Meet our Season 12 Composers!

Our commissioning project is now in its fifth year! We’re thrilled to introduce you to the three composers who will write new music for you this season. But it doesn’t stop there, each concert this year features the music of a St. Louis or St. Louis connected composer. We anticipate almost all of them coming to the concerts, so be sure to get your tickets and meet a composer.

To learn more about our past commissions click here.

Click on their pics for more info.

Season 12 Commissions

David Werfelmann

World Premiere on Sept. 7 at the 560 Music Center

Music Professor at Webster University

Syna So Pro

World Premiere November 22 at the Contemporary Art Museum

St. Louis musical force.

LJ White

World Premiere February 9 at The Schlafly Tap Room

Music Professor at Washington University

Season 12 Composers from St. Louis area

Cindy McTee

Adagio for string quartet - October 11 at projects+gallery

Retired professor at University of North Texas, Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellow, now resides in St. Louis

Shelley Washington

Middleground for string quartet makes STL debut on April 17 at the Missouri History Museum

Native of KC, working on PHD from Princeton University

Kim Portnoy

From an Imaginary Musical for violin and piano will be performed on April 17 at the Missouri History Museum

Local legend, Kim Portnoy is also a jazz pianist and is the Director of Composition at Webster University.

Nilou Nour

White Helmets as white as death will be performed on March 12 and 14.

Nilou was the Resident Composer for the Young Composers Competition in St. Louis in 2018. She recently won two major competitions.

Meet Composer Stephanie Berg

In 2016, we commissioned Stephanie to write a piece for us and we loved it so much, we asked her to write another! We’re excited to premiere her new work “Who We Are” on two upcoming concerts with the theme #timesup. These concerts showcase the rich story telling and fierce intellect of women working in a field which historically, and largely continues to be, dominated by men. We asked Stephanie a few questions about her new work, and her perspective on being a women in this field.

Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jennifer Higon

Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jennifer Higon

Who are the women (artists, composers) who have inspired you? 

I had the pleasure of both meeting Jennifer Higdon and performing her works, and I am just so impressed with her.  Her music can be so raw and powerful--nothing held back--and in talking to her, I got the impression that she herself is the same way.  She is truly a force to be reckoned with (while also being friendly and down-to-earth)! There are many, really, but she stands out in my mind. 

In what ways has the lack of representation of women and people of color in classical music effected you? Is it something you think about notice? How old were you when you realized there is a gap in representation? 

Composer and clarinetist Stephanie Berg

Composer and clarinetist Stephanie Berg

Somehow, I was raging “girl power" kid from the beginning.  I seemed to want to go wherever people said "girls don't" or "won't” or “can’t,” whether it was mud pits, handling bugs and snakes, playing video games with my nerdy guy-pals, or dominating in my math and science classes.  Part of it was that I liked to challenge convention (at, like, age 8??), but part of it was also that I wasn’t bothered by being the only girl in a situation. So when I noticed (probably high school-ish) that recognized female composers were rare, it didn’t phase me in the slightest.  It was just another challenge. As far as how this has affected my career, it’s really hard to say; composition is just a hard field in general and I’m amazed at the success I’ve had in any case.

I think that it’s crucial to have conversations about representation gaps, and I am so very grateful for the people having these discussions and actively combating the problems; they've paved the way for people like me to be able to thrive in this business.  But for me in my daily life, in my own brain, I find it best to proceed as if I don’t know that I’m “different.” I feel that for every door that was perhaps closed to me because I am a woman, another was purposefully opened by people who have concerts like these, for example. And I try not to let the closed doors bother me; after all, what is a closed door, but an invitation to try the handle? 

Your new piece is titled "Who We Are". Can you tell us a little more about the piece and the title? 

I wrote this piece with women in mind, but I also wrote it really for all marginalized people.  “Who We Are” refers to who we are as human beings: resilient, strong, and enduring in the face of seemingly endless adversity.  I can relate to the struggles of women to be heard and to be taken seriously, as I have walked that path. But I see those same struggles echoed in the faces of so many others as well.  “Who We Are” is a call to truly see each other and the unique gifts that each of us have to offer, to honor the strength and tenacity that we all have.

Stephanie also creates beautiful scores, something the public doesn’t get to see. In addition to creating cover art for each score, she included a beautiful statement about the work. She graciously gave permission to share these here. Learn more about Stephanie and her music at

Two chances to hear “Who We Are”! March 2 at Southwestern Illinois College and March 9 at the Missouri History Museum. Visit our events tab for details.

Who We Are title page.jpg
Who We Are pg2.jpg

Meet composer Darwin Aquino

Meet Composer Darwin Aquino

We’ve commissioned Darwin to write a piece for our concert on Nov. 16 at the 560 Music Center. When we met Darwin we were instantly charmed by his enthusiasm and kindness!We are lucky to have him call St. Louis home! Come to the concert to meet him and enjoy his music!

Darwin headshot.jpg

Tell us a little about your path to becoming a conductor and a composer and your road to St. Louis.

I started composing when I was a little kid in my country the Dominican Republic. Just for fun. The violin is my instrument, so I was inventing in my head small pieces and playing them myself. With time I started to put them on paper and moved to other instruments. We had a piano in my house because my sisters played. With the years, contemporary composition became a huge part of my creative life and my work expanded to chamber, orchestra, vocal music, etc. I just love to live in a “World of Imagination” (as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! One of my favorites movies and soundtrack). Later I went to study composition in France with Ivan Fedele and began to explore in many new trends. Conducting came after…it is a funny story: I was the concertmaster of the National Youth Symphony Orchestra in my country and the conductor could not continue working for us. The orchestra, with a brilliant tradition of years, was going to fall apart. I said to him: can I continue the orchestra and conduct the rehearsals?... With out knowing anything about conducting actually. It was the best learning experience of my life. Then I became the music director of the Dominican “El Sistema” and later came to the US to achieve my masters in conducting. My road to St. Louis has to do with conducting Opera, which I love. Living in Florida I worked with many professional singers who later recommended my work to Winter Opera St. Louis. Conducing my second opera with them here I met my fiancé. After that, everything in my life was pointing me to move to St. Louis and continue my musical career from here. I don’t regret it.

Where did the idea for your piece for Chamber Project originate from/what was the biggest challenge when working on this project?

The title says everything I think: "Redescrubrimiento (which means “rediscovery" or "new encounters", in Spanish): A Dominican in St. Louis”. Of course it deals with a redefinition of myself in all senses. New things coming into my life, artistic experiences, another city and people, etc. Actually it was the first composition that I was offered to do here in town, after a period where I did not compose much because I was traveling a lot for work. I thought, if there is An American in Paris, why not A Dominican in St. Louis? The biggest challenge was to be able to mix my impressions of St. Louis with the folkloric music of the Caribbean (which has been my main trend of expression as a composer since 2007). That is why the audiences will find tropical rhythms, percussion instruments and colors mixed with moments of deep calm and silence (which captivates me the most about this city). St. Louis is very quiet and the Dominican Republic is extremely active. But at the end of the day I love both places with all the different things they have to offer. Finally. the piece pretends to have a comic balance between noise and silence.

