Continental Harmony Composers Meet America



Seeking: composers open to new experiences, new people, and new communities. Pay varies, travel required, but inspiration guaranteed.

It almost sounds like an ad for the Peace Corps, but when the American Composers Forum put out the call for composers willing to create music in a new community, many rose to the occasion. Now a new crop of adventurous artists is taking up the challenge once again.

In 1998, the ACF and the NEA began work on what became Continental Harmony’s Millennial Celebration—an initiative that placed a composer in 58 communities, spanning all 50 states. Though a composer’s work is often carried out in isolation and delivered to the performers on completion, the ACF’s Continental Harmony project made a commitment to pushing them out of the studio and into communities across the country.

The program was so successful from both the composers’ point of view and that of the participating community partners that Patricia A. Shifferd, Continental Harmony’s program director, says it was just too good to pass up doing again.

“Besides the fact that the artists had work and were able to feel appreciated, in a lot of cases community groups were brought together,” Shifferd explains. “New coalitions were formed both within the arts community and between the arts and other sectors of the society like schools and parks.”

In some cases, it brings people previously estranged due to age, social class, or ethnicity together in a cooperative away. Communities in places as diverse as Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mississippi found a common cause by working with the composer of a project and that translated into an important source of artistic inspiration as well.

An independent panel selects appropriate communities, but then the communities themselves select their composer. Continental Harmony funnels applications to the projects and provides guidance where needed, but the final selection is completely up to the site.

Almost all the composers are new to the area they serve. Since Continental Harmony pays for travel, the project sites aren’t constrained by the need to choose a composer close to home, one possibly already entrenched in the daily life and politics of the local art scene. Shifferd found this fresh perspective to be an important element to the creativity and impact of the projects. That challenge resulted in improving “the whole basic infrastructure of the arts community in some of these very small communities” especially with regard to fundraising abilities and public relations. In addition, she says, “communities that had never commissioned a work before were extremely gratified that this person from way out there—like New York or San Francisco—wanted to come to their place and write music for them. It was a prideful thing for a lot of people.”

The overall project’s success has been highlighted in a PBS documentary (funded by the Knight Foundation) and a related interactive website that, while educational on a music level, can also be used as a resource on composer residencies.

The PBS documentary has had many important implications for Continental Harmony. It has been shown on over 200 stations around the country and is getting attention for the program through the awards it has received. “It was an extremely positive process for us,” Shifferd says, mentioning the documentary’s most recent recognition from the Council on Foundations. “To get this kind of publicity…not just for ourselves but to get across the notion that composers are out there helping and are part of the community. That helps all of us.”

Project funding for this round is being supplied by the NEA, Knight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Target Foundation. The ACF is still looking for additional money to cover the cost of all 50 state projects.

This time around Shifferd says a few improvements have been made based on experience gained during the first run. It was discovered that the projects that were most successful were those in which there was a coalition of arts groups within a community working together, so groups were encouraged to apply with several local partners in mind. Overall, she found that this stipulation opened up a dialogue. “They beat the bushes and established relationships. Many of them have said that that’s going to serve them well in the future, that they’re going to be able to do cooperative projects with people and that it’s raised the profile of the arts in the community as a whole. By encouraging this kind of coalition building we’re hoping that that will continue to be the case.”

The ACF has also been able to tackle the issue of copying costs, making a small contribution towards the costs but Shifferd still doesn’t think the problem is solved. “I think copying is a big issue for composers. If they do it themselves, it takes them forever; if they job, it out it costs them a fortune.”

From the composers’ point of view, those already at work with their communities (a complete list follows) are excited about the opportunity before them. The ones spoke to us about their assignments and their expectations demonstrated the degree to which the projects challenge the community, local performers, and the artistic sensibility of the composer.

Geoffrey Stanton, who will spend six weeks with the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir at work on a large work for gospel choir and chamber orchestra, admits that he has wanted to write a piece like this for years. Now that he has the opportunity before him, he’s pretty excited. “I’m thrilled at the idea of crafting a piece which will be a large scale work which works in multiple genres—gospel, jazz, and classical idioms. The real challenge is going to be to create a work which addresses all of these in a fulfilling way.”

