(born 1962) Subito – ASCAP
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and conductor Michael Abels is one of contemporary American music’s singular voices, with a wide-ranging catalog that spans orchestral music, opera and choral works, chamber and instrumental music, and noted film scores and installations. In 2023, Abels was awarded the Pulitzer Prize – along with co-composer and librettist Rhiannon Giddens – for the opera Omar, which was commissioned by and premiered at Spoleto Festival USA in May 2022. Abels is also known for his scores for the Oscar-winning Jordan Peele film GET OUT, and for Peele’s US, for which Abels won the World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, an Image Award nomination, and multiple critics awards. The hip-hop influenced score for US was short-listed for the Oscar, and was even named “Score of the Decade” by online publication The Wrap. As a concert composer, Abels has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the Sphinx Organization, among others. His orchestral works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and many more. As guest conductor of GET OUT IN CONCERT, Abels has led the National Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Abels is co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, an advocacy group to increase visibility of composers of color in film, game and streaming media. Abels collaborative projects also include the ballet for concert band Falling Sky for Butler University, At War With Ourselves for the Kronos Quartet, and the score the Hugh Jackman film BAD EDUCATION for HBO.
Primarily a composer of large forms, Abels has applied his skillful compositional approach to over 20 orchestral works. His much-admired piece Global Warming—written around the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War—was commissioned for and premiered by the Phoenix Youth Symphony in 1991. Given the current social context of the title, Global Warming was originally conceived as a piece that reflects the many similarities between folk music of divergent, immigrant cultures, and celebrates these common threads as well as the sudden improvement in international relations that occurred at the time. Global Warming has received over 200 performances by such prominent symphony orchestras as Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Baltimore, Dallas, Detroit, and Nashville. Global Warming was also one of the first works of an African-American composer to be performed by the National Symphony of South Africa following the election of President Nelson Mandela.
Always a thoughtful communicator, Abels cleverly reinvents classical styles while adapting popular idioms. His American Variations on Swing Low Sweet Chariot (1993) was premiered by Doc Severinsen and the Phoenix Symphony. He describes his work More Seasons (1999) (performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra among others) as his “own spin” on early Baroque music, subjecting the themes of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ “to maniacal, Minimalist abuses,” and calling it “Vivaldi in a Mixmaster.” Other orchestral works include: Dance for Martin’s Dream (1998) (after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.) commissioned and premiered by the Nashville Symphony and quickly followed by other performances including the Cleveland Orchestra; Frederick’s Fables (1994)—a four-movement piece for narrator and orchestra based on selected stories of Leo Lionni which was commissioned by Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Music Series and premiered over two concert series with narrators James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor (Abels himself narrated the National Symphony’s Kennedy Center concerts); Urban Legends (2008-09) commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and written for the Harlem Quartet and the Sphinx Orchestra, and Aquadia (2009) which was co-commissioned by the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Shedd Aquarium, and subsequently recorded by the ensemble to serve as the featured installation music for the oceanarium’s “Fantasea” exhibit which ran through spring 2011. In spring 2012, Abels’ Delights and Dances was featured on the Chicago Sinfonietta’s season finale-concerts, joined by the Harlem Quartet. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, the three-movement work (performed as a single movement) is scored for string quartet and string orchestra. Afterward, both ensembles recorded the piece for release on Cedille Records.
Born in Phoenix, AZ, Abels grew up in rural South Dakota where he began piano lessons at a young age. He attended the University of Southern California, studying with James Hopkins and Robert Linn. In 1985-86, he studied West African music with Alfred Ladzekpo at the California Institute for the Arts. He also served as Director of Music for New Roads School in Santa Monica, overseeing a program that provides hands-on instruction in the latest technologies integrally important to contemporary popular music. Aside from his activities as a composer, arranger, conductor and educator, Abels is also an amateur triathlete.