Jens Ibsen
Jens Ibsen, 2022 winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project | Credit: Matthew Washburn

The San Francisco Symphony is hardly the kind of orchestra one would label a headbanger’s paradise. Yet Jens Ibsen’s 15-minute electric-guitar-driven work Drowned in Light, which recently had its world premiere with the SF Symphony under the baton of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of the California Festival, is a tribute to Ibsen’s love of metal bands. But just how did Drowned in Light, which the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman described as having “stretches of sinuous balladry, dance grooves in off-kilter rhythms, a lush reverie, and one or two snarly, fuzz-laden guitar solos,” come to be performed by Salonen’s ensemble at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, with repeat performances at Davies Symphony Hall?

Simple: Ibsen, 28, a multidisciplinary artist who composes and sings, was last year’s winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project (EBCP), the annual initiative launched by SFS and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to spotlight early-career Black American composers and their music. As the 2022 winner of the prize, Ibsen — selected through an anonymous review process led by conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, SFCM Music Director Edwin Outwater, and Salonen — received a $15,000 commissioning fee, mentoring from members of the selection committee, and resources to workshop his piece with a large ensemble at SFCM, along with the SFS premiere of his work.

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser
Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser | Credit: Riley Smith

Bartholomew-Poyser, who is based in Toronto and is the SF Symphony’s resident conductor of engagement and education (and who succeeded former Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan on the EBCP committee after Morgan’s death in 2021), said, “When we did the evaluations last year — we go through a number of rounds, and we deliberated — Jens was my favorite all the way through. His music made me laugh at times. It made me tear up. I couldn’t get it out of my head. When we came to tallying everything up and talking about it, many people had the same impression.”

Ibsen, who was born in Accra, Ghana, to a Ghanaian mother and an American father (who had come to the country to study West African drumming), certainly has an eclectic background. A singer who made history as the first African-born member of the world-renowned Vienna Boys Choir, he has performed from Dubai to Shanghai, with stops along the way on German television and at Carnegie Hall and the United Nations. Commissioned by numerous festivals, including the Oregon Bach Festival Composer Symposium, Ibsen was a finalist in Beth Morrison Projects’ Next Gen competition in 2021, with recent commissions including Pretty Girl (2022) for The Kennedy Center’s Cartography Project. Of that last piece, The Washington Post’s Michael Andor Brodeur wrote, “The Oakland team of twin siblings Jens Ibsen and Yasmina Ibsen … [had] the evening’s hookiest offering, and somehow one of its most heartbreaking.”

With his career firmly on the rise, the Pacifica, California-based Ibsen was nonetheless surprised to learn he had won last year’s EBCP prize. In a phone conversation before his premiere with the SF Symphony, Ibsen explained: “My attitude with anything like this is I apply and then forget about it. It wasn’t on my radar at all.

“I got added on Instagram by Daniel [Bartholomew-Poyser] last June [2022],” the composer continued, “and it was not the way I thought I would get this news. I was totally flabbergasted. My life changed very quickly. I was introduced to all these people at the [SF] Symphony and Conservatory of Music. I was fortunate to attend a lot of concerts, and I’ve gotten to know the orchestra so much better through doing that.”

But what about his love of mathcore, a subgenre of hardcore punk, extreme metal, and math rock (which emphasizes rhythmic complexity) that inspired his two-movement symphonic work Drowned in Light? Ibsen is effusive about the British mathcore band Rolo Tomassi.

Jens Ibsen
Jens Ibsen with the SF Symphony at Zellerbach Hall | Credit: Kristen Loken

“It’s really intense. Their early stuff is raunchy, and [of] the late stuff, one of my favorite tracks is ‘A Flood of Light.’ They’re my most listened-to songs. This is the thing I love about a lot of metal bands: They’re sounding really gross to transcendently gorgeous. To paraphrase Prince, ‘When there’s music I want to hear in the world, I make it.’ When I encounter a song that’s really good, I’ll take a crack at that.

“The first movement [of Drowned in Light] is for electric guitar and orchestra,” Ibsen continued, “and the second movement is guitar and orchestra as well, but [the guitar] takes a backseat. It was informed by one of [Rolo Tomassi’s] softer songs. It’s “shoegaze,” named because it’s a genre of music that uses guitar pedals — [performers] would be staring at their feet, [hence] shoegaze. The [entire] piece is wedge-shaped. It starts big and tapers off to a sweeter sound.”

Ibsen, who has a day job as a technical writer and trainer at his father’s IT company, Studylog, described his composing process for Drowned in Light as “hearing ideas completely spontaneously at the beginning of last December. Sometimes you have to sit down, and inspiration comes to you. It’s more common for me now, and some of my best work has come about through this sort of spontaneity. I was on a business trip — I had to go to France for work — and all through the trip, music kept coming to me. As soon as I got back from France, I got to work.”

