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WIU Composer Earns Pulitzer Nomination

Courtesy photo
James Romig

In 2018 only three compositions were nominated finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. One of those works is STILL for solo piano. It didn't come from New York or Boston or Los Angeles -- it came from a Music Professor at Western Illinois University.

Composer James Romig said the first thing you might notice about his piano solo STILL is that it takes a lot of time.

“It takes 55 minutes to do its thing. And what it’s doing is progressing very slowly through a series of 24 pitches grouped in threes,” said Romig.

“So it starts with three pitches for about 75 seconds and then another one is added, and another one is added, and another one is added, ‘til there are six. And then the original three drop away, leaving us with the new three. Then another group of three is added, and this happens eight times over the course of the composition.”

Romig was inspired by the paintings of American 20th Century artist Clyfford Still, described as one of the earliest -- and most anti-traditional -- of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Still’s mature work uses seemingly random or weathered or torn slabs of strongly contrasting color, but rewards closer inspection with unexpected richness.

“I find the work really topographical. They look like maps to me. I’m fascinated with looking at maps and coastlines, and I see the same sorts of shapes represented in the Clyfford Still. And it’s easy to call him a color field painter, but it’s very different because it’s the jagged shapes and those kinds of patterns, and there are large, wide-open spaces,” said Romig.

“And most of the really famous paintings, the ones that get into the art books and the ones that people most want to see in the museum, are enormous. Ten or twelve, fourteen feet across. So that gives a sense of scale and size that I suppose is a little bit similar to this piano piece.”

Credit Courtesy photo
Ashlee Mack

The composition was commissioned by a group including pianist Ashlee Mack. Additