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15 Queer Composers You Should Know



June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. We celebrate the music of LGBTQ composers all year long since it’s hard to escape a concert season without hearing works by Handel, Tchaikovsky, Britten, and others. But we wanted to recognize a few notable figures, past and present, who do did not or do not identify as heterosexual.

Some of the composers mentioned below were open about their alternative sexuality or gender expression, while others were forced to conceal it. What’s important is that all of these composers lived interesting, full lives, and made (or are making!) a lasting impact on the history of music.

Check out this list of 15 composers, arranged chronologically, and let us know who your favorite queer composers are in the comments below.



Jean-Baptiste de Lully

(November 28, 1632 – d. March 22, 1687)

After dancing with King Louis XIV in 1653’s Ballet royal de la nuit, Lully was engaged as the court’s royal composer, essentially granting him a monopoly over new music and kickstarting what would be a charmed career. However, Lully’s lack of discretion contributed to his downfall: the King could not turn a blind eye to Lully’s brazen liaisons with both men and women. Lully’s affair with a handsome music page named Brunet eventually leaked to the general public, who literally sang about it in the streets of Paris. By the time Lully died, he’d fallen from the King’s favor.

Listen to “Enfin, il est en ma puissance” from Lully’s Armide (Les Arts Florissants dir. William Christie).


Georg Friedrich Handel

(February 23, 1685 – d. April 14, 1759)

An intensely private man, Handel never married. He once dismissed King George II’s inquiries about his love life by insisting that he had no time for anything but music. However, what is undeniable is that Handel socialized in circles in which homosexuality was an open secret, from the Italian and German courts to his artistic cadres in London. Handel expert Dr. Ellen Harris wrote about his private life in Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas, which explores themes of sexuality in his works and remains the authoritative book on the subject.

Listen to Handel’s Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122) (Musica ad Rhenum, dir. Jed Wentz).


Camille Saint-Saëns

(October 9, 1835 – d.  December 16, 1921)

In 1875, the 40-year-old Saint-Saëns surprised friends and family when he hastily married Marie-Laure Truffot, the sister of one of his pupils. The marriage was an unhappy one: after the deaths of their two young children, Saint-Saëns walked out on Truffot and never remarried. Despite this painful chapter in his life, he remained social and outgoing, hosting lavish soirees—where he supposedly performed in drag on more than one occasion—and indulging in frequent travel to exotic locales in Northern Africa. Some have speculated that he might have pursued trysts in Algiers, then a popular destination for European homosexuals.

Listen to Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian (Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, dir. Andris Nelsons).

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(May 7, 1840 – d. November 6, 1893)

Though the composer wrote about his sexuality at length in his letters to his brother Modest (also gay), Tchaikovsky’s immense fame and fear of flouting social convention precluded him from living openly with a male partner. Not unlike Saint-Saëns, his short-lived marriage to a younger woman, Antonina Miliukova, was a catastrophe. Perhaps the closest Tchaikovsky came to publicly revealing his orientation was with his Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. He dedicated the work to his lover Vladimir “Bob” Davydov (who also happened to be his nephew!). Despite myriad primary accounts that discuss Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, the Russian government’s long history of anti-gay censorship has muddied the biographical waters in Tchaikovsky’s beloved homeland.

Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathetique. (New York Philharmonic, dir. Leonard Bernstein).


Ethel Smyth

(April 23, 1858 – d. May 8, 1944)

As to be expected from a pioneering female composer and suffragette, Smyth displayed a keen musicality and sense of social justice from a young age. At only 12, Smyth announced her intention to study at the Leipzig Conservatory, which she later attended. She had a number of infatuations with women throughout her life, including an unrequited love for Virginia Woolf. She once wrote to Henry Bennet Brewster, her friend and librettist, “I wonder why it is so much easier for me to love my own sex passionately than yours. I can’t make it out for I am a very healthy-minded person.”

Listen to Smyth’s overture to The Wreckers (Scottish National Orchestra, dir. Sir Alexander Gibson).


Francis Poulenc

(January 7, 1899 – d. January 30, 1963)

The composer of a vast catalog of religious music, Poulenc once wrote to a friend, “You know that I am as sincere in my faith, without any messianic screamings, as I am in my Parisian sexuality.” Indeed, Poulenc was a lifelong Roman Catholic whose most lasting romantic relationships were with men. Though he fathered a daughter, Poulenc left behind more information about his gay relationships than his heteronormative ones. A copy of his Concert champêtre bears the following inscription to his then-partner Richard Chanlaire: “You have changed my life, you are the sunshine of my thirty years, a reason for living and for working.”

