Pulitzer-winning UCSD composer Roger Reynolds to be inducted into American Academy of Arts and Letters

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and UC San Diego professor Roger Reynolds
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and UC San Diego professor Roger Reynolds will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters on May 24 in New York City.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Other 2023 honorees include film director Francis Ford Coppola, actor Frances McDormand, playwright-actor Anna Deavere Smith and orchestra leader Maria Schneider.


Roger Reynolds, a composer who earned a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1989 and has taught at UC San Diego in La Jolla since 1969, is one of this year’s 23 American Academy of Arts and Letters inductees.

The others on the list of 19 new members and four honorary members include film director Francis Ford Coppola, actor Frances McDormand, playwright-actor Anna Deavere Smith, author and poet Percival Everett, and composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, who will perform Sunday, March 5, at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall in La Jolla.

Busier than ever, the acclaimed composer continues to boldly explore the cutting edge of music, 50 years after he began teaching at UC San Diego

Sept. 15, 2019

“After many years of hearing vague rumors that I might be inducted, it was very exciting to get the news,” Reynolds told The San Diego Union-Tribune from his home in Del Mar.

The academy informed the perpetually active composer last week that he is one of its 2023 inductees, but he was sworn to secrecy until the inductees were announced Feb. 21.

The induction ceremony will be May 24 in New York City, and Reynolds plans to attend with his wife, former San Diego State University flute professor Karen Reynolds.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters honor is one of the nation’s most exclusive and prestigious cultural awards for artistic excellence and innovation. Its current members include Joni Mitchell, David Mamet, Amy Tan, Wynton Marsalis, Joyce Carol Oates and Jasper Johns. Past members included Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.

“Roger Reynolds is a musician of great distinction,” composer Yehudi Wyner, a member and former president of the academy, told the Union-Tribune. “In utterly original ways, he has explored the very nature of music, how it can be imagined and how it can be created. The academy will be much enriched by his membership.”

The academy each year recognizes up to 20 Americans whom it considers to be of “extraordinary artistic achievement whose work falls outside of or transcends the fields of architecture, art, literature and music composition.”

A trifecta for composers at UCSD

Composer Roger Reynolds
“It was very exciting to get the news,” composer Roger Reynolds says of his American Academy of Arts and Letters honor.
(Erik Jepsen)

The announcement of Reynolds’ induction represents a trifecta for internationally acclaimed composers who are on the faculty of UC San Diego’s music department.

In 2020, Chinary Ung, now 80, became the first professor in any department in the university’s seven-decade history to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Cambodian-born composer will be honored alongside Laurie Anderson, Julian Schnabel, Colson Whitehead, Terry Riley and others

Feb. 26, 2020

He was followed in 2021 by fellow composer Anthony Davis, now 72, who also was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for music for his groundbreaking opera, “The Central Park Five.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and UC San Diego music professor Anthony Davis will be inducted May 19 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of the nation’s most exclusive and prestigious cultural awards for sustained artistic excellence and innovation.

April 11, 2021

At 88, Reynolds is one of the oldest and the most active artists in this year’s group of honorees. The list of his current and upcoming projects includes an array of new compositions, concerts, books, commissions, multimedia works and more, as well as his teaching schedule.

“Roger’s energy and his devotion to his music and his students has always been amazing,” Davis told the Union-Tribune. “This honor is very well-deserved. Roger has been an incredible champion of new music, and his presence and contributions speak to the long-term excellence of the composition program at UCSD. The impact he has had on the students he has taught is very important.”

Percussion master and fellow UCSD music professor Steven Schick, conductor emeritus of the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus, said: “I can’t imagine a more deserving recipient of this extraordinary award. I’ve worked closely with Roger over more than 30 years on a number of pieces that have become core repertory for percussionists. His combination of exacting standards and a deeply thoughtful approach to expression and collaboration has produced music that is simultaneously profound and personal. His energy, passion and commitment to music, all the time, is an inspiration to all of us.”

‘An innovative force’

Roger Reynolds, pictured in 2019, is currently busier than ever working on multiple new music projects.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Reynolds’ music draws from multiple sources and traditions but is not bound by any of them. His creative palette includes chamber and electro-acoustic music, choral music and string quartets, song cycles and serialism, the past and the present, to forge new artistic paths.

On Thursday, Feb. 23, he will fly to Washington, D.C., to meet with Library of Congress senior music specialist David Plylar and the library’s music division chief, Susan Vita.

The library began a collection of Reynolds’ work in 1998. It spans from 1960 to the present and features 8,500 items, including scores, sketches, composition materials, project files, writings, correspondence, business papers, biographical materials and audio recordings.

“As a composer with an expansive view of how his art intersects with other disciplines, he is certainly worthy of this [Academy of Arts and Letters] honor,” Plylar said. “The care with which he treats his subjects is immediately evident if you follow the meticulous documentation of any of his works in the collection at the Library of Congress. We are delighted to be the home for Roger’s papers, as he is such an innovative force in contemporary music.”

Reynolds will then fly from Washington to New York, where he will meet with his publisher to discuss his latest book projects. While there, he will pay a get-acquainted visit to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The academy’s membership had been strictly limited to 250 since its inception in 1898. In 2021, that number was increased to 288 and this year to 300.

Vacancies for induction occur only after the death of a member. New inductees must be nominated by a current member. That nomination must be seconded by two other members before being voted on by the academy’s full membership.

“It’s meaningful,” Reynolds said. “Because these are not just people who are ‘hallowed’ and at the end of their careers. The honorees are a very wide-ranging group of people who are all [actively working].”

On May 4, Reynolds’ new oboe concerto, “Journey,” will receive its world premiere in Copenhagen, Denmark, where several more of his new compositions also will be unveiled.

Also coming up is his new piano and computer composition, “Actions,” which will debut in October in Mexico City. It will then be performed at UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine and likely at the Library of Congress.

This summer, Reynolds will travel to London and to Basel, Switzerland, for more artistic collaborations and meetings.

His latest work, “Persistence,” written for cello and computer, will be performed Thursday, March 30, at UC San Diego’s Atkinson Hall.

“Co-existence,” his piece for computer and an instrumental septet, will be performed by the ensemble WasteLAnd on Sunday, May 21, at UCSD’s Experimental Theatre.

Reynolds, who writes all of his scores by hand using pencil and paper, also has been moving ahead on an expansive, choral-based work, “Knowing/Not Knowing,” which he hopes to complete “in the next few years.”

The nine-section opus teams him with Schick and UC San Diego dance and theater department veteran Robert Castro. Opera and theater director Peter Sellars is acting as an adviser.

“The piece is an exploration of how knowledge comes about, what it is, what we think we know, what we don’t know and this whole process of knowing. How do we know?” Reynolds said.

“I think collaboration is the central aspect of much that I do now. For me, it is the most exciting thing to do — you give away some of your agency in return for getting something you don’t have from someone else.

“What is the same every time is that there is an effort to think through and plan each compositional engagement before I start writing any notes. So there is a very elaborate preparatory process I go through.”

It isn’t uncommon for Reynolds to spend a year or more working on a single composition.

“It involves this exploratory process and then composing pages and pages of sketches and then transforming them into a score to get to performers,” he said. “They rehearse it and ask questions. Then it’s performed and you get a recording and you listen to the recording and think, ‘Did this piece turn out to be what I wanted it to be?’

“So it’s a reflective act. And I can really say that a compositional project does not end until I’ve heard it, thought about it and maybe revised it, although I don’t often revise. I tell my students, ‘The more cycles you make, the more your way of creating becomes yours.’”

For the complete list of 2023 American Academy of Arts and Letters inductees, go to ◆