BMI Classical Composers Reflect on BMI Composer Awards

Posted in News on May 13, 2024
(L-R) Sofia Ouyang, Matthew Schultheis, Harold Rosenbaum, Amelia Brey
(L-R) Sofia Ouyang, Matthew Schultheis, Harold Rosenbaum, Amelia Brey Photo: Sofia Ouyang: Romualdo Valokuvaus

The BMI Composer Awards have long been considered the premier accolade for young creators of concert works. Founded in 1954, the program was shepherded for many years by eminent American composer William Schuman, whose commitment to completely anonymous judging of submissions remains central to the integrity of the competition to this day. Winners of the Award have gone on to groundbreaking careers in composition and teaching, as well as being recognized by the GRAMMYs, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Pulitzer and Grawemeyer committees, and countless other honors. In an upcoming concert, the New York Virtuoso Singers will be performing no less than ten new commissions from former winners of the BMI Composer Award. In the exchange below, Music Director Harold Rosenbaum tells us about how the concert came about.

What inspired you to commission these young composers? I want to inspire young composers to write choral music, since most tend to choose other types of ensembles. Having a professional choir that specializes in contemporary music performing their works, which are generally quite complex and difficult to execute, validates and expands their creative proclivities, not only in the realm of choral music.

How does working with living composers inform your creative practice? It is important to me that composers’ intentions are realized. Yet, I want to feel free to interpret the music within the basic confines of the notation, and hope that composers understand and approve of what I produce. I always welcome the presence of composers at rehearsals, so that there is a healthy give and take, with the result hopefully pleasing both of us AND the audience.

Turning to the composers whose works will be featured, BMI sat down with Amelia Brey who won in 2019, Sofia Ouyang (2023) and Matthew Schultheis (2017, 2018 and 2019).

Think back to when you first heard you had won the BMI Composer Award. What were your first thoughts? How has that recognition made a difference in your career?

Amelia: I’ve thought for a long time that composing, rather than being the solipsistic act of shouting ideas out into a silent world, is in fact heavily formed by its reception. That is to say, interesting experiments require encouragement by a specific community and do not happen in a vacuum. The formal recognition of the BMI Awards, particularly via participation in the influential community of past winners, has changed my relationship to my art for the better in encouraging a more assertive relationship with my ideas.

Sofia: Winning the BMI Composer Award was an exhilarating moment for me, filled with rushes of adrenaline! I’ve always seen this award as one of the most thoughtfully organized and ideal recognitions for early career composers, and I am grateful to have received it.

One of the most tangible impacts of the BMI Award was this collaboration it facilitated with Harold and the New York Virtuoso Singers. This collaboration allowed me to dive into writing for choir for the first time, and I embraced the opportunity to freely and boldly imagine the magic that 16 vocalists could create together.

Matthew: The first time I won the award, it was the most significant recognition of my music I had received up to that point. I had just finished my first year of undergrad at Indiana, and I remember feeling like I had just gained access to a higher, more serious level of composing as a vocation; that I could really make composing my life. When the day of the awards ceremony came, I had never been in a room with so many composers before, working in so many different styles across the country. Having that interaction with people at all different stages of their musical lives, outside a music school or festival setting, was really encouraging and validating at that early phase of my composing, and it very quickly put me in touch with a lot of contacts I continue to stay in touch with and collaborate with today.

What was your inspiration for the work you wrote for this concert?

Matthew: Whirlpool takes its inspiration entirely from the rich imagery in the text I chose, which comes from T. S. Eliot’s magnum opus The Waste Land. The image of a body being swallowed up by the sea, rotating toward the ocean floor, is fantastically eerie—it gave me the idea to have the singers finish the text about two-thirds of the way through the piece, so that the final minutes dissolve into a wash of vowel sounds. I was also drawn to the musicality of Eliot’s poetry—when Virginia Woolf heard him recite The Waste Land, she wrote that he “chanted it and rhythmed it.” My hope was to capture that rhythmic force and cadence, like an ancient storyteller reciting verse, through music.

Sofia: My inspiration for All that is solid stemmed from my deep fascination with the expressive power of the human voice in conveying both emotions and meaning. I wanted to depict the choir as both 16 distinct voices as well a cohesive, powerful unit, whilst also delving into the interplay of legibility and audibility of language.

As I sketched down initial ideas, two imageries began taking shape. The first image was a stream of nearly inaudible whispers, rhythmically swaying back and forth. The stream consisted of fragmented phonemes and words, gradually giving way to sung words and phrases. The second image was that of a large, morphing sonic entity that appeared static at first glance. The singers transform into a singular, substantial entity, entangled in inner discord yet seemingly unbreakable in their unity, until that final, powerful utterance gushed into the air, reverberated throughout space, and dissipated.

Amelia: I have been attached to the Latin language since before I ever actually started composing. This language (especially its texts not from the Mass Ordinary) is very little understood for being as familiar to musicians as it is. Moreover, while it is fairly established that the origins of Latin sacred music are pre-Christian, the lack of transcribed music examples casts a murkiness over this history. The texts I chose would likely have been sung in Horace’s time (the first century BCE), but we have no real way of knowing how they sounded. Even with how heavily these settings bear the influence - particularly - of late Stravinsky, I have attempted a project counter to Stravinsky’s approach to Latin. Rather than treating the language as “purely phonetic material [to] dissect at will,” I have attempted a more thorough consideration of the syntax, including my own translation in the score and program notes.

What text did you set and why?

Sofia: “All that is solid melts into air,” Samuel Moore’s translation of Marx’s words in the Communist Manifesto, carries for me an ocean of dimensionalities that are simultaneously philosophical, political, and poetic. What does it become when it encounters music—voices?

Amelia: These are hymns to Olympian deities which appear in Horace’s Odes, a compilation of Greek-influenced lyrics which were probably intended for musical performance. The figures in question, though referred to using their Latin names rather than their Greek ones, strike a chord in the hearts of anyone who grew up with the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (or perhaps Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief!). I was inspired to open a window in history, in a way — to make these emotions current in the original text, which should be palpably meaningful whether or not one understands Latin.

Matthew: I’ve been interested for a long time in setting The Waste Land, but the poem is crammed with such a huge variety of narrative voices and images, it would be impossible to fit into a single work. (Maybe an opera, but could anything be more daunting?) My solution was to find a passage that could function as a standalone vignette, a particularly powerful scene which could be expanded and explored separately. The excerpt I chose makes up almost the entirety of the poem’s fourth section, “Death by Water”; it’s the shortest section as well, so it was a natural fit for a piece of this length. The themes in this section also felt especially timeless to me—choosing an ancient Phoenician to meditate on the idea of death as this great leveler that makes us all forget “the profit and loss.” I also added a pair of lines from the poem’s final section, paraphrasing the book of Isaiah, to round off the text’s thematic content.

What role has BMI played in your journey so far?

Matthew: It’s hard not to also think of this question in terms of the BMI Composer Awards, after having won three in a row! It’s been a huge privilege to have that continued interaction with the administration at BMI and the huge community of composers I met at those events to grow and develop each time I came back and beyond. Even after several years, I still feel like those awards form a kind of backbone to the achievements in my resume, and their visibility has resulted in many unexpected opportunities (including this choral project!) from people who happen to come across my name and work from that context.

Amelia: I was already represented by BMI before I won the Student Composer Award. It is a very special thing in this industry to have someone consistently ensure one’s work is valued, and I am extremely grateful for the respect I have consistently received in my dealings with BMI. They have helped to make this otherwise alienating art form feel much more welcoming.

Sofia: BMI has played an important role in my musical journey so far, especially in sharping my career development. My introduction to the concept of PROs and performance royalties came through a session given by BMI Classical during a high school music camp. Since then, I have become a member of BMI and have consistently felt supported and appreciated by the Classical team. This support has been valuable as I continue to navigate the transition from being a student to a professional working composer.

The concert featuring the above works plus seven other new commissions is Sunday, May 19 at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, 487 Hudson St. Find more information.

SOURCENews TAGS Classical


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