Listen to Poulenc’s Concert champêtre (Wanda Landowska with the Philharmonic Symphonic Orchestra, dir. Leopold Stokowski).


Aaron Copland

(November 14, 1900 – d. December 2, 1990)

Though never outspoken on the subject, Copland felt little to no angst about his sexuality. He never went to great lengths to hide his relationships, most of which were with talented young men who ran in his cultural sphere. Nor did his homosexuality interfere with his success as a composer, though it may have contributed to his blacklisting during the Red Scare. At one point, Leonard Bernstein pressured his mentor and friend to publicly come out. Copland wryly responded, “I think I’ll leave that to you, boy.”

Listen to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (San Francisco Symphony, dir. Michael Tilson Thomas).


Samuel Barber

(March 9, 1910 – d. January 23, 1981)

Barber met fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti when they were both students at the Curtis Institute of Music. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership: Menotti provided libretti for Barber’s operas Vanessa and A Hand of Bridge, and between them the men would win four Pulitzer Prizes. They would be together for nearly thirty years in a house they called Capricorn (also the name of Barber’s concerto for oboe, trumpet, flute, and strings). Later in life, the men’s relationship dissolved, contributing to Barber’s eventual creative drought and depression.

Listen to Barber’s Capricorn Concerto (Joseph Mariano, Sidney Mear, and Robert Sprenkle with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, dir. Howard Hanson).

Benjamin Britten

(November 22, 1913 – d. December 4, 1976)

Britten was introduced to tenor Peter Pears through a mutual friend. When that friend died in a plane crash in 1937, both men volunteered to help move his possessions. That project would be the first of many between the two, marking the beginning of a professional and personal relationship that would last more than 40 years. Britten would compose several opera roles and song cycles for Pears, who in turn became the foremost interpreter and champion of Britten’s vocal music. Of their relationship, Pears’ niece, Sue Phipps, said: “They made a conscious decision to neither flout it nor ignore it.”

Listen to Britten and Pears perform and discuss excerpts from Winterreise, from 1968.


Lou Harrison

(May 14, 1917 – d. February 2, 2003)

Not only was Harrison gay, he was an outspoken gay rights activist. His strong sense of identity manifested itself in arrangements and commissions for several American gay men’s choruses, and he was recognized for his achievements by the Annual Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards in 1999.  As AIDS researcher and co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis Lawrence Mass noted, Harrison was “proud to be a gay composer and interested in talking about what that might mean.”

Listen to Harrison’s Strict Songs, No. 1: Here is Holiness, arranged for eight baritones and orchestra. (Louisville Orchestra, dir. Robert Whitney).


Leonard Bernstein

(August 25, 1918 – d. October 14, 1990)

Something of a wunderkind, Bernstein rubbed elbows with the American classical elite before he’d even graduated college. Knowing that conservative orchestra boards would not tolerate having an openly gay music director, Bernstein married actress Felicia Montealegre in 1951. Though he adored his wife and children—and was devastated by Felicia’s death in 1978—he carried on a string of affairs with men that only became less discreet as he grew older. Arthur Laurents, Bernstein’s collaborator during West Side Story, put it simply: “He was a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.”

Listen to an excerpt from Bernstein’s A Quiet Place (Louise Edeiken, Mark Thomsen, and Kurt Ollmann with the Vienna Radio Symphony, dir. Leonard Bernstein).


Pauline Oliveros

(May 30, 1932 –       )

Alongside composers like Terry Riley and Loren Rush, Oliveros has been long-established as a member of the American musical avant-garde. She coined the concept of “Deep Listening,” which incorporates meditative practices like self-awareness with performance to “cultivate a heightened awareness of the sonic environment.” Unconventionally, Oliveros’ first instrument was the accordion, and she continues to perform on the instrument internationally. In 1971, she came out in her music journal Sonic Meditations in Source. She is an outspoken feminist who has collaborated with all-women ensembles, as well as other queer artists.

Listen to Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation. (Hope College. 1970).