And it’s the work that is the point of the Emerging Black Composers Project. The genesis of this 10-year initiative was, according to Bartholomew-Poyser, “the fact that so many African American composers historically had not received the attention and opportunities needed to have [their] works come to the forefront.

“Also,” the conductor pointed out, “[given the] many events we’re aware of in terms of racism and lack of opportunity, [the award] was to redress those issues and to actually do something. SFCM’s Edwin Outwater thought that the best way to go about it was to have an ongoing prize that was not just [for] one composer but a number of composers over many years receiving funding, support, and a commission.”

The initial award, in June 2021, went to Trevor Weston, and because of the strength of the applicant pool, prizes were also conferred on Sumi Tonooka, Shawn Okpebholo, and Jonathan Bingham, courtesy of extra funding provided by EBCP supporters Michèle and Larry Corash. All four of the composers’ works received premieres during the 2022–2023 season from SFS, SFCM, and the National Brass Ensemble, with each piece workshopped at SFCM in the spring of 2022.

Trevor Weston
Trevor Weston, 2021 winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project | Credit: Ayano Hisa

This year’s prize, announced in June, went to Xavier Muzik, with the award now called the Michael Morgan Prize. Muzik is at work on a piece that will premiere during the 2024–2025 season.

“Xavier’s music has great depth and drama, and really digs into big orchestral sounds and gestures,” said Outwater in a press release. “I’m really looking forward to hearing what he writes next for the San Francisco Symphony.”

What the committee is looking for in selecting a winner, said Bartholomew-Poyser, is “compelling, interesting works and a unique voice. What does that look like? If you look at people who won, they have very different styles, but their voice comes through.

“The ideas are there and are clear,” added the conductor, who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl last summer and will make his debut with the New York Philharmonic in April. “When I put this [work] in front of an audience, they’d enjoy it, and in front of an orchestra, they’d be able to perform it. It’s engaging.

“We’re not looking for a total package,” Bartholomew-Poyser explained, “but that this person will become the complete package. The thing is, could we help them become more of what they already are?”

Bartholomew-Poyser pointed out that awardees not only get the “commission and the money [and advice on] how to talk the press, [but] we’re going to help you with the commission [and] workshop the piece to make sure that you are as successful as you can possibly be. From the day you’re announced to the day of your piece, we’re going to be there for you.”

Xavier Muzik
Xavier Muzik, 2023 winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project | Credit: JonJon Blunden

For the Los Angeles-based Muzik, winning the third iteration of the EBCP prize has been sweet. “It’s a great project and a great system they got going on. I feel very fortunate to be accepted because this is the third time I applied. But every year I found out more about who I am as a composer, and ultimately, I felt this was my strongest application.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in composition from California Institute of the Arts, Muzik, now 28, went on to earn his master’s from the Mannes School of Music at The New School. His improvisational work The Surface was played on the seventh annual Hear Now Music Festival in 2017 and was described by the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed as “more crazy than not and all the more likable for that.”

Muzik’s compositions are known for their driving rhythms and rich harmonic language, and according to the SF Symphony’s press release about the composer, he “aspires to increase the reach of contemporary concert music to more people of color and people of varying social and economic classes with the goal of making the world of contemporary concert music a more inclusive one, which he believes is key to the future of the genre.”

Regarding his EBCP commission, Muzik said that he has “begun doing precompositional stuff, but I haven’t written notes yet. I’m just thinking about the general performance function I’m trying to reach with my work.” He added, “I’ve been meeting with a lot of the SFCM folks, and Daniel and Edwin have been helpful throughout the process. They’ve been helpful moving forward — not just with this but with more career-oriented stuff as well.

“It’s been very valuable,” said Muzik, “because the mentorship is more structured in the sense that I have the freedom to make of it what would best benefit me, if that makes sense. It’s not too restrictive in terms of having to meet a certain schedule. It’s really up to me, which I appreciate.”

As for Muzik’s process, he says that it varies from piece to piece “but generally starts with me thinking a lot. I really need that moment — ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I want to latch onto’ — that moment of inspiration before I write things down.” For Pillow Talk [Muzik’s 2022 work for flute and string quartet, commissioned by the quartet ETHEL], I had two or three drafts before one really vibed with me.”

“It’s a lot of thinking and meditating on what I’m writing and why,” added Muzik, who also works as an executive assistant at American Composers Forum, “because I don’t think I have much of a choice. It’s what I like to do. It helps me be more confident and secure in myself. It really is a personal practice.”

Since the EBCP initiative began, Bartholomew-Poyser noted, there has been an uptick in Black composers getting recognition. “Now it’s de rigueur on programs [that] orchestras are looking for local composers.

“People want to see music that affects their city,” said Bartholomew-Poyser. “It works because we still have Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Berio, but people want to see their community reflected. It’s a beautiful thing. A concert done in the Midwest isn’t going to look like one in the South, but it reflects its people. I think it’s a beautiful path forward.”