Sebastian Currier has been awarded the 2007 Grawemeyer Prize for Music Composition for his quintet Static, a 2003 work for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The prestigious award, which includes a cash prize of $200,000 and is eligible to any composition “in a large musical genre” by a living composer based anywhere in the world receiving its premiere in the past five years, was announced moments ago at Carnegie Hall during the first-ever Grawemeyer Award Concert.
The event in Carnegie’s Isaac Stern Auditorium featured performances by the University of Louisville Symphony Orchestra (under the direction of Kimcherie Lloyd) and Wind Ensemble (under the direction of Frederick Speck) of works by previous Grawemeyer Award-winning composers John Corigliano, Karel Husa, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joan Tower, Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Toru Takemitsu, as well as Sebastian Currier’s orchestral work Microsymphony. Hearing all this large ensemble music at the event made all the more poignant the fact that this is only the second time in the history of the award, established in 1985, that the Grawemeyer Award-winning composition is a work not requiring a conductor. (The solo piano etudes of György Ligeti were honored in the award’s second year.)
The significance of the award going to a chamber music composition was not lost on its composer. “I’m totally thrilled to have this award,” Sebastian Currier exclaimed only hours before the announcement was made public. “I don’t think scale really effects quality or what a piece can say. I’ve always been drawn to chamber music both as a listener and writing music, and I think it’s a great medium. I love the nuanced performances, working with musicians, and the flexibility one can have in chamber music. In fact, chamber music has been my dominant pre-occupation.”
Currier, however, was quick to point out that chamber music, while central to his oeuvre thus far, is not the only medium he is interested in: “I’m totally interested in orchestral pieces and other things like multi-media and electronics. I have a piano concerto being premiered in a month on the Pocket Concerto series at [Columbia University's] Miller Theatre, and the next thing I’m working on is a concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter, which I’m very excited about.”
Like many of Sebastian Currier’s works, Static presents a wide range of musical ideas in a series of interrelated movements which function similar to the way multiple vantage points do in a series of photographs or multiple accounts of narrative might in language. According to the composer’s program notes, Static “could be some sort of Rorschach’s test” for a what a listener might perceive upon reading the word static:
Is it of something unchanging and in a state of equilibrium? Or is it of the erratic white noise that interferes with a radio signal? Both these divergent meanings relate to certain aspects of my piece, which, with its six movements of varying tempo and character, still retains vestiges of a sonata cycle (Remote, Ethereal, Bipolar, Resonant, Charged, Floating).
But although there are a lot of extra-musical ideas behind the structure of many of his pieces, Currier believes it should ultimately be about the music:
“I think it can add resonance to the listening, but I don’t think it’s essential in any way. Each movement has its independence in one way, but in another way contributes to a larger picture, and I would hope that whatever that picture is is actually inherent in the music itself.” Currier’s unique approach to multi-movement compositional design “probably comes from a desire for clarity, and from music I love from the past, like late Beethoven pieces that are in separate movements but add up to this totality that’s more than the sum of their parts in a very interesting way. I like plenty of pieces that don’t operate that way, but I am drawn to having pieces with many movements.”
Music has been central to Sebastian Currier for his entire life. His father, Robert, is a professional violinist and violist, and both his mother, Marilyn, and brother Nathan, are composers. Although when Sebastian and Nathan were growing up, playing in a rock band initially seemed a more viable means of expression than exploring classical music. “Making up your own stuff early on was really important; classical training often discourages that. We were into rock music, but we had all these records around of our parents’ classical stuff and one time when my brother and I started listening to them, the thing that struck me most about them was their incredible range. They seemed to go anywhere, and not just between movements, within one musical section you could go from almost any place. That’s something that’s been with me ever since: movement to any emotional or psychological state one could imagine. That doesn’t seem to be the way a lot of other music works; in other music it’s more about setting up something and maintaining it through time.”
For Sebastian Currier to continue creating such elaborately thought-out multi-layered structures might appear to be going against the tide of the download-driven years of the early 21st century, but once again he approaches the future with a few new ideas: “One of the unfortunate things about all of that is that it is all song-oriented and not grouped; a multi-movement thing becomes unwieldy, or for that matter, a really long one-movement thing is unwieldy, too; so music does tend to point in a certain direction. On the other hand, I suppose I could one day write a much longer multi-movement piece that you could enter into from different places; that could be interesting, too. I haven’t done that yet, but I’ve thought of things like that. I like the idea of a piece that has multiple pathways, a piece that begins one way and drifts off into many different directions. I did a piece sort of like that that will never really get done in that form, because it was written for a violin competition that didn’t happen. It was meant to be something where it had thousands of possible orderings that you could play through; the feat for the performer was to find musicality in the search for the best ordering. The internet could offer possibilities for that that would be hard to do either on a recording or obviously in live performance.”
Born in Central Pennsylvania and raised in Providence, RI, Sebastian Currier earned degrees from Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School, studying composition with Milton Babbitt and George Perle. Currier has received a Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Friedheim Award, a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Tanglewood Fellowship, and has held residencies at the MacDowell and Yaddo Colonies. Commissions include the Fromm Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, and the American Composers Orchestra. His music is published by Carl Fischer LLC and has been recorded on Albany, CRI, Harmonia Mundi, Koch International Classics, and two all-Currier discs on New World Records. In addition to his compositional activities, Sebastian Currier serves as assistant professor of music at Columbia University.
Static was commissioned by Copland House through Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, and premiered by Music from Copland House at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre on February 17, 2005. The members of Music from Copland House (Paul Lustig Dunkel, flute; Derek Bermel, clarinet; Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Wilhelmina Smith, cello; and Michael Boriskin, piano) have recorded Static for a new all-Currier CD for Koch International Classics (KIC-CD-7691) which has been released simultaneously with the announcement of the award.
The Grawemeyer Awards were established at the University of Louisville in 1984 at the behest of alumnus H. Charles Grawemeyer, a philanthropist who, although a chemical engineer by schooling, cherished the liberal arts and chose to honor powerful ideas in five fields in performing arts, the humanities, and the social sciences. The first award, Music Composition, was presented in 1985. The award for Ideas Improving World Order was added in 1988 and Education in 1989. In 1990, a fourth award, Religion, was added as a joint prize with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Psychology was added in 2000, with the first award to be given in 2001. The other 2007 Grawemeyer Award recipients—Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi (Psychology), James Comer (Education), Roland Paris (Improving World Order), and Timothy Tison (Religion)—were announced between November 28 and December 1, 2006.