From left: Viet Cuong, Jens Ibsen, Kevin Lau, and Nina C. Young. (Photo credit for Cuong, Aaron Jay Young; for Ibsen, Mike Grittani.)

In Brief | Today’s emerging composers are pursuing their own musical paths—from experimenting with sounds and textures to playing with the concerto’s soloist-vs.-orchestra relationship to absorbing progressive metal as an influence. And they’re getting out of their studios to connect with audiences and inspire schoolkids. Here are snapshots of four composers who are making their mark right now.

Viet Cuong

  • The Pacific Symphony performed Viet Cuong’s 2017 Re(new)al, a concerto for orchestra and percussion quartet, on the opening night of its 2022-23 season. Acknowledging the standing ovation are, in foreground from left, Music Director Carl St.Clair, Viet Cuong, and Sandbox Percussion. (Photo by Doug Gifford.)
  • Composer Viet Cuong speaks with Pacific Symphony with Music Director Carl St.Clair about his Re(new)al at the opening night of the Pacific Symphony’s 2022-23 season. Cuong is currently Pacific Symphony’s composer in residence. (Photo by Doug Gifford.)
  • Viet Cuong and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra at an open rehearsal of his new work in September 2022, part of the SPCO’s Sandbox Residency program, which offers intensive multiweek residencies for composers. (Photo courtesy of Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.)
  • Viet Cuong, 2020-23 Young American Composer-in-Residence at the California Symphony, works on the score for Next Week’s Trees with Music Director Donato Cabrera. (Photo by CeCe Salinas.)
  • Viet Cuong meets with students in the John Adams Young Composers Program at the Crowden School during his 2020-23 residency as Young American Composer-in-Residence at the California Symphony. (Photo courtesy of California Symphony.)

Viet Cuong’s new piano concerto, Stargazer, employs a musical gambit he has drawn on in several recent works. The piano part sometimes mimics the effect of an electric guitarist’s delay pedal, with melodies doubling up on themselves as they unfold. “It ends up sounding sort of electronic, and very reverberant,” says Cuong, whose concerto was just premiered by the California Symphony and pianist Sarah Cahill. “It sounds like everything is echoing off itself, like there’s more than one piano playing. It’s a magical effect when it really works.”

Exploring textures and sounds is one of Cuong’s hallmarks: “finding ways to write for instruments that sound enchanting,” as he puts it. His Re(new)al, a concerto for percussion quartet premiered by the Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire new-music ensemble in 2017, marshals a percussion battery ranging from conventional instruments to compressed-air cans and a vibraphone with some notes wrapped in aluminum foil. Cuong also harkens back at times to Baroque music: Now and Then, commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and premiered in 2022, grows from a chord progression he borrowed from a J.S. Bach concerto.

But there’s one potential ingredient that doesn’t figure into Cuong’s music. “People often ask me if I have any Vietnamese folk-music influence in what I do,” Cuong says. “I really don’t. Because I was born here (in the United States), and I grew up as an American kid.” Cuong’s ancestry is Vietnamese, but he was raised in an Atlanta suburb, where he played in his high school band.

He applauds U.S. orchestras for at last beginning to spotlight composers from underrepresented groups—“They’re showing how multifaceted our country and society are”—while offering his own take on that. “There have been times when I’ve gone and done performances, and people have assumed that I’m not an American—not out of any animosity, but (because) they have never met or heard the music of an American composer who has a name like mine,” Cuong says. “So it’s almost like part of my mission is to show people that an American composer—and by extension, an American person—can be of any background.”

Cuong also salutes orchestras that don’t just premiere a work but bring in the composer to workshop it while it’s on the drawing board. He points to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Sandbox Composer Residency, which allotted Cuong several sessions with the musicians as he crafted Now and Then. “I was able to write just sketches—like random things—and they read through them, and we experimented,” Cuong recalls. “Then I went home and wrote some more, and we tried some more. By the end, it felt like the piece just worked. It really is super-valuable experience for composers to have that.”

Audiences turn out for such things, too, he adds. “It invites them into your world for more than just the length of the piece” at the premiere, Cuong says. “They see the piece from its humble beginnings.”

