Del Mar composer Roger Reynolds among this year’s American Academy of Arts and Letters inductees
Other 2023 honorees include film director Francis Ford Coppola, actor Frances McDormand, fiction writer Yiyun Li, orchestra leader Maria Schneider and trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith
Roger Reynolds, the visionary composer who earned a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1989 and has taught at the University of California San Diego since 1969, is one of this year’s 19 American Academy of Arts and Letters inductees.
The other 2023 inductees include film director Francis Ford Coppola, playwright-actor Anna Deavere Smith, author and poet Percival Everett, actor Frances McDormand and composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, who performs March 5 at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla. (The full list appears at the conclusion of this article.)
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“After many years of hearing vague rumors that I might be inducted, it was very exciting to get the news,” Reynolds told the Union-Tribune in a Zoom interview Monday afternoon, Feb. 20, from his Del Mar home.
The perpetually active composer was informed last week by the academy that he is one of its 2023 inductees, but was sworn to secrecy. The induction ceremony will be in New York City on May 24 and Reynolds plans to attend with his wife, former San Diego State University flute professor Karen Reynolds, who is one of his key creative foils.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters honor is one of the nation’s most exclusive and prestigious cultural awards for sustained artistic excellence and innovation. The inductees were announced Tuesday, Feb. 21, by the academy, whose current members include everyone from Joni Mitchell, David Mamet and Amy Tan to Wynton Marsalis, Joyce Carol Oates and Jasper Johns. Past members range from Mark Twain to Theodore Roosevelt.
“Roger Reynolds is a musician of great distinction,” composer Yehudi Wyner, a member and former president of the academy, told the Union-Tribune via email Tuesday, Feb. 21. “In utterly original ways, he has explored the very nature of music, how it can be imagined and how it can be created. The academy will be much enriched by his membership.”
The academy each year recognizes up to 20 Americans that it considers to be of “extraordinary artistic achievement whose work falls outside of or transcends the fields of architecture, art, literature, and music composition.”
Reynolds, who began his career armed with degrees in music and engineering, has long transcended conventional musical categories and approaches. He does his work with painstaking attention to detail, the better to ensure each note and inflection measures up to his exacting standards.
A trifecta for composers at UCSD
Tuesday’s announcement of Reynolds’ induction represents a remarkable trifecta for internationally acclaimed composers who are on the faculty of UC San Diego’s music department.
In 2020, Chinary Ung, now 80, became the first professor in any department in the university’s seven-decade history to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
American Academy of Arts and Letters inducts UCSD composer Chinary Ung and alum Carrie Mae Weems
The Cambodian-born composer will be honored alongside Laurie Anderson, Julian Schnabel, Colson Whitehead, Terry Riley and others
He was followed in 2021 by fellow composer Anthony Davis, now 72, who was also awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for music for his groundbreaking opera, “The Central Park Five.”
American Academy of Arts & Letters honors San Diego’s Anthony Davis, 2020’s Pulitzer Prize music winner
Other honorees include musicians Wynton Marsalis and Henry Threadgill, authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Leslie Marmon Silko, poet Joy Harjo and architect Meejin Yoon
At 88, Detroit native Reynolds is both one of the oldest and the most active artists in this year’s group of honorees. The list of his current and upcoming projects would seem daunting for someone half his age or younger. It includes an array of new compositions, concerts, books, commissions, multimedia works and more, as well as his teaching schedule.
“Roger’s energy and his devotion to his music and his students has always been amazing,” Davis told the Union-Tribune Tuesday, morning, Feb. 21, speaking by phone.
“This honor is very well-deserved. Roger has been an incredible champion of new music and his presence and contributions speak to the long-term excellence of the composition program at UCSD. The impact he has had on the students he has taught is very important.”
Davis’ enthusiasm for Reynolds is shared by percussion master and fellow UC San Diego music professor Steven Schick, who is the conductor emeritus of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.
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“I can’t imagine a more deserving recipient of this extraordinary award,” Schick told the Union-Tribune Tuesday morning, Feb. 21, speaking by phone.
“I’ve worked closely with Roger over more than 30 years on a number of pieces that have become core repertory for percussionists. His combination of exacting standards and a deeply thoughtful approach to expression and collaboration has produced music that is simultaneously profound and personal. His energy, passion and commitment to music, all the time, is an inspiration to all of us.”
‘Such an innovative force’
Reynolds music draws from multiple sources and traditions, but is not bound by any of them. His creative palette includes chamber and electro-acoustic music, choral music and string quartets, song cycles and serialism, the past and the present, to forge new artistic paths.
