Composer Spotlight – Alex Shapiro

event-2013-alex-shapiro-consortiumNovember 2011, Composer Spotlight: Alex Shapiro

Despite her numerous awards and success in both the commercial and concert musical worlds, Shapiro has found the time to work with young musicians and introduce them to new vistas in contemporary composition.

Alex Shapiro is an award-winning composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music. Her works vary from film scores, to jazz pieces, to chamber works, to commissions for symphonic wind band with prerecorded electronics, to a work for contrabassoon and electronics, and all the way to a piece called “Paper Cut” for wind band, electronics and printer paper.

Her list of awards and accomplishments are far too long to adequately capture here, but among the most recent are the Mu Phi Epsilon Award of Merit in 2011, 2011 featured composer for the biannual Athena Festival at Murray State University, 2011 composer-in-residence for the newly created Symphonic Voyages –a classical music voyage and Caribbean cruise, a 2011 commission for a nationwide university consortium, 2011 guest lecturer at ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo in Hollywood, elected as the concert music composer representative to the ASCAP Board of Review in 2010, 2010 composer-in-residence for the NOW Music Festival hosted by Capital University in Columbus, 2010 commissioned composer for the American Composers Forum’s BandQuest series, a MetLife Creative Connections Award from Meet the Composer, and a 2008 commission from the U.S. Army TRADOC Band.

Kyle Gann, writing for the magazine “Chamber Music,” explains that Shapiro’s varied professional background, (she was a successful composer for film and television before leaving the commercial scene for more freedom and autonomy), and “tremendous technical skills” allow her “a close familiarity with a wide range of instruments, and the ability to do things with them you wouldn’t expect.”

Despite her numerous awards and success in both the commercial and concert musical worlds, Shapiro has found the time to work with young musicians (more on that in the interview below,) and introduce them to new vistas in contemporary composition.

CSIC interviewed Alex Shapiro in October of 2011.

CSIC:  How would you define your music? Do you compose for a particular genre or style of music? If yes, what style of music do you most often compose for?

Alex: Music is like food; I love a lot of different kinds of it! I like to say that my work is pan-genre; I compose in many different styles, which these days are far less segregated than they used to be, thanks to an overall shift in our culture since the 1980’s or so. I listen to almost all kinds of music (okay, I admit, I don’t have much Mariachi or Polka on my iPod), and my love of writing in idioms like jazz, rock, world, groove, and electronica are evident in some of the chromatic concert music pieces I compose for traditional orchestral instruments. In addition to all my acoustic compositions, I’ve worked with electronics since I was 15, and over the past decade I’ve created a number of electroacoustic pieces for a soloist and a prerecorded track. Of greatest interest to me these days has been the challenge of blending prerecorded digital audio tracks with sizable live ensembles, and earlier this year my first large-scale piece of this nature, a three-movement electroacoustic symphony for winds and percussion titled IMMERSION, was premiered in Minneapolis. You can hear it and read about it here:

CSIC:   How did you choose this style/genre?

Alex: I think it chose me. Just four years ago, I’d never even been to a band concert and had never thought about composing for this genre. Out of the blue, a Commander from the U.S. Army, Major Tod Addison, contacted me via my MySpace page, and asked to commission a piece from me for the U.S. Army TRADOC Band in Fort Monroe, Virginia. I had no idea what I was doing but I did it anyway, because I couldn’t imagine passing up such a great challenge. The result was an acoustic wind band piece called HOMECOMING:

A year or so later, conductor Jerry Luckhardt from the University of Minnesota performed HOMECOMING, and then suggested commissioning me to compose another symphonic band piece. I don’t know what possessed me to blurt out, “how about an electroacoustic band piece?!”, but I’m really glad that I did. I’ve found a new passion! And there’s very, very little such repertoire for this genre. I’m aiming to change that.

CSIC:  Tell us about your audio sample and how it’s a good fit for young performers.

Alex: I was fortunate to be the 2011 commissioned composer for a marvelous series created by the American Composers Forum called BandQuest, which invites one concert music composer each year to write a short piece for middle school wind band. When I began composing PAPER CUT, I immediately started thinking about what kind of music would be relevant to 13 year olds. These kids are steeped in soundtracks from TV, movies, and video games, so I decided that creating something along those lines might be unusual for them. There are two aspects to this music that have yet to be found in any other middle school band piece: a prerecorded track accompanying the musicians, and… printer paper! One night as I tore up an old sheet to toss it in the trash, I noticed the great sound it made. I started playing with some more paper at my desk, crumpling it, tapping it, ripping it at different speeds and rhythms, and realized I could turn it into a very effective percussion instrument that everyone in the band could play, and have a lot of fun with. The resulting piece ended up being quite a contrast to the straight-ahead middle school band repertoire. Although “Paper Cut” was composed with middle schoolers in mind, it’s also suited to more advanced musicians, since the paper techniques and the skill of playing against a prerecorded track are interesting for all ages.