Stationed in North Carolina, this is Jerre Tanner‘s second Continental Harmony project. The Hawaii native explains that “what first attracted me to the commissioning project was the opportunity to travel, meet new people and learn about communities different from my home community. Artistically, it was a chance to stretch my creative muscle by way of illustrating a more national scope, as opposed to regional, of my talent.” Noting that both New Mexico (the location of his first project) and North Carolina have a strong arts community, he plans to carry home what he learns about promoting the arts and the artists themselves. “Hawaii, as the youngest state, has much to learn in this regard, and I am taking every opportunity to pass on locally what I’m learning in the process of doing these commissions.”

Evan Solot, also a second timer, is at work in Mississippi. “I was attracted by a combination of factors: I knew my background in jazz and my love for mixing musical genres would enable me to do a great job and have a lot of fun in the process.” His project will result in a symphonic jazz work celebrating Mississippi’s contribution to jazz, which he feels will allow him to combine several elements—”homage to the folks whose early contributions were significant, community pride with the opportunity to work together and give everyone ownership, connecting children with their roots, knowing that there would be lots of collaborative work—my favorite way of working.”

Scott Ethier has been commissioned to write a piece for the Macon Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the opening of the Harriet Tubman African American Museum and to celebrate Georgia’s African-American musicians. He also finds himself personally challenged by his residency project. “If Georgia’s rich African-American musical heritage was the initial draw of this project, it has proved daunting as well. I have been confronted with a significant challenge: How does one celebrate Ray Charles or Curtis Mayfield with a symphony orchestra that is built to play Strauss and Beethoven?…The Macon project has become a very personal project for me because it is making me confront that question head on. I’m still working on an answer, but that’s the journey.” Self-effacing, he also mentions an extra motivating factor. “I’d hate to go through this whole process and then put everybody to sleep at the concert.”

If past projects can be any indication, it’s likely the event will be too important to the attendees for anyone in the audience to doze off. Shifferd recalls Deborah Fischer Teason‘s residency in David City, Nebraska, a small town with a total population of less than 5,000 people. The community choir hosted Teason, and she wrote them a very difficult piece. Shifferd recounts the project’s history, one of her favorite examples of Continental Harmony’s scope and impact. “It was an amateur group,” she recalls, “but [Teason] didn’t give them an inch. There were tone clusters and all sorts of stuff. They struggled and got discouraged, but ultimately with her help and the director and everybody’s sort of mid-western determination, they pulled it off. Ultimately, half of the entire town heard the piece. It was just stunning.”


Please see the Web site for more information about these and past projects, as well as announcements regarding new composer opportunities.