Darwin conducting Winter Opera St. Louis

Darwin conducting Winter Opera St. Louis

What interests you most about music?

That you can find truth. Not in a rational way but in an emotional one. Music, as the Universe, has an internal will power, that undoubtedly is the closest that we have to feel something “real”.  

Who is your current inspiration?

My love Benedetta Orsi and our plans to build a family here.

What do you think the role of classical music is in today's world?

I think it plays an important role: we should not forget that great/real things need time to develop and exist. We live in a world that moves extremely fast and we don’t have time for anything (except for social media!). I strongly believe that is taking from us our humanity and spiritually. Classical music makes you go inside yourself and expand time in a creative manner, which is in my opinion one of the best tools we have to really know ourselves. You can not do that watching pictures and videos the whole day…Everyday we want more things and faster. Is not human, is not possible. We are not made to live like that.

What is your favorite thing about St. Louis?

The silence of the city and the kindness of its people. I could not ask for a better welcome of my musical work here. Also the top music scene the city has. Plus, a couple of Mexican restaurants…!

What's next for you?

I’m so blessed to have a full season of engagements in composition and conducting. Many things are next! For example the world premiere by Robert Davidovici of my new Concerto for Violin, Strings and Percussion at the Florida International University. Washington University Symphony Orchestra is welcoming me as their new conductor-in-residence with an amazing concert on October 28th. Also my orchestral piece YOAminicana will be premiered in St. Louis by this ensemble in our “Fiesta Latina” concert.  As a conductor I have upcoming symphonic concerts in New York City and the Dominican Republic, to then come back to do Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri and Bellini’s Norma with Winter Opera St. Louis. The end of the season will bring to life a new composition for Female Voices, Piano and Percussion, commissioned by the Women’s Hope Chorale. Can’t complain! I want to take the opportunity of this interview so say THANKS from the bottom of my heart to the city of St. Louis, its people and musical institutions, who have received me in such a wonderful and inspirational way.  

Meet Composer Andrew Stock


Tell us a little about your path to becoming a musician and a composer.

I grew up in the visual art scene, so everything seems like material to me. I’m sensitive to the aesthetic aspect of experience and of ideas—what I want right now to call the ‘inside’ of things. Music doesn’t mediate this with language, so it’s a good instrument.

Where did the idea for tour originate from/what was the biggest challenge when working on this project?

I wrote tour after expending a lot of energy on a different piece, which I never finished. It was too fussy. I often have the feeling that I’m trying to communicate everything, but you can’t communicate everything—you have to only suggest some things, which take on lives of their own.

In 2016–17 I was traveling a lot and taking notes about the sounds I heard in different places. I found that it’s hard to do documentation like this; you have to make decisions about what to pay attention to and how to translate this information into language. So the first part of tour asks for this kind of exercise. The second part asks that this documentation be turned into a performance, and there’s a distance, an abstraction, between the source sounds and their eventual (re-)realization. Something is ‘lost in translation’ (maybe also ‘gained’). I like making seemingly simple situations virtuosic and demanding.

What interests you most about music?

I wouldn’t want to say.

Who is your current inspiration?

I don’t think I have one.

What do you think the role of classical music is in today's world?

I always think this question is a little funny, like, “should there be art?” There should be art. But I can’t speculate, really, about the precise significance art has for everyone. For me it’s a way of living life, in the sense that making or participating in art is enacting presence. That has an ethical dimension.

Who are some of your favorite composers/performers/musicians?

I swapped this question in from one of your earlier interviews to replace a more locally-oriented one, but there is a local relevance insofar as nobody I’m going to name ever gets played here. “Favorite” makes it too hierarchical and too personal—these are just some people whose work I like, and there are others. I’ll only list living composers:

Ferneyhough, Barrett, Finnissy, Braxton (who actually will play in St. Louis on Oct. 8), Lucier, Wolff, Szlavnics, Frey, Lim, Chris Newman, the Johnsons Evan and Tom, Dench, Andrew Greenwald, Eric Wubbels

What's next for you?

More work. I always have a lot of long-term projects percolating in my mind, which I don’t usually finish until an opportunity comes up (or until I can make one) in the form of a commission or a residency or whatever. Right now I’m engaged in a series of large solo pieces (and chamber pieces that behave like solos, or which have something to do with soloness), which I started in 2016.

Personal website

Hear Andrew’s music on Oct 14 at the Schlafly Tap Room. tour has challenged us and opened us up to a world of new possibilities!

Meet our four commissioned composers for Season Eleven

What a thrill it is to perform a piece of music for the very first time, to bring new sounds into people’s ears, minds and lives! This season we’re excited to have the means to commission FOUR new pieces of music! It’s important for us to bring new voices, stories and perspectives onto the concert stage along side time-tested masterpieces to keep this art form alive and meaningful to today’s society. Take a moment and get to know our four commissioned composers for Season 11.

Andrew Stock

Andrew Stock

Andrew Stock

We’ve known about Andrew for some time - since he was 13 and attended a composition camp that we were working with at the Community Music School of Webster University. Andrew recently graduated from one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world and is back home here in St. Louis. After running into Andrew at a few concerts last year we were impressed by his thoughtfulness, intelligence and composure so we thought we’d ask him to write something for our concert themed MILLENNIAL.

Personal Website

Darwin Aquino

Darwin Aquino

Darwin Aquino

Our first introduction to Darwin was through performing with Winter Opera St. Louis. We immediately felt at ease with his cheerful rehearsal style and his passion for making great music. And then we learned he was also a composer! He recently relocated to St. Louis to spend more time with Winter Opera and is also the Director of the UMSL Orchestra and the Conductor in Residence at Washington University.

We asked Darwin to write a piece for our REDISCOVERY concert. This program is all about discovering something new so we wanted a new piece of music for it! Darwin as composed a piece that reflects on his experience as an immigrant, titled Redescubrimiento: A Dominican in St. Louis.

Personal Website

Stephanie Berg

Stephanie Berg

Stephanie Berg

This is our second time commissioning Stephanie. In 2017 she wrote a beautiful and elegant piece for us titled Nocturne. We loved it so much we wanted more from her and decided she was the perfect person to contribute a program in March we are deeply committed to: #TIMESUP which will be by both the Missouri History Museum and Southwestern Illinois College

Personal website

Katherine Bodor

Katherine Bodor

Katherine Bodor

This is also our second time commissioning Katherine. Her first work for us, premiered last spring, was Absent an Adjustment, was a serious work which took a wrenching look at climate change. But we know there is another side to Katherine, one that has quite a carrer going arranging pop tunes for a cappella ensembles. With a program in April titled BELOVED, which includes two vocalists and a theme about love, we’ve asked her to showcase the other side of her wide-ranging creativity. We can’t wait to see what she comes up with!

What's the deal with the VIOLA anyway?

Ah, the viola. The most misunderstood and underestimated member of the string family. The brunt of the cruelest jokes. This is the nicest one we could find.


