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Three RI composers win $25,000 fellowships
By Chris Barnett / February 13, 2018 /   Loading Disqus...

The Rhode Island Foundation announced today that three local composers will receive what are considered to be among the largest no-strings-attached grants available to artists in the United States.

Jeff Prystowsky, Jacob Richman and Kirsten Volness will receive $25,000 grants from the Foundation’s Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship Fund

The fellowships are intended to enable composers to concentrate time on the creative process, focus on personal or professional development, expand their body of work and explore new directions. 

“We are providing the financial resources necessary to enable these composers to advance their work. We hope this rare gift of time and money will free them to invest in developing their craft,” said Daniel Kertzner, the Foundation’s senior philanthropic advisor for funding partnerships.

Prystowsky is the co-founder of the popular local folk/indie band The Low Anthem and the co-owner of Eyeland recording studio in Providence. He plans to use the fellowship to travel, do research and to develop new project ideas such as gathering sound sources, including a glass harmonica, a vintage ARP synthesizer, a shruti box and a hurdy-gurdy, for a new composition. 

“Being the child of a first generation Filipino immigrant, I would love to learn more about the rich musical heritage and folklore traditions of my ancestors in their native language, Tagalog. In terms of current conceptual ideas exciting to us, the relationship between music and silence fascinates me, as well as creation myths of Indigenous cultures, and the biosounds of the desert and forest,” Prystowsky said.

He also plans to work with long-time collaborator and The Low Anthem co-founder Ben Knox Miller to build a new musical instrument. They will use the workstation for soundscapes and drum machine to make new compositions.

The Providence resident has a BA in U.S. History and Music Theory & Composition from Brown University. In addition to his work with The Low Anthem and Eyeland, he is a founding member of The Columbus Cooperative, the organization that revitalized the Columbus Theatre, and does music therapy with patients at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, RI Hospital, Elmhurst Extended Care for Elders, and Women and Infant’s Outpatient Oncology Center.

Richman is a multimedia composer from Providence, whose creative work focuses on unique performance settings and mixtures of composition for live performers, media arts, and site-specific installations. 

He feels that exploring relationships between sounds, images, live performers, space, and movement is an effective way to both investigate and convey greater connections that surround us. His recent work also explores the practice of "roving performances"—those in which the audience moves to experience the piece. He is interested in how movement through a performance setting can help express complex topics such as personal and collective loss, and expose the hidden linkages between things.

“What drives my work is how music and live performance combine seemingly disparate people and places together to form a unified experience,” said Richman. “In my recent creative work, I have explored the way in which the audience moves to experience the piece as a way to examine these topics and the overall intersections that underlie our daily lives. I am interested in how moving through a performance setting can help express difficult or troubling topics in ways that sitting passively in front of a screen or in a concert hall cannot."

Along with his creative work, Richman teaches in the Art and Art History Department at the University of Rhode Island. He is also co-director of the Tenderloin Opera Company, a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in downtown Providence. 

He will use his fellowship to focus on his technical work such as developing more physical computing tools, including robot sound machines and trash organs; to buy supplies and to take the Providence-based Tenderloin Opera Company on tour.

Volness teaches music composition at the University of Rhode Island. She says her musical style integrates complex contrapuntal textures, drones, resonance and organic development of ideas with strong influences from indie rock, electronic music and jazz idioms.

The Providence resident plans to use her fellowship to produce and promote an album of original electro-acoustic music for strings and piano and to ​develop an original, multi-media opera.

“Releasing this album will greatly increase the possibility of reaching more listeners with a professional product to offer the world,” she said. “I feel confident that I would continue writing chamber music and producing concerts, making connections with other artists with whom to collaborate in the future. However, this fellowship will immensely expand my opportunities for broader recognition and support in manifesting large-scale projects that seem out of reach at present.”

Volness serves on the board of directors of the Music Mansion in Providence and won a 2016 Dorry Award for her work with Verdant Vibes. She earned a doctorate of musical arts and a masters of music in composition at the University of Michigan and a BA in music at the University of Minnesota.

The recipients were selected on the quality of the work samples, artistic development and the creative contribution to music composition, as well as the potential of the fellowship to advance the career of emerging-to-mid-career artists. There was no restriction on the genre the composers worked in.

Although the fellowships are unrestricted, the Foundation expects recipients to devote concentrated time to their art and to engage in activities that further their artistic growth. Examples include creating new work, training in new technologies or techniques, purchasing equipment or materials, travel, research and developing artistic endeavors.

Applicants had to be legal residents of Rhode Island. High school students, college and graduate students who are enrolled in a degree-granting program and artists who have advanced levels of career achievement were not eligible.

The recipients were selected by a panel of four out-of-state jurors who are recognized practicing composers and music professionals.

The panel also named three finalists, who received no cash award: Francisco Pais Cardoso of Providence, a jazz composer and performer who is director of the Wheeler School’s jazz program; Laura Cetilia of Providence, a cellist whose recent work includes “rising, for three,”  “falling” and an untitled piece for the Vespers concert series; and Thomas Van Buskirk of Providence, who has performed at Lollapalooza, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art.

Established in 2003, the MacColl Johnson fellowships rotate among composers, writers and visual artists on a three-year cycle. Over the years, the Foundation has awarded 39 fellowships totaling $975,000.

Rhode Islanders Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson were both dedicated to the arts all their lives. Mrs. Johnson, who died in 1990, earned a degree in creative writing from Roger Williams College when she was 70. Mr. Johnson invented a new process for mixing metals in jewelry-making and then retired to become a fulltime painter. Before he died in 1999, Johnson began discussions with the Foundation that led to the creation of the fellowships.

The Rhode Island Foundation is the largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island. Through leadership, fundraising and grantmaking activities, often in partnership with individuals and organizations, the Foundation is helping Rhode Island reach its true potential.

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