GLEN RIDGE, NJ — It was announced this week that Glen Ridge composer and pianist Amanda Harberg has been awarded a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship for her composition “Suite for Woodwind Quintet.” The fellowship will provide her with financial support for one year. In a telephone interview, Harberg characterized the suite as a “substantial 20-minute piece that is getting performed a lot.
“It’s a big honor,” she said of the fellowship. “The suite was composed for the Dorian Wind Quintet in 2017, and they’ve been performing it a lot.”
Harberg said it is customary for a commissioned work to be performed for one year by only the group that made the commission, but afterward, other groups may perform it. Since becoming available, “Suite for Woodwind Quintet” has been performed by more than 20 wind quintets in Asia, Canada, the United States and in a concert in Australia on Sunday, March 8, celebrating International Women’s Day. The suite will be performed on Thursday, March 5, at Kean University by the Dorian Wind Quintet.
“It’s not always easy for contemporary composers to get performed,” Harberg said. “But certain instruments need new repertoire. It’s my good fortune that I love writing for woodwinds. As a kid, I’d rent them every summer. The woodwind is very intuitive for me.”
While composing on the piano, Harberg will use her flute, she said, to feel the physicality of the music.
“Each instrument has a different personality,” she continued. “Some music is better on a particular instrument.”
Harberg is a prodigious writer, as a visit to her website will attest. She composed one piece, called “Prayer,” in response to learning that a family member had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I sat down and wrote that,” she said. “My music comes from intense emotional experiences and dreams.”
That family member is now fine, Harberg said, a prognosis she attributes to the power of prayer.
But she attributes her dream experiences developing into compositions through a process known as synesthesia, which is the physical sensation of one sense producing an impression on another sense. An example of this would be the color of a room, which is visual, making one feel warmer or cooler, which is tactile. In her dreams, Harberg said she may be seeing a house, but the house is a musical form.
“I’ll think something is visual, but actually it’s images of sound,” she said. “It’s a lovely sort of confusion, not knowing what sense is correct.”
Her “Suite for Woodwind Quintet” was influenced by dreams. She said it is an emotional journey musicians want to take.
“A lot of good woodwind players want to be challenged for 20 minutes,” she said. “When I write, my primary motivation is communication, either emotionally or intellectually. Communication in music is melody and rhythm. They speak to our being human. I pretty much start with melody and create a whole world around it.”
When the Dorian Wind Quintet commissioned Harberg, they gave her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted in 15 to 20 minutes.
“It is a 15- to 20-minute piece, depending on how fast you play it,” she said. “People commissioning a work tend not to be overly specific, except for the length.”
But Harberg is collaborative and will make adjustments to a composition, if requested.
“I love feedback,” she said.
She is now working on a commission, a piccolo concerto for Erica Peel, who plays for the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is to be premiered in August at the National Flute Convention in Dallas.
She also has four chamber music commissions, which will keep her busy well into 2021.
“I don’t travel well,” she said. “If I spend a day away from my piano, I feel incomplete somehow. Also, my children inspire me. I write for them sometimes.”
Harberg teaches at Rutgers University and, during the summer, at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. For more information on Amanda Harberg and upcoming performances, visit http://amandaharberg.com/