Wendy Carlos

(November 14, 1939 –       )

Carlos was the architect behind an innovative endeavor: the electronization of Baroque master J.S. Bach’s most famous music. Upon its 1968 release, Switched-On Bach became one of the classical world’s greatest runaway hits, helping to legitimize electronic and synthesized music as serious genres. Carlos was credited on the original album as Walter Carlos, and began to live as a woman after the release of Switched-On Bach. Carlos has composed music for iconic films such as A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

Watch a 2014 BBC documentary discussing the use of synthesized music in film. Carlos appears at 13:58 (introduced as Walter).


Jennifer Higdon

(December 31, 1962 –       )

A professor at the Curtis Institute of Music, Higdon is recognized as one of the classical world’s most celebrated contemporary composers. She won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a 2009 Grammy Award for her Percussion Concerto. Her first opera, Cold Mountain, receives its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in August 2015. She married longtime partner Cheryl Lawson in August 2014, whom she met in band class in high school. Conductor Marin Alsop officiated their wedding.

Listen to Higdon’s Percussion Concerto (Jeffrey Lawi with the University of British Columbia Symphony Orchestra, dir. Raffi Armenian).

Composer and arranger Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

(August 26, 1981 –       )

Muhly is a genre-bending composer whose most recent opera, Sentences, centers on the life of Alan Turing, the famed Enigma code cracker who was also gay. But Muhly has underplayed whatever personal connection listeners might draw between his experience as a gay composer in the twenty-first century and Turing’s. “I don’t want be like [in a mocking, high-pitched voice]: ‘I responded to his story in a very personal way,’” he told the Guardian earlier this month. “No one wants a gay martyr oratorio.” His opera Two Boys also deals with gay relationships.

Watch the Metropolitan Opera’s video preview of Muhly’s Two Boys from its 2013-14 season.

Who are some other LGBTQ composers and musicians that you love? Tell us in the comments below!

Signifyin’ in Song: How the Sounds of Slavery Changed Music Forever

The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation), ca. 1785-1795. watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.

The Old Plantation (Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation), ca. 1785-1795. watercolor on paper, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.


African-American spirituals are not just a cornerstone of the American choral tradition, they have impacted countless genres of music heard everywhere from saloons to symphony halls. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World,” borrows heavily from African-American musical traditions, and spirituals in particular. The composer once said:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.Antonín Dvořák

But, what’s the history behind African-American spirituals? How did they become so popular that even Dvořák adored them? And how have they changed music forever?

Signifyin’ Through Spirituals


Difficult and dark themes are coded in Dvořák’s words that African-American music is the “product of the soil.” Spirituals were born when Africans were forced to work American soil as slaves. Taken from their native land and bound by shackles, Africans slaves blended their native musical traditions with European ones. Music and dance provided an outlet for slaves to express their sorrow, though often their cries of pain sounded quite the opposite to slave owners. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became an important orator, author, and abolitionist observed:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.Frederick Douglass
Contraband Children Dancing the Breakdown. (1863).

Contraband Children Dancing the Breakdown. (1863).


Frederick Douglass wrote at length about how slave songs were a way to signify: a kind of double-speak that exploits the difference between denotative and connotative meanings of words, especially of signs that have special significance to a particular subculture. In fact, Douglass himself confessed:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.Frederick Douglass

Of particular importance in the signs and signification in spirituals are references to the bondage of the Hebrews in the Old Testament of the Bible. Thus, slaves could communicate Christian values to those “outside the circle” that were imposed upon them by slave owners. But, at the same time, they could communicate hidden meanings “inside the circle” about their own bondage.


The Great American Tradition That Almost Wasn’t




In the years following the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, African-American musical traditions were becoming increasingly known “outside the circle” in the United States. But, it’s almost by accident that the great musical tradition of African-American spirituals became known to the world at large.

In 1871, the historically black college Fisk University was facing financial failure, and the University’s music director, George L. White, assembled a touring chorus composed of members of the student body to raise revenue. White, a white missionary from the North, travelled with two quartets and a pianist along the Underground Railroad giving concerts of patriotic songs, hymns, and popular songs of the day.

Originally, the concerts were not a success.  Though faced with dire financial circumstances of their own, the touring choir selflessly donated their profits from one concert in Cincinnati entirely to support victims of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, leaving them pinching for pennies and on the verge of turning back for home.

White, however, decided that their concerts would be more successful if the musicians changed their programs to feature African-American spirituals, and established a name to capture the imagination of their audience. They called themselves the Fisk Jubilee Singers, with “jubilee” an allusion to the book of Leviticus. The “year of Jubilee” would be when all slaves were set free.  Since most of the student musicians of the Jubilee Singers were the children of newly freed slaves themselves, the name could not have been more fitting. To hear one of the earliest recordings of the Singers, click below.


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At first, the musicians were reluctant to perform spirituals in public since they were grim reminders of our nation’s troubled past. However, the group’s a cappella arrangements of traditional spirituals arranged for soprano, alto, tenor and bass incited intense interest in African-American music. A year after forming, the Jubilee Singers printed a collection of the music they performed, which was so popular it was reprinted in an expanded edition the same year. Mark Twain’s firsthand account of the group’s original performances captures the energy and exciting surrounding them:

Then rose and swelled out… one of those rich chords the secret of whose make only the Jubilees possess, and a spell fell upon that house. It was fine to see the faces light up with the pleased wonder and surprise of it…. Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary – to my surprise – has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning – to my mind – their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can.Mark Twain (1897)

Soon, word about the Singers traveled across the pond, and eventually, so did the Singers themselves. On one European tour, the Jubilee Singers performed before Queen Victoria. She exclaimed that their voices were so beautiful they must be from “Music City,” giving birth to Nashville’s epithet “Music City, USA.” On a subsequent European tour, the group earned $150,000, which provided funding to construct the first permanent building for Fisk University, Fisk Hall, which still stands in Nashville.


Jubilee Singers at the Court of Queen Victoria, 1873. Fisk University Library

A portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ performance before Queen Victoria painted in 1873 by Edmund Havel, the queen’s court painter. Left to right (men): Benjamin Holmes, Isaac Dickerson, Thomas Rutling, Edmund Watkins; left to right (women): Mabel Lewis, Minnie Tate, Ella Sheppard, Jennie Jackson, Julia Jackson, Maggie Porter, Georgia Gordon.


The Legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers are still singing today, carrying on the great tradition of sharing African-African spirituals that started almost 150 years ago. But, the impact of the Jubilee Singers on the world of music is immeasurable. Though some African-American musical traditions were popular before the Jubilee Singers formed, they brought the sounds of suffering, sublimated through song, to the world.

In fact, there are many songs which were originally sung by slaves that have become so much a part of our culture that we might now be unaware of their original context. For example, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” was popularized among white audiences by Pete Seeger. But, the song was originally published in 1867 as Slave Songs of the United States, the first collection of its kind.

While the original context of some slave songs has been obscured over time, composers and performers still explore the expressive power of spirituals. In the clip below, soprano superstar Jessye Norman has recorded her own version of “Lord, I Couldn’t Hear No Body Pray,” a traditional spiritual.


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We can compare Norman’s version to one of the earliest recordings of this piece, which is by the Fisk Jubilee Singers themselves, to hear how the tradition of African American spirituals goes on but has evolved:


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Baroque Arias and Ensembles

Baroque Arias and Ensembles performed by artists from the Haymarket Opera.

How A Bach Minuet Got a Motown Makeover



Bach’s Minuet in G major from the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach is so famous that you may have even had it as your cell phone ring tone at one point or another. The piece is so simple and elegant that it’s often one of the first pieces musicians learn to play. It can easily be played on keyboards, or arranged for any instrument.

One of the most famous (re)arrangements of this Minuet was recorded by the Toys, a girl group from Jamaica, New York, as “A Lover’s Concerto.” The song was a #1 single in the US and reached #5 on the UK Global charts. Its total sales exceeded two million copies.

Later, it was famously covered by the Supremes and Sarah Vaughan, as well as by other musicians in Spanish (“Concierto para enamorados”), German (“So Fängt Es Immer An”), Finnish (“Aamukonsertto”), Japanese (“Delight”), and Italian (“Lettera bruciata”).

Written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell and released in 1965, “A Lover’s Concerto” gives this Minuet a Motown makeover. Well, technically, the piece was recorded by DynoVoice Records, not Motown. However, it still incorporates many musical elements of the sound that made Motown Records famous.

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But, how did the Toys transform this well-known classical work into an American pop classic?

