5 Questions to Curtis Stewart (ACO Artistic Director)

Acclaimed composer and violinist Curtis Stewart has spent his career taking contemporary music to new heights. A few of his noteworthy endeavors include the award-winning improvisational chamber ensemble PUBLIQuartet and his 2021 GRAMMY-nominated album, Of Power. In these projects and others, Stewart is adept at fusing musical styles with captivating results. Now, he’s taking his penchant for making musical connections to American Composers Orchestra as their new Artistic Director. In this position, Stewart will play a key role in overseeing ACO’s artistic strategy — including ensuring that it aligns with the organization’s equity-driven work. After briefly overlapping with ACO’s outgoing Artistic Director Derek Bermel in December 2022, Stewart fully assumed his new post in the new year.

As a classically trained musician and composer, who are your musical inspirations from other genres and how is their influence seen in your work?

My mother and father are primary; my hometown, NYC, secondary. My dad, Bob Stewart, is a jazz tuba player, composer, and educator. I remember being on the road with him when he was touring with Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, and Brass Fantasy and eating Steak frites with Amiri Baraka in Paris. My mom, Elektra Kurtis, was a Greek violinist, and her mom was an opera singer in the Warsaw national opera theater. She used to try and capture her mother’s voice in the tone of her violin. I used to go to classes with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, and study Bartok’s harmonic theories and Middle Eastern modes with her and Simon Shaheen. She embodied an insatiable creative spirit that I try to live out.

Beyond that, I have traveled parts of the world in a Spoken Word Hip Hop trio for 14 years and with PUBLIQuartet for 13 years. I imagine all these influences affect my notion of process and musical language JUST DON’T TELL THEM THAT :) I have been on stage, in the studio, and in the creative worlds of Wyclef Jean, Jon Batiste, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Alicia Hall and Jason Moran, Jessie Montgomery, Julia Bullock, Linda Oh, and Mark O’Connor, among many others. In all these seemingly disparate musical settings, what I have learned is that the primary impulse of music-making is from sound to ear, from mind to medium to community whatever the instrument happens to be then back again. My parents inspired me not to let instrumental and culturally projected limitations govern my musical imagination. My ensembles forced me to understand the people behind the music-making, and growing up in NYC and on the scene forced me to always look for something new, exciting, quirky, meaningful, or seemingly unexplainable in every musical moment. Or at least, I aspire to…

Curtis Stewart performs “Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk,” by Coleridge Taylor Perkinson

What creative possibilities is your new role at American Composers Orchestra opening up for you that you may not have encountered in your solo career?

In any musical encounter, I let my mind wander I begin to imagine how the work, the values, and the process of one creator may be applied in other settings (in rich, connected, or even humorous ways). All those imaginings are now a real possibility for me! ACO exists to expand the definition of American orchestral music to ensure an inclusive and vibrant future. I have tons of ideas from all of my experiences, which support this purpose. I just have to whittle away at them and carve out patterns: aiming for socially meaningful or conceptually playful programs that point to a possible future, not just for the ACO but for the nature of American orchestral music.

I’m also excited to support creators at every stage, including grade school students. For 30 years, ACO has positioned music composition as a gateway to creative thinking, problem solving, and self-expression with its Sonic Spark residencies. I first worked with the program with PUBLIQuartet.

I imagine “conservatory Curtis,” looking up to ensembles like the ACO to figure out what is cool and what is important. I look to “post-graduate me” hustling to make that dream come true, and now I get to provide options that even larger institutions may be able to work through, amplify, or in the best case, STEAL (ha) in an effort to set the tone of dreaming for classical musicians interested in the future of our art form. I am working on planning all of this, but at this point, my sense of limitation is no longer imposed by my circumstance, but by my own vision which is both very daunting and very exciting.

How do you see your own artistry influencing the creative trajectory of the organization?

ACO has been pivotal in forming my own trajectory. We seek out musical scenarios that shed new light on our lives; pit big, brilliant, and sometimes divergent or difficult sounds up against each other; and scavenge for voices that we have not yet heard. There are so many shades to being an American, being a Composer and being an Orchestra of which we are all just at the tip of the iceberg. I will certainly bring an expertise in my work and relationships with various composers’ processes, the creation of musical material in collaboration, the code switching and humility that it takes to listen to someone who may be speaking a distinct musical language from my own I seek to gain energy from the initial rub that listening lends. I want ACO to continue to forage deeper into the woods of American music creators, translating all forms of American sound creation to the orchestral setting in explosive and intimate ways. I hope to generate an example of pathways from community to concert stage celebrating excellence where we learn to find it.


Curtis Stewart–Photo by Marilena Arvelo

ACO has spearheaded several composer advancement initiatives. What lasting effect do you hope these programs will have on new generations of emerging composers?

The programs that ACO has created are amazing and a huge reason for my interest in ACO’s vision. ACO serves as a creative incubator for American orchestral music through EarShot – the first ongoing, systematic program for developing relationships between composers and orchestras on the national level. EarShot includes orchestral readings, CoLABoratory fellowships, consortium commissions, and professional development. One of my first commissions for string orchestra was through the ACO, Embrace, which flips the concept of community outreach on its head, going out into neighborhoods where the work will be performed, working with people, recording music sessions and conversations about the nature of music and its value, and bringing those sounds onto our concert stages to enliven our classical halls.

For me, these programs are a proof of concept – a way to create works and processes that American orchestras can emulate, use, and perfect. ACO doesn’t just set the tone in terms of repertoire; it sets an example for the creation of musical intersections that seem “impossible” in traditional settings, building a translation model and framing the music of creators in a social context. We are here to start the process and connect with organizations around the country that have an interest in celebrating the depth and musical genius of their communities on their stages. These programs ensure that “progress” is actually not a straight line, but a beautiful coloring in of our circle, an expressive search for who American music creators are NOW, and what is on their minds – noting that this is an unachievable and infinite pursuit.


Curtis Stewart–Photo by Lelanie Foster

As you continue your own projects in concurrence with your work at ACO, what does balance look like for you?

At the moment, balance looks like living and breathing music at all times – between PUBLIQuartet, composing, performing my solo violin works, teaching and managing the Chamber Music program at Juilliard, recording my next album (coming soon!), and developing the programing at ACO’s future season. Ideas from one space are flowing and interacting with all of my other spaces, both within my own mind and in terms of partnerships with my colleagues and newfound musical friends. In terms of actual life balance… I hope to work that out one day.

Opportunities to see ACO’s programs in action in the coming months: 

March 16 | Modern Yesterdays at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall
June 1-2 | EarShot Readings: American Composers Orchestra
June 8 | EarShot Readings and Choreography Workshop:  The Next Festival of Emerging Artists


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or