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National Sawdust Announces Winners of Second Annual Hildegard Competition for Female, Trans, and Nonbinary Composers

National Sawdust, the renowned Brooklyn music incubator and performing arts venue, has announced the winners of its second Hildegard Competition for emerging female, trans, and nonbinary composers: inti figgis-vizueta of the USA, Niloufar Nourbakhsh of Iran, and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir of Iceland. All young professionals at the start of their careers, the three winners will be honored in concert on June 4 at National Sawdust, where their newly commissioned works will be premiered by the National Sawdust Ensemble, anchored by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and making its formal debut under the baton of Lidiya Yankovskaya. By creating new opportunities for female, trans, and nonbinary composers, and by exploring the myriad mechanisms by which gender impacts the ways music is perceived, the competition illustrates National Sawdust’s extraordinary commitment to amplifying voices underrepresented in the world of new music.

The inauguration of the Hildegard Competition sought to redress a serious imbalance. As The Guardian reports, of 1,445 concerts presented at major venues around the world last year, only 76 featured compositions by women. Similarly, Bachtrack found that just 13% of the contemporary orchestral works performed worldwide last year were written by women. Since the award’s founding in 1943, only 14 out of 138 finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Music have been female, and only seven women have won. As for trans and nonbinary composers, comparable figures are hard to come by, presumably because they have yet to be formally tracked. As the Los Angeles Review of Books put it, “As we take action to rectify the disturbing gender disparity in the music industry, let’s also include trans and non-binary musicians who deserve equal access and opportunity alongside cisgender women and men.”

Last season, by explicitly soliciting submissions from nonbinary composers and assembling an all-female team of composers to judge the competition and provide follow-up mentorship, National Sawdust succeeded in creating a singularly safe and nurturing environment for composers typically failed by the system. For its second season, the mandate of the competition was expanded still further. The 2018-19 edition cast an even broader, more inclusive net, expressly inviting submissions from trans composers. To reflect this increased diversity, and better enable the judges to serve meaningfully as both mentors and role models, this year’s team has been expanded from three to five members, comprising trans female composer Gavin Rayna Russom as well as cis female composers Angélica Negrón, Tania León, Pulitzer Prize-winner Du Yun, and National Sawdust Co-founder and Artistic Director Paola Prestini.

The three 2018-19 Hildegard Competition winners were drawn from a substantial pool. After announcing the competition in October, National Sawdust received no fewer than 142 submissions from emerging composers in Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Scotland, Serbia, Turkey, Uruguay, Wales, and 24 of the United States. To demonstrate their career progress, all applicants certified that they met two of the following three criteria: that they had received no commissions of $5,000 or more, that there were no commercially released recordings of their work, and that there had been no performances of their work by a professional ensemble (except within a university setting). The applicants were then judged on their past compositions and on their curriculum vitae, personal statement, and description of the work they would compose if they won. In an attempt to remove the barriers traditionally faced by composers, neither letters of recommendation nor application fees were required.

Winning composers inti figgis-vizueta, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir will now each be commissioned to write a new work for performance and professional recording at the June 4 concert, and subsequent release on in-house label National Sawdust Tracks. As well as composing for chamber ensemble and electronics, as stipulated last season, they now have the option of submitting a vocal composition. They will also receive coaching and mentorship from the five judges, and will each receive a $7,000 cash prize.

Runners-up Bahar Royaee, Yaz Lancaster, Meara O’Reilly, Nina Shekhar, Angela Slater, and Sugar Vendil will also have works premiered by the National Sawdust Ensemble at the June 4 concert. An art installation of graphic scores by runner-up Monica Demarco will accompany the performance.

About National Sawdust’s goals in founding and expanding the Hildegard Competition, Composer, Co-founder, Artistic Director of National Sawdust, and judge Paola Prestini said:

“This year we were really excited to expand the competition to represent female, trans, and nonbinary applicants, in the belief that if you don’t articulate who opportunities are for, you miss potential applicants who need this specific platform. Seeing the talent in this pool thrilled me, and I look forward to seeing these works come to life!”

Judge Gavin Rayna Russom added:

“The Hildegard Competition is unlike anything else I’ve been involved with. I felt instantly connected to the other judges and enlivened by the submissions.”

