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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

101. The Grawemeyer Award and the Visit of Recipient Joël Bons

Though my time at the University of Louisville is almost at an end, today I wish to reflect on one of the things which first got me interested in studying here—namely, the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The Grawemeyer was established in 1984, and since then it has been awarded to thirty-two of the world’s leading contemporary composers from Witold Lutosławski, the first recipient in 1985, to this year’s recipient, Joël Bons. Monetarily it is the largest prize of its kind with recipients awarded $100,000, and the school annually receives submissions from more than one hundred composers. Their scores, audio recordings, and other submission materials are then archived in the Grawemeyer Collection of the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library. This collection now contains over five thousand entries which are accessible to UofL students and faculty as well as other scholars who can request materials via interlibrary loan or visit the collection in-person. One stipulation of the award is that the winning composer must visit the university and work with its students through lectures and masterclasses. Between these visits and our access to the collection, the award has fostered an active community for new music here in Louisville, and it was this community that I sought in applying to grad school here. I have not only gotten to know personally the Director of the Grawemeyer Award, Marc Satterwhite, I have also had unforgettable experiences meeting several recipients and working firsthand with the collection.

2019 Grawemeyer Recipient Joël Bons

Grawemeyer Week is always a special time, and I had more opportunities to interact with Bons, who visited from April 6 to 13, than any previous winner. Bons was entirely personable and, in addition to his formal lectures, I enjoyed several more casual discussions with him and his wife Josepha who had also made the journey. Bons is a Dutch composer, based in Amsterdam, where he is a professor and director of the Nieuw Ensemble and Atlas Ensemble. Atlas, as Bons describes it, is an intercultural ensemble consisting both of musicians trained in the Western classical tradition and also musicians of other cultures. His term, “intercultural,” implies music which is between cultures—in other words, music of cultural exchange which respects, learns from, and applies the traditions of diverse cultures. His winning piece, Nomaden, is a concerto for solo cellist and the musicians of the Atlas Ensemble. Bons talked about how in this piece he wished to highlight Asian and Middle Eastern instruments, so in addition to familiar Western instruments there are also the kemençe and ney of Turkey, duduk of Armenia, kamancha of Azerbaijan, erhu and zheng of China, and many others. Bons joked that someone else is welcome to write the sequel featuring the many instruments of Latin America, Africa, India, and other locales which he excluded from Nomaden. In the course of the work, the cellist “visits” each of these instruments, approaching them on their own terms. Bons was insistent that these cultures must neither be approached dismissively as an exotic element in a colonialist dialogue, nor by merely assimilating them into an indistinct globalist unity. Too often in the past, one of these undesirable options has been the approach of Western musicians toward non-Western musical cultures. Here, instead, the foreign instruments become cultural artifacts, as do our own Western instruments, all of which carry into Nomaden their rich histories and playing techniques.

Though Bons did not say this himself, I suspect there is also something autobiographical about Nomaden: symbolically, Bons himself is the soloist who visits and becomes part of these cultures through his time among their people. He told the story that, in the 1980s, he had visited China and met Tan Dun—who would win the Grawemeyer himself a decade later in 1998—and other composers who were then unknown in the West. At that time, he began collaborating with them, and Atlas was the ultimate result. Indeed, he and Josepha had never visited the central United States and, in spending a month here starting in Chicago and travelling down the Mississippi to New Orleans, they were doing effectively the same thing: getting to know our musical culture and making it a part of their own experience. This intercultural approach was a real inspiration to me. I am someone who spent nearly ten years getting to know the Western classical tradition almost exclusively, before gradually expanding into jazz and American popular music but still knowing very little of non-Western traditions. Now I feel that I must expand my circle of knowledge even further to extend to these cultures as well. It’s not the first time… A course my first semester at UofL titled, “Exoticism and Early Music,” had ignited some interest in non-Western music. There we studied how eighteenth-century composers like Jean-Philippe Rameau and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were drawn to the music of the Ottoman Turks and Native Americans—at least their limited impressions of that music. To them it was “exotic” and could be treated “exotically” in their compositions for the purpose of spectacle. Today, however, musical cultures foreign to our own gain immediate relevance as we witness the notion of “Western classical music” peel away and be replaced by an international “art music.”

