Music Professor Zosha Di Castri's Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre

November 16, 2016
Zosha Di Castri

Photo by John Pinderhughes

Like much of the cutting edge work at Columbia, Zosha Di Castri’s compositions are enriched by their multidisciplinary nature. Her approach to music will be on display when she is the focus of a composer portrait at Miller Theatre on December 1.

Di Castri, who at 31 is one of the youngest composers to be featured, describes herself as a composer, pianist and sound artist. She finds this honor, “Humbling and exciting. When writing music, your ideas stay in the abstract for so long. It is necessary to have concerts to hear your work fully realized, and find out whether it works or not.”

A cornerstone of Miller’s programming, these evening-length musical profiles explore the work of a single composer. Di Castri’s work that evening will include pianists, percussionists, a violist, and vocalists—alongside electronics—performing four pieces, including two premieres.

“Her music is captivating and multidimensional, and will be expertly performed by two ensembles [Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles] with whom she’s collaborated closely,” said Melissa Smey, executive director of Miller.

Di Castri, who joined the Music Department faculty in 2014 after earning her doctorate there, was recently named the Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Music Composition. Her work extends beyond concert music, and includes projects with electronics, installations, video and dance.

“Imagine sound on a spectrum, moving fluidly between abstract soundscapes, gestural outbursts and referential echoes of music half-remembered,” she said. “I hope to trigger an engagement with the performers and audience, a heightened sense of awareness.”

A recent composition, Dear Life, highlights the hybrid, collaborative quality of her music. Commissioned by Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and based on a short story by Nobel Laureate Alice Munro, the piece, which premiered in Ottawa in 2015, combines a symphony orchestra with a soprano, a recorded narrator, projections and photography to create an immersive multimedia experience.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, reviewing another recent piece by Di Castri, Patina for solo violin, in The New York Times last June, noted that “Patina wove contemporary preoccupations— with microtonal shadings and the relation of music to noise—in a score tense with wild fluctuations in temperament.”

Di Castri grew up “on the prairie” in a small community in Alberta in western Canada. She started playing piano at age three and, as she grew older, learned how to play other instruments, including flute, oboe and percussion. During her last year of high school, she was introduced to composition when she had the opportunity to write a piece of music for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

After double majoring in composition and piano performance at McGill University in Montreal, Di Castri lived in Paris for two years where she studied political philosophy and spectral music, exploring the properties of sound and the psychology of musical perception.

When Di Castri arrived at Columbia as a graduate student in 2008, she took many classes at the University’s renowned Computer Music Center and was especially influenced by a sound sculpture course that was, she said, “a huge revelation.” It was very hands-on, teaching her to solder and build objects out of metal and wood. It is also where she started thinking about how sculpture might play into her music.

Phonobellow, which was commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and premiered in 2015, can be traced back to the sound sculpture course. The hour-long piece, co-written with David Adamcyk, blends violin, bassoon, saxophone, piano, percussion, electronics and a performative installation—a 20-foot long, eight-foot tall kinetic sculpture that looks like a cross between an old-fashioned camera bellows and an accordion. Throughout the piece, the musicians manipulate the sculpture; in effect, playing it as a percussion instrument, and eventually an organ.

Recent orchestral compositions by Di Castri have been performed by the San Francisco Symphony, Tokyo Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestra, among other musical groups. In September, she was awarded a commission by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress to write a piece for ICE with percussionist and conductor Steven Schick.

This semester, Di Castri is teaching undergraduate composition and Techniques of 20th Century Music. In the spring, she will teach Masterpieces of Western Music, and a new graduate seminar that she is designing, Composing for Dance.

“The Columbia music majors and graduate students are extremely intelligent, very motivated and curious, critical thinkers,” said Di Castri. “I’m always surprised and inspired by the work they’re doing. I see my teaching as a collaborative dialogue, an opportunity to bring forward materials that will lead to an interesting conversation and hopefully help everybody with their work.”

—By Eve Glasberg