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MSCM Faculty Member J. Anthony Allen Appointed to American Composers Forum Board of Directors

The already robust resume belonging to Twin Cities-based composer, musician, and educator
J. Anthony Allen just got even more impressive. In early May, Allen (a faculty member and thought leader in the Composition & Songwriting program at McNally Smith) was unanimously voted in to the Board of Directors of the American Composers Forum (ACF) — one of the most prestigious organizations for composers in the country. It’s a notable distinction to be sure, but hardly surprising when considering what the 35-year-old wunderkind has accomplished in his young career.

Allen owns two Master’s Degrees (in Electric Music and Music Composition — both earned with top honors) from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, as well as a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota Orchestra has performed his work, as have the Academy of Conductors Orchestra (Aspen), and Peabody Conservatory Orchestra. Both the MIT Press and Cambridge University Press have published his research. And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg — Allen’s CV is rife with accolades and achievements, residencies, commissions, installations, conference and festival performances, and TV and radio appearances.

“The American Composers Forum is delighted to welcome J. Allen to its Board of Directors,” says ACF President and CEO, John Nuechterlein. “Our Governance Committee was impressed by the breadth of his background as both a composer and teacher, and his extensive work in electro-acoustic music is also an important perspective that we found was missing at our table. J. has his finger on the pulse of new music fields, and we look forward to the ideas and fresh thinking he will bring to our work.”

In addition to teaching courses in compositional techniques and Abelton (music software) at McNally Smith, Allen rides the bleeding edge of technology and trends, constantly reinventing himself as a composer, performer, producer, songwriter, engineer, sound designer, DJ, remix artist, and multi-media artist. Allen’s significant contributions to the progressive genre of electro-acoustic music eventually led him to play host (on McNally Smith’s campus) this April to the annual National Conference of the Society of Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS).

“I think one of the reasons the ACF wanted me — in addition to my background in education and classical music — is that I’ve been focusing so much upon what we in the McNally Smith community call ‘contemporary music,'” says Allen.  “I can connect with communities of people that their programs haven’t historically reached — like DJs for instance. Those types of people don’t go looking for grants, so that’ll likely be part of my role; to broaden the definition of what a composer can be.”

“It’s an honor, because it feels like I’m headed in the right direction,” Allen adds. “I’m in a position with ACF to make maybe some larger contributions to our field of composition. And just keep on doing what I’m doing — keep on shaking things up.”

One of Allen’s more recent projects certainly does just that. Graveyards is a remix of ex-McNally Smith Composition & Songwriting faculty member Jeremy Messersmith’s critically acclaimed album, The Reluctant Graveyard. Borrowing only vocals and a few spare sonic elements from the original tracks, Allen (in collaboration with Joshua Clausen — forming a duo dubbed BalletMech) captured most sounds for their new mixes directly from the ancient Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery in Minneapolis — the setting that inspired Messersmith’s songwriting.

“You can really turn any sound into any other sound if you know what you’re doing,” Allen explains. “If you take the sound of two rocks smashing together and then digitally stretch it out long enough, you’ll get pure tones in there somewhere that you can work with. Or if you close-mic moss and rub your thumb on it, it makes a really beautiful sound that you can stretch out and make into a synth — most of the drums [for Graveyards] came from that.”

While his methods in creating Graveyards sound decidedly avant-garde, when paired with Messersmith’s angelic melodies, the end result is pleasantly poppy (think Postal Service or Kid-A era Radiohead). Which is just how Allen likes it these days.

“When I was doing my doctorate I was getting burnt out on the orchestra,” he admits. “I began to focus more on what I really enjoyed listening to, which is music I can kind of rock out to. I like writing beat-based music. Not necessarily straight up dance music, but I’m definitely leaning more towards easily digestible music.”

Allen pauses and chuckles. “Maybe that’s a genre I should coin — ‘easily digestible.'”

About the American Composers Forum (ACF)

The ACF supports composers’ artistic and professional growth through a rich variety of programs and services, including commissions, performances, readings and fellowships. In 2012 alone, the ACF awarded more than $424,600 in grants to a diverse group of composers and performers of new music. Founded in 1973 as the Minnesota Composers Forum, the ACF has grown from an innovative regional initiative into one of the nation’s premier composer service organizations — its programming reaches composers and communities in all 50 states.

The ACF’s 2,000-plus members come from both urban and rural areas; they work in virtually every musical genre, including orchestral and chamber music, “world” music, opera and music theater, jazz and improvisational music, electronic and electro-acoustic music, and sound art. In addition to the tangible benefits of membership (newsletters, invitations to events, and access to grant, fellowship, and residency opportunities), members are part of a national community of artists who share common concerns, aspirations, and goals.