A Composer's Adventures

About Me


Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) began his musical career in Brookfield, near Chicago, where his first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer (1944-49). He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 with a degree in performance and composition, and his studies included training with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Festival and Lukas Foss at Tanglewood. He served two years as timpanist in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany and then spent 11 years supporting his composing as a free lance percussionist in New York City, where he performed with the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theater, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the original West Side Story orchestra on Broadway, the Columbia Recording Orchestra’s Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series, and numerous ballet, opera and jazz ensembles. He organized the percussion sections for Gunther Schuller’s recordings and concerts, as well as for premieres of new works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varese, and many others. During this New York period he continued to study composition with Wallingford Riegger (1958) and Ben Weber (1958-60).

Colgrass has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic and The Boston Symphony (twice). Also the orchestras of Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, St.Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto (twice), the National Arts Centre Orchestra (twice), The Canadian Broadcast Corporation, The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the Manhattan and Muir String Quartets, The Brighton Festival in England, The Fromm and Ford Foundations, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and numerous other orchestras, chamber groups, choral groups and soloists.

He won 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Déjà vu, which was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic. In addition, he received an Emmy Award in 1982 for a PBS documentary “Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass.” He has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, First Prize in the Barlow and Sudler International Wind Ensemble Competitions, and the 1988 Jules Leger Prize for Chamber Music.

Among his recent works are Crossworlds (2002) for flute piano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered with soloists Marina Piccinini and Andreas Heafliger. Side by Side (2007) for harpsichord and altered piano was commissioned by the Esprit Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra with Joanne Kong as soloist. More recent works include Zululand for chorus and wind ensemble (2010-11) and Urban Nocturne for clarinet, cello, piano and wind ensemble (2015).  In 2003 Colgrass conducted the premiere of his chamber orchestra version of the Bach-Goldberg Variations with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in his living room for is wife’s 65th birthday; the work was recorded  in 2013 by the University of Central Oklahoma Chamber Collegium conducted by Brian Lamb.

As an author, Colgrass recently published his first book, My Lessons With Kumi, a narrative/exercise book, outlining his techniques for performance and creativity. He also gives workshops throughout the world on the psychology and technique of performance.

He lives in Toronto and makes his living internationally as a composer. His wife, Ulla, is a journalist and editor who writes about music and the arts.


  1. Ann Murphy Bloomquist August 24, 2012 at 7:32 pm Reply

    Hi Mike,
    I’m calling you Mike because that’s the Mike knew at the U of I in 1952! While cleaning out our attic, I ran across a silly, ridiculous, progam that you and I collaborated on in December of 1952.
    If you can tell me where to send it, I’ll do it! At our age, its good for a big laugh!. I think you were two classes ahead of me and one class behind my husband, Kenneth Bloomquist.

    • Ann,

      I’m trying to remember the event you’re talking about. Yes, I’d like to see the program. You can send it to me at 2011-55 Harbour Square, Toronto, ON M5J 2L1, Canada.

  2. Dear Michael.. I graduated from the U of Miami in Coral Gables in 1969. I remember a Percussion Ensemble Piece called ” Ostinatos ” It was for 2 snare drums, bass drum and Tambourine. It was a swing type sound with the 2 snare drums playing the same ostinato rhythm BUT they were in an echo type placement. I am trying to find out where I can gat a copy of this piece. I think I remember your name as composer. I could be wrong, it was a long time ago. If you can help me with my search, I would be most grateful. I am teaching at Percussion @ Monterey Peninsula College, and would like to perform that piece with my ensemble. Thanks in advance for aby help you might be able to give.
    All The Best To You !!!!!!

    Greg Janusz

  3. Greg,

    That was not my piece, I’m afraid. Perhaps the Miami U percussion department would have a record of it, but I’ve never heard of it. Also, try the Internet, which seems to be an unending source of wisdom these days.

  4. Mr. Colgrass:

    Last Spring I played “Three Brothers” in an ensemble here at Texas Tech. This semester I have decided to write a paper over it and how it morphed percussion ensemble composing. I was hoping you could give me some insight to your motivation and thinkings as you wrote the piece? Please feel free to respond to me at stephanie.d.riley@ttu.edu.