But why is this larger cousin of the violin so maligned? The myths surrounding its history swirl, but it somehow relates to the awkward size of the instrument making it difficult to play. Historically, it was so awkward to play that viola parts were often rather simple. They didn't get the melody very often. You can think of it as the rhythm guitar in the band. The violins get all the glory playing the role of lead guitar and the cello gets to rock the bass line and the violists are stuck in the middle...and the mockery begins.

But not so fast. Without this glue in the middle, the music doesn't hold together, it doesn't have any body and soul. The instruments have improved and the musicians themselves have taken on this bad reputation head on and have pushed the viola to an incredibly level of mastery. And violists themselves: the best kind of people you want to know. It takes something special to be a viola player. Learn more about the history here.

Violin top, Viola bottom.

Violin top, Viola bottom.

Why are we even talking about the viola?

Laura Reycraft

Laura Reycraft

This fall, we feature two violists on two concerts! Traditionally chamber music often features a string quartet: 2 violins, 1 viola and 1 cello. But someone had the bright idea that adding another viola to this group would make for an awesome sound. And they were right!

Amy Greenhalgh

Amy Greenhalgh

On September 25 at The Sheldon Concert Hall, we feature a great piece by composer Kenji Bunch (who happens to also be a violist!) called String Circle which features two violas.  We've played Kenji's music before, read our 2013 interview with him here.

On October 14 at the Schlafly Tap Room, we feature perhaps one of the first works to add an extra viola to the ensemble: the famous Quintet in G minor by none other than the legendary Mozart. Mozart of course could play almost any instrument he touched and was a renowned pianist and violinist, but when playing with his friends, he often choose to play the viola. He was onto something!

We happen to have some really fantastic violists here in St. Louis. Laura Reycraft, co-founder of Chamber Project, and Amy Greenhalgh who has been performing with us for a few years:  we're excited to finally feature them playing together!

We are ready to trash the bad rap of the viola with these great pieces we know you will enjoy! Don't miss this chance to hear this unique ensemble!

Get your tickets! Just jump on over to our events page!

Meet composer Katherine Bodor

Our friend, composer Chris Stark, know we're always on the look out for young, interesting composers to work with. He recommended one of his former students to us, so we reached out to Katherine and she said yes! We asked her to write a piece for our upcoming ECO concert, which is all about nature. She eloquently answered a few questions for us! Get to know her here and come out on Friday to the 560 Music Center or if you're up for an adventure, drive out to Augusta for dinner and the concert!

Tell us a little about your path to becoming a composer?

Katherine Bodor with name.jpg

My path has had a few twists along the way - as any composer, I'm sure! I've always been musical, playing piano, percussion, and guitar for various lengths of time, but music was always a hobby, and as much as I deeply enjoyed it, I didn't consider it as my primary focus. School and science came first, and so I went into undergrad at WashU convinced I'd become a mechanical engineer. The demands of an engineering major quickly took over my life and I stopped practicing piano - but vocal music took its place. As I arranged for my student-run a cappella {ensemble of voices only} group and sang with the WashU Chamber Choir, I fell in love with the beauty of the intersection of individual line and vertical sonority. I decided to get a music minor since I had no formal theory training, and took a semester of composition during my freshman year as an elective, but didn't take it too seriously since I still considered myself primarily an engineer.

Over the next few years, I realized I was happiest when arranging or singing, for it felt meaningful to connect with others and work toward a whole greater than the sum of its parts (which may sound like lofty, philosophical language, but I truly believed it!) Toward the end of my junior year, I realized that I shouldn't be doing something - engineering - that didn't feel truly meaningful, so I finagled my credits, changed my music minor to a music major in composition, and changed my BS in Engineering to a BaS (just a few less classes to take). Almost instantly, things started falling into place for me - I had a lot I wanted to write in composition lessons, I won a small competition, and the WashU Chamber Choir premiered a work of mine in my last semester. I was encouraged by my professors to keep writing, so I took a year off after graduating in May 2016 to refocus my passions into music. I interned at an a cappella production studio, did vocal arranging for scholastic groups, wrote a few instrumental pieces, won a couple more small competitions ... and took a chance and applied to grad school in music composition. Someone at IU Jacobs School of Music {Indiana University} must have liked something they saw in my portfolio, because here I am, getting my masters! I feel incredibly fortunate to be pursuing music full-time, working on both the instrumental/contemporary front, and also continuing to arrange professionally for vocal groups.   

Who are some of your favorite composers/performers/musicians?

Oh man, there's so many! I'll throw out a bunch that come to mind, but this is by no means exhaustive: Beethoven, Stravinsky, Britten, Bartók, Reger, Bruckner, Carter, Penderecki, Pärt, Julia Wolfe, Anders Hilborg, Evelyn Glennie, Radiohead, Bjork, Caroline Shaw, Augusta Reed Thomas, David Ludwig ...    

What is your favorite instrument or ensemble to write for?

Tough question for sure - I enjoy writing for all sorts of instrumental combinations, but I seem to be biased toward the voice and toward strings. There's something visceral about the connection between text and music that always piques my creativity; and I wrote a solo violin piece for my roommate last fall that made me fall in love with the range of expression of a single string instrument. Of course, that isn't to say that all other instruments don't have a massive range of expression! In fact, I think it actually comes down to the dedication of the performer, and the excitement and intention they bring to their instrument, which is really the ultimate treat for a composer.

What are some of the challenges and rewards you encountered when composing this piece for Chamber Project?

When I was first asked about this commission, my mind went crazy with possibilities. Celebrating and protecting mother earth has always been very near to my heart, and it's a cause I get extremely passionate about. I've been on a huge anti-plastic kick in the past couple of years - there is so much harm in straws, plastic bags, and lined cups for hot drinks, to name a few. All these single-use items we throw in the trash mindlessly ... it's a tad inconvenient at first to always have a cloth bag or a to-go mug with you, or to ask for no straws in restaurants and elsewhere, but I believe that every little thing I do does make a difference, and is necessary.

With this in mind - and imagining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in particular - I tried to find texts concerning the plastic build-up in the oceans, thinking I'd structure my piece around the flow of water - and the flow of global ecosystems - that are interrupted and destroyed by plastic build-up, represented by musical interruptions and breaks in melody and texture. However, my plastic-related search was derailed in late July 2017 when I discovered The Uninhabitable Earth. I spent a couple hours digesting the article, got unreasonably angry, brooded for the rest of that day, re-read the article the next day, got depressed at feeling powerless, and then realized I had no choice but to write the commission about this subject. Luckily, some of the musical elements I had sketched out already - specifically, the idea of flow and interruption - made it into this new piece.

The biggest challenges then were to narrow down the text of The Uninhabitable Earth to the most essential, and also to find a musical language that captured my personal response to the text as accurately as possible. It took me a couple weeks alone to develop the harmonic language, fiddling at the piano to find sonorities that spoke to me as "this-is-almost-but-not-quite-beautiful-and-is-tinged-with-the-ominous." With that, the next challenge - perhaps the biggest one of all - was to set the text in a way that captured all the elements I was going for, but was also singable and idiomatic enough for the human voice (which is tricky!) Fortunately, Katherine Jolly happens to teach at IU, and I was able to collaborate with her closely and check in throughout the text setting process to capitalize on her skills. I really appreciate her collaborative spirit and guidance, and am very grateful to have worked in tandem with her.

What role to you think classical music plays in today's society?  

I recently read a quote from Karl Paulnack, director of music division at Boston Conservatory: "If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2 AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft."

I believe strongly in this sentiment. I believe music, and live music in particular, has the potential to heal, challenge, and change us, and that is absolutely crucial. The world has a lot of potential to become increasingly cold and impersonal, and I believe classical - and contemporary - music can make us feel more connected, more present in the moment, and ultimately, happier.

Since this is a concert inspired by Nature: what is one of your favorite 'nature' places/experiences?

When I was young, I always wanted to be outdoors: my childhood home was on the edge of Minnesota woods, and when I wasn't outside climbing on rocks and running down hills, I was inside, gazing at the way sunlight filtered through leaves, head lost in the clouds. As I grew older and discovered things like Thoreau's Walden, they resonated deeply, and I would make bold declarations to my mom like "I am a real environmentalist!" Of course, growing older and learning more meant realizing that the natural world isn't always in a magical balance. It isn't guaranteed to be there forever, since humans truly affect ecosystems and affect natural processes, sometimes to catastrophic extremes. Therefore, one of my favorite places on earth - one I experienced just a couple years ago - is the Grand Canyon. It is deeply humbling and awe-inspiring to see that incredible rift in the earth, carved on an unimaginable timescale by natural processes that humans had no say in. It speaks very viscerally to the power and patience of the natural world, and is a reminder of how small we really are.

What's next for you?

I'll be at IU Jacobs for one more year to finish up my masters, and after that, I'm interested in working for a nonprofit ensemble or collective while continuing to compose for any ensemble I can collaborate with. Or, maybe I'll refurbish and live out of a van for a year ... I've got a range of things I'd like to do! In the meantime, I'll be writing for, and attending, a couple summer festivals this year, and I've got a chamber symphony in the works, as well as a few pieces to write for friends. I also have plans for some demanding vocal music - I'm eager to keep writing, keep exploring.

Visit our Events pages for tickets and details


10 Years of Making Music

Wow. 10 years! We are humbled and excited to reach this milestone. When we started, we had no idea exactly where this was going to go. We had so many ideas, but we weren't sure if we could bring them to life. After 10 years we're a little floored at how we've become an integral part of the arts community. We feel like we're contributing to our community by employing a roster of 20+ local musicians and composers at a high level of artistry to tell stories through music to our community.

We've been looking at some old pics, and we thought it would be fun to share!

There are many more photos and even more great memories. Thanks for sharing this journey with us. We look forward to the next 10 years!

Join us on February 11 as we celebrate with a part at The Schlafly Tap Room. Check out the events page for info and tickets!

Three Reasons to Give: #3 Community Matters

We do things a little differently, and we need your help to keep it going! Here is a little more information on why what we do matters, and why we need you to donate today to keep it happening.

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Three reasons to choose Chamber Project as deserving of your hard-earned money:

#1  Inclusive and Expansive Programming
#2  Local Focus
#3  Community Matters

#3: Community Matters.  Our founding principal is to create community through music making.  Creating events that bring people together. By focusing on #1, Inclusive and expansive programming and #2 Local Focus, we create community. A common ground and a shared experience where you can enjoy yourself, expand your horizons and meet someone new.

We need you to buy in. Make a donation to keep us going for the next 10 years of inclusive, expansive, locally focused community based music making. Every single dollar counts. 

Or send a check to:

Chamber Project St. Louis
PO Box 300008
University City, MO 63130


Thank you!

Three Reasons to Give: #2 Local Focus

We do things a little differently, and we need your help to keep it going! Here is a little more information on why what we do matters, and why we need you to donate today to keep it happening.

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Three reasons to choose Chamber Project as deserving of your hard-earned money:

#1  Inclusive and Expansive Programming
#2  Local Focus
#3  Community Matters

performing At 4 Hands Brewing co.

performing At 4 Hands Brewing co.

#2: Local! Local! Local! Core to our mission is the promotion of local musicians, composers and stories. This means your money stays right here in your community. We have a roster of 20+ amazing musicians who live locally. We serve locally brewed beer at our events. We use local, independently owned print companies for all of our printing needs.

We commission local composers (5 so far!) to write music, that often has a community inspiration. This year alone we have premiered works by local composers about the Gateway Arch and the Dred Scott case, which originated in St. Louis. We partner with local service organizations and host them at our events to give them a platform to share their work and an opportunity for you to learn more and give back to your community.

Staying local builds community, builds depth, builds relationships. Which leads us to reason #3 to give. Stay tuned.

Chamber Project St. Louis
PO Box 300008
University City, MO 63130

Three Reasons to Give: #1

Why give to Chamber Project St. Louis?

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We do things a little differently, and we need your help to keep it going! Here is a little more information on why what we do matters, and why we need you to donate today to keep it happening.

Three reasons to choose Chamber Project as deserving of your hard-earned money:

#1  Inclusive and Expansive Programming
#2  Local Focus
#3  Community Matters

#1: Inclusive and Expansive Programming. What do we mean? Classical music was born a long long time ago in Europe and it's primary practitioners for most of that time have been men of European decent. We love the history and the art these men created, but it's time for the art form to genuinely reflect the community. We strive to be inclusive of artist, composers and content from a diversity of backgrounds.

Kyle Lombard & Jane Price, violins. Robert McNichols Jr., baritone. Stephanie Hunt, cello. Amy Greenhalgh, viola. Performing at the Missouri History Museum in September 2017.

Kyle Lombard & Jane Price, violins. Robert McNichols Jr., baritone. Stephanie Hunt, cello. Amy Greenhalgh, viola. Performing at the Missouri History Museum in September 2017.

For example, this past September, we premiered a work by local composer Adam Maness at the Missouri History Museum as part of their #1 in Civil Rights, the African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis exhibit (if you haven't been to it - go now!). Adam was charged to write a work for baritone voice about the Dred Scott decision.  He delivered a moving and timely work titled "The Devil and the Law" in which he used text from the case and from Frederick Douglass.

Expanding the stories we tell to include themes and experiences that are relevant to our city and our times keeps this art form relevant and helps to bring our community together.

Katherine Bodor, composer

Katherine Bodor, composer

Katherine Jolly, soprano

Katherine Jolly, soprano

In April, soprano Katherine Jolly performs a new work by a young composer Katherine Bodor. Women composers are extremely underrepresented in classical music, and we strive to integrate music written by women in every concert.

We are a women driven organization and are proud to to work towards genuine integration and equal "play time" in our art form.

Stay tuned for reasons #2 and #3!

Or write a check to

Chamber Project St. Louis
PO Box 300008
St. Louis, Mo 63130

Meet Composer Zac Cairns

Zac has written a brand new piece of music for us inspired by the Gateway Arch, for saxophone and string trio. Learn about how he translated the physical structure of the Arch into a musical structure that the melody could "pass through" and why he doesn't see any conflict in rooting for both the Red Sox and the Cardinals. (!!)

Tell us a little about the path to lead you to be a classical composer, and how that path lead you to St. Louis? 

Well, my compositional path didn't lead me to St. Louis, but it found me in St. Louis after I had tried to abandon it years ago.  I'm primarily a music theorist, but my undergraduate degree was in music education.  I wrote a lot of music in high school:  "classical" pieces, arrangements for school ensembles, and lots and LOTS of rock music.  My goal was to be a high school band director, and I was going to write pieces for my band to play at every concert...that is, unless my career as a shredding rock guitarist didn't take off first.  (It didn't.)  When I went to college at Penn State, I was so busy with my classes and practicing (I was a percussion major, and I could spend DAYS practicing marimba) that I didn't have any time to write at all, and composing just sort of slipped out of my life.  I took one general composition class for non-composition majors, but that was it.  

But while I was doing my undergrad, I realized that I really had a love for music theory, and it became clear that I could actually make teaching music theory my career, and that sounded fantastic.  And it is.  

So, I eventually DID get a job teaching high school band, and I loved it, but it wasn't for me long term.  I went back to Penn State and got my master's in music theory, got married, and then the two of us moved to Rochester, NY to start our respective graduate programs at Eastman (Whitney did an MM in choral conducting, I did a PhD in music theory).  Rochester was an amazing place -- there was so much great music around every corner.  When I was finishing my dissertation, I applied for every full-time theory job in the country, and was lucky enough to land one -- here at University of Missouri-St. Louis.  That was in 2010.  

Zac's first trip to the Arch! He was impressed. 

Zac's first trip to the Arch! He was impressed. 

I guess it wasn't really true to say that I wasn't writing music all that time.  Every summer since 2001, I've been writing and arranging competitive marching band music for a number of bands back in Pennsylvania.  It's a really fun process -- lots of collaboration with other musicians and visual designers...and since they're all student musicians, there are constant compositional challenges.  Like, , "Whoops, that phrase needs 4 more counts, because there's no way our clarinets can get to their new spot on the field...and we need a score and parts for that revision by tomorrow morning," and, "We only have 6 trumpet players this season, and none of them can play above a G at the top of the staff." It's really a lot of fun to write within restrictions like that.  

Anyway, in 2013, I had been spending a lot of time with Debussy's Clair de lune -- doing a lot of analysis in preparation for an arrangement for marching band.  Yup, that's right.  Sorry, to the pianists of the world.  (And no, I'm not even remotely the first person to arrange that piece for marching band.)  The band director I was writing for wanted me to create a sort of dark fantasy on Clair de lune, also, so I whipped together this two minute piece that twisted Debussy in all sort of uncomfortable ways.  It was great fun...but I left so many ideas in a sketchbook.  And then I talked to Gary Brandes, the director of bands at UMSL, and I told him I had this idea for a concert band piece, and I asked him, "Will you play this with your band if I write it?"  He said, yes, so I spent the next couple of months converting that two-minute piece into a 10-minute piece for wind ensemble, called Refracted Moonlight. I was extremely happy with that piece, and it was so much fun to be back working in a performance setting again. 

Anyway, I guess that project is what I mean when I say that my compositional path "found me" again in St. Louis.  I don't know if it was a matter of building some confidence in my writing or something else, but I've been enjoying composing immensely ever since then.  


What do you like most about being a composer? What are some of the challenges you face? 

"Being a composer" is a challenge in itself for me, really.  I still consider myself "a music theorist who also composes," and I probably always will.  Probably the biggest challenge for me is just finding time to compose regularly.  

What was your process in writing Passing Through? What were some challenges? 

"Passing Through" was a really exciting piece to compose. When we talked about this commission back in the spring, the idea was to write a piece that was inspired in some way by the Gateway Arch.  Now, of course, like any good people who move to St. Louis, my wife and I made a trip up to the top of the Arch almost immediately after moving in.  It's a really impressive structure.  I remember standing underneath it and taking a picture of the Arch from below -- it looks all twisty, and it's hard to tell what exactly you're looking at.  The experience of viewing the Arch from underneath is completely different than viewing it from a distance.  

This commission was a good fit for me, because from a compositional perspective, I tend to be most inspired by abstractions.  It's much harder for me to try to "tell a story" when writing than it is for me to get ideas from something less concrete or narrative-based, and then to see where those ideas take me.  

Zac did his research - and a serious amount of math while writing  Passing Through . 

Zac did his research - and a serious amount of math while writing Passing Through

My idea with "Passing Through" was to create a musical structure that would be analogous to the architectural structure of the Arch.  The Arch is 630 feet from end to end, and it's also 630 feet tall at its highest point.  It's close to a shape called a catenary curve, which is the shape a chain makes when you let it hang, supporting only the ends.  These dimensions and this shape gave me a general idea of the "shape" of the piece.  I decided to make the 630-foot baseline into the chronological timeline of the piece -- the piece would be 630 seconds long (10 1/2 minutes).  And likewise, I decided to make the height of the piece (which starts at 0, grows to 630 feet, and shrinks back to 0) into the expanding and contracting pitch space.  A height of 0 translates to a unison -- there is no distance between the notes.  So, the piece begins and ends on a unison D.  I realized I couldn't make each foot of height a half step, because 630 half steps is a range of over 52 octaves, and I didn't want dogs to be the only audience capable of hearing the piece.  So, I divided by 10, and that became 63 half steps, which is 5 octaves and a minor 3rd.  So, at the registral climax of the piece (halfway through, at 5 minutes and 15 seconds), the pitch space is at its widest -- the cello is down on it's low C, and the violin plays an Eb more than five octaves above that.  Throughout the course of the piece, the distance between the lowest and highest notes starts at 0 (that unison D), expands to 63 half steps, and then contracts again to that same unison D.  That space is my "Arch," and the title comes from the idea that the piece's melodic material "passes through" that space -- the saxophone, primarily, always fits inside this Arch.  (Until the very, very end, where it ends up above...but that's another story.)

Zac's outline for translating the physical structure of the Gateway Arch into a music expression of that structure. 

Zac's outline for translating the physical structure of the Gateway Arch into a music expression of that structure. 

So, that was the basic limitation I placed on myself.  But what I wasn't expecting was how this would force me to compose in a manner entirely different than how I normally approach writing a piece.  I tend to think in a very non-linear manner:  I'll get an idea for the beginning of a piece, and then another idea for the same piece, but I can tell it's going to be much later in the piece.  I can develop those ideas separately, but eventually, I have to figure out how to connect Idea #1 to Idea #2.  I often draw big form charts as I'm writing -- I like to keep track of the overall pacing of the music:  there's going to be some sort of crescendo over here, and a big arrival after that, and then Idea #2 will happen.  I might not know what happens at that arrival for quite some time, but I can leave space for it and come back to it later.

But with "Passing Through," I wasn't able to generate ideas for "sometime later in the piece," because the time when those ideas would occur would determine the range of the passage.  I did have some ideas I could save ("This idea spans 26 half steps -- how far into the piece is my Arch at 26 half steps?"), but for much of the piece, I had to write from left-to-right in order to let the predetermined shape of the piece control the melodic and harmonic material.  

What is your favorite instrument to write for? 

That's a difficult question -- I'm not sure that I've got a real preference.  I really like writing for wind instruments, because the color contrasts can be so pronounced.  Even within a single instrument -- the bottom of the clarinet's range, for example, is almost a completely different instrument than the top.  Because of my background as a percussionist, I guess I feel most at home writing for marimba (or percussion, in general).  But I mostly like writing for musicians that I know will be passionate about and committed to performing it, regardless of instrument.  A good friend of mine from college programmed a piece of mine with her middle school band, and the kids apparently went nuts over it, and they've ended up playing it at three separate concerts, because the students won't put it away.  So, she commissioned me to write a new piece specifically for them.  I'm finishing that up now -- and it's really gonna be neat, because those students are all pumped up over this new piece.  (Isn't it great to see passionate music-making in our schools?)

Anyway, that's part of the reason "Passing Through" is so exciting for me -- the members of Chamber Project are always so deeply involved in the music they're performing, and, maybe it's selfish, but I'm thrilled to be part of that.

What is your favorite thing about St. Louis? 

I should have a musical answer to this, but really, my favorite thing about St. Louis is baseball.  I've been a baseball fan all my life.  I don't know if I should admit this, but I started to watch and play baseball when I lived in Rhode Island.  And every good 5 year old New Englander loves the Red Sox.  So I've been a Sox fan since I was kid...which means I rooted against the Cards in 2004 and 2013.  But really, apart from meeting in the World Series, I don't see any conflict of interest in rooting for both the Sox and the Cards.  But St. Louis is a real baseball town -- this place is no joke.  I love going to Busch Stadium to see games -- people here KNOW this sport.  I remember listening to 101.1 shortly after we moved here.  It was right around the All-Star break, and the Cards were something like 2 games out of first place.  And to listen to the callers, you would have thought the sky was falling.  I'm listening and thinking, "It's July -- there's a lot of baseball left."  But wow, there's some passion.  I remember walking around the neighborhood when we lived in U City and seeing a picture in the window of some random house.  It was something that was obviously drawn by a young elementary school kid -- it had a red bird, and a scrawled STL logo.  And it just made me smile to see that, not only had that kid drawn her or his little tribute to the Cardinals, but that the parents loved it enough to put it right in their front-room window!  I like that.

What's next for you? 

Many things!  The composer side of me has a couple of cool projects going on. I mentioned earlier that I'm finishing up a middle school band piece right now, and I have another commission from a high school band to write a piece for them -- I'm just starting to do some sketches for that. UMSL's choir is going to be performing a "grown up" version of a piece I originally wrote for the choir my wife directs at the St. Louis Children's Choirs.  I get to come to some rehearsals next week, I think, so that'll be fun to get to work with the students I see in theory class in a completely different context.  And Adrianne and I had been talking about doing a duo for saxophone and bass clarinet for her and her husband Derek to play.  We'll talk about that next week when she gets into town -- I hope she's still interested!

This is actually the second piece of yours that Adrianne premiered, tell us more about the first. 

Adrianne and Jeff perform zac's duo for baritone sax and percussion in france.

Adrianne and Jeff perform zac's duo for baritone sax and percussion in france.

In 2014, I found out that the Percussive Arts Society was running a composition contest, and that year's category for for percussion and woodwind duo.  I had written a three-movement piece for marimba and alto saxophone several years earlier, and I thought, "I wonder how that would work."  I pulled that piece out and looked at it, and it was terrible.  But there were some good things in the third movement.  So, I scrapped the first two movements, swapped out the alto saxophone for a bari sax, and expanded the percussion part so that it was a marimba surrounded by a whole bunch of toys (bongos, temple blocks, a kick drum, and some toms).  I rewrote the original third movement, and added a brand new movement to play before it...and I put the score and a MIDI mock-up in the mail.  Months later, after I had virtually forgotten about the contest, I found out that my little duo had won!  

That piece was my first time collaborating with Adrianne -- I was definitely in need of some assistance in writing (really writing) for baritone saxophone [the lowest saxophone].  I'm sure she regrets giving me the green light on those altissimo A's...  [altissimo is means the very highest range of a woodwind instrument, generally very difficult to perform]  Adrianne and Jeff Barudin (a good friend of mine from Penn State, who now, coincidentally teaches percussion at Lindenwood and also performs with Chamber Project) premiered the piece here, and then played it again at PASIC, [An international percussion conference] and then at the SaxOpen conference in France (with a new middle movement -- it was kind of a "re-premiere").  

Anyway, writing for Adrianne is really fun -- she's very honest about what's appropriate writing for the instrument and what isn't.  We spent a lot of time sending Facebook messages back and forth for Passing Through. I'd write to her and say, "Hey, there's this thing I want to do," or "Can you play this?" and attach a clip of the score in progress.  Luckily for me, she's an amazing player, so the answer was almost always, "Sure -- sounds cool!" 

From Nothing

A throwback blog post from 2012!
Saxquest handed us our first opportunity for a performance and they have been steady supporters every year since.

by Dana

Recently an audience member said, "So, you really started this from nothing?"

Yup, I said, from nothing.

It started from nothing, nothing of Chamber Project existed in any from.  And then there was that fateful night. A few friends, some old, some new, got together to hang out and enjoy a nice glass or two of wine. Being new to each other and all being musicians, the conversation naturally turned to music. We got excited about some music we wanted to play, and decided to have A MEETING. (Just so you know, musicians have rehearsals...not MEETINGS.)

So we had our first meeting, we brainstormed, we got excited about all of the possibilities, and we drank more wine. We created a group email account, we sent dozens of ideas over email. We had another meeting (and more wine).

We got lucky when Mark Overton at Saxquest asked us to put together something for a little mini-festival he put on in a tent behind his shop. We had our first gig! We decided to put together a whole season. We found a venue that would provide a space for us to set up a series of concerts, which was amazing. We celebrated, with just a little more wine.


Our first ever performance.

At Saxquest.

It was hot. Really hot.

We fought about programming, we stressed about money, we experimented with concert formats.  We struggled with the website, learned how to use social media. We were educated on the difference between PR and Marketing.  We performed some great concerts, and maybe some not so great concerts.  We built a board, we became a non-profit. We had our first fundraiser, created our first spreadsheet, and wrote and received our first grant!

We've learned we have hidden talents that don't involve our instruments. We've learned we have limits and we've pushed them.  We've learned the challenges and rewards of working with your friends. (How do you tell a close friend that she's out of tune or that you think her big idea isn't so big - how do you take it when you're on the receiving end?) We've learned to be vulnerable and to be tough.  I think the most valuable thing we've all learned is to trust each other, both on and off stage.

And we've also learned to stop drinking wine at meetings. Well, most meetings.


After a concert at The Wine Press, 2011?

Caption this.

Most importantly we've met so many wonderful people at our concerts, building a common ground for all people to come together.

A deeper look at FAITH

We are honored to begin our 10th Season with a partnership with the Missouri History Museum as part of the "#1 in Civil Rights, the African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis" exhibit.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

As we developed this program we were looking for a way to connect the theme of "FAITH" to St. Louis. Inspired by the work we commissioned last year by Adam Maness, "The Delmar Wall", we wanted to find a way to explore the history of race in St. Louis, and felt the story of the landmark Dred Scott case, which began in St. Louis would be an interesting topic. As we researched, we found the perfect link.  After the case was decided against Dred Scott, plummeting the hopes for freedom for African Americans and abolitionists working to end slavery, Frederick Douglass encouraged the freedom fighters by saying:


"We must walk on Faith, not on sight."

We look forward to what Adam Maness will will come up with for this work for baritone and small ensemble. We will also be performing "The Delmar Wall" as well as other works by Americans that explore FAITH from different perspectives. Samuel Barber questions faith in "Dover Beach" and Christopher Rouse examines the practice of faith in Compline for harp, flute, clarinet and strings.

September 8, 7:30pm
The Missouri History Museum Auditorium
Free, no reservations required.

More about the Dred Scott case.
Sourced from "This Far by Faith . Journey 2" by PBS

The Dred Scott Case: Polarization of the Nation

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical…If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” —Frederick Douglass, 1857

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a decision that galvanized a budding Republican Party, polarized a young nation, and set the stage for the Civil War. For black Americans, the decision radically undermined their legal rights and their faith that God was leading the country toward a true interpretation of American democracy.

The questions raised in the Dred Scott case spoke to a nation divided - divided religiously, geographically, economically, politically, and racially. At the center of that division stood Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived in two states that had outlawed slavery: Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory.

America had become a patchwork of free and slave lands. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established Missouri as a slave state, but otherwise limited the extension of slavery in the west; no territories above the southern border of Missouri could be admitted to the Union as slave states. That meant that from Illinois to Iowa, each new state that joined the Union sparked a debate about preserving the balance between free and slave states.

Born into slavery in 1799, Scott was illiterate and nearly penniless when he and his wife Harriet first brought their case to the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1846. Like his parents, Scott had been the property of Peter Blow, a prominent Virginian. Scott moved from Virginia to Missouri with the Blow family. There he was sold to a military surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, in 1830. For the next twelve years, Scott traveled the mid-west with Dr. Emerson, moving between Missouri, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Territory. During that time, Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and daughters Lizzie and Eliza, lived enslaved in a land that outlawed slavery.

In 1846, three years after the death of Dr. Emerson and the transfer of ownership to Emerson's widow Irene, Dred and Harriet Scott filed what would become the first of several landmark suits seeking their freedom. The Scotts lost their first trial, held in 1847, on a technicality - Scott could not prove Emerson's widow was their official owner. The Missouri Supreme Court called for a retrial. In 1850, a jury found in Scott's favor, based on the time he and Harriet had spent living in free territories. It seemed that Dred and Harriet Scott were freed. But their freedom was short-lived.

Two years later, the Missouri State Supreme Court overruled the decision and enslaved them again. The legal wrangling continued when, in 1853, Scott filed suit in the U.S. Federal Court, this time naming John Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother - and executor of Dr. Emerson's estate - as the defendant. Once more Scott's request for freedom was turned down. With nowhere else to turn, Scott and his lawyers appealed to the highest court in the land: the U.S. Supreme Court.

The opinion handed down on March 6, 1857, by Chief Justice Roger Taney was sweeping in its pro-slavery findings. Seven of the nine justices found that Dred Scott should remain enslaved. Taney's opinion argued that Scott, as an enslaved person, was not a citizen and thereby had no grounds to bring suit in federal court. As he put it, blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."

In the end, Dred Scott and his family did win their freedom. Emerson's widow remarried to a northerner, Calvin Chaffee, who was staunchly anti-slavery. In deference to her new husband's wishes, Mrs. Emerson sold the Scotts to the Blow family, their original masters. The Blow family had supported Scott both emotionally and financially throughout the lengthy ordeal, and in May 1857 they gave Scott and his family their freedom. A scant sixteen months later, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. His epitaph reads: "Dred Scott: Subject of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1857 which denied citizenship to the Negro, voided the Missouri Compromise, became one of the events that resulted in Civil War."

DID YOU KNOW Walk on Faith, not by Sight.

After the Dred Scott Decision

"Walk on Faith, not by Sight." Those were Frederick Douglass' words to black audiences in the wake of the Dred Scott decision. The Civil War was five years away. Black Americans saw themselves without hope, and slavery seemed to be spreading into the West. Northern black leaders, increasingly desperate, struggled with how to proceed: to immigrate (to Africa? To Mexico? To Haiti? To Canada?); to stay in America; to join the Republican Party; or even to organize some kind of third political party movement.

In the South, slave owners were told to keep their slaves away from political meetings, to keep them ignorant of the widening debate. There is not much evidence that that worked, and much to indicate that the enslaved were aware of the debate heating up over their futures.

Meet composer Kareem Roustom

We are honored to be giving the mid-west premiere of Kareem's work Abu Jmeel's Daughter. He was kind enough to answer some questions for us about his work.

"I have decided that my music must serve as a vehicle for some kind of message, be that advocating for cross-cultural understanding, compassion for the 'other', or to raise a fist against injustice and tyranny, or another cause that, even in a very small way, tries to make our world a little better."

Share a little of your background story as a Syrian-American and the path you have traveled to becoming an established award-winning composer, commissioned by some of the biggest names in classical music.

Well, I'm not sure that I'd use the word "established" but I'll try to give a brief synopsis of how it came to be that I am replying to your e-mail. I was born in Damascus, Syria to an American mother and a Syrian father and was raised there until about the age of 13. At that point it was decided that we should move permanently to the USA. In hindsight, the decision was very wise but it breaks my heart to have to admit this. The move was difficult in many different ways but I suppose you could compare it to uprooting a tree and replanting it somewhere else. However, this sense of uprootedness, and current events, has played and still plays a very important role in my creative work.  Also, because of this uprootedness I found music. At first it was through the guitar and jazz, as a way to run away from my conflicted identity, and then through the oud and "classical" and traditional Arabic music as a way to run towards my conflicted identity and to embrace it.  That process took years. However, I always knew that composition was at the deepest core of my efforts and since I've always had much more confidence as a composer than as a performer my path became clear.

How I came to be "established" is a bit of a circuitous story and not at all conventional. With the exception of few lessons with Michael Gandolfi, I am a self taught composer. I don't have a PhD in composition and I don't hold a tenured position anywhere so I've always had to rely on my intuition. I've always tried to hone my craft, to study the music that I love and to learn from the music that I don't love. Sometimes professional opportunities came when I wasn't ready and sometimes they came when I thought I wasn't ready but I was. The disaster that has been unfolding in Syria has certainly created an interest in its culture. I realize that in some ways that has opened the door, and this is not something that I want to take advantage of, but I hope that the 'door' will stay open because my music has a certain quality to it. So far, that seems to be the case, and I am grateful for that. If I can use this opening to help others then I do and will continue to do so.

Over the years, I've been active in performing, teaching, and transcribing Arab music from the near east in addition to composing. So my work is rooted in both worlds. I am equally comfortable writing in a completely "western" language as well as a completely "near eastern" language as well, or somewhere in between. It is a spectrum that shifts according to the project that I am working on. 

You play the oud, can you tell us a little about the oud and how how the traditional music (classical Arabic) you study and perform on the oud differs from and/or is similar to traditional European music?

The oud   

The oud


The oud is the most central instrument in Arab music. It is the instrument of choice for composers, and on which all the theory is based. The oud is also the typical instrument of choice to accompany vocalists. It is often referred to as the "king" of instruments. It is found throughout the Arab world, in Iran, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, the Balkans and further east. It is the ancestor of the guitar but it still continues to inspire. The new generation of oud players have achieved tremendous technical proficiency on par with high level flamenco guitarists. There are as many styles as there are countries that use the oud, but in the Arab world you can make a broad distinction between North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf countries and Iraq. The latter has its own distinct musical style than the other regions. When I was performing a good deal of early music [European music predating c. 1650) with Boston Camerata, I realized that long ago European and Arab music were not so far apart. At a certain point the differences outweighed the commonalities. However, performers on the oud now perform in all kinds of cross-over settings so it really has become a global instrument. [Click here to enjoy a groovy tune performed on the oud]

What inspired you to set Abu Jmeel's Daughter to music? What is it about this tale that inspired you?  What were some of the challenges you faced when composing this piece?
This morality tale has a decidedly different flavor than European morality tales, do you have any insight about the tale to share with our audience?

Click to purchase book

Click to purchase book

This was co-commission from the Alba Ensemble in France and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in Philadelphia. It has been performed in English and French but not yet in Arabic. I don't recall whose idea it was but the commission called for a setting of a folk tale. I did a good deal of research to find a suitable story, and chose this one because I felt its structure lent itself well to a musical setting. Also the elements of magic and the supernatural, as well the difficulties and challenges faced by the heroine, inspired my imagination.

The only challenges in the commission were the reaction to some of the text: In France they asked me to remove the word "God" from the text as the story ends with "...and God blessed them with a happy life" or something of the sort. The French are almost religious about their secularism. In the USA it was decided to hold a panel after the concert about misogyny as some people felt that the tale leaned that way. Both instances were baffling to me. As far as the element of misogyny, of course the Arab world has been and continues to be male dominated. This tale, I believe, was told by mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters. I believe that the point of passing such stories down was to tell young girls that as a female member of this society 'the cards are stacked you' and to prepare them for the challenges ahead. Each story probably had a nugget of knowledge it. But they were also told as a form of entertainment as well.

For a contemporary society to say that we no longer need such tales or that they send the wrong message is more than a little disingenuous. We don't have to search further than our American borders to find proof of this. Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" deals with similar themes. Also, for people to want to keep such tales hidden is a denial of part of history.

As far as the 'otherness' of these tales, I don't feel that they are so far off from European folk tales. In my research, I found an old Arab/Persian folk tale that was very similar to Snow White. As for difficulties in European folk tales, what lesson can one take away from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl? That is a very dark, sad, and upsetting story but I believe that this was how children were taught that the world can be a very uncaring and dangerous place. That is the function and purpose of such tales. I feel that it is a mistake for us to shelter our children from these tales by Disneyfying them (the original Little Mermaid did not have a happy ending).  Abu Jmeel's Daughter is a tale about paying a price for seeking material gains; physical beauty and greed for wealth, in this instance. It is also a story about patience and perseverance through difficult times as well as a warning to recognize our limits. To look for facile moral lessons in such stories is kind of the easy way out.I prefer things that force you to scratch your head a little and to have to think. As a composer, a little darkness is also inspiring as it offers opportunities for the use of color inspired by dark humor. That said, audiences of all ages have enjoyed this story and it was a pleasure to see young children enthralled by the performances.

A lot of your music blends the two traditions of classical Arabic and classical European music. What are some of the natural ways the traditions overlap and what are some of the challenges? What can we listen for in Abu Jmeel's Daughter to hear this?
Is all of the music you compose a blend of Arabic and European traditions, or do you sometimes intentionally set one tradition aside to focus on another?

I suppose that I've been trying to master two languages. As a result any given piece can have a style that is somewhere on a spectrum between 'pure' Arab or 'pure' Western 'classical' or somewhere that blurs the line between both.  In Abu Jmeel, you might hear the influence of Ravel and some Elliot Carter as well as a traditional folk song (it is used right after the wedding of Ridda and prince Alwan - see video below).

The reason I used this melody is because it is based on a rhythm called Zaffa which happens to be a rhythm that is often performed at weddings in the near east. While most listeners won't get this, I try to bring this kind of depth to all my work.  As far as when to use one language or another, or a combination, it depends on the project. However, I've arrived at the point where my overriding focus is on the emotional intent of the composition, not so much the surface features.

What are your current projects?

I am in the final stages of producing/composing/arranging an album project that features female vocalists from a number of world traditions and orchestra. We recorded the fabulous Philharmonia Orchestra at Abbey Road in London this past August and I will be mastering the album in Los Angeles later this month. For concert music commissions I am very excited about the three commissions I have this year. The first is a work for clarinetist Kinan Azmeh [who just won a Grammy Award with the Silk Road Ensemble] and the Deutches Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. I'm working on this piece currently and it will be recorded in Berlin later in 2017. Following that I will begin a 25 minute work for Boston choir based choir Coro Allegro and string orchestra. The text, which is still being compiled, deals with 'current events.' The third work is my second commission from maestro Daniel Barenboim and it is a work for clarinet (Kinan Azmeh) and the newly founded Pierre Boulez Ensemble. This work will be premiered in Berlin at the Pierre Boulez Saal in 2018. I am deeply humbled and grateful that maestro D.B. has asked me for another work. Incidentally, Kinan and I have been struggling to find funding for a work for clarinet and large ensemble since 2008 and now we are blessed with two amazing opportunities.

What do you believe the role of music, especially "art music", plays in today's society?

This might sound too lofty but I believe art music can and should comment on the human condition and the condition of and our relation to nature.  At this point in time both the human condition and nature, our planet, are in a very difficult place. I have decided that my music must serve as a vehicle for some kind of message, be that advocating for cross-cultural understanding, compassion for the 'other', or to raise a fist against injustice and tyranny, or another cause that, even in a very small way, tries to make our world a little better.  I believe that this can be achieved through subtlety, sincerity, the highest craftsmanship possible and passion.

You can hear Abu Jmeel's Daughter by Kareem Roustom, along with works by Valerie Coleman, Andre Previn and Igor Stravinsky on March 10 at the 560 Music Center.