Continental Harmony Communities and Composers: Cohort 1

Provided courtesy of Continental Harmony
Long Beach, California
Orchestral suite written in collaboration with a composer from Mexico inspired by the mutual influences of American and Latin American art.
  • Hosts: Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Museum of Latin American Art, Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México
  • Performers: Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México
  • Composer: TBD
Tallahassee, Florida
Work for wind ensemble and choir in honor of Black History Month and the beauty of diversity
  • Hosts: Florida A & M University, the Tallahassee Symphony, and the Monticello Opera House
  • Performers: Wind Ensemble and Concert Choir of Florida A&M with additional musicians drawn from the community
  • Composer: Oliver Lake – Montclair, NJ
Macon, Georgia
Orchestral music to commemorate the African-American contribution to the music of Georgia
  • Hosts: Georgia Music Hall of Fame, Mercer University, and the Harriet Tubman Museum
  • Performers: Macon Symphony Orchestra
  • Composer: Scott Ethier – Astoria, NY
Gary, Indiana
Symphonic jazz evoking two facets of the city: the industrial might that helped shape the nation and the unique and beautiful natural terrain of the Lake Michigan shoreline
  • Hosts: Gary Art Works in collaboration with several community arts organizations
  • Performers: An orchestra drawn from regional ensembles with local jazz musicians
  • Composer: Lisa DeSpain – New York, NY
Arkansas City and Wichita, Kansas
Music for a piano trio and orchestra to celebrate the beauty of the American long grass prairie.
  • Hosts: Cowley County Community College and Chamber Music at the Barn
  • Performers: Winfield Regional Symphony and soloists
  • Composer: Philip Aaberg – Oakland, CA
Glasco, Kansas
Composition for instrumental ensemble inspired by the landscape and heritage of the Solomon River Valley
  • Host: Solomon Valley-Highway 24 Heritage Alliance, Inc
  • Performers: Beloit Chamber Orchestra, Cloud County Community College Band, and other ensembles
  • Composer: Greg Sanders – Kingsville, TX
St. Paul, Minnesota
Work for gospel choir on the themes of hope, reconciliation, and joy. The premiere will serve as the culmination of an extended workshop on the place of gospel music in the American musical tradition
  • Host and Performers: Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir
  • Composer: Geoffrey Stanton – Ann Arbor, MI
Gulfport, Mississippi
Symphonic jazz in the Mississippi tradition as part of a multi-media, multi-arts event
  • Host: WINGS Performing Arts Program of the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center
  • Performers: Jazz River ensemble, the Gulf Coast Youth Symphony, children’s choir, and young dancers and writers
  • Composer: Evan Solot – Philadelphia, PA
Charlotte, Dallas, and Gastonia, North Carolina
Music for symphonic band to be performed as part of an exhibit on the life of 19th century explorer and scientist, Charles Wilkes
  • Hosts: Schiele Museum of Natural History, Gaston County Museum, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County
  • Performers: Gaston Symphonic Band
  • Composer: Jerré Tanner – Kailua-Kona, HI
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Concerto combining American Indian and European musical idioms
  • Hosts: North Dakota Museum of Art and Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra
  • Performers: String quartet and the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra
  • Composer: Geoffrey Hudson – Cummington, MA
Akron, Ohio
A multimedia orchestral suite inspired by the Akron Art Museum’s collection
  • Hosts: The Akron Museum of Art and Akron Symphony Orchestra
  • Performers: The Akron Symphony Orchestra
  • Composer: Randall Woolf – New York, NY
Carlisle, Pennsylvania
A multi-cultural chamber work celebrating the community’s diverse cultural traditions
  • Hosts: The Amani Festival Committee in collaboration with several Carlisle civic organizations
  • Performers: A multi-ethnic ensemble drawn from the community’s musical groups
  • Composer: Glenn McClure, Geneseo NY
University Park, Pennsylvania
Piano quintet performed as part of a national multicultural, multidisciplinary conference, “Lewis & Clark: The Unheard Voices”
  • Host: The Palmer Museum of Art
  • Performers: The Castalia Ensemble of The Pennsylvania State University School of Music
  • Composer: David Cleary – Cambridge, MA
Georgetown, South Carolina
Choral music celebrating the natural history and heritage of the tidelands of Georgetown and the South Carolina coast.
  • Host and Performers: Indigo Choral Society
  • Composer: James Clemens – Downers Grove, IL
Columbia, South Dakota
Work for band to mark the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System and to honor its contribution to our national heritage.
  • Hosts: Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Aberdeen Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, Dakota Prairie Museum, and the Aberdeen Community Municipal Band
  • Performers: The Aberdeen Municipal Community Band
  • Composer: Dan Rager – Chesterland, OH

