5 Questions to Alistair Coleman (composer)

This sponsored article is part of a paid partnership with the Curtis Institute of Music.

Alistair Coleman is taking the classical music world by storm with his vibrant and compelling compositions. Whether writing for string quartet, orchestra and voice, or soloists of all kinds, Coleman channels a capricious and organic musical energy.

Coleman was recently named the 2023 Young Concert Artists Composer in Residence, a highly competitive three-year position that provides $18,000 for three new commissions for YCA artists past and present. Coleman often composes music in dialogue with other media, such as poetry and visual art. Moonshot, for string quartet (2019), is a dramatic and poignant response to three “date paintings” by visual artist On Kawara, which mark the launch, landing, and celebration of Apollo 11’s voyage. Coleman turned to the abandoned designs of illustrious architect Frank Lloyd Wright to create Broadacre City, for flute and string quartet (2022), which opens with an explosion of activity that slowly grinds down until mere vestiges remain. For Gold Girl/Dark Doves (2023), premiered by soprano Ashley Marie Robillard and the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Coleman set text by Federico García Lorca, replete with haunting symbolism.

In addition to his work as a composer, Coleman is actively involved in mentoring the next generation of music creators. In 2020, he founded the Opportunity Music Project Composition Lab in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s PlayUSA. The program pairs young composers with experienced mentors who offer them feedback, support, and an ample supply of inspiration. Coleman holds an undergraduate diploma from Juilliard and a BM from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he is currently pursuing an MM in composition.

Congratulations on being named YCA’s 2023 Composer in Residence! Is it too soon to ask what you are planning to write and for who?

Thank you! It’s a real privilege to join the YCA roster and write music for their incredible artists. I’m writing a new piece for bass/baritone Joseph Parrish and pianist Damien Sneed, which will be premiered at the Kennedy Center in February. When I first met Joseph, he and I realized we both discovered our joy for making music through our upbringing singing in church. Even though we grew up in different traditions, we both have a lived experience of how music and spirituality, in their many forms, are linked. For this reason, I chose to set a poem called “Psalm” by the Romanian poet Paul Celan. When I discovered the text, I immediately loved its tone and imagery: taking familiar religious symbols and recasting them through an agnostic, naturalistic lens. From start to finish, the poem slowly reveals this dark environment of a single rose centered in a “desolate” landscape — an image that is so evocative in a musical context.

Alistair Coleman and Soovin Kim at the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Alistair Coleman and Soovin Kim at the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival — Photo courtesy of the artist

How would you describe your aesthetic or style to those unfamiliar with your music?

I’m a composer who believes in the physical, visceral power of music. I’m often led by my hands and voice toward sound worlds that resonate — both in the literal, acoustic sense and also in the sense that I want to move listeners. I’m drawn to beauty in my work, especially through the relationship between physicality and harmony. I think this stems from how improvisation at the piano is a big part of my practice — every chord, motive, or pulse has a distinct physical sensation. Recently I’ve decided to get closer to this process and record direct improvisations into Ableton. It’s allowed me to feel more playful, especially in the early stages of a piece, and further explore this idea of physicality with greater impulse and spontaneity. Also, the intimacy of my collaborations with performers is something that is very important to me. I write for people, not instruments, so my most meaningful musical experiences have been ones in which my collaborator’s interests and perspectives are in dialogue with my own.

How does inspiration from other art forms such as poetry and painting manifest in your compositional process?

A recent example is my piece for soprano and orchestra, Gold Girl / Dark Doves, which is inspired by two poems by Federico Garcia Lorca. These poems are the last of his collection of “Casidas,” inspired by the forms of Andalusi-Arabic “Qasidas,” and are among the last Lorca wrote before he was killed by nationalists during the Spanish Revolution in 1936. These poems explore intimate and personal ideas that reveal Lorca as his most vulnerable self — ones that reach me in a deeply personal way. Rich imagery and symbolism permeate these texts and illustrate a familiar interplay of “light versus dark.” However, over the course of these two poems, this contrast slowly inverts: “Of the Gold Girl” includes images of shimmering light that transforms into a very chaotic and macabre world, while the inevitable darkness in “Of the Dark Doves” portrays a feeling of solemnity and peace. This sense of duality and drama in the texts provided endless inspiration to not only set the texts but also help me bring listeners into the otherworldly environment of Lorca’s words.

Additionally, a few years ago, I collaborated with the Abeo Quartet on a piece inspired by a triptych of paintings on display at the Glenstone Museum by Japanese-American artist On Kawara. He dedicated his life to a daily practice of “date-painting,” where he would paint that day’s date onto a monochromatic canvas and if he did not finish within a twenty-four-hour period, he would destroy the work-in-progress. Among thousands of these date-paintings, the triptych at Glenstone is the largest in his collection and charts three milestone dates surrounding the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Kawara was a very private person and never spoke publicly, but the size and scale of these works speak to the profound personal impact of this milestone in human history, a feeling that the spaceflight-nerd in me shares. At Glenstone, there is a stark contrast between the dark canvases and the endlessly tall, sunlit room — it’s a very profound, meditative experience.

Moonshot for string quartet, which was commissioned by Glenstone, charts the story of Apollo through the lens and structure of Kawara’s triptych. The Abeos and I engaged in a weeklong residency at the museum to explore how the music and its performance engage with different environments, both visually and sonically. A video of the piece was premiered as part of the Smithsonian Year-of-Music and is being recorded for a new album by the Viano Quartet.

What unique opportunities and experiences has studying at Curtis offered you?

There’s so much that Curtis composers are afforded. We have annual chamber and orchestra performances, in addition to Curtis-sponsored commissions to work both inside the school and with artistic partners in Philadelphia.

A highlight for me was working with pianist Janice Carissa on a work of “composed theater,” a genre Curtis composers study under the mentorship of our teacher Amy Beth Kirsten. I wrote a piece based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Klara and the Sun, which features Janice performing on a Steinway Spirio, a very advanced player-piano acquired by Curtis. These two forces, a pianist and a piano that can play itself, created a musical context to personify the friendship between two main characters in Ishiguro’s novel: Josie, a young girl, and Klara, her AI-robot friend. We worked closely with the team at Steinway to learn about the Spirio’s technical possibilities, resulting in a “dystopian duet” between Janice and the piano that channel-surfs between human expression and machine-like sounds.

What can we look forward to hearing from you this season and beyond?

I’m very excited to build on some intimate collaborations which are driving a lot of my creativity this year. Currently, I’m working on a new work for solo piano commissioned by classmate Avery Gagliano that is based on daily recorded improvisations. That same month, mezzo Erin Wagner will perform a new arrangement of my Lorca songs at Carnegie Hall. I’m also about to begin work on a new violin concerto written for Lun Li as part of a commissioning consortium project. As a Curtis alum, Lun will come down to Philly this spring to workshop a movement of the piece with the Curtis Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky.


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