The answer is, primarily, in the time signature. Minuets are always in 3/4 time, and so is this famous piece by Bach as you can see in the example below.

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However, if the song were set to this meter, the lyrics would sound awkward. Try singing the opening lyric to the song (“How gentle is the rain / that falls softly on the meadow?”) in 3/4 and you’ll see what kind of problems arise.

Instead, Linzer and Randell change the piece to 4/4, also known as common time. In this time signature, the arrangers simply extend the notes that fall on the downbeat of every measure by one beat, as you can see in the example below.

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Of course, in addition to changing the time signature of the original Minuet, the arrangers have scored “A Lover’s Concerto” for a band and three voices. Bach could’ve easily expanded the piece for a chamber ensemble and voices himself. What holds everything together is the simple harmonic structure, which allows the composer or arranger to add an infinite number of parts.

But, the changes don’t stop there. It wouldn’t be a pop song unless there were one half-step key change at least.

In classical compositions from Bach’s time, if a composer is working in a major key, he’ll likely modulate to new keys somewhere throughout the piece. Though typically, the composer will modulate to keys around the “circle of fifths.” So, in the Minuet in G, if Bach were to add a modulation, the piece would probably move from G major to D major, the key five notes away (G-A-B-C-D), though one key away on the “circle of fifths.”

In “A Lover’s Concerto,” the piece first modulates not up a fifth, as Bach might do, but instead, up a fourth, to C major. In pop music and jazz, music often modulates around the “circle of fourths,” rather than the circle of fifths, which is the same as the circle of fifths in reverse order.

The modulation to C major happens at 0:51 in the YouTube clip above. Then, the piece has three half-step modulations, which have the effect of literally kicking the piece up a notch, and of intensifying the emotional quality. At 1:24,  “A Lover’s Concerto” moves from C major to C# major. Then a 2:12, it moves from C# major to D major. The song finally ends in D# major, with the modulation from D major happening around 2:29 in the clip above.

So, Bach’s famous Minuet in G got a makeover in several stages. First, the arrangers changed the time signature. Then, they orchestrated it for an expanded ensemble. Finally, they added some half-step key changes.

Ironically, though we know the Minuet in G as Bach’s, musicologists now believe the piece is not by Bach at all but by Christian Petzold. The notebooks he created for his wife had original works as well as pieces by his contemporaries  like Petzold, François Couperin, and Georg Böhm. But, today, it’s popularly known as Bach’s Minuet in G.

9 Living Black Composers You Need To Know


If you’re not familiar with these 9 composers, we’ve got 2 things to say:

1. You’re missing out on a lot of great music.

2. Now’s your chance to catch up!

June is African-American Music Appreciation Month. And, while you shouldn’t limit your appreciation of music by African-American composers to the month of June, it’s a nice excuse to explore their important contributions. You’re likely familiar with popular pieces by Scott Joplin or Miles Davis. But, if names like Daniel Bernard Roumain or George Lewis are new to you, read on, and happy listening!


Daniel Bernard Roumain

The composer, violinist, and band leader is known for his unique blend of funk, rock, hip-hop and classical music. Also known as DBR, the composer has collaborated with everyone from Philip Glass to Lady Gaga. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2000 with his Harlem Essay for Orchestra, performed by the American Composers Orchestra. From 2007-2011, he was an Artist-in-Residence with the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, one of the world’s premiere festivals for contemporary performance. He has received commissions from other leading arts presenters including Opera Philadelphia, and holds his doctorate from the University of Michigan.

T. J. Anderson

Anderson began studying piano at age 5, and formed his own jazz ensemble at the age of 13. His love of jazz has stayed with him, and his compositions explore a range of styles from tonal to avant-garde jazz, and other African American musical traditions. He orchestrated the score of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, and composed a one-act opera of his own, Walker, which explores the life of the abolitionist David Walker. Everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Robert Shaw have commissioned works from Anderson. The composer holds 6 honorary doctorates, has taught at 12 universities, and authored countless books and articles on a range of topics. He has received some of the most competitive awards and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation.

George Walker


Walker is the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, which he received for his work Lilacs in 1996. He is the first African American to appear as an instrumentalist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing Rachmoninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. He is the first African American to receive a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music, from which he also received an Artist Diploma in piano. His many distinguished teachers include the likes of Nadia Boulanger. He has composed over 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, solo instruments, and chorus, which have been performed by most of the major orchestras around the world.

