Thirty-one-year-old Peter Boyer has achieved what most young American composers can only dream about. This summer, KOCH International Classics released a compact disc consisting solely of his own concert music.
Grammy-winning producer Michael Fine, who oversaw the sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra, can recall only a handful of cases when a major label released a disc devoted entirely to the music of a new American composer in which he or she conducted a world-class orchestra.
But Boyer, who serves as assistant professor of music at Southern California's Claremont Graduate University, is unusually tenacious. When his grandmother died, Boyer, then 17, decided to write a Requiem Mass in her memory. He had no formal training and had been taking piano lessons for just two years, but the determined Boyer began studying scores and sketching musical ideas. Three years later - while studying music at Rhode Island College - he premiered the 40-minute work with 300 performers in his native Providence, R.I. "That's when I decided this was what I was going to do with my life," he says.
A two-time winner of the prestigious BMI Student Composer Award in 1994 and 1996, Boyer went on to earn a doctorate from Connecticut's Hartt School. He studied privately with John Corigliano, and spent a year in USC's film-scoring program. Beating even filmmaker James Cameron to the punch, he wrote a 13-minute tone poem about the sinking of the Titanic that received its premiere months before the movie debuted in 1997.
Since then, Boyer has received a series of commissions from orchestras across the country, including L.A.'s American Jazz Philharmonic, the Oregon Mozart Players, the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Symphony and the New York Youth Symphony. He has also scored several short films, was among the orchestrators on this year's Oscar show, and has conducted music for TV's Boston Public.
Boyer recently won his sixth music competition, the Heckscher Foundation-Ithaca College Composition Competition, for his tone poem Ghosts of Troy. He is currently working on Ellis Island: The Dream of America, a 30-minute work for actor, actress and orchestra with projected images. It will debut April 9, 2002 at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT. For the narration, he plans to draw on the oral histories of immigrants who passed through the New York landmark.
As a Gen-Xer, Boyer was drawn to film scores long before he became acquainted with the concert repertoire. Listeners often mistake his concert music for movie music. "I tend to go for the big gesture, the dramatic gesture, the bold colors," he explains. "I think that we're all a product of our influences, and if they come from Korngold through John Williams, from Stravinsky through Jerry Goldsmith, that's okay. If you assimilate elements of their styles into your own, ultimately your own style becomes a synthesis of all these others that you've heard."
Boyer prides himself on writing music that connects with audiences, citing a lesson learned from studies with Corigliano: "the idea of communicating without sacrificing craftsmanship or integrity or invention as a composer."