Artist Spotlight: D.J. Sparr, Composer and Guest Artist

Composer and musician D.J. Sparr will make his debut with ALIAS Chamber Ensemble on Oct. 1 with “Vim Hocket, Calm” for electric guitar and amplified violin. ALIAS Marketing Chair Laura Alabed visited with D.J. recently to gain insights into the composer and his music.

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How did you become associated with ALIAS? I knew Zeneba Bowers at the Eastman School of Music and then reconnected with her on Facebook a few years ago. I was excited that she went to my Web site to check out my music and, ultimately, engaged me in work with ALIAS.

What is your professional background? What are some of your key professional accomplishments? Currently, I am the Composer-in-Residence for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra’s Education and Community Engagement department. In this position, I teach a creative composition class to members of the youth orchestras, as well as write new pieces for the RSYO’s ensembles. This year, I am writing a new piece titled “St. Johns on Church Hill” for the Richmond Symphony’s “Come and Play” concert, where 400 amateur musicians perform alongside the Richmond Symphony.

I have performed electric guitar concertos with the Alabama Symphony, the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini in Parma, Italy (It is possible that I am the first guitarist to perform an electric guitar concert with a major Italian orchestra…at least that is what they told me!), and, this year, with the Dayton Philharmonic, which is also presenting the world premiere of a new work, “Superstring Serenade.”

I’ve been fortunate to have won many awards and prizes during my career, including a $10,000 grand prize in the BMG/Williams College National Young Composers Competition. And my works have been performed by ensembles such as 8th Blackbird, Pittsburg New Music Ensemble, Los Angeles Debut Orchestra and Berkshire Philharmonic.

In addition, this year I have had works commissioned by the Dayton Philharmonic and Williamsburg Symphonia. Last year, a consortium of 34 colleges commissioned a flute and winds concerto that was premiered by the University of Washington and taken on their tour of Japan. The piece was also performed by the People’s Liberation Army Band of China.

What inspired you to become a composer? Ever since I was a kid, I wrote music. When I was five years old, I would write a new song each week I learned a new chord on the guitar. My teacher would take me into the main room of the music store and have me play for everyone. It just grew and grew until I ended up attending the Baltimore School for the Arts and, in the summers, the Walden School. Later, I attended Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute, where I learned to write for other instruments.

What are some of the greatest challenges you face as a composer? …Staying in the moment of spark and enlightenment about the piece I am currently writing WHILE: 1) maintaining a high level of performance on the guitar; 2) getting performers and commissioners excited about projects I want to work on three or four years from now; 3) developing new and creative ideas for my residency with the Richmond Symphony; 4) all while being married for less than a year and a new homeowner!

What can ALIAS audiences expect from your performance? What do you hope they’ll take away? I hope that people will enjoy my work on a surface level – in the moment, but also realize that there are deeper levels and meaning to the music. It would be great if my work could become a gateway to works by other composers that use the electric guitar as an expressive instrument that can have a beautiful, dramatic, and engaging dialog with other classical instruments.