UCSD Composer Wins a Pulitzer : Roger Reynolds’ Work for String Orchestra Is Honored

UC San Diego composer Roger Reynolds was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music Thursday, the second composer on the UCSD music faculty to receive the prestigious award in the past five years.

Bernard Rands won a Pulitzer in 1984, when he taught at UCSD and concurrently held the post of composer-in-residence with the San Diego Symphony.

Reynolds received the prize for his composition “Whispers Out of Time,” a six-movement, 25-minute work for string orchestra. The 55-year-old composer wrote the work under commission from Amherst College, where he was a visiting professor last fall. Under the direction of fellow composer Harvey Sollberger, “Whispers Out of Time” received its first performance at Amherst on Dec. 11, 1988.

“The title is taken from a line of poetry by the contemporary American poet John Ashbery, who also won a Pulitzer Prize (1976),” said Reynolds from his Del Mar home. “Like Ashbery’s poem, which is about an obscure 16th-Century Mannerist painter, the composition contemplates the artist and his time.”


A Purely Instrumental Work

Although much of Reynolds’ work includes electronic, computer-generated music, “Whispers Out of Time” is a purely instrumental work. Reynolds pointed out, however, that his compositional process was based on the use of computer algorithms, not a surprising approach from someone who began his adult life as a systems development engineer in the missile industry.

A native of Michigan, Reynolds joined the UCSD music faculty 20 years ago. In 1972, he was instrumental in founding the university’s Center for Music Experiment with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. According to Reynolds, who was the center’s first director, the music research laboratory is one of the few worldwide devoted to speculative and technological music exploration.

John Lauer, the Center for Music Experiment’s administrative director, noted that Reynolds’ and Rands’ Pulitzers focus attention on the university’s achievements in musical research.

“These two awards place UCSD in the forefront of contemporary music--feathers in our cap,” Lauer said.

Found UCSD Well-Suited to Temperament

Although most musicians would not find a university primarily devoted to scientific research a likely place for the arts to flourish, Reynolds has found UCSD well-suited to his artistic temperament.

“Scientists are expected to explore and are expected to be accountable for their work,” Reynolds said. “For the composer, that crucible is public performance, which is why the UCSD campus and music department have been the ideal context for exploring and presenting the fruits of my research. Any (composer) who is complacent today is out of touch.”


In a review of the premiere of Reynolds’ “Transfigured Wind II” at the New York Philharmonic’s 1984 new-music festival, New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter described hearing these traits in Reynolds’ music.

‘An Explorer and a Visionary Composer’

“Reynolds is at once an explorer and a visionary composer, whose works can lead listeners to follow him into new regions of emotion and imagination,” Porter wrote.

Over the past five years, Reynolds has received increasing recognition outside San Diego. Recent compositions have been performed by both the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, orchestras that have also invited him to organize their contemporary music festivals. Reynolds’ compositions have also been featured in international music festivals held in Poland and Germany.


But in San Diego, outside the boundaries of the UCSD campus, his work has gone almost unnoticed. The San Diego Symphony, for example, has never played a Reynolds composition in his two decades of local residence. The symphony Thursday announced its 1989-90 season, which includes a three-concert series devoted to American composers titled “The Pulitzer Series.” They were not prescient enough to include Reynolds.

1 Contact With Symphony in 20 Years

“I’ve had only one contact with the local symphony in 20 years,” said Reynolds, “and that was an acrimonious encounter with (former music director Zoltan) Rozsnyai, who expressed his opposition to what we were doing in music at UCSD.”

Does the newly feted composer expect to hear the San Diego Symphony knocking on his door?


“Do you suppose that’s possible even now?” he asked rhetorically.

Reynolds received notice of his Pulitzer Prize while putting the finishing touches on a solo cello piece for the cellist of the London-based Arditti String Quartet, Rohan de Saram. Other projects on Reynolds’ back burner include a violin concerto in progress and a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation.