A brief history of Meet the Composer recordings

[Meet the Composer Residency]

Do a Google search for “Meet the Composer” and the top result should lead you to a podcast introducing curious listeners to modern classical music. Five years ago, that same search would have led you to the site for a grant program of the same name.

The Meet the Composer Residency paired composers with orchestras for a year-long partnership and a one-album recording contract. In 2011, the program merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA.

I didn’t learn about this merger till I tried researching a pair of albums I bought on a whim back in 1990.

Nonesuch Records partnered with Meet the Composer in the late 80s, right at the time I started getting curious about modern classical music. The first album Nonesuch released under the Meet the Composer imprint was Harmonielehre by John Adams. The last albums Nonesuch released in the series — the ones I own — were collections of works by Tobias Picker and Joan Tower.

In my chase for all things Nonesuch, I fell down a rabbit hole of research to find the other albums released in the series. Given the esoteric specificity of the topic, information was scattered. I got so far into the weeds, Google at one point stopped serving search results to me because it thought I was attacking it. (I was searching for barcodes. I did learn a valuable lesson about check bit numbers, though.)

After two weeks of scouring library databases and web searches for Nonesuch catalog numbers, I filled in those holes. The Discogs page on Meet the Composer contains the fruits of my labor, as does the Wikipedia entry about the Nonesuch discography.

So what did I find out? Over the course of five years, Nonesuch released 10 albums in the series. The advent of the compact disc bisected the releases — the first four were issued on vinyl and cassette, the last six on CD. Only John Adams went on to sign with the label, and Harmonielehre is still in its catalog.

Here, then, are the Meet the Composer albums released on Nonesuch:

  • John Adams, Harmonielehre, 1985, 79115
  • John Harbison, Ulysses Bow / Samuel Chapter, 1986, 79129
  • Joseph Schwantner, A Sudden Rainbow / Sparrows / Distant Runes and Incantations, 1987, 79143
  • Stephen Paulus: Symphony in Three Movements; Libby Larsen: Symphony: Water Music, 1987, 79147
  • Charles Wuorinen, The Golden Dance / Piano Concerto No. 3, 1988, 79185
  • William Kraft, Contextures II: The Final Beast / Interplay / Of Ceremonies, Pageants And Celebrations, 1989, 79229
  • Christopher Rouse, Symphony No. 1 / Phantasma, 1989, 79230
  • Alvin Singleton, Shadows / After Fallen Crumbs / A Yellow Rose Petal, 1989, 79231
  • Joan Tower, Silver Ladders / Island Prelude / Music For Cello And Orchestra / Sequoia, 1990, 79245
  • Tobias Picker, Symphony No. 2 / String Quartet No. 1, 79246

Probably the most prestigious Meet the Composer release was a recording of Symphony No. 1 by John Corigliano. The work, inspired by the AIDS quilt, won a Grammy Award for Best New Composition. Meet the Composer’s arrangement with Nonesuch expired by then, and the album was released by sister label Erato.

At that point, I lost track of Meet the Composer and wouldn’t think about the organization till recently.

On the whole, the works in this series are really appealing. American modern composers don’t seem to get bogged down in abstractions the way European composers might. Yes, the works produced by these composers won’t be mistaken for Jean Sibelius or even Leonard Bernstein. But there’s a melodic sense threading through these pieces that American composers are more willing to exercise.

The Nonesuch pressings of these albums have been out of print for a long time, but around 2004, the First Edition label reissued a number of them. Only the Paulus/Larsen and Schwantner albums remain unavailable. The Schwantner release didn’t even make it onto CD.

Although Meet the Composer, the residency, surrendered its name, it left behind valuable recordings that I hope remain out in the world.

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