James Primosch continues to compose during COVID

The professor of music, who won an award and released two new albums during the pandemic, discusses composition, text as music, and embracing electronic music in the absence of concert halls.

This spring was a quiet time for music, but a big season for James Primosch, professor of music. He was honored with the 2020 Virgil Thomson Award in Vocal Music, administered by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was featured on two albums: Carthage with The Crossing, and Descent/Return with Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan McCullough.

James Primosch seated at his piano.
Professor of music James Primosch. (Image: Omnia)

Though he played the piano as a youth, Primosch says he didn’t start his serious study of composition until he went to college at Cleveland State University, in his hometown. He came to Penn for his master’s degree, took a year off and played in a piano bar in Philly, then went to Columbia for his doctorate. He returned to Penn as a faculty member in 1988.

Primosch describes his approach to composition as an attempt to “balance the intuitive and the conscious rational thought. They’re both going at once or in rapid alternation. For the pieces on the two new albums, the music is text-driven to some extent. …I never thought of myself as a vocal guy, but then if you look at my pieces, there’s a lot of vocal music. Partly it’s just that people have asked me for vocal pieces, and one thing leads to another.”

Primosch is realistic about the future of live performance. “You see people saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to go back to the way everything was.’ A few days ago Chorus America said that basically they estimated or guessed that it would be two years before choral singing could be happening. Certain orchestras are doing pieces for small instrumentation and seating the players far apart.

“I’m continuing to compose. I've done pieces like this in the past, where a live performer is combined with playback of an electronic component. So the electronic component is something I can work on here in my home. Maybe the premiere will be in Matt’s studio. I'm thinking about how I’m going to teach some courses this fall. I’ll do the best I can, try to do right by my students, and we'll see.”

Read more at Omnia