  5. Hi Mike!
    Remember those jam sessions we had during study halls in the RB band room?
    I’ve often thought about trying to get in touch with you and now have the opportunity.. Hope you’re in good health. At our age guess I’m doing about as good as can be expected…minor ailments occasionally, but still healthy enough to be playing the occasional gig @ dances, jam-sessions, memorials, etc….so many have gone by the wayside…glad to see that you’re still in the running! If you’re ever passing this way….make sure to give a ring!
    Best Regards,
    Don in Denver 303.751.0673

  6. Dear Mr. Colgrass,
    I wanted to pass along my thanks for your wonderful “As Quiet As” which I’ve loved from the first time I heard it on radio in 1966. I still have the LP I bought, long since transferred to digital format by me since it was never re-released on CD. I still love playing the track for friends and I hope it’s still getting regular performances in the concert hall! I love all your stuff, but AQA still remains as one of my favorite works. Would love to have a cocktail with you someday here in NYC. All my best.

  7. Hi Mike, I have a class picture of us in the seventh or eight from Gross School. If you have yours fine but if you want this picture send me an e-mail address to send it to. It is fun to see how many names one can remember! rdc

  8. Dear Michael,

    I am in the last stage of completing a PhD in music composition at the University of Bristol, UK. My music is inspired by shamanism, connection with nature and in general the primitive. Searching about composers that have had a similar inspiration I found your piece Winds of Nagual. Then I found Arctic Dreams -both pieces I liked very much.

    I would like to ask you whether there is more information available about the concept behind these pieces, or any article/interview about the relationship of your music with these concepts. I also would like to ask you if you feel that pieces like these are part of a broader trend in which other composers are included.

    Thank you! – Daniel

  9. 4-1-17

    Hello, Michael Colgrass! I just saw the following YouTube clip — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGjjTTWYy7s —- which I found very moving especially your final words. Anyway I’m just now reading more about your outstanding career as a musician, which I truly admire. May I just ask, I see an audience in the above clip, as well as Stravinsky in formal attire of course. Am I correct that this concert was performed the year after Stravinsky’s January 1960 recording of Le Sacre? Is there any way that one can hear that concert performance of the work in its entirety?!

    Did Dr. Sagan include 1960 the studio-commercial recording in that space shot, or rather the live performance? Any info would be so much appreciated. I’ve been collecting records since around 1960, and specialize in pianists of the past. I had a dear and wonderful teacher throughout the mid-1960s, who told me some amusing anecdotes about some of the pianists she’d studied with (Cortot, Philippe, Landowska) and one whom she was forbidden by her mother to study with (Godowsky!). But I love collecting classical music of all eras and styles.

    Yours in music, and best wishes,

    Paul Miller in West L .A.

    >> (Please call me Paul — if you have time to reply; if you don’t have time I’ll understand completely since I know you’re busy.)

  10. Paul,

    I’m not sure which concert the photo refers to. Our recording of the Rite came two days after our Carnegie Hall performance of the work. The live performance, like the recording, was excellent because the orchestra was so good. Stravinsky just seemed to follow the orchestra and kind of knew from the sound where he was since his conducting didn’t always coincide with the actual performance.

  11. Daniel,

    I don’t see any such trend, but there may well be one. My inspiration for winds of Nagual came from Castaneda’s first four books, especially ‘Journey to Ixtlan’ and ‘Tales of Power.’ The books that followed are weaker because don Juan is no longer in them. —Michael

  12. Thanks for your reply a few days ago, which I just saw, Michael! From what I understand the studio recording was made on January 5 and 6 (unless that was an approximation and it was really only one of those two days). Can you tell me the exact date of the concert performance? Jan. 3..? Jan. 4..? Nothing terribly important but I’m just curious… for my notes.

    I wish some day I could hear (purchase?) a recording of that concert — even just the “Rite” portion of it.

    ( forlino — a t — c a — d o t —- r r —- d o t — c o m )

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