James Primosch, Composer


James Primosch made an auspicious international debut as a pianist in 1977 when he won third prize and the audience popularity award at the Gaudeamus International Competition in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. A 20-year-old composition major at Cleveland State University at the time, he had taken piano lessons for only four years. But he had an affinity for challenging new music. During his teens, he was also involved in liturgical music at St. Paschal Baylon Catholic Church in Highland Heights, a suburb of his native Cleveland, where he was born in 1956.

At Cleveland State, he studied piano with Andrius Kuprevicius, Joan Terr Ronis and Nancy Voigt, and composition with Cleveland Arts Prize winners Bain Murray (1968) and Rudolph Bubalo (1970). Primosch completed his master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where his composition teachers were Richard Wernick and George Crumb. While earning a doctorate at Columbia University he studied with Mario Davidovsky and served as a graduate teaching assistant at the Columbia Electronic Music Center. In 1988, Primosch joined the music faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Presser Electronics Studio. In 1994, he served as composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Music Festival.

Primosch has written more than 50 works for chamber ensembles, orchestra, chorus, vocal and instrumental soloists and electronic tape. His music, published by the Theodore Presser Company, has been performed by major artists and recorded on several labels. He has received commissions from the Fromm and Koussevitzky foundations, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Speculum Musicae and many other ensembles. His long list of honors includes prizes from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters and fellowships to the American Academy in Rome and the Tanglewood Music Center.

Primosch’s musical vocabulary reflects his Catholic faith, his love of jazz and his expertise in electronic music. His vocal works reveal a keen ear for word-setting and poetic nuance. His instrumental pieces show exceptional sensitivity to tone color and a preference for transparent textures. His structures typically progress from the complex to the simple in a process that combines ancient traditions with contemporary techniques.

“At the heart of my work is a spiritual impulse,” he wrote in a statement for the 1996 Pew Fellowships in the Arts. “The music is rooted in contemplation and solitude, but comes to life in the community of performers and listeners, when the air is set in motion as an act of praise to the Creator.”

String Quartet No. 2 (after Zurburan) was inspired by a painting of the Holy Family in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which commissioned the quartet in 1991. Sacra Conversazione (1994), a work for six instruments and tape, integrates an American shape-note tune, a Gregorian hymn and a Bach chorale. The title comes from a genre of painting that depicts saints from different periods. Piano Quintet (1996) contemplates the African-American spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” before breaking into a bluesy shuffle. Not every piece in his catalogue is religious in tone, however. Fantasy Variations for piano trio (1991) creates what the composer calls “a dream journal” of musical images. Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer (2001) skillfully investigates contrasting keyboard sonorities.

At the time of this writing, Primosch is a professor of music at University of Pennsylvania where he directs the Presser Electronic Music Studio.

Described by a Cleveland critic as a composer with “a quiet but sure voice of his own,” Primosch considers art synonymous with life. “It’s who I am,” he says of his music, “not what I do.”

—Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org