Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962) grew up in the Carolinas and Appalachian Ohio. Her love of music, language and challenging questions is reflected in her catalog of over 150 compositions in a wide variety of classical and vernacular styles. Her commissions have included music for orchestras, chamber ensembles, solo voices, and especially her choral pieces, which have been performed by thousands of choruses worldwide.
Her theatrically-inclined works include the one-woman concert-length Nature Creature as well as her current project, Split Hickory, a music theater work set in present-day Appalachia. Selections from Split Hickory have been workshopped at Nautilus Music-Theater’s Rough Cuts (Minneapolis), and a first workshop took place in Fall 2022 at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Elizabeth’s text settings of both original lyrics and the words of others prompted Choral Director Magazine to write that “her mastery of prosody and declamation results in a marriage between music and text that is dynamic and indelible.” Other reviewers have described her music as “brilliantly innovative” (New York Concert Review), “truly inspired” (Boston Intelligencer) and “stunning…exquisite…sculpting light into sound” (Kansas City Metropolis).
She studied composition with Jack Gallagher at The College of Wooster, and with Steven Stucky, Yehudi Wyner and Karel Husa at Cornell University, from which she received her doctorate in Music Composition. She has received grants, awards and fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, New Music USA, Minnesota State Arts Board, New York Council on the Arts, Wisconsin Arts Board, National Orchestral Association, International League of Women Composers and American Composers Forum.
Elizabeth lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she practices yoga, makes pretty good biscuits, and looks for all kinds of excuses to visit her two grown sons.
I spent my early years in the Carolinas, where my mom taught me to play the piano and my dad taught me the beauty of a well-told story. I spent my teens in Appalachian Ohio, where I played Bach, Chopin, Prokofiev, Debussy, Billy Joel, the Beatles, and anything I could pick out by ear. Because I didn’t know that some musical styles were thought to be too simplistic, dissonant, sentimental or passé, I unabashedly loved them all. I wrote many songs during that time, some of which were not too bad.
I attended The College of Wooster, where my studies with Jack Gallagher gave me a foundation I still appreciate today. At Cornell University I received my doctorate in music composition, studying with Yehudi Wyner, Karel Husa, and especially Steven Stucky. During my Ivy League years I shed my Southern/Appalachian twang while simultaneously struggling to find a musical voice. It took me years to make a connection between those two things, but ever since then music’s come easier and life’s been more lovely.
For a long time I thought I had to make a choice between children and music. As it turned out I got both. Also a quiet, gentle husband who makes terrific greens and fixes my technology when it breaks. I take these and many other things for granted more often than I should.
I have received my share of enthusiastic and tepid reviews, often for the very same piece. Positive or negative, my favorite reviews are delivered from the heart. A reviewer from Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review once wrote: “I heard plenty of wonderful music between Thanksgiving and Twelfth Night, as I usually do. For So the Children Come was the most personally moving piece I encountered.” I don’t know what other people think but in my book it doesn’t get much better than “personally moving.”
I have published my own music for 25 years, an endeavor which makes me a walking advertisement for a liberal arts education. I receive more technical, legal, artistic and logistical help from my friends and family than I deserve, which makes me glad you don’t have to deserve everything you get in life.
I never intended to write so much choral music. I got into it innocently enough, thinking that I could write a choral piece every so often and quit whenever I wanted to. Little did I know that the power and possibility of synchronized singing would seduce me so thoroughly, but it did and I’m sure I’m better for it.
My current project is a music theater work entitled Split Hickory. The music reflects the past hundred years of folk, country and Americana. The story is rooted in my small town Appalachian childhood, my Northern urban adulthood, and what divides those two worlds. Any time you get a chance to wish me luck, I’ll certainly take it.