Continental Harmony Communities: Cohort 2

Phoenix, Arizona
Orchestral suite honoring the diverse cultural heritage of Phoenix, the Valley of the Sun
  • Hosts: The Phoenix Symphony, City of Phoenix, Mariachi Allegre, Native Spirit Productions, Primavera Folklorico Dance Company, Phoenix Guild Youth Orchestra, Phoenix Children’s Chorus
  • Performers: The Phoenix Symphony and guest artists
Denver, Colorado
An oratorio, drawing inspiration from traditional Mexican musical forms, to tell the story of the Westside Hispanic community of Denver
  • Hosts: El Centro Su Teatro, Denver Inner City Parish, La Escuela Tlatelolco
  • Performers: the professional musicians of El Centro Su Teatro and students from neighborhood schools
Twin Falls, Idaho
Work for concert band and narration, celebrating the landscape and people of the Snake River Valley
  • Hosts: Magic Valley Arts Council, Buhl Arts Council, Twin Falls Municipal Band, College of Southern Idaho Band
  • Performers: Twin Falls Municipal Band, College of Southern Idaho Band
Grinnell, Iowa
A group of choral works on the theme of the changes affecting the people, farms, and communities of the Upper Midwest, in conjunction with an exhibition, “Roots of Renewal,” at the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College
  • Hosts: Faulconer Gallery, The City of Grinnell, Grinnell High School Music Department, Grinnell College Music Department, Grinnell Renaissance, Grinnell Area Arts Council, The Center for Prairie Studies
  • Performers: Choral groups from school, college, and community
Louisville, Kentucky
Orchestral fanfare to celebrate the Falls of the Ohio National Signature Event during the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration
  • Hosts: Louisville Orchestra, Falls of the Ohio Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee, Carnegie Center for Art and History, Filson Historical Society
  • Performers: the Louisville Orchestra
Bangor, Maine
Orchestral work, with sections for chorus and dance, celebrating the theme of “Back to the River: Discovering Bangor’s Roots,” to be performed in the new waterfront amphitheater
  • Hosts: Bangor Symphony Orchestra, Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine Oratorio Society, Bangor Area Children’s Choir, Bangor Public Library, Bangor Region Arts and Cultural Council, Robinson Ballet Company and Thomas School of Dance, University of Maine Museum of Art, Hudson Museum, Maine Discovery Museum
  • Performers: Bangor Symphony Orchestra with guest singers and dancers
Ennis, Montana
Work for chorus and orchestra, a musical Celebration of Montana Youth, to be performed at the Fifth Annual Madison River Music Festival in April, 2003
  • Hosts: Madison Valley Cultural Corporation
  • Performers: The chorus and orchestra will be composed of Montana High School and College musicians, assisted by professional musicians from Southwest Montana
Macy, Nebraska
Concert band piece celebrating the traditions and heritage of the Omaha Tribe and representing their views for the future of the people in the 21st Century
  • Hosts: The Omaha Tribe, The Omaha Nation School, Lied Center for the Performing Arts
  • Performers: Band composed of current and past members of the Omaha Nation School Band
Roswell, New Mexico
Work for band to commemorate the sacrifices made during WWII by men from New Mexico in the surrender and subsequent internment of American and Allied troops at Bataan in the Philippines
  • Hosts: REACH 2000, N.O.T.E. Council, Roswell Independent School District, Roswell Museum and Art Center
  • Performers: An honor band composed of members of the bands of Roswell and Goddard High Schools
Portland, Oregon
Work for the new music ensemble fEARnoMUSIC with guest vocalists on the general theme of discovery, as part of Oregon’s commemoration of Lewis and Clark’s sojourn in the Pacific Northwest
  • Hosts: fEARnoMUSIC, Lewis & Clark Bicentennial in Oregon
  • Performers: fEARnoMUSIC, with guest vocalists
Montpelier, Vermont
Score for a musical play celebrating the cultural and natural history of Barre, Vermont, as the central event of the Two Rivers Center for Sustainability’s annual community cultural festival
  • Hosts: Food Works’ Two Rivers Center for Sustainability, Montpelier Historical Society
  • Performers: A folk ensemble drawn from the area’s musical community
Newport, Washington
Score for Downriver!!, an original script about the explorations of David Thompson’s early 19th Century visits to Pend Oreille County in northeastern Washington
  • Hosts: CREATE, Pend Oreille River Arts Alliance, area school districts, Kalispel Tribe
  • Performers: Pend Oreille Players
Charleston, West Virginia
Work for chamber ensemble and massed choirs drawn from throughout West Virginia to celebrate the opening of the new facility of the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences
  • Hosts: Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, West Virginia Symphony, West Virginia University at Parkersburg, the communities of Charleston, Parkersburg, Lewisburg, Buckhannon, Morgantown
  • Performers: Student and professional choirs from throughout the state