I wrote an article about the piece, and the experience of putting it all together, for the American Composers Forum magazine, “Sounding Board,” called “Shredding with the 7th Grade: The Making of Paper Cut.” A .pdf of it can be downloaded here:

CSIC:  Have you worked with young performers before? If yes, can you tell us about that experience.

Alex: Composing PAPER CUT and rehearsing with the 7th graders was the very first time I’d had the opportunity to work with young musicians. I loved the experience, and I learned as much as the students! I knew that at that age, they’re shy and sensitive about being singled out, so I made sure to avoid solos. But what I hadn’t taken into account was that getting 13 year olds to raise their arms above their heads so that the paper effects could be best seen and heard, was paramount to asking them to submit to root canal without anesthesia! Ha! By the time they performed it they were comfortable with this exposed maneuver, but it was pretty hilarious convincing them that they actually looked really cool. One of the most enjoyable aspects of creating the piece was inviting the students to come up with their own techniques for making sounds with paper, and I ended up incorporating two of these into my score. I was very proud of them, and their band director, Janet Olsen from Friday Harbor Middle School on little San Juan Island, WA, was really inspiring.

CSIC:   How do you envision composers and high school music programs collaborating?

Alex: At a time in the U.S. when there is, sadly, so little funding and support for music in the classrooms, anything professional musicians can do to lend their talents to help these budding musicians– and, these budding future audience members and patrons– is vital. If we can bring them pieces that can be collaborative, and encourage these students to contribute their own creativity, all the better. When students work with a living composer, the entire process of bringing music into the air comes alive for them. We’re not just some long-dead people in white wigs and weird clothes; we’re just like them. In turn, this helps the kids realize that they can be just like us if they choose, and be composers and musicians throughout their lives.

CSIC:   Do you have any advice for young composers?

Alex: Yes, and it’s the same advice I’d have for adults: there is nothing they can’t accomplish if they set their minds and hearts to a goal. If they love music and keep their ears and senses open to all the genres and timbres and sounds around them, and if they give themselves permission to compose the music they want to hear, wonderful things can happen. Whenever possible, they should avail themselves of enough education to be comfortable notating their music for others to play, and have recording and engineering skills in order to share their work. But the primary tools require no formal schooling at all: emotion, and imagination.

CSIC:   What projects are you currently working on?

Alex: A solo piano work, SPARK, is being premiered this month in New York City by Teresa McCollough, ( and I’ve just finished a commission to expand it for Fifth House Ensemble ( into a sextet for flute, strings and piano which will premiere in Chicago in February. In addition to a couple of other acoustic chamber works (a duo and another sextet), and an upcoming electroacoustic work for symphonic wind band and voice, I’m about to launch into a project for guitar and electronics that might be my most unusual commission to date:  A leading marine biologist, Emily Carrington, of the University of Washington is doing a national presentation on the lives of mussels in three parts of the world, and it occurred to her that the data graphs looked quite musical. I agreed, and so I’m using them as a point of departure for the music she’ll include in her talks, allowing scientists to hear what their work actually might sound like (creatively interpreted, of course!). Like IMMERSION and other aquatic-themed works in my catalog, it’s a perfect fit for me as not just a composer, but as a whole person: I have a lifelong fascination with marine science, am active on the Advancement Board of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, and my home and studio are perched just feet above the sea, giving me a daily vista of miles of wildlife.

I believe that our best inspiration as artists comes from filling our lives with emotions and experiences, many of which may appear to have nothing to do with art. Yet in the end, it’s all art, because a composer’s personhood is inseparable from his or her music. Our heart is the product we’re sharing with the world, and our notes are what we create from our heart. At least, if we’re doing it right!

Shapiro currently serves on the Board of Directors of the AmericanMusicCenter and The MacDowell Colony, sits on ASCAP’s Symphony & Concert Committee, and is the elected concert music composer representative on the ASCAP Board of Review. She is the past President of the Board of Directors of the American Composers Forum of Los Angeles, and has also served as an officer on the boards of national music organizations including NACUSA, The College Music Society, and The Society of Composers & Lyricists.

For additional images and video about PAPER CUT, including those of black lite performances and of Alex discussing how to play paper, please visit: