Biography

 

"Charles Wuorinen is one of the world's greatest composers" - John Zorn

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CHARLES WUORINEN (b. 9 June 1938, New York City)

In 1970 Wuorinen became the youngest composer at that time to win the Pulitzer Prize (for the electronic work Time's Encomium). The Pulitzer and the MacArthur Fellowship are just two among many awards, fellowships and other honors to have come his way.

Wuorinen has written more than 260 compositions to date. His newest works include an opera on Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid in January 2014, a major world cultural event. "Madrid has just seen the biggest audience in its history, local and global, for Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain." The Australian; Time Regained, a fantasy for piano and orchestra based on early music (Matteo da Perugia to Orlando Gibbons) for Peter Serkin, James Levine and the MET Opera Orchestra, Theologoumenon, an orchestral tone poem commissioned for James Levine's 60th birthday, Eighth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Metagong for two pianos and two percussion.

Wuorinen's previous opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1997-2001), based on the novel of Salman Rushdie, was premiered by the New York City Opera in fall 2004. In reviewing the work for New York Magazine critic Peter G. Davis wrote:
"the score for Haroun will dazzle any receptive ear with its incredibly broad palate of finely tuned sounds and its irrepressible vitality-a singularly apt musical response to a sophisticated children's novel that has very adult things to say about a free imagination trapped in a world of oppressive thought control.

This happy operatic adaptation begins with a libretto [by James Fenton] that most composers only dream about: a dramatization that plays out on the stage with a scintillating theatricality that never makes a false move, coupled with witty wordplays that evolve from and expand upon the antic spirit and verbal elasticity of the original novel...

Those who have not kept up with Wuorinen's output over the years and continue to pigeonhole him as a rigorous academic may be surprised at how laid-back Haroun actually sounds. His muse has been mellowing for some time, and without any loss of the structural complexity or physical vigor that have always marked his creative personality. The layout and formal organization of the opera is flawless, each section seamlessly connected by the composer's sure sense of proportion, rhythmic pacing, and instrumental color. More unexpected perhaps are the fluent and wittily inflected vocal lines and the levels of expressive depth that gather as the opera proceeds to its happy conclusion: "Ev'rything rhymes, ev'rything chimes . . . Yes, time is on the move again," sings Haroun contentedly at the end, as moving and satisfying a finale for a new opera that I have ever heard."
Though Wuorinen has composed vocal works throughout his career, with his large scale (1991) setting of Dylan Thomas A Winter's Tale, he began to devote increasing attention to works for the voice. These include two sets of Fenton Songs, Ashberyana (settings of John Ashbery) and It Happens Like This on poems of James Tate, a staged cantata for singers and large ensemble commissioned by the Tanglewood Festival (where Wuorinen was Director the Festival of Contemporary Music in 2011). For programs at Works and Process at the Guggenheim he made settings of poetry by Stanley Kunitz, John Ashbery, Derek Walcott, Donald Hall, Paul Auster and Les Murray. Wuorinen was setting a poem of W.H. Auden when the events of September 11th took place. He says in a program note:
September 11, 2001 was impelled by the atrocity of that date. I had been working on a setting of part of Auden's Anthem for Saint Cecilia's Day when the horror struck. The enormity of what had happened caused an involuntary change in my piece: what I had intended as a 3 or 4 minute song transformed itself into a 9 minute threnody in which phrases of the text took on meanings that for me were far more powerful in the context of that terrible day than they seemed to be within the poem itself. To some extent, then, I violated the spirit and structure of the underlying poem; but I believed it a necessary course if I were to compose an appropriate memorial.
In addition to his work in opera Wuorinen has also composed a variety of works for both ballet and modern dance. These include five orchestral works for the New York City Ballet: Five (Concerto for Amplified Cello and Orchestra) choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Delight of the Muses, choreographed by Peter Martins; Martins also staged The Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky. and three works inspired by scenes from Dante's Commedia: The Mission of Virgil (Inferno), The Great Procession (Purgatorio) and The River of Light (Paradiso) - the last staged by Peter Martins. Naxos issued a live recording of the three Dante works in chamber arrangements in 2008 At the behest of the NYCB Wuorinen also made a two-piano arrangement of Arnold Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra Op. 31 (published by the Schoenberg estate) staged by choreographer Richard Tanner. The choreographer Pam Tanowitz has used several Wuorinen scores including Five, Grand Bamboula, Fortune, Six Pieces for Violin and Piano, and The Blue Bamboula.

Percussion has always been one of Wuorinen's major interests, and he has composed several works that have become classics of this medium: including Janissary Music (1966), Ringing Changes (1970), and the massive Percussion Symphony (1976) for 24 players:
"This mammoth work seems to be on its way to becoming a genuine 20th-century warhorse - and with good reason. It is a riotous celebration of rhythm - colorful and even poetic. The movements of the players as they weave from instrument to instrument provide a spontaneous choreography; here Mr. Wuorinen's craggy intelligence is combined with genuine dramatic instinct. The result is an unusual and individual masterwork."
-Tim Page, New York Times, January 1985
More recent works include Percussion Quartet (1994), Metagong for two pianos two percussion and the Marimba Variations (2009) commissioned by a consortium of 21 players. Nearly all of his orchestral scores feature elaborate use of percussion.

Early period

Wuorinen's career started very early. Although temporarily distracted by a love of astrophysics, by the age of 6 he had set his sights on becoming a composer, writing little imitations of Mozart and Bach which he played on the piano. Always excelling academically Wuorinen's first professional performance took place in 1954 with the John Harms Chorus in New York's Town Hall. In 1954 he also won the New York Philharmonic's Young Composer's Award. By 1960 Wuorinen began creating some works in his own unique voice, including the Variations for piano, a virtuoso work which the composer premiered himself, and various works for chamber combinations, orchestra and chamber orchestra Notable among these is a series of chamber concerti for cello, flute, violin and oboe written for friends and colleagues. For Lukas Foss's French American Festival at the New York Philharmonic in 1966 he composed Orchestral and Electronic Exchanges for orchestra with synthesized sounds. Also in 1966 Wuorinen completed his First Piano Concerto which he performed as soloist with the University of Iowa Symphony orchestra, James Dixon conducting (Wuorinen and Dixon made the first recording of this work with the Royal Philharmonic in London for CRI). He subsequently played the Concerto on tour with Lukas Foss and the Buffalo Philharmonic. In 1967 Wuorinen completed his first stage work, The Politics of Harmony, performed by Pierre Boulez in his first year as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.

The late 60's mark the composition of a series of major works including String Trio, Contrafactum for orchestra and his Pulitzer-prize-winning composition Time's Encomium, composed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, constructed of synthesized & processed synthesized sound using the room sized RCA Synthesizer and then subjected to a panoply of analogue studio procedures.  The work was subsequently re-mastered and released on John Zorn's Tzadik label.

The 1970's was a very productive period for Wuorinen: Grand Bamboula for string orchestra, Concerto for Amplified Violin and Orchestra (which caused a ruckus at its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under a young Michael Tilson Thomas), Second Piano Concerto for amplified piano which Wuorinen himself premiered with Eric Leinsdorf (both the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony), Two-Part Symphony and his first foray into opera, The W. of Babylon. In 1975 Stravinsky's widow gave Wuorinen the composer's last sketches for use in his homage A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky, premiered by Tilson Thomas in Buffalo and Ojai. The Reliquary received its first recording under the baton of Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta on a Deutsche Grammophon CD, and was choreographed by Peter Martins for the NYCB in 1995 (with the composer conducting). Major chamber works from the 70's include First and Second String Quartets, Second Piano Sonata and works for various novel combinations: On Alligators, Speculum Speculi, Arabia Felix, The Winds, Archaeopteryx one of two works for virtuoso bass trombonist David Taylor; two works for the Tashi ensemble Tashi and Fortune, Third Flute Trio, and the Fast Fantasy for cello and piano.

In the mid 1970s Wuorinen became aware of the work of Benoit Mandelbrot on fragmentation, irregularity, and spontaneity in nature which led to the development of fractal geometry. He was immediately struck by the role self-similar nesting plays in so many natural objects and phenomena, and realized that music intrinsically partakes of these same processes. At a stroke the age-old reason for the felt closeness between music and the natural world seemed revealed.

