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Comfortable with uncertainty: A back-and-forth with Alistair Coleman

The young composer, whose music was featured on a string of recent concerts at Chamber Music Northwest, discusses his formative musical moments.


Composer Alistair Coleman, flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, and violinist Alexi Kinney at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson
Composer Alistair Coleman, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and violinist Alexi Kinney at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson

Alistair Coleman and Zlatomir Fung play a game on Spotify. One picks a tune and the other tries to figure out the composer, time period or piece. “Even if we couldn’t identify the exact piece, we could still discern the composer or time period,” said Coleman, who fondly call himself and Fung “nerds.”

Coleman is a commissioned composer— already—and Fung won the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition in cello performance, the youngest person ever to do so and the first American in four decades. Both have been featured at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest’s five-week summer festival June 27 through July 31–Coleman as a protege composer, and Fung as a protege performer. My last story covered Fung, and you can read that here. Now let’s take a look at Coleman, a graduate of Juilliard and Curtis Institute of Music, and his already skyrocketing career.

Gloria Chien, CMNW co- artistic director said, “Alistair is an exceptional young composer,” whom CMNW co-artistic director Soovin Kim has known since Coleman was in high school. At that point, Coleman was already identified as “one of the brightest composers,” Chien added.

Alistair Coleman at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson
Alistair Coleman at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson

Coleman’s 13–minute Broadacre City for Flute Quintet, based on a fantasy city of Frank Lloyd Wright that Coleman researched in Columbia University’s library, received a standing ovation during the July 2 English Expressions concert at Lincoln Performance Hall. Moonshota string quartet premiered in 2019 and produced for the 2019 Smithsonian Year of Music–was canceled at a CMNW Armory concert July 13 due to illness of one of the performers.

Later in the festival, his arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for piano and saxophone quartet was played by CMNW four-year pianist Gilles Vonsattel and the scintillating Sinta Quartet on the quartet’s American Voices concert. (The second live performance of Rhapsody in Blue is at 8 p.m. Monday, July 25. Both concerts are part of CMNW’s At-Home ticketed streaming series–English Expressions is available as of July 15, and American Voices will be available after August 2.)

Tara Helen O'Connor performed Alistair Coleman's "Broadacre City" at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson
Tara Helen O’Connor performed Alistair Coleman’s “Broadacre City” at CMNW 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson

Coleman is not a one–off kind of composer.

Broadacre City was a world premiere, featuring flutist Tara Helen O’Connor. Though the young composer has had other world premieres, this one, he said, “was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Working with Tara and the other performers was like working with an extension of my brain. They have such amazing musical instincts, which made the rehearsal process go seamlessly. The festival provides us a lot of rehearsal time, allowing us lots of time to fine-tune difficult sections, play with timings/proportions, and discover new sounds and techniques.“


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The following interview was conducted by email, and has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Oregon ArtsWatch: Were you immersed in music growing up?

Alistair Coleman: I went to Walt Whitman High School, a public school, in Bethesda, Maryland. They had an amazing music program in which I was able to accompany choirs on the piano, play in the pit orchestra for our annual musical, and write a piece or two for our school’s instrumental and choral ensembles. My first piece premiered in 2012, and was based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “A Dream Within a Dream.” 

OAW: Do you play an instrument?

AC: I am a pianist and enjoy playing and improvising every day, which is a really important part of my composition process. All of my pieces stem from musical ideas I discover from spontaneous improvisation on the piano. 

OAW: Do you compose on the piano and computer? 

AC: I write between the piano, paper/pencil, and the computer. I mainly start at the piano with large pieces of manuscript paper. As I discover ideas at the instrument, I write them down on paper and begin assembling a collection of these ideas from which I build a new piece. Once I start finding connections between the ideas, I bring those pieces of manuscript paper to the computer and start notating the piece. 


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OAW: You have accomplished so much as a 23-year-old composer. When did you realize you were becoming a composer?

AC: I was lucky to have early experiences composing for my middle and high school choirs and orchestras. It allowed me to fall in love with communicating through music and collaborating with other people in such a personal and creative way. 

OAW: Which are your five favorite pieces to play or to listen to? 

AC: That’s a tough one. My desert-island pieces to play are Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. I grew up playing preludes and fugues out of those two books and often return to them since there is so much to discover and explore. There are so many composers who have had an influence on me: Claude Debussy, Schubert lieder, Ravel, Benjamin Britten, Berg, Saariaho, Thomas Ades, and John Adams.

OAW: Aaron Copland said you could recognize a composer’s work by one chord. Do you think that’s true? And how could we recognize your music?

AC: I do agree how composers can develop a musical fingerprint. [The Spotify game] was a really interesting way to discover how even composers like Stravinsky (who explored vastly different styles and techniques) still have a distinguishable DNA in their music. I’m not sure if the same could be said about my music, particularly at this stage. Right now, especially in school, I try to push myself to learn about and work with different techniques and approaches and see how they influence my current process. One of the benefits of improvisation is that I’ve found chords and ideas that I somehow come back to when I’m playing. And these musical objects often creep into my music, regardless of the piece. It helps me discover what I’m genuinely interested in musically. Overall, I’m always striving for a balance between growing musically while also communicating in a way that feels genuine and personal. 

OAW: What music do you listen to in your spare time and otherwise? 


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AC: I do listen to a lot of classical/concert music but I’m also a big podcast person on planes/car trips. I take long walks every day but most of the time I walk without headphones and just think and reflect. I also enjoy catching up with family and friends on the phone during these walks. 

OAW: Which contemporary composers’ music do you admire? 

AC: One of my favorite living composers is Thomas Ades (whose string quartet was performed July 6 by the Viano Quartet at a CMNW Armory concert). His music has so much motion, physicality and color. There’s so much to uncover in his scores, as well. The music of John Corigliano, Kaija Saariaho, and John Adams has had a big impact on me. One thing that is common among all of these composers is their ability to embrace virtuosity in order to create intense drama and storytelling in their music. It’s something I’m very interested in exploring in my own music. 

OAW: Do you think that new-music composers are having a moment now? What has changed to have that happen? 

AC: I think many arts organizations are engaging in long overdue changes to their missions and programming that are bringing more voices to the table. One of the most powerful ways to do that is to program more new music and commission composers of different backgrounds and experiences. There are so many talented composers out there who collectively can reflect our diverse society today. Arts organizations should strive more and more to amplify those voices. I think audiences are hungrier for music and art that truly empathizes with our experience in a rapidly changing and complex world. 

OAW: Who are the musicians who have influenced you the most, and why and how? 

AC: By far the people who have had the most influence on me are the performing musicians I’ve worked with who bring my music to life. They’re the ones who have taught me so much about their respective instruments, playing styles, and existing repertoire. Composing is very similar to playwriting, as we both rely on performers to interpret what we write and communicate it to audiences. Therefore, every piece is a blueprint: The more I hear performers interpret and give me that live feedback, the deeper I can explore specific ways of communicating in my process. At Curtis, I’m really lucky to have peers who can communicate so beautifully and specifically in their playing through immense artistry and virtuosity. It’s been transformative to be in that kind of environment where I can learn so much from my peers and friends. 


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OAW: How do you like to describe your music? 

AC: Musically, I’ve always been attracted to harmony, which is a big force in my music. That may come from my time at the piano building chords and clusters, and feeling the physicality of those chords on the instrument. It’s possible that this is one of the reasons why I find harmony so visceral in all music. I’m also interested in small musical ideas that are developed and explored over time in a piece, giving a work a specific musical, motivic DNA. I’m certainly not the first person to do this, but these ideas I find improvising at the piano can influence me so much in a piece. 

OAW: If you had to narrow down your career so far to four or five peak experiences, what would they be?

AC: 1. Writing a choral piece for my middle school choir. It was the first time I wrote a piece to be performed by another group of people. It helped me discover my love of writing for and collaborating with others. 2. Going to my first festival at the Atlantic Music Festival in 2016. There I was able to meet so many like-minded people in one place, something I had never experienced before. I loved the community and connecting with people who shared my interests and passion for music. 3. In 2019, I was commissioned to write a chamber concerto for Soovin Kim, co-artistic director with Gloria Chien of Chamber Music Northwest, for his festival in Vermont (Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival). He is such a resource and an amazing mentor to so many young artists like me. He brings so much intention and vision to everything he does in his teaching and programming. 4. Coming to Curtis was a big life-changing moment. 

OAW: What does the future hold for you?

AC: The simple answer is: I don’t know. Over the past couple years, I’ve learned to become more comfortable with uncertainty, both in my composition process and in my life in general. I’ve been so fortunate to have been given opportunities, like this one at CMNW, which sometimes come out of the blue but nevertheless have a huge impact on my musical output and interests. It certainly makes life very interesting. As well as continuing to write, I really want to find new outlets to teach. I’ve been very lucky to have incredible mentors and teachers, and I hope to be able to help younger people down the road.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.


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