Reynolds’ commitment to his consistently forward-looking work — which often features computers and conventional acoustic instruments as musical equals — remains unwavering as he approaches his 89th birthday in July.
On Thursday, Feb. 23, he will fly to Washington to meet with Library of Congress senior music specialist David Plylar and Library of Congress music division chief Susan Vita.
The library began its collection of Reynolds’ work in 1998. It spans from 1960 to the present day and features 8,500 items, including scores, sketches, composition materials, project files, writings, correspondence, business papers, biographical materials and audio recordings.
“We are thrilled to learn that Roger Reynolds has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters,” Plylar told the Union-Tribune Tuesday, Feb. 21, via email.
“As a composer with an expansive view of how his art intersects with other disciplines, he is certainly worthy of this honor. The care with which he treats his subjects is immediately evident if you follow the meticulous documentation of any of his works in the collection at the Library of Congress. We are delighted to be the home for Roger’s papers, as he is such an innovative force in contemporary music.”
Reynolds will then fly from Washington to New York where he will meet with his publisher to discuss his latest book projects. While there, he will pay a get-acquainted visit to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The academy’s membership had been strictly limited to 250 since its inception in 1898. In 2021, that number was increased to 288 and this year to 300.
Vacancies for induction only occur after the death of a member. New inductees must be nominated by a current member. That nomination must then be seconded by two other members, before being voted on by the academy’s full membership.
“It’s meaningful,” Reynolds noted. “Because these are not just people who are ‘hallowed’ and at the end of their careers. The honorees are a very wide-ranging group of people who are all (actively working).”
On May 4, Reynolds’ new oboe concerto, JOURNEY, will receive its world premiere in Copenhagen, Denmark, where several more of his new compositions will also be unveiled.
Also coming up is his new piano and computer composition, ACTIONS, which will debut in October in Mexico City. It will then be performed at UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine and, very likely, at the Library of Congress.
This summer will see Rogers travel to London and to Basel, Switzerland, for more artistic collaborations and meetings. His latest work, PERSISTENCE, written for cello and computer, took shape both in the garage of his Del Mar home and in Poland. It will be performed March 30 at UCSD’s Atkinson Hall. CO-EXISTENCE, his piece for computer and an instrumental septet, will be performed by the ensemble WasteLAnd on May 21 at UC San Diego’s Experimental Theatre.
Other new or recent projects by Reynolds include BRIDGING CHASMS and WISDOM’s ROOTS.
“Maybe it’s an affectation to have everything all in caps,” he said of the titles of his compositions, before explaining his rationale.
“(It’s) just because so many (online) platforms alter the way text is. If you use italics, they disappear. And if you use quotes, it looks like it’s an article. So, I sometimes use all caps because it ensures somebody will understand (my compositions) are a thing and not part of a sentence.”
For good measure, Reynolds has been moving ahead on an expansive, choral-based work, KNOWING / NOT KNOWING, which he hopes to complete “in the next few years.”
The nine-section opus teams him with Schick and UC San Diego dance and theater department veteran Robert Castro. Opera and theater director Peter Sellars is acting as an adviser.
“The piece is an exploration of how knowledge comes about, what it is, what we think we know, what we don’t know, and this whole process of knowing. How do we know?” said Reynolds, who writes all of his scores by hand using pencil and paper.
“I think collaboration is the central aspect of much that I do now. For me, it is the most exciting thing to do — you give away some of your agency in return for getting something you don’t have from someone else.
“What is the same every time is that there is an effort to think through and plan each compositional engagement before I start writing any notes. So there is a very elaborate preparatory process I go through.”
It is not uncommon for Reynolds to spend a year or more working on a single composition.
During his Monday, Feb. 20, Zoom interview with the Union-Tribune, he called up two of his new compositions on his computer to demonstrate how he can hear and precisely measure and modify the sound of each and every note in a piece.
Reynolds smiled when asked how he knows when one of his works has been completed and that the time has come to step away from it.
“For me, a creative compositional project starts with the moment I realize I’m going to do it,” he said.
“Then, it involves this exploratory process and then composing pages and pages of sketches, and then transforming them into a score to get to performers. They rehearse it and ask questions. Then, it’s performed and you get a recording and you listen to the recording, and think: ‘Did this piece turn out to be what I wanted it to be?’
“So, it’s a reflective act. And I can really say that a compositional project does not end until I’ve heard it, thought about it and maybe revised it, although I don’t often revise. I tell my students: ‘The more cycles you make, the more your way of creating becomes yours.’ ”
2023 American Academy of Arts and Letters inductees
Anna Deavere Smith
Wadada Leo Smith
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