A three-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabled Wuorinen to carry out extensive research (at Bell Laboratories) into the compositional implications of fractal geometry; and during this period Wuorinen applied these insights to the composition of various works, including Bamboula Squared for orchestra and computer generated sound and Natural Fantasy, a work for organ, and also lectured on the relation between music and the fractal world; he and Mandelbrot became friends and presented a program together in 1991 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

From 1985 to 1989 Wuorinen was the Composer-in-Residence for the San Francisco Symphony. In addition to programming and conducting concerts Wuorinen composed several major works for the orchestra: Genesis, with text in Latin from the Vulgate, The Golden Dance, and Machaut Mon Chou (based on the Messe de Notre Dame), Previously Wuorinen had composed his Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra for the SFS. Of the premiere of Genesis the Financial Times wrote:
"in San Francisco, Wuorinen's big new cantata GENESIS, commissioned by the San Francisco, Minnesota and Honolulu orchestras, has had its premiere, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt (who had suggested its composition), Three movements: settings of chant incipits concerned with creation (Kyrie orbis factor etc.) of Genesis I (in the Vulgate), and a burst of Alleluias with a Cantate domino canticum novum as the climax. Between them, two orchestral interludes, the first flowing and lovely, the second a Big Bang generating waves of energy that subside into peacefulness. Gregorian chant provides the themes; rhythmic reordering, transpositions, chromatic inflections, and intricate instrumental counterpoints make them rich and exciting. The first movement has been called "a series of celebratory starbursts"; the Cantata dominum is an ecstatic dance; there is much lyrically beautiful music. A joyful, exuberant Hymn of Praise is unexpected in these days. This is an exhilarating composition."
In 1983 Wuorinen composed his Third Piano Concerto for pianist Garrick Ohlsson under a commission from the Albany Symphony Orchestra and premiered by a consortium of five northeastern orchestras. The work was performed widely in the US and recorded by Ohlsson and the San Francisco Symphony. In 1984 Wuorinen was the first composer commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra under its new Music Director, Christoph von Dohnanyi (Movers and Shakers); and likewise in 1996 the first to compose for Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony (Bamboula Beach) which the Miami herald described as "An exhilarating, festive, six minute tour-de-force for large orchestra." Works from the 1980's also include The Celestial Sphere, an hour-long oratorio,
"THE CELESTIAL SPHERE is an exciting piece - convincing in its rapture, marvelously thunderous at its climaxes, striking in its confident integration of chorus and orchestra. At every turn one senses, as one does in all choral masterpieces, the composer's delight at being allowed to work on a grand scale ... In short, THE CELESTIAL SPHERE excites and fascinates in all sorts of ways. In this majestic choral/orchestral tapestry, Wuorinen has made a powerful statement and added to a repertory badly in need of replenishing," Musical America
Crossfire for orchestra, trios for various combinations (three Horn Trios, Spinoff, Piano Trio, Trio for Bass Instruments, Spinoff, and Trombone Trio), Third Piano Sonata (for Alan Feinberg), Sonata for Violin and Piano (commissioned the Library of Congress), String Sextet and his Third String Quartet about which Andrew Porter in The New Yorker wrote:
"It is a long span of thoughtful, beautiful music ... one can hear everything happen. - this is a poetic - I'd say inspired - composition, representing Wuorinen in an unusually intimate vein, and it strikes me as a major contribution to the string-quartet repertory."
In 1990's Wuorinen composed several major works for orchestra: Symphony Seven, Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, his three works for the New York City Ballet inspired by scenes from the Divine Comedy (The Mission of Virgil, The Great Procession and The River of Light), Microsymphony (for the Philadelphia Orchestra) and Astra. Among the chamber works his first Piano Quintet (for Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet), Sonata for Guitar and Piano, Fenton Songs I & II, Cello Variations III, and the Brass Quintet.

With the turn of the century James Levine became one of Wuorinen's staunchest champions commissioning his Fourth Piano Concerto and the Eighth Symphony for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the tone poem, Theologoumenon, and Time Regained for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Other works from this time include the Fourth String Quartet, Fourth Piano Sonata (for Anne Marie McDermott), Second Piano Quintet, Cyclops 2000 for the London Sinfonietta, Iridule, Spin5, and Synaxis.

