William Jay Sydeman is one of America’s most prolific and inventive composers. In an era in which many of his colleagues have defined their careers through a handful of brief works, he has produced an output whose scope and variety are absolutely unique. His work is a prominent part of late 20th century American music - widely published and frequently performed - but the full extent of it’s accomplishments will probably not become entirely clear until we are well into the new millennium. At that time, when classical radio stations and mainstream ensembles have exhausted their repertoire of 18th and 19th century music, they will begin to explore our century, and there is no doubt that the rich veins of Mr. Sydeman’s creation will be a much-mined and frequently heard treasure.

There is a fluency and inspired craftsmanship illuminating Sydeman’s more than 400 compositions that is reminiscent of the Baroque and Classical eras. When asked recently if there are some forms he has yet to examine, he responded that he has written for just about every medium: “...two operas, scads of chamber music, ten orchestral pieces. There’s nothing that I still want to explore. But,” he continued, “it’s like every new piece is an exploration.” This is where Sydeman continues to work, getting in touch with his muse on a daily basis, and returning again and again to create works on what he calls “the edge of the process”.

W. Jay Sydeman’s life mirrors the breadth and variety of his music. Born in New York in 1928 and educated at Manhattan’s Mannes School of Music, he quickly became one of the most sought-after and honored composers of his generation, receiving commissions from such prestigious groups as the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Tanglewood Music Center, and the Boston Symphony, which premiered his orchestral work in memory of John F. Kennedy in 1966. “Sydeman uses a whole battery of far out techniques,” wrote the New York Times, “but he has an uncanny ability to throw in the whole avant-garde machinery as if it were the simplest, most normal way of making music in the world...More than many of his colleagues, he seems to know what will sound well, and he works for some remarkably attractive, pure textures. His sounds seem to grow from a physical sense of exactly what material is right.”

In 1970, after a heady period that included awards from the National institute of Arts and Letters, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and library of Congress, Sydeman left New York - and composition - to begin a journey of personal and artistic exploration. He taught at a teenage drug rehabilitation center in rural California, spent two years in Los Angeles’ commercial music industry, and another year studying Steiner education in England, before settling in Hawaii, where he composed liturgical music for a Tibetan Buddhist temple. “I’d done very well (in New York),” Mr. Sydeman said in a recent interview, “but I felt trapped, caught in a kind of style warp. I was writing music that was thought of very highly and some part of me didn’t feel quite comfortable writing. I didn’t consciously make the decision, ‘I’m going to stop and retrench,’ but I just left it - New York and my whole life: I got divorced, I left for parts unknown, not knowing exactly what would happen, and a whole period evolved... I was looking for a new way of being, really, and a new way of being a musician. I didn’t know that I was looking for a new way of being a musician; I was looking for a new way of being, and the musician just came on the heels of that.”

In 1981, Mr. Sydeman returned to the mainland, began teaching at the Steiner College in Fair Oaks, California, and finally returned to composition as the defining aspect of his life. The works that emerged reflected an enormous stylistic change, and projected a sense of inclusiveness that allowed him to draw freely from experimental and traditional idioms. “Around 1980,” he has written, “I returned to composition - at first a large number of choral works which reconnected me to the source of all music - the human voice. Out of this new lyric impulse have evolved all of my works since that time - more romantic, more accessible. I create music for the musician.”

Since he moved to Nevada City, California in 1988, Mr. Sydeman has enriched the community with the beauty of his work and the enthusiasm of his love for the medium. Like many of his fellow artists, he has created a private, nurturing environment for his compositional work, but he has clearly not retreated from public life. On the contrary, he has devoted himself to making music of all periods accessible to everyone with open ears and hearts. Whether as a conductor of visiting professionals, mentor of talented amateurs, or teacher of our gifted youth, he has
single-handedly helped elevate the quality and breadth of our musical life.

Here again is a connection between William Jay Sydeman and his Baroque and Classical predecessors - all artists who explored the most profoundly personal realms of the spirit, but remained closely engaged with, and deeply committed to the service of their society.


– Howard Hersh,
Artistic Director of “Music Now”


MAJOR AWARDS

• National Institute of Arts and Letters
• Boston Symphony Merit Award
• Koussevitzky Foundation
(Library of Congress)
• Sigma Alpha Iota American Music Series
• Winner-KPFK Competition

MANNES COLLEGE OF MUSIC, NY, NY
on the Composition Faculty from 1960-1970


MAJOR COMMISSIONS
• Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
• Boston Symphony Orchestra
(In Memorium John F. Kennedy)
• Tanglewood Music Center
• Sacramento Symphony Orchestra
• National Public Television
(Music for Comet Halley)
• Contemporary Chamber Ensemble
• Music in Our Time Series
• Dartmouth Congregation of the Arts

 

Biography - William Jay Sydeman

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