Shawn Brogan Allison, Composer

Chicago-based composer and saxophonist Shawn Brogan Allison is dedicated to exploring the expressive and communicative possibilities of new concert music in all of its manifestations. His work draws inspiration from anything that seems appropriate and some things that don’t, including multiple musical traditions, the music of composers from a multitude of epochs and musical styles, creatures and objects in the natural world, man-made things, and ideas and fictions both practical and metaphysical. He tries as hard as he can to come to the blank page with open ears and a long memory.

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February 8, 2013

I have some exciting commissions to announce officially:

  • Nolan Pearson—this will be a pretty major piece for solo piano, inspired by the wonderfully complex and paradoxical The Last Pictures project by photographer/geographer/activist Trevor Paglen. Nolan is an extraordinary performer who can do anything on the piano, so I am very much looking forward to trying things out in this expansive piece. Premiere TBD, most likely in Chicago in the fall.
  • KAM Isaiah Israel—I will be composing a large work for mezzo-soprano, baritone, piano quintet, and fixed media commemorating the work of the late eminent Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf, a significant Jewish thinker and teacher who I had the fortune of meeting in the last years before his death in 2008. The work will employ parts of actual archived sermons from Rabbi Wolf, and will be premiered at his 5-year yahrzeit service at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, on Dec. 6th, 2013, and will feature Julia Bentley, Alan Dunbar, the Spektral Quartet, and Nolan Pearson, under the baton of Michael Lewanski. Working with these eight extraordinary musicians is going to be unforgettable, and the subject matter for this piece never ceases to inspire me!
  • The Antares Project—I’ll be writing a work for this incredible trio (flute, cello, piano) for a premiere in Berlin in the winter. Right now, the basic topic of the piece is going to be drones (of all kinds).

Current Projects

EchoStar XVI, for solo piano

May 4, 2013

I’ve been thinking about this piece for the last few months, and am now able to dig in on a solo piano commission from Nolan Pearson, an extraordinary Chicago-based pianist of considerable artistry and intelligence. My conceptual starting point for this work is particularly exciting, and a bit daunting: the piece is heavily inspired by a recent piece of curatorial genius called The Last Pictures, a project led by photographer/activist/geographer Trevor Paglen, with the help of Creative Time. The Last Pictures consists of 100 photographs micro-etched onto a tiny silicon wafer, coated in gold and put inside of a communications satellite called EchoStar XVI, which, due to its geosynchronous orbit approximately 22,000 miles above the earth’s surface, could potentially orbit the earth for over 4 BILLION (!) years. To put this in perspective, that is roughly the age of the earth at this point in time, and is well past the collective life expectancy of humanity—so far, our species has existed for roughly 50,000 years.

At first glance, The Last Pictures can seem like a confusing act of hubris, or at the least, a publicity stunt designed to put Trevor Paglen on the map (so to speak). But the deeper I looked, and the more I considered the work, the more paradoxical and befuddling it became. Why would someone go to all of the trouble of putting an artifact in orbit that has an almost 0% chance of being seen by anyone (and I mean ANYONE, including alien life forms, slightly intelligent microbial collectives, and anything else that Star Trek: The Next Generation might have dreamt up)? Paglen goes in to great detail in his book on the project (which I highly recommend) about how the “time capsule” attempts of the 1970s were erroneously conceived on the scientific front, as they assumed that our version of mathematics is a truly “universal language.” Basically, he concludes from his research that there is no such thing as a universal language, so not only are the chances of someone finding this particular archive amongst the thousands (and by the time it is found, potentially millions) of artificial satellites in the so-called “Clarke Belt” (not to mention the millions of “graveyard orbit” satellites) astronomically small, but the chances of these theoretical space travelers understanding the images is astronomically smaller than that. So, the project becomes a gigantic *WHY?* writ larger than mankind across a geosynchronous orbit, hurtling around earth roughly 22,000 miles above North America on a satellite transmitting high definition TV signals. It becomes an object of meditation, and, I believe, a thoroughly successful one.
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Featured Recordings

Live Performance by eighth blackbird

for two alto saxophones, mallet percussion, and piano

live performance by Zach Herchen, Philipp Stäudlin, Ryan Packard, and Aaron Likness, June 26th, 2011


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