Over his career Wuorinen developed strong connections with many extraordinary performers including Peter Serkin - for whom he wrote three works with orchestra (Fourth Piano Concerto, Flying to Kahani, Time Regained) and several solos (Scherzo, Adagio); Fred Sherry (Five, three sets unaccompanied Variations, Fast Fantasy, An Orbicle of Jasp), Ursula Oppens (The Blue Bamboula, Oros), and the Brentano String Quartet for whom Wuorinen wrote his Fourth Quartet and Second Piano Quintet (with Serkin).

Several times in his career Wuorinen has reworked early music - from the early chamber piece Bearbeitung über das Glogauer Liederbuch to Time Regained for piano and orchestra. These have included an evening length work for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Magic Art, an Instrumental Masque drawn from the work of Henry Purcell and Delight of the Muses an orchestral work commissioned by the New York City Ballet in celebration of the Mozart Bicentennial.

His works have been recorded on nearly a dozen labels including several releases on Naxos, Albany Records (Charles Wuorinen Series), John Zorn's Tzadik label, and a CD of piano works performed by Alan Feinberg on the German label Col Legno.

Wuorinen's works are published exclusively by C.F. Peters Corporation. He is the author of Simple Composition, used by composition students throughout the world.

An eloquent writer and speaker, Wuorinen has lectured at universities throughout the United States and abroad, and has served on the faculties of Columbia, Princeton, and Yale Universities, the University of Iowa, University of California (San Diego), Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, State University of New York at Buffalo, and Rutgers University.

Wuorinen has also been active as performer, an excellent pianist and a distinguished conductor of his own works as well as other twentieth century repertoire. His orchestral appearances have included the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the American Composers Orchestra.

In 1962 he co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music, one of America's most prestigious ensembles dedicated to performance of new chamber music. In addition to cultivating a new generation of performers, commissioning and premiering hundreds of new works, the Group has been a model for many similar organizations which have appeared in the United States since its founding.

Wuorinen is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Biography — Shorter Version

In 1970 Wuorinen became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize (for the electronic work Time's Encomium). The Pulitzer and the MacArthur Fellowship are just two among many awards, fellowships and other honors to have come his way.

Wuorinen has written more than 260 compositions to date. His newest works include an opera on Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid in January 2014, a major world cultural event. "Madrid has just seen the biggest audience in its history, local and global, for Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain." The Australian; Time Regained, a fantasy for piano and orchestra based on early music (Matteo da Perugia to Orlando Gibbons) for Peter Serkin, James Levine and the MET Opera Orchestra, Theologoumenon, an orchestral tone poem commissioned for James Levine's 60th birthday, Eighth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Metagong for two pianos and two percussion.

In 1984 Wuorinen was the first composer commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra under its new Music Director, Christoph von Dohnanyi (Movers and Shakers); and likewise in 1996 the first to compose for Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony (Bamboula Beach) which the Miami herald described as "An exhilarating, festive, six minute tour-de-force for large orchestra." In 1975 Stravinsky's widow gave Wuorinen the composer's last sketches for use in his homage A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky, premiered by Tilson Thomas in Buffalo and Ojai. The Reliquary received its first recording under the baton of Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta on a Deutsche Grammophon CD, and was choreographed by Peter Martins for the NYCB in 1995 (with the composer conducting).

His works have been recorded on nearly a dozen labels including several releases on Naxos, Albany Records (Charles Wuorinen Series), John Zorn's Tzadik label, and a CD of piano works performed by Alan Feinberg on the German label Col Legno.

Wuorinen's works are published exclusively by C.F. Peters Corporation. He is the author of Simple Composition, used by composition students throughout the world.

An eloquent writer and speaker, Wuorinen has lectured at universities throughout the United States and abroad, and has served on the faculties of Columbia, Princeton, and Yale Universities, the University of Iowa, University of California (San Diego), Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, State University of New York at Buffalo, and Rutgers University.

Wuorinen has also been active as performer, an excellent pianist and a distinguished conductor of his own works as well as other twentieth century repertoire. In 1962 he co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music, one of America's most prestigious ensembles dedicated to performance of new chamber music. In addition to cultivating a new generation of performers, commissioning and premiering hundreds of new works, the Group has been a model for many similar organizations which have appeared in the United States since its founding.

Wuorinen is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.