature of the event, there are also a fair number of logistical problems to solve. The award allows me to feel very comfortable setting aside the time and energy the project really needs to be done right.” He also considers the CCP significant because it “encourages emerging composers to take on a new project that is already grounded in reality (i.e. has a set premiere date, organization committed to it, etc). It is an ideal step into the world of ‘professional’ composition.”

Ron George, a Los Angeles-based composer, will write a work based on Icelandic rimur music to be played by elementary-school students in Little Falls and students at Metro State University. It will be premiered at Metro State in October 2001.

James Harley, from Moorhead, MN, will write a work for piccolo and live electronics to be performed by Elizabeth McNutt of La Jolla, CA. The piece will receive its premiere at Moorhead State University in April 2001.

Michael Karmon of St. Paul will write a guitar duo for a consortium of the Newman-Oltman, Gray-Pearl, Elgart-Yates, and Goldspiel-Provost duos. Russell Platt, from Minneapolis, will write a clarinet concerto for Russell Dagon and the Waukesha (WI) Symphony.

Dan Trueman, of Kingston, NJ, will write a work for Hardangar fiddle, to be premiered by Andrea Een and the St. Olaf College Orchestra during their 2002-03 season, and performed at their annual Christmas Festival.

Preston Wright of St. Paul will compose electronic music to accompany native Alaskan storyteller Jack Dalton of Anchorage. Raven Returns: the Story of the Human Beings will be used on his tours of Hawaii, Oklahoma, and Texas, starting in the spring of 2001.

Six projects were selected from the fifty-seven submitted by New York composers. Hollis Taylor will write Groove Theory for violin, strings, and percussion. It will be premiered by violinist Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque Orchestra in November 2001. Taylor describes herself as “a violinist who composes, not a composer who plays the violin.” This is the first piece she has composed, in fact, in which she has not participated as a performer. “I grew up playing the violin and not composing, but then I started improvising and arranging, and the next logical step seemed to be composing.”

Taylor plays in a variety of styles, and it was her “re-written” version of the Bach b minor solo violin partite, called Box Set, that first brought her together with Huggett. Originally, Taylor thought she would organize a concert where I she would perform both the original and then the re-write, but “the more I played the re-write,” which she describes as “highly influenced by jazz, bebop, and Afro-Cuban music, “the more it became clear that I would have to find someone else to perform the original..” She was living in Portland at the time, where Huggett comes several times a year to lead the Baroque Orchestra. “I asked her to play the original, and not only did she accept, she asked me to compose a piece for the two of us.” The resulting piece was called The Crawl Ball, for two violins, bass and percussion. “I was struck both in writing it and performing it with Monica by how much Baroque music and jazz have in common. It was not a big transition for her. Monica has a great feeling for jazz.”

Taylor explained that the CCP grant is “meaningful on a number of levels.” “It gives me a real boost in confidence. When working by yourself as a composer, you never make much money, and you begin to wonder if you should keep investing in yourself…it’s also a boost for the Orchestra, because it confirms for them that I was a suitable choice.” Taylor has taken a year off from performing and teaching in order to write the piece. “This grant has pushed along to the next stage of my life – it is a huge confirmation that I am moving in the right direction.”

Steven Bryant will write a 15-minute work for the Amherst Saxophone Quartet to be performed during the 2001-02 season. Judy Dunaway will compose For Balloon and String Quartet, a four-movement work for solo balloon and the Flux String Quartet. It will be performed at Experimental Intermedia in December 2001, and at Wesleyan University in the spring of 2002.

Phil Kline will write When I Had a Voice, a cycle of 5 songs on poems of David Shapiro, for mezzo Alexandra Montano and her two children, accompanied by the Parthenia viol quartet. They will premiere the work in May 2001, at Exit Art. Harold Meltzer will write Brothers Grimm for pianist Sarah Cahill, who will perform it in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco in November 2001.

Ushio Torikae will write Hör Träume for the Modern Art Sextet of Berlin and electronics. The work will be premiered at the Akademie der Kunste in fall of 2001, and tour to Dresden, Magdeburg, and Halle.