Stephen A. Taylor, composer

Stephen Taylor headshot

Stephen Andrew Taylor composes music that explores boundaries between art and science. His first orchestra commission, Unapproachable Light, inspired by images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the New Testament, was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra in 1996 in Carnegie Hall. Other works include the quartet Quark Shadows, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony; and Seven Memorials, a 30-minute cycle for piano inspired by the work of Maya Lin and featured at Tanglewood in 2006. The Machine Awakes, a CD of his orchestra, chamber and electronic music, was released in 2010; and Paradises Lost, an opera based on a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, received its Canadian premiere in 2013, conducted by the composer. In 2015 The New York Times called his piano work Variations Ascending, premiered by Ian Hobson, “persuasive and powerful.”

Taylor  also works with technology in pieces such as 2017’s Ocean of Air, written for the Detroit Symphony’s principal trombonist Kenneth Thompkins. He is active as a conductor with the Illinois Modern Ensemble, and as a theorist, writing and lecturing on African music, data sonification, György Ligeti, Björk and Radiohead. He also collaborates with the band Pink Martini, rock singer Storm Large, and cabaret/performance artist Meow Meow, and was a 2014-15 Fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation.

Born in 1965, he grew up in Illinois and studied at Northwestern and Cornell Universities, and the California Institute of the Arts. His music has won awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Howard Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau, Composers, Inc., the Debussy Trio, the College Band Directors National Association, the New York State Federation of Music Clubs, the Illinois Arts Council, the American Music Center, and ASCAP. Among his commissions are works for Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Syracuse Society for New Music, the Jupiter Quartet, the Spoleto Festival, Pink Martini and the Oregon Symphony, the Quad City Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, Quartet New Generation, Piano Spheres, and the American Composers Orchestra. Taylor is Professor of Music at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he lives with his spouse, artist Hua Nian, and their two children.

Steven Andrew Taylor's piece Winged Helix premiered with the Grossman Ensemble on March 13, 2020. 

Performance notes:

Winged Helix is a portrait in sound of the gene FOXP2, the so-called “language gene,” which plays an important role for other animals’ communication as well. When even a tiny mutation occurs, we can lose our ability to speak. “Winged helix” refers to the shape of the protein that FOXP2 encodes. It is a regulator: its job is to help unspool other strands of DNA to become activated, and it surrounds the DNA double helix like a pair of wings. The harmonies for the piece feature just intonation — naturally occurring, microtonal overtones that aren’t often heard. I don’t usually write harmonies this difficult, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s the Grossman Ensemble! There are three main movements, each preceded by a brief “text setting” of the DNA in FOXP2.

I. FOXP2 — a sonification of the gene, with its DNA letters — A (metal) C (ceramic) G (glass), T (wood) — in the percussion. Each three letters of DNA codes for an amino acid; these are played by staccato woodwinds. Melodies, plucked strings and arpeggios represent higher-level, secondary structures: alpha helices, beta sheets, and turns.

II. Unfurl — an impression of a gene unspooling, activating, awakening new possibilities for life. We can hear crickets chirping in the high violins, as one of the earliest forms of animal communication. The music climbs from the lowest instruments, then bursts into a fast, rhythmic pulse, culminating in a unison fanfare.

III. FOXP2: Cardinal to Humpback — the FOXP2 gene again, but this time, instead of melodies we hear a cardinal singing its song (high winds and violins), which suddenly morphs into a humpback whale’s call (bari sax, bass clarinet and lion’s roar).

IV. Thousand Mile Song — over a slowly evolving chorale in the strings, the whales gradually metamorphose back to birds (which are improvised by the players, including the bass clarinet offstage). Dedicated to the musician and author David Rothenberg, who graciously provided the whale sounds that inspired this piece.

V. FOXP2: Double — a variation of the opening movement; all the same things are there, but played by different instruments.

VI. Onomatopoeia — a word which sounds like the thing it signifies (for instance, the buzz of a bee).

Jimi Hendrix said that music is a language in which it’s impossible to lie. But in spoken language we lie all the time; and even when we try to understand each other, we rarely do. Language enabled us to become what we are, but it also holds great danger. The finale, after a peaceful opening, ends in strife. Winged Helix is dedicated with gratitude and admiration to Augusta Read Thomas.

Grossman Ensemble premieres Steven A. Taylor's "Winged Helix"