Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) began his musical career in Chicago where his first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer (1944-49). He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 with a degree in performance and composition and his studies included training with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Festival and Lukas Foss at Tanglewood. He served two years as timpanist in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany and then spent eleven years supporting his composing as a free-lance percussionist in New York City where his wide-ranging performance venues included the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theater, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the original West Side Story orchestra on Broadway, the Columbia Recording Orchestra’s Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series, and numerous ballet, opera and jazz ensembles. He organized the percussion sections for Gunther Schuller’s recordings and concerts, as well as for premieres of new works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varese, and many others. During this New York period he continued to study composition with Wallingford Riegger (1958) and Ben Weber (1958-60).
Colgrass has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic and The Boston Symphony (twice). Also the orchestras of Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, St.Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto (twice), the National Arts Centre Orchestra (twice), The Canadian Broadcast Corporation, The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the Manhattan and Muir String Quartets, The Brighton Festival in England, The Fromm and Ford Foundations, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and numerous other orchestras, chamber groups, choral groups and soloists.
He won 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Déjà vu, which was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic. In addition, he received an Emmy Award in 1982 for a PBS documentary “Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass.” He has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, A Rockefeller Grant, First Prize in the Barlow and Sudler International Wind Ensemble Competitions, and the 1988 Jules Leger Prize for Chamber Music.
He has created a method of teaching children—and teachers—how to write music using graphics. In April of 2009 he did a project with the Middleton Regional High School in Nova Scotia, where high school students wrote seven pieces for band in three days and conducted them in public concert on the fourth. As a result, his method was adopted by the Nova Scotia education system for inclusion in the junior high curriculum. Most recently he had students at Toronto’s Rockcliffe Middle School write a group composition for the Esprit orchestra in three days, which was premiered on 25 May 2010 with Alex Pauk conducting.
Among his recent works are Crossworlds (2002) for flute piano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered with soloists Marina Piccinini and Andreas Heafliger. Pan Trio was commissioned and premiered by Soundstreams Canada in 2005 and premiered by them with Liam Teague, steel drums, Sanya Eng, harp and Ryan Scott, percussion. Side by Side (2007) for harpsichord and altered piano with Joanne Kong as soloist, was commissioned by the Esprit Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. Zululand (2010) for wind ensemble, was commissioned and premiered by the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.
As an author, Colgrass wrote “My Lessons With Kumi,” a narrative/exercise book, outlining his techniques for performance and creativity. He lectures on personal development and gives workshops throughout the world on the psychology and technique of performance, in which participants do exercises from this book.
He lives in Toronto and makes his living internationally as a composer. His wife, Ulla, is a journalist and editor who writes about music and the arts.