Anthony Davis


This composers and pianist is perhaps best known for his stage works. His opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, was premiered by the New York City Opera in 1986. His opera Amistad was premiered with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. He also wrote the incidental music for the Broadway version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. As a lover of gamelan music, Davis includes some elements of Indonesia music into his compositional style, along with elements of jazz, R&B, blues, gospel, and classical music. As band leader and sideman, Davis appears on dozens of jazz albums along with other leading instrumentalists.

Anthony Braxton

The music by this Chicago native defies genre. The composer prefers to refer to his works as “creative music,” and often has claimed in interviews that he is not a jazz musician. Critic Chris Kelsey said, “He was never really accepted by the jazz establishment, due to his manifest infatuation with the practices of such non-jazz artists as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Many of the mainstream’s most popular musicians (Wynton Marsalis among them) insisted that Braxton’s music was not jazz at all. Whatever one calls it, however, there is no questioning the originality of his vision; Anthony Braxton created music of enormous sophistication and passion that was unlike anything else that had come before it.” Still, Braxton has collaborated with some of the leading jazz musicians of all time, including Chick Corea and Dave Holland, and was active with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He has recorded over 100 albums, and has received almost as many awards, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”


George Lewis

Another Chicago native, George Lewis is a composer, performer, and scholar who has made important contributions to jazz and to electronic music. For over 40 years, he has been a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). His book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music received the 2009 American Book Award. A MacArthur Fellow, he has collaborated with a range of composers and musicians from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn.


Olly Wilson

Wilson established the degree program in electronic music at the Oberlin Conservatory, Technology in Music and Related Arts. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1964, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971, which allowed him to study African music and language. Since, he has created commissions for Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995, and in 2008 won a Rome Prize. He is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 32 years.


Jonathan Bailey Holland

Holland has received commissions from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and Harvard University, and currently teaches at the Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory. As a teacher, he is particularly committed to creating works for young musicians, and has created a number of works for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra, and the Greater Twin Cities Youth Orchestras. His works appear on several recordings including Ellington and the Modern Masters, which features his works alongside those of Duke Ellington, Anthony Davis, Olly Wilson, and Alvin Singleton.


Don Byron

This composer and multi-instrumentalist plays clarinet, bass clarinet, and saxophone. Born in the Bronx, he was heavily influenced by jazz and classical music, though he also incorporates elements of klezmer, metal, and rap. In 2009, he won the Rome Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Seven Etudes for solo piano. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for the bass clarinet solo in the track “I Want to Be Happy” from his album Ivey-Divey.

Composer Leila Adu Fights Racial Violence With Music

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In what can best be described as an act of terror and a hate crime, a man shot and killed 9 members of a Bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina on Thursday, June 19, 2015. In response to racial violence against African Americans in recent years, composer Leila Adu has turned to music.

Adu, a New Zealander of Ghanaian descent, has composed works for some of today’s leading ensembles including SŌ Percussion and the Brentano String Quartet. She is currently the Emerging-Composer-In-Residence of the Wellington Orchestra, which will premiere her work Blessings as Rain Fall on a program with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 this Saturday, June 20.

Negative Space, one of Adu’s most recent compositions, is a particularly poignant reflection on the troubling racial divides that persist in the United States and throughout the world. The piece was originally composed following the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American who was shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. When a jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter, people around the world cried out against the American justice system.

Adu set her cries to music.

In Negative Space, Adu explores many complex problems that are as old as the United States itself, as well as musings on her own identity. She recorded the piece first in a demo version in 2013 for voice and piano just months before Zimmerman was acquitted. In this version, the piano accompaniment plods along in a way that is almost reminiscent of Erik Satie’s “furniture music,” while Adu dolefully delivers the lyrics.


In the years since Martin was killed, the number of African American men and women who have been killed in a manner similar to Martin has not decreased. Adu knew it was time to revisit Negative Space, and orchestrated the piece for voice and thirteen-piece chamber ensemble earlier this year (video at the top of the page).

Though the essential musical and lyrical material remains basically unchanged in the two versions, Adu’s newly orchestrated version is an even more powerful expression of anger, grief, and confusion. Her use of woodwinds, reeds, and brass recall the plaintive, pastoral sounds of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The sweet countermelodies she composed in the violin make Negative Space almost sound like a tender lullaby.