Holy Grale gathering with Joël Bons

Bons also expressed interest in my thesis. He told the story that he was there in the 1980s at Darmstadt when Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail had presented the same foundational lectures on spectral music, which in their printed format, I have been studying for this project. He laughed that on one side were gathered the serialists and on the other were the spectralists, and that he had been a “Flying Dutchman,” hovering between the two camps. We talked briefly about my research one night at Holy Grale—a converted church which is now a bar and is always the first place we take our out-of-town guests for post-concert gatherings—and he asked me to please send him a copy of my thesis when it was complete. Knowing of he and Josepha’s road trip to New Orleans, I also recommended several places which I have visited, like those in Memphis and Clarksdale which have been the subject of my recent Musical Travels entries. Though this week with Bons was particularly special for me, it is just the latest in my activities related to the Grawemeyer. Through the award, I have also had the chance to meet and spend time with two other winners—Andrew Norman and Bent Sørensen—as well as guest composers of the UofL New Music Festival, including Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, David Dzubay, and Amy Williams. My participation in other events over the last three years have given me similar opportunities to interact with Kate Soper, Jenna Lyle, and Robert Honstein (who, like Norman, is part of the collective Sleeping Giant). I would have had none of these experiences had I not followed the Grawemeyer Award to Louisville.

This year especially I have had another opportunity to get to know the Grawemeyer: through my employment at the Anderson Music Library, I have had almost daily interaction with the contents of the Grawemeyer Collection. As far as the collection is concerned, Matt Ertz, Assistant Director of the music library, is the real expert. His article, “The Grawemeyer Collection at the University of Louisville: The History of a ‘Living’ Special Collection,” published in the December 2018 issue of Notes, describes cataloging procedures and the maintenance of the collection over its three-decade history, and he is currently writing a second article which analyzes the contents of the collection. One of my projects at the library has been the maintenance of the info files—in other words, all the paperwork submitted with the scores and recordings. With Matt’s oversight, it has been my job to locate, consolidate, and document the info files of the past fifteen years. In this project, I have benefited greatly from Matt’s knowledge of the collection and contemporary classical music generally (Matt is also the host of the new music radio program, Muddle Instead of Music). This project has allowed me to get to know the collection for myself, all the while viewing its scores and listening to its recordings. The collection includes some amazing treasures, such as one of only two copies in the entire United States of the final two movements of Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques—UC Berkeley, where Grisey taught for several years, apparently has the only other copy. These movements of this, the defining work of early spectralism, remain unpublished, indeed, like many of the scores contained in the Grawemeyer Collection. They were submitted for the award and kept in our collection, but perhaps never distributed more widely.

A small part of the Grawemeyer Collection

Additionally, I have made an effort over the last three years to listen to all thirty-two winning works. I have brought this project to completion over the last few weeks as I prepare for graduation. As part of our exit exams, we are asked about our experiences with the Grawemeyer Award; I would say I have had more experiences with the Grawemeyer than most students and probably a lot of faculty members too. There was the trip to Bloomington to hear 1992 recipient Krzysztof Penderecki conduct his St. Luke Passion, although he passed the baton to his assistant at the last minute, and I also sat alongside Director Marc Satterwhite for The Met: Live in HD broadcast of The Exterminating Angel, a new opera by 2000 recipient Thomas Adès. My thesis and other research, furthermore, address the music of 2003 recipient Kaija Saariaho; although my research has not yet considered her winning opera, L’Amour de loin, I saw the Met broadcast of this opera also. Not to sound too fanatical, but, when something similar did not already exist, I designed my own poster celebrating the first thirty recipients of the Grawemeyer. Measuring 24x36, the only printed copy hangs above my CD collection at my apartment here in Louisville.

As I stated above, Grawemeyer week is always a special time—not only because we get to meet and interact with a major figure in contemporary music, but also because we get to hear their perspective on things and become a small part of music history ourselves. I am glad to have had these experiences with the Grawemeyer Award, its recipients, and its organizers. I suspect that Joël Bons’s perspective on intercultural music will stay with me many years and shape the way I think about music. Ultimately these are the formative experiences we need to have in school, and I am glad that the Grawemeyer Award has provided them to me.

JSH 19.04.29

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a master’s candidate in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has been awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. His current research focuses on French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho, exploring the aesthetic ramifications of timbre, harmony, and melody in this new music. He has recently shared this research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Sewanee, TN and Asheville, NC and also at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. Since that time, he has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the Sugarmill Music Festival and the series Nachtmusik Alexandria. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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