One St. Paul session stands out in his mind. “I met this older Vietnamese couple who came to one of the workshops,” Cuong says. “It was their first time coming to a St. Paul Chamber Orchestra event. I think maybe the fact that they saw a Vietnamese composer, which they had probably never seen before, intrigued them. They reminded me of my parents. They were so proud. It was very touching.”

“It’s almost like part of my mission is to show people that an American composer—and by extension, an American person—can be of any background,” says Viet Cuong.

Jens Ibsen

  • Jens Ibsen in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Bowes Center, when he was announced as winner of the 2022 Emerging Black Composers Project. Ibsen is writing a new orchestral score as part of the project, which is a collaboration of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Conservatory of Music.)
  • Composer Jens Ibsen, at right, takes a bow with performers and musicians at the January 2023 premiere of his Bubbie and the Demon, with libretto by Cecelia Raker. The work was commissioned as part of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative and performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
  • In addition to being a composer, Jens Ibsen is a conservatory-trained vocalist. In photo: Ibsen and harpist Abigail Kent perform his arrangement of “The Final” by Japanese heavy-metal band Dir En Grey at the Mannes School of Music in 2019.
  • Composer Jens Ibsen at work.

A few days have passed since the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra devoted a reading session to Drowned in Light, Jens Ibsen’s work-in-progress. But the composer still feels the glow. “It really brought the piece to life,” Ibsen recalls. “Naturally, there will be some tweaks before the final version is done in November, but it was exhilarating to hear it in its current form. There’s absolutely nothing like hearing a live orchestra play your music. I could get used to that!”

The San Francisco Symphony will premiere Drowned in Light this November as part of Ibsen’s prize as the winner of the second annual Emerging Black Composers Project, a collaboration between the orchestra and the conservatory. The ten-year project, which awarded its inaugural prize to Trever Weston in 2021, spotlights early-career Black American composers; winners receive a commission for a score for large ensemble, workshops and reading sessions with orchestras, a public world premiere, mentorship opportunities, and a prize of $15,000.

Born in Ghana to a white American father and a Ghanaian mother, Ibsen grew up in the Bay Area, and his program note for Drowned in Light calls it “my poem to the place I call home.” He adds, “I have really specific images of what daylight and sunshine (in the Bay Area) mean to me, and what the city is like by night. I definitely was drawing on that.” At the same time, Drowned in Light also has roots in Ibsen’s fascination with progressive-metal rock music. While Ibsen loves metal’s percussiveness and wall-of-sound impact—and declares, by the way, that Sergei Prokofiev is “one of the most metal guys who ever was”—he points out that metal’s progressive branch sometimes throws the ferocity aside. “People [in progressive metal] incorporate influences from classical music, folk music, electronica, and more to try and craft sounds entirely new yet catchy and memorable, and I relate strongly to that.”

Ibsen’s musical tastes have always been eclectic. His parents met, he notes, when his father journeyed from the United States to Ghana to learn about West African drumming. Ibsen himself moved to Austria as a youngster to join the Vienna Boys Choir—and he went on to study composition alongside voice. (He will perform a recital of his own vocal works a few days before Drowned in Light premieres.) As a youth in the Bay Area, where multiculturalism was “accepted and normal,” Ibsen he says, he soaked up bossa nova as readily as rhythm ’n’ blues and music of the African diaspora.

That variety influences Ibsen’s view of what it means to be a Black composer—or a Black person. “I’m interested in rock and metal and Arab music and Turkish music and Indian music, and all these things, and I’m Black,” Ibsen says. “I have interests that may not be in the standard narrative of what we allow a Black artist to be. If I have any agendas, one of them is expanding the notion of what the Black experience can be. Black people can be metalheads. We can be classical musicians. We can be multicultural. We can be scholarly and philosophical. All this stuff that we’re not given breadth to do.”

