Hitting Her High Note
Alumna Amy Beth Kirsten received a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship to compose music for the Grammy-winning group eighth blackbird
By Tom Karow | From the Fall 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
Before she attended graduate school at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, Amy Beth Kirsten (MM, ’04) was a popular Chicago jazz singer and songwriter. Now she is a classical music composer who this spring received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
“My direction completely changed at Roosevelt,” said the 38-year-old resident of New Haven, Conn., who went on to receive a doctorate in composing from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
“My first class at Roosevelt was Rudy Marcozzi’s 20th Century Music History. It was just amazing,” she said. “I had never heard that music before. My parents were hippies, so I always listened to rock and jazz. My knowledge of classical music was really very minimal. It was in this class that my ears were opened to a whole new world of music.”
The Roosevelt alumna was one of 180 artists, scholars and scientists to receive a fellowship this year from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which recognizes exceptional creative ability in the arts and productive scholarship. They were chosen from nearly 3,000 applicants.
So far, Kirsten has written about 35 classical pieces, including a 35-minute chamber opera, but her big break was receiving the Guggenheim Award, which will allow her to write a collaborative piece for the Grammy-winning group eighth blackbird.
A six-member ensemble recognized for its performing style, eighth blackbird frequently commissions and records new works from innovative composers who range from Pulitzer Prize winners to up-and-coming artists like Kirsten.
Kirsten plans to incorporate the Chicago group’s theatrical style into a 40-minute libretto. Her music, inspired by characters from 16th-century Italian theatre, will emphasize dramatic movement, choreography, mime and vocalizations (singing, speaking and whispering) to express a story.
Martha Clark, who is nationally known for her multidisciplinary avant-garde approach to theatre, dance and opera productions, will work with Kirsten to create the choreography for the eighth blackbird piece. “She’s a legend in the choreography world and has received many awards, including a MacArthur genius grant, so I am really excited and honored that she will be collaborating with us,” Kirsten said.
Kirsten’s $40,000 Guggenheim grant plus a $10,000 supplemental stipend allows her to concentrate nearly full-time on the 12-month project, which started in September. If all goes according to plan, eighth blackbird will perform the piece when it tours the country in October 2013.
“Amy is a wonderfully talented composer who has strikingly unique musical language skills,” said Stacy Garrop, Kirsten’s composition professor at Roosevelt. “Undoubtedly she has a long and fruitful career as a professional composer in her future.”
For her part, Kirsten credits Garrop with helping her become a composer. “Dr. Garrop was a very nurturing and encouraging teacher who was incredibly enthusiastic about what I was doing,” she said. “It was during the second semester of my master’s degree when I started to uncover some unique traits that would eventually evolve into my compositional voice. It’s a never-ending process of discovery, really, but I can definitely point to my time at Roosevelt as being momentous for me in that way.”
Kirsten believes her creative energy came from her mother, an Australian, who “would just come up with the most imaginative games and songs.” As a toddler, Kirsten would imitate her mother by sitting at the piano inventing her own creations.
After attending high school in Naperville, Ill., she earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from Benedictine University in 1998 and was a singer-songwriter for about 10 years, performing in such Chicago venues as Fitzgerald’s Nightclub, Quenchers Saloon, the Subterranean, Katerina’s and Uncommon Ground before moving to Baltimore to attend Peabody.
“Every once in a while, people who used to see me perform in Chicago ask if I miss singing. And, I really don’t. I now really enjoy being in the audience. I like being in the background and watching what happens on stage,” she said.
At the highly regarded Peabody Institute, Kirsten further developed the composition skills she learned at Roosevelt. The program not only focused on composing, but on theory, orchestration, music history and musicology. “Many a night I was still hard at work at two in the morning.”
Kirsten describes the process of writing music as “tedious yet wonderful.” “There are times when I’ll spend two or three hours writing two measures, trying to get everything right, the measures, the transitions, the articulation,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get caught up in the project and five hours will pass and I’ll have no idea where it went. That’s a wonderful feeling.”
She composes in a small storefront office in New Haven using a piano, computer, guitar and her voice. “I sing everything and I imagine how it’s going to sound on the woodwinds or I imagine how it’s going to be on the strings. I wish I could have every instrument in my studio, but it’s just not practical. Maybe someday,” she said laughing.
Kirsten said her goal in composing music is to connect with the performers – to make sure they like the piece, that it feels comfortable to them, and that they enjoy playing it. “If it’s a community choir and they’re a little out of tune, that doesn’t bother me if they’re enjoying the music.”
In addition to being a composer, Kirsten has taught college classes (“The History of Rock and Society” at the University of Connecticut) and she is a published poet, whose works have appeared in Sol Magazine, The Avatar Review and Red Wheelbarrow. Her boyfriend, Christopher Theofanidis, an adjunct associate professor of composition at Yale University and a former composer-of-the-year for the Pittsburg Symphony, has used some of her poetry in his choral works.
It was Theofanidis who encouraged her to test her talents further by participating in summer music festivals. Last year she was one of eight composers selected from more than 120 applicants to participate in the inaugural Mizzou New Music Summer Festival in Columbia, Mo. “It’s kind of like on-the-job training,” she explained. “You write the piece, and then you hear it performed at the festival and make changes. You learn a lot in a short time when interacting with musicians.”
So what’s in her future? “After the eighth blackbird project, I’ll want to try something else,” she said. “I won’t do another theater piece for a long time because the worst thing that can happen is that you do the same projects in a row.
“Basically, I just want to keep doing good work and continue being inspired and growing. Those are my only goals.”