Meet Composer Timothy Cunningham

Phoenix’s final concert of the season, Evolve, is a celebration of finally experiencing the beautiful and important compositions that have been halted during the past two years. This spring concert also marks the beginning for new talent and unique voices being introduced into the choral community, such as that of Timothy Cunningham. Cunningham is a talented young composer and recent graduate of the University of Redlands, where Phoenix Artistic Director, Dr. Nicolle Andrews, is the Director of Choral Studies. Having won the Choral Composition Competition during undergrad in 2019, Cunningham was initially commissioned for Phoenix’s 2020-2021 season to share his piece entitled To Tsampasin. Inspired by medieval chants and Pontic folk songs, Cunningham’s piece meditates on the theme of survival using striking harmonies and rich melodies that invoke a sense of urgency and awe. We share this interview with you to welcome this upcoming composer, and to encourage you to join us in hearing Timothy Cunningham’s piece at our final concert of the 2021-2022 season.

Tell us a little bit about yourself; introduce yourself to our audience.
I’m a recent graduate of the University of Redlands, where I studied Music Composition and Mathematics. During my undergraduate studies, I had many wonderful opportunities to have my works performed both virtually and in-person. My favorite aspect of studying music has been all the exciting collaborations I have been fortunate to have been a part of. Working with other composers, directors, and performers has been deeply fulfilling and inspires me to continue to pursue a career in music.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your composition. What’s the story?
The main inspiration for To Tsampasin was the growing threat of a complete climate disaster; I held a lot of personal fear, anxiety, and anger as I wrote the piece. The text comes from a traditional Pontic Greek folk song detailing a fire that took place in 1913, destroying the village Tsampasin. It was said that nothing was left, only ashes. A little over a hundred years later, these kinds of devastating natural disasters are only increasing in frequency due to the climate crisis. To Tsampasin is a call to action, to protect the vital resources that are provided to us by nature, in order to prevent more loss, displacement, and mourning from the climate crisis. Although I had initially written the piece in 2019, the themes of pain and grief feel relevant now, more than ever.

What pleases you the most about the piece now that it’s complete?
Writing To Tsampasin was a very challenging process for me; I ventured into a new aesthetic style, experimented with extended techniques, and approached the composition from a textural perspective, rather than a harmonic one. With this piece, I’m most pleased that I was able to take a big step out of my comfort zone and create something I am very proud of.

What do you hope the audience will experience while listening to your piece?
When listening to To Tsampasin, I hope the audience is uncomfortable. I hope that listeners feel pain and grief and anger and every emotion in between, and experience that visceral, knotted-stomach, ominous feeling, deep in the pit of their souls. Only then might the piece create real change and leave a lasting impact on those who encountered it.

Obviously Phoenix has the privilege of premiering your piece on May 7 and in the virtual concert the following week. What will you be listening for during the premiere performance? What do you look most forward to hearing it performed for the first time?
I am so excited to hear this piece live, performed by a phenomenal ensemble. So much of the piece is based on aleatoric elements; I can only imagine what they sound like, so being able to hear them live will be not only a unique experience, but an educational one. I’m also looking forward to hearing how much I’ve grown since I wrote this piece in 2019; I’m not the same person now that I was then, so this premiere will be a musical memory box of sorts. Much of what drives To Tsampasin is the variety in texture, largely inspired by Greek folk music. I will be listening for the broader sonic landscape that these textures create, representing a fire wiping out an entire village.

A fun question that we ask everyone: what are you listening to right now?
Doja Cat’s Planet Her is at the top of my Spotify library, along with the Complete Choral works of Francis Poulenc, and the ensemble Capella Romana.

Anything else you want to share about yourself, the piece, or the upcoming concert.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to have my piece premiered as part of the first annual Phoenix Chamber Choir Student Composition Competition. Thank you for supporting student composers and highlighting their works.

Buy tickets to Phoenix’s in-person concert on May 7

Buy tickets to our online concert, streaming May 14-21.