STEED COWART, is a composer and conductor, most interested in the progressive areas of new music, especially American experimental music. His compositions are for an array of instrumental and vocal combinations, electronics and inter-media. Timbre, harmonic definition, hocket, mobiles, and chance are among his compositional interests.
His work has been performed around the United States and Canada by such groups as the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, SONOR, Ensemble Nova, Mills Contemporary Performance Ensemble, Shakespeare/Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz New Music Works, Heliotrope, the Club Foot Orchestra, the Ellen Webb Dance Company, the Gus Solomons Dance Company, Sincronia, performers Ellen Ruth Rose (viola), Paul Vorwerk (tenor), Curtis Nash (trumpet), William Winant (percussion), Bernhardt Batschelet (flute), Gino Robair (percussion), Andy Connell (clarinet), and at the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival.
Born May 11, 1953 in Shelbyville, a small town in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee. He grew up in the country outside Dalton, Georgia, a textile producing town nestled in the red clay foothills of the southern-most Appalachians near Chattanooga. At about age ten he began school band at the urging of his mother. He initially played cornet, later trumpet, then French horn. Although a resident of a rural community, he had very good early teachers. Herman Johnson, then William R. Lee were band directors who were his earliest contacts with musicians. In fact, his first attempt at writing music was in response to an assignment from Johnson to his sixth-grade band to compose a solo to play for the class. Early in high school he began piano lessons with Richard Winchell, a composer. In addition to piano, Winchell taught him elementary music theory, and sparked his interest in composition.
Cowart’s education included study at Florida State University (composition with Roy Johnson, Harold Schiffman, and John Boda). It was here in Tallahassee the first public performances of his original compositions took place. These earliest pieces included Fanfare and Ricercare for brass quintet, Movements for piano, and a choral work, Dona Nobis Pacem. He transferred to The College of Wooster (composition with Ruth Still, conducting with Marshall Haddock), where he earned a BMus degree. He holds an MA and a PhD from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied with Bernard Rands, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Erickson, Roger Reynolds, and Edwin Harkins. Further professional studies include: the Centre Acanthes 1983 at the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud in Aix-en-Provence for a program devoted to the music of Luciano Berio (Berio, David Osmond-Smith, Stuart Dempster), The Dartington Summer School of Music near Totnes, England (Richard Rodney Bennett, Peter Maxwell Davies, Charles Rosen), the Composers’ Summer Seminars at California State University Long Beach (Donald Erb, Miles Anderson), The Conductors Institute Workshop (The Camellia Symphony Orchestra, Harold Farberman, Conductors Institute Director/Instructor). He surreptitiously attended the Fromm New Music Weeks at Aspen in 1985, hearing lectures and concerts by Berio, Subotnick, Rands, Druckman, Brown, Lucier, Sperry, and the Kronos Quartet.
His musical life has been fortunately and profoundly influenced by associations with some of the most remarkable musicians of our time. After an auspicious meeting over frozen Finlandia vodka chased by Guinness stout during Cage’s guest lectureship at UC, San Diego in 1980, he remained a friendly acquaintance of John Cage until the elder composer’s death in 1992. Also at UCSD he became friends with Toru Takemitsu, worked with the amazingly virtuosic [THE] – Edwin Harkins and Philip Larson, and established enduring and enriching friendships with his teachers Bernard Rands and Pauline Oliveros that are invaluable to him. At each juncture, there have been amazing composers, performers, and musical intellects — either teachers, colleagues, students, or others — far too numerous to name, who have made a deep and lasting impact on his artistic and personal life.
A California resident beginning in 1977, Steed Cowart currently lives in downtown Oakland near Lake Merritt. Since 1986, he has taught at Mills College where, along with Fred Frith, he co-directs the Contemporary Performance Ensemble, and is the Concert Coordinator for the Music Department Concert Series. He also worked at UC Santa Cruz where he taught musicianship studies, composition, conducted the faculty new music group Ensemble Nova, and was director of the new music festival April in Santa Cruz.
Cowart discovered an aptitude for conducting in his mid-teen years. Experienced almost exclusively with conducting new music, his conducting is informed by his compositional knowledge, and vice versa. With the SONOR ensemble at UCSD he was Bernard Rand’s assistant conductor. At UCSC he conducted Ensemble Nova and many performances of student compositions and student ensembles. He led the San Francisco-based Club Foot Orchestra in touring performances accompanying silent films, beginning with the premiere of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1988. He has appeared as guest conductor with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and has conducted many ad hoc ensembles in performances of new music. Christian Wolff, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Lou Harrison, Luciano Berio, David Behrman, Luc Ferrari, James Tenney, Bernard Rands, Robert Erickson, John Bischoff, Wadada Leo Smith, Alvin Curran, José Maceda, David Rosenboom, Malcolm Goldstein, Bun-Ching Lam, Brenda Hutchinson, Amy Denio, Philip Collins, David Felder, George Barati, Robert Morris, Olivia Block, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, and Roscoe Mitchell are but a few of the many composers whose music he has conducted or directed with the composer’s supervision.