Judge Angélica Negrón commented:

“This year’s Hildegard winners showcase an impressive level of artistry while also providing unique and vital perspectives that we’re often missing in the new music world. I’m positive these artists will greatly benefit from this terrific opportunity, which provides an incredibly valuable space for establishing and nurturing creative collaborations and relationships that will transcend far beyond these new pieces.”

Of the experience she gained at last year’s inaugural Hildegard Competition, 2017-18 laureate Emma O’Halloran said:

“Having a diverse range of composers, compositional styles and aesthetics is so important, as it lets people know that there’s room for their artistry, and that they can be themselves.”

2017-18 laureate X. Lee agreed:

“It was a validating space, amazing array of talented individuals, and the expansive diversity in musical styles and approach was inspiring.”

2017-18 laureate Kayla Cashetta confirmed:

“Everyone at National Sawdust was very warm and professional every step of the way, which made the entire process smooth, enjoyable and comfortable.”

Funding for all National Sawdust’s endeavors to support women composers this season is thanks in part to a generous grant from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

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About the winners of the 2018-19 Hildegard Competition

inti figgis-vizueta (pronouns are they/them) is an Andinx experimental composer based in Brooklyn. They write identity-focused music, often channeling storytelling and the manifestation of non-hegemonic voices in concert spaces, while working to create transparent, self-contained musical processes through which melodic and timbreal interaction blooms and consumes itself. figgis-vizueta, who studied with Felipe Lara, has received numerous awards including the 2016 Koster Grant for Summer Study, the 2017 JMU New Music for Young Musicians award, and a residency at the 2019 Mizzou International Composer’s Festival, which features Alarm Will Sound. They have won numerous calls for scores from organizations such as Verdant Vibes, N/A Ensemble, UnTwelve, Baltimore Choral Arts, and 113 Collective, and their music has been played by ensembles including PUBLIQuartet, loadbang, Hypercube, RTE Contempo String Quartet, Argot Duo, the Shenandoah Valley Youth Orchestra, and SJSU Wind Ensemble. They were featured as a panelist at the 2017 New Music Gathering and as a featured composer at the New Latin Wave Festival 2018, which was curated by Angélica Negrón. figgis-vizueta is also active as a freelancer, having recently received commissions from artists including clarinetist Gleb Kanasevich, trumpeter Kate Amrine, countertenor Luke Paulino, and the duo Mazumal (Felicia Chen & Olivia J. Harris). When not composing, figgis-vizueta works as the Director of Inclusion at the Boulanger Initiative in Washington, DC, and as a curator for Score Follower.

Described as “stark” by WNPR, the music of Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh (pronouns are she/her) has been commissioned and performed by PUBLIQuartet, Symphony Number One, I-Park Foundation, Women Composers Festival of Hartford, Spark and Echo Project, Forward Music Project, Cassatt String Quartet, and the Akropolis Reed Quintet, at festivals including the Atlantic Music Festival, Seal Bay Festival of American Chamber Music, New Paltz Piano Summer, SPLICE institute, New Music For Strings, University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival, and Mexico’s MusLab Electroacoustic festival. Founder and Co-director of the Iranian Female Composers Association, Nourbakhsh is a strong advocate for music education and equal opportunities. In 2014, she worked as the site coordinator of Brooklyn Middle School Jazz Academy sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. She currently serves as a Teaching Artist Associate in composition for the New York Philharmonic Young Composers program and teaches piano at Brooklyn Music School. Nourbakhsh is a music graduate from Baltimore’s Goucher College, where she received a Global Citizen Scholarship, and from England’s Oxford University, where she was a Mahoney and Caplan Scholar. Among her teachers are Lisa Weiss, Laura Kaminsky, Sheila Silver, Daria Semegen, and Daniel Weymouth. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in music composition under Margaret Schedel’s supervision at Stony Brook University.

Now based between Brooklyn and Reykjavík, composer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir (pronouns are she/her) hails from the peripheries of Iceland. Within her works, she seeks to establish an internal logic from which the soundscapes emerge, sometimes integrating visual and aural phenomena into an indivisible whole. Her work has been performed widely by ensembles including the International Contemporary Ensemble, Oslo Philharmonic, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and Iceland’s Nordic Affect, besides being featured at events such as Nordic Music Days, KLANG Festival, Ultima Festival, Dark Music Days, SPOR Festival, Tectonics Festival, and ISCM’s World New Music Days. As a performer Snæbjörnsdóttir has a diverse background, having been a touring and recording musician for Icelandic bands Sigur Rós and Björk, as well as performing experimental music in various constellations. She is a member of S.L.Á.T.U.R. (Society of Artistically Obtrusive Composers Around Reykjavík), and was co-chairwoman of the annual Young Nordic Music Festival. Snæbjörnsdóttir completed an M.A. in composition at Mills College, California, in 2017.

Click here to download headshots of the 2018-19 Hildegard Competition winners.


About the judges and mentors

Composer Paola Prestini is the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn arts center National Sawdust. Since 1999, when she co-founded the multimedia production company VisionIntoArt (subsequently re-launched as National Sawdust Projects), she has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, and scientists in large-scale multimedia works. She was recently named an “Innovator” on the list of “Top 30 Professionals of the Year” by Musical America, the country’s oldest classical music magazine; she is on Brooklyn Magazine’s latest list of “influencers of Brooklyn culture…in perpetuity” alongside such household names as Chuck Schumer and Spike Lee; and is one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music” (Washington Post). As part of her commitment to education and mentoring the next generation of musical artists, she started the Hildegard Competition for emerging female, trans, and nonbinary composers. Her next steps include the following new commissions: a new piece for the New York Philharmonic’s Project 19 Initiative, a piano concerto for Awadagin Pratt and A Far Cry, a string quartet commissioned by Caramoor for the Thalea String Quartet, and the score to The Amazon, a documentary and arts event (and follow-up to filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu’s The Colorado). Her upcoming operas include the grand opera Edward Tulane with librettist Mark Campbell and director Eric Simonson (Minnesota Opera), the chamber opera Sensorium Ex with poet Brenda Shaughnessy and director Tomer Tzvulun (Atlanta Opera and Beth Morrison Projects), and the foley chamber opera Stellet Licht with librettist Royce Vavrek and director Thaddeus Strassberger (Banff’s Opera in the 21st Century). She has been a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and a Sundance Fellow and is a graduate of the Juilliard School.

Cuban-born Tania León – who has “played an active role in shaping American musical life” (New York Times) – is highly regarded as a composer and conductor and has been widely recognized for her accomplishments as an educator and advisor to arts organizations. She has been the subject of profiles on ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, Univision, and Telemundo and has been featured in independent films. She has received composition awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, NYSCA, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, ASCAP, and Meet the Composer, among others. She has also received a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and commissions from the Fromm Music Foundation and Koussevitzky Foundation. She joined National Sawdust as a Curator this season, spotlighting the role of race and gender in music with concerts featuring female Latina artists who are often artistically and culturally underrepresented in the mainstream classical music world.

Puerto Rican-born composer and multi-instrumentalist Angélica Negrón writes music for accordions, robotic instruments, toys, and electronics as well as chamber ensembles and orchestras. Her music has been described as “wistfully idiosyncratic and contemplative” (WQXR/Q2) and “mesmerizing and affecting” (Feast of Music), while the New York Times notes her “capacity to surprise” and “quirky approach to scoring.” Her works have been performed at the Bang on a Can Marathon, the Ecstatic Music Festival, and the 2016 NY PHIL BIENNIAL, and she has collaborated with artists like Sō Percussion, loadbang, American Composers Orchestra, and Face the Music, among others. Negrón is currently a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center (CUNY), where she studies composition with Tania León. As a teaching artist for the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Program and Lincoln Center Education, she works with learners of all ages on creative composition projects. Negrón was the 2014-15 Van Lier Fellow at American Composers Orchestra and was selected as one of the recipients for NYFA’s 2016 Artists’ Fellowship Program. Her new drag opera, Chimera, a chamber piece featuring multiple drag artists portraying the same character, received a work-in-progress preview performance at National Sawdust’s 2019 FERUS Festival, and will premiere as a Project-in-Residence in 2020.

Gavin Rayna Russom is a New York-based multimedia artist and composer of electronic music. Using the analog and digital synthesizer, over the past 15 years she has produced a body of extremely influential art and music. Perhaps best known as a founding member of the critically-acclaimed band LCD Soundsystem, much of her work is informed by her deep relationship with the analog synthesizer, a tool to which she has applied herself since 1999, not only as a composer and player but also as a designer and builder. Part of Russom’s vision is to combine the rigorousness of academic music and art – and its serious aim of transforming culture through its ability to communicate spiritual ideas – with the world of the club, where music and art connect to ordinary people’s daily lives. In addition to recording and performing music she also creates the visual elements for her work, including installations, music videos, record covers, costumes, sets and props. Russom joined National Sawdust this season as an Artist-in-Residence, building on her innovative work as a solo artist, to develop a new multimedia production using analog and digital synthesizers, video, and dance. She came out as a trans woman in 2017.

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, and now based in New York, Du Yun is the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music. She is a composer, performer, performance artist, curator, and activist working at the intersection of orchestral music, opera, chamber music, theatre, cabaret, pop music, oral tradition, visual arts, electronics, and noise. A truly international artist, she is one of the most exciting and groundbreaking thinkers working today. Known as chameleonic for her protean artistic output, her music is championed by some of today’s finest performing artists, ensembles, orchestras, and organizations around the world.


About the performers

In many ways, the National Sawdust Ensemble (NSE), has existed for as long as the venue, National Sawdust, has been open. NSE is a natural culmination for Brooklyn-based musicians who have performed countless times at National Sawdust and, in so doing, have made the space their creative home over the years. Anchored by a “Pierrot ensemble” of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, NSE aims to give composers and artists access to the high caliber of musicianship that is native to National Sawdust. Led by former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, NSE looks forward to collaborating at National Sawdust with artists from all over the globe.

National Sawdust Ensemble leader Jeffrey Zeigler was the cellist of the internationally renowned Kronos Quartet for eight seasons. During his tenure, Zeigler had the opportunity to collaborate with a wide range of luminaries from Henryk Gorecki and Noam Chomsky to Steve Reich and Tom Waits. He is the recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize, the Polar Music Prize, the President’s Merit Award from the National Academy of Recorded Arts, the Chamber Music America Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award and The Asia Society’s Cultural Achievement Award. Besides serving as Co-Chair of the String Department and on the Cello Faculty at Mannes College, The New School for Music, Zeigler is the Label Director of National Sawdust Tracks, the non-profit, in-house record label and recording studio of National Sawdust.

Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is a champion of Russian masterpieces, operatic rarities, and cutting-edge contemporary music. As Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, she is the only woman to hold that title at a multimillion-dollar opera company in the United States. She is also Founder and Artistic Director of the Refugee Orchestra Project, which proclaims the cultural and societal relevance of refugees through music. She previously served as Artistic Director of the Boston New Music Festival and Juventas New Music Ensemble, where she led operatic experiments with puppetry, circus acts, and robotic instruments, as well as premieres by more than two dozen composers. Her commitment to exploring the breadth of symphonic and operatic repertoire has been demonstrated in performances including the U.S. Russian-language premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, and the American premieres of Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei, Rubinstein’s The Demon, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1. An alumna of Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, Yankovskaya has also been featured in the League of American Orchestras’ Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview and at the Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music. She is a recipient of a 2018 Solti Foundation Career Assistance Award.


About National Sawdust

National Sawdust’s mission is to build new audiences for classical and new music by providing outstanding resources and programmatic support to both emerging and established artists and composers. Centered on discovery within music, its programming introduces audiences to new artists and styles, and introduces artists to new audiences. An incubator of new music, National Sawdust also provide artists the space, time, and resources they need to create their art.

National Sawdust is both a state-of-the-art performance venue and a recording studio, housed within a preserved century-old sawdust factory. The building – which has won multiple architecture awards – also houses Rider, a two-story bistro and bar led by James Beard Award-winning chef Patrick Connolly. Rider completes the audience experience by offering an exceptional menu of food and drink during performances.

To download high-resolution photos, click here.

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© 21C Media Group, February 2019

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