But the text belies the seemingly simple, almost naive soundscape she creates with the chamber ensemble, giving the piece a tragically wistful quality.


Negative SpaceLeila Adu

I exist in a negative space
I am clearly not white and neither am I a guy
I am not an object or nature or your soul
I’m just a girl waiting to go home

Born on a fluffy cloud
never had to think about what it was like to be left out of the history books
Explorers and sugar-men, nothing but plumped up crooks
You can play at being strange but strange ain’t stamped on your head
Send your kids to school in a hoodie, they won’t wind up in a body bag

I’m no militant, I’m a peaceful kinda girl
I don’t aim to stake out my claim
I just wanna do my thing about the place
But I exist in a negative space

Born on a fluffy cloud
never had to think about what it was like to be left out of the history books
Explorers and sugar-men, nothing but plumped up crooks
You can play at being strange but strange ain’t stamped on your head
Send your kids to school in a hoodie, they won’t wind up in a body bag
They can do drugs, get arrested, next day wind up a college grad


By the time Negative Space has ended, we are forced to reflect on ourselves and the world around us.

Adu said that the work is “about showing the interconnectedness of all humans. Realizing, accepting and actively seeking out our similarities whilst loving our special uniqueness. Perhaps part of it is inspired by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is the most important book about race that I have ever read.”

Though music can’t stop bullets or bring back the dead, it can at least provide us with a positive space to explore the negative.


Opening Night at Grant Park Music Festival


Thousands attended the opening night concert of the 2015 Grant Park Music Festival last night, Wednesday, June 17. Despite downpours earlier in the day, the sun was shining and everyone was eager to kick off summer with food, friends, and free live music.

Conductor Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra for a spectacular concert featuring Russian piano sensation, Yevgeny Sudbin, making his Festival debut in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Also on the program were Norman’s Drip and Beethoven’s rhythmically charged Seventh Symphony. Maestro Kalmar surprised the audience when he entered the stage wearing a Blackhawks jersey, commemorating their recent Stanley Cup victory.

Before, during, and after the concert, WFMT spoke with audience members about what they packed in their picnic baskets. We saw a number of impressive picnics and elaborate spreads. One common denominator among all the picnics with the diverse crowds? Wine! Lots and lots of wine!

Enjoy the slide show above of the opening night concert. If you see yourself, feel free to tell us in the comments below! Maybe we’ll see you again later this summer.

Beethoven Symphony No. 7

Join Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra for a spectacular opening night featuring Russian piano sensation, Yevgeny Sudbin, making his Festival debut. The evening concludes with Beethoven’s rhythmically charged Seventh Symphony.

Here and Now 1: Music of Stacy Garrop and Dan Visconti

The Brush Is Mightier Than The Sword: Kerry James Marshall On Art, Music for Social Change


On a rainy Monday, I arrived at Kerry James Marshall’s studio dripping wet – not exactly how I envisioned meeting one of my favorite living artists. And he isn’t just any artist. He’s a MacArthur Genius! His paintings were just featured in the Central Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Even Beyoncé stopped by to get a look see at his London show “Look See” in late 2014.

He welcomed me inside the unassuming brick building, located on the South Side of Chicago just blocks from where the White Sox play at U.S. Cellular Field. As someone who had lived on the South Side for many years, I was excited to talk to Marshall, a long time South Sider himself, about his latest project: a multimedia collaboration honoring the 75th anniversary of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son.

Native Son explores themes of race, inequality, and injustice all dramatized through the saga of Bigger Thomas, a young African American man who lives on Chicago’s South Side. Living in poverty and hoping to improve his situation, Bigger tragically falls victim to the systems that control him, and ultimately lands in prison. One early critic of the novel, Irving Howe, declared, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.”

Marshall was approached by drummer and composer Dana Hall to co-create Hypocrisy of Justice: Sights and Sounds From the Black Metropolis — Riffin’ and Signifyin(g) on Richard Wright’s Native Son. Joining Marshall and Hall is a formidable team of artists that includes actress-scriptwriter Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who happens to be Marshall’s wife, and actor Wendell Pierce, featured in Selma and HBO’s The Wire. The work, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series, premieres at Orchestra Hall on Friday, June 19, 2015.

One of the most exciting things about Hypocrisy of Justice is that, like Wright’s Native Son, it has incredible potential to enlighten, inspire, and – ideally – to enact change. Marshall said they hope the project will provide a lens through which audiences can see “parallels between the events in the novel and certain conditions, and how things are now.”

Marshall motioned towards a scaled-down model of his designs. He explains that Hypocrisy is in three sections, just like the novel. “What I have set up on stage also mirrors that three part structure,” he said, “There are two distinct zones of activity: the slum where Bigger comes from and then the space where the Daltons [the white family for whom Bigger worked] live. How do you get from where he was to where he ended up?”

“The major set piece that the people will see functions as a blind. It represents institutions. And then there’s a house-like space that will be made from translucent plastic so that there’s things you can see through in it. There are flowers that are attached to it, too. It’s also sort of bigger than life and overdone to represent the heightened expectations of what it is like for someone like Bigger to live in that environment. It’s sort of a fantasyland. It’s always a fantasy for him to see what goes on in the house and what it looks like.”

His description is interrupted by a phone ringing at a volume loud enough for anyone to hear over the whir of buzz saws or other sounds in his workshop. Marshall is delighted that someone has called to let him know one piece of the set, a large red banner that hangs in the center of the stage, is finished ahead of schedule.

“If anything,” he continues when he sets the phone down, “the set up for this is about mobility and immobility, transparency and impenetrability, interiors and exteriors, barriers and openings. The whole thing is built on those things. If you look at it that’s exactly what you see.”

“Composition to me is the key to the whole thing – it’s how you organize the elements in the picture. I spend more energy trying to organize. I make sure the perspective is accurate, I plot everything just like I’m doing architecture,” he said. “But then I’m also simultaneously composing the picture in two dimensions.” Staring at large canvasses in different stages of progress throughout his studio space, his careful planning is especially evident.

Though the perfect compositional balance in Marshall’s works is perhaps what immediately catches your eye, what keeps you staring are the stories they tell. “Making a picture is a certain kind of language,” he said. “You try to choose your nouns and verbs and you choose carefully. When you speak to someone and you really want to communicate, you communicate carefully.”

His paintings and other works are, “not directly narrative, but they have narrative implications because they are set up as tableaus,” he said. Hypocrisy of Justice, “is kind of the same thing, you’re just doing it in three-dimensional space.”

Though Hypocrisy is ambitious, Marshall said, “I’m always up for a challenge. I have done production designs for some feature films, so I have a little bit of experience with this kind of multimedia production. I understand a little bit of how it is done and how harrowing, how complicated it can be, how many problems you have to account for.”

There always has to be joy and pleasure in spaces where there’s pain. People still live, and they can’t live in total hopelessness. And if nothing else, art can alleviate some of the dreariness – you gotta have a respite from that.-Kerry James Mashall

One of the biggest challenges in creating this work has been far from technical. Marshall and his collaborators have been searching for ways to explore the difficult themes of Native Son without trying to “replicate this idea of complete helplessness, hopelessness, and despair,” he said.

“You can’t keep projecting that as the fundamental reality of the novel. There are complicated realities that seem insurmountable. But, what can you do in the meantime? There’s always something that can be done in the meantime. There’s always gotta be a way out.”

“There always has to be joy and pleasure in spaces where there’s pain. People still live, and they can’t live in total hopelessness. And if nothing else, art can alleviate some of the dreariness – you gotta have a respite from that.”

While Marshall has received many awards and honors, impacting others is the accomplishment of which he is most proud. “If someone comes up to me and tells me I in some way have helped them with something they’re trying to work through? That’s what’s most rewarding.”

We continued to talk about a range of topics from our favorite science fiction novels to life on the South Side. We talked about our favorite music, our families. He told me about how he moved to Chicago with only $300 and the love he shares with his wife, Cheryl.

“If you don’t have to have all the latest shoes, you don’t have to have all the latest sunglasses. If you don’t need all that stuff, and you put all your energy into creating a space so that you can develop yourself? That’s good living.”

As the afternoon got on, I could hear that the rain was beginning to let up. By the time I left Marshall’s studio, the rain had stopped completely, grey skies turned blue, and the world was literally a brighter place.

To learn more about Hypocrisy of Justice, visit the CSO’s website.