5 Californian Classical Composers You Should Know

Photo of Rebecca Wishnia
11 December 2015

The West Coast classical music scene may be younger than the East Coast’s, but with youth comes vitality. These five living composers have transformed the state of new music not only in California, but across the entire country.

Terry Riley (1935–)

Terry Riley | © zioWoody/Flickr

The quintessential Californian, Terry Riley was born in Colfax, Placer County, and completed his undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University before moving to the East Bay to attend University of California, Berkeley. He later taught at Mills College in Oakland. Riley is famous for his 1964 piece In C, which has been credited with launching the minimalist movement in music. However, he has composed a large body of work since then, including many pieces for the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet. Riley’s musical idiom is compellingly diverse, drawing from influences including Indian classical music, electronic music, and jazz. When he’s not at his Grass Valley home, Riley can be found performing across the country.

Carla Bley (1936–)

Carla Bley | Michael Hoefner/Wikimedia

Although she moved to New York as a teenager to work at the legendary Birdland jazz club and currently lives in Woodstock, Carla Bley — jazz composer, keyboardist, and bandleader — was born and raised in Oakland. Her jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill is probably her best-known work, but Bley is a prolific recording artist who has created many noteworthy albums over the last few decades. Her latest album, Trios (2013), received across-the-board praise from music reviewers. Bley has collaborated with a variety of both free jazz and rock artists, including members of Pink Floyd and Cream, in addition to leading her own big band.

Lisa Bielawa (1968–)

Born in San Francisco to a musical family (her father is the retired San Francisco State music professor Herbert Bielawa), composer and singer Lisa Bielawa began music-making at a young age. In 1990, she moved to New York, subsequently touring with the Philip Glass Ensemble and co-founding the MATA Festival of young composers. But Bielawa makes time for the West Coast — she recently led a performance of her large-scale work Airfield Broadcasts at San Francisco’s Crissy Field, and she is currently the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which she is also an alumna. Often incorporating literature, architecture, and speech, Bielawa’s style is remarkably distinctive.

Gabriela Lena Frank (1972–)

Composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank was born and raised in Berkeley, and remains a resident of the Bay Area. As a self-described ‘hippie gringa-latina,’ her compositions often draw upon her Peruvian heritage and travels in Central and South America, with folk and narrative elements that engage listeners of all backgrounds. Currently the composer-in-residence of both the Houston Symphony and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Frank has worked with some of the most prestigious ensembles in the country; her California affiliations include the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. Frank has also worked with the Sphinx Organization, which supports the artistic development of African-American and Latino/a classical musicians.

Samuel Adams (1985–)

Samuel Adams | Nathan Phillips/Wikimedia

The son of Pulitzer prizewinning composer John Adams, Samuel Adams grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, studying composition at Stanford University and Yale School of Music before settling in Oakland. His compositional style is complex, blending jazz, minimalism, and electronic music, but maintains accessibility by using evocative titles like ‘Radial Play.’ Adams’s works have recently been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Berkeley Symphony, and pianist Sarah Cahill, among other groups. In 2015, he will work as a composer-in-residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Rebecca Wishnia

Rebecca Wishnia is a violinist, music reviewer at the San Francisco Classical Voice, and native San Franciscan.

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