Ibsen sees himself as a direct beneficiary of the push for inclusiveness spurred in part by the killing of George Floyd. “I basically didn’t have anything going on for me professionally until 2020 happened,” he says. He had submitted scores to contests and done “what everyone tells you to do” to advance his career as a composer, but no responses came in until the national soul-searching kicked in. Then, commissions came from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and others. “Initially, it was pretty bittersweet to feel like, ‘Only now that there’s this zeitgeist-driven search for Black composers am I getting any attention,’ ” Ibsen says. “I have had a lot of experiences since then that made me feel confident there are people out there who like me for me, not just because I’m Black. But it took me some time to feel really secure about that.”

“If I have any agendas, one of them is expanding the notion of what the Black experience can be. Black people can be metalheads. We can be classical musicians. We can be multicultural. We can be scholarly and philosophical,” says Jens Ibsen.

Kevin Lau

  • ROCO, based in Texas, commissioned Kevin Lau’s Between the Earth and Beyond, a concerto for erhu and orchestra, and gave the world premiere of the work in 2020. Taking a bow at the premiere are, from left, erhu soloist Andy Lim, Kevin Lau, and, gesturing at right, conductor Christopher Rountree. (Photo by Blueprint Film Co, Ray Kuglar.)
  • ROCO’s first commission from Kevin Lau, the 2017 chamber work “The Nightingale,” has become a children's book (published in April 2023) that includes QR codes to scan to hear Lau’s music along with narration. ROCO will give the premiere of Lau’s new orchestral version of “The Nightingale” in September. (Photo by Violeta Alvarez.)
  • Kevin Lau confers with conductor Peter Oundjian and Toronto Symphony Orchestra musicians at a rehearsal of his Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra.)
  • Kevin Lau and co-creators and performers Jodi Contin, Ken MacDonald, and Rhonda Snow, among others, take a bow at the premiere of The Spirit Horse Returns at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 2022. The production blends traditional Indigenous teachings, original visual artwork, and Lau’s orchestral score to tell stories and legends of the Ojibwe Horses. (Photo courtesy of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.)
  • Kevin Lau works with musicians of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at a rehearsal of The Spirit Horse Returns in 2023.
  • Composer Kevin Lau at work, with his dog Varley offering assistance.

When Kevin Lau picks up the phone for this interview, he has just returned home from a workshop with Toronto schoolchildren. In a project sponsored by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, he’s coaching the youngsters as they compose a work of their own. To climax the program, members of the Toronto Symphony will premiere the young people’s collective creation. “These kids may have had some exposure to music, but they may not have had the chance or the resources to tap into that,” Lau says. “I go in and prompt them a little, and sure enough, they start to generate these little ideas. We’ll go to the piano and take them to all sorts of places. It’s a way of exposing them to the joy of creativity. We’ve had a couple of infectious moments here and there, which have been really fun.

“There’s something about me that enjoys going in cold and being totally surprised, and then reacting and creating alongside them,” Lau continues. “This has been an amazing learning experience, from the point of view of letting my own inner child take over, and sort of playing in the sandbox with them—while still guiding them and giving them options.”

In his own work, Lau is focusing on two ballet scores: one looking back on the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, the other depicting Taoist teachings about life. The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra recently premiered his song cycle The Ruins of Time, which capitalizes on mezzo-soprano Lizzy Hoyt’s double-barreled stylistic bent and ability to bridge classical singing and Celtic folk music. Exploring the contrast, the piece “begins with a contemporary folk sound,” Lau says, then “plunges backward in time into something like the Baroque era.”

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto, Lau bridges cultures in his life and music. Between the Earth and Beyond, inspired by a NASA photo of an astronaut on a spacewalk, evokes a solitary figure in space by putting an erhu—a two-string Chinese instrument—in front of a chamber orchestra, originally Houston’s ROCO in 2020. “When we think of the erhu, we don’t think of a person in a space suit on a spacewalk,” Lau says. “The incongruity of it and the unlikeness of it attracted me to the idea. The more I thought about it, the more I felt the erhu was this perfect metaphor for that loneliness, that solitary sound.”

Lau enjoys speaking to audiences to offer them “a framework” to understand what they’ll hear. But even as he composes, he imagines a listener next to him, listening and reacting to what he puts down. “Obviously, I can’t inhabit (the mind of) any particular audience member,” he says. “I’m in dialogue with myself. But it’s still a dialogue. If anything is unclear or not as impactful as it could be, I’m relentless with it. And I try to make it right.”

“If anything is unclear or not as impactful as it could be, I’m relentless with it. And I try to make it right,” says Kevin Lau.

Nina C. Young

  • While taking a bow at the world premiere of her Tread Softly by the New York Philharmonic in 2020, Nina C. Young shakes hands with Concertmaster Frank Huang. The work was commissioned by the Philharmonic for its Project 19 project, which commissioned new scores from women composers to mark the passage of the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 gave women the right to vote. (Photo by Chris Lee.)
  • Composer Nina C. Young addressed the audience when the New York Philharmonic gave the world premiere of her Tread Softly in 2020. Music Director Jaap van Zweden (in photo with Young) conducted the work. (Photo by Chris Lee.)
  • At the 2019 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Nina C. Young spoke before the West Coast premiere of her 2015 Agnosco Veteris. Music Director and Conductor Cristian Măcelaru led the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra at the concert. (Photo courtesy of Nina C. Young/Cabrillo Festival.)
  • Jennifer Koh will perform the world premiere of Nina C. Young’s violin concerto, Traces, this fall with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The concert was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Juergen Frank.)
  • In addition to composing musical scores, Young creates installations incorporating sound. In photo: Sound Constructions, an “ephemeral site-specific performative sculpture” created by Young, Leilehua Anne Lanzilotti, and Senem Pirler at California’s Montalvo Arts Center in 2018.
  • In her compositions, Nina C. Young deploys traditional orchestral and instrumental forces—and explores electronic sounds.

Nina C. Young enjoys prodding at the boundaries of classical music’s genres and attitudes. “It’s creatively fascinating to think, what are the things we take for granted? What are the tropes? And what are things we can explore deeply without unraveling the whole system?” Young says. She takes that on in Traces, a violin concerto that Jennifer Koh and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra—which co-commissioned it with the Philadelphia Orchestra—will premiere in November.

“As an audience, we look at the soloist as this virtuosic champion,” Young says. But she thinks that notion collides with the “internal politics” onstage. “Everyone is supposed to be supposed to be playing in communion with one another,” she continues, but the reality involves “power play and struggle” between soloist, conductor, and orchestra. Traces, spawned by several years of discussions between Young and Koh, picks up there. “It starts out as sort of an homage to the standard concerto, with the soloist taking the primary role,” Young explains. “But as the piece unfolds, a lot of chamber music takes place. Jennifer ends up playing duos and trios with members of the orchestra—a little bit like a concerto grosso. It confuses the conventional hierarchy a bit.”

Young also bills herself as a sonic artist, and she creates site-specific installations incorporating electronic sounds. But even when she works with traditional forces, she brings a modern perspective. An example: Tread Softly, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its Project 19 celebration of the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 gave women the right to vote. The score springs from an insight that came to Young as she explored the history of women’s quest for the vote. “What I found really fascinating was that for centuries, there was this fluctuation of progress and backstepping, progress and backstepping,” Young recalls. Taking that fitful course as a model for the piece, she decided to “do something very personally vulnerable and fragile—which was to show all the little musical ideas that I usually edit out of my music.” In Tread Softly, premiered in February, 2020, those ideas bubble up “in a cascading way. They’re trying to peek out and appear, and then they get closed off. It’s a series of anticlimactic moments, until finally there’s a resolution.”

As composers often are, Young was “very nervous” as Tread Softly’s rehearsals approached, she recalls. But the orchestra provided generous rehearsal time, “and everybody played with such enthusiasm that I just started crying in the first five minutes. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”

Another bright spot: Young says she feels “uplifted” by the fact that the orchestral industry’s quest for diversity is “lasting season after season. That’s really hopeful and wonderful,” Young says. “I think it’s a testimony to the fact that the music that everyone is making is interesting and well-crafted, and audiences are being receptive.”

“It’s creatively fascinating to think, what are the things we take for granted? What are the tropes? What can we explore deeply without unraveling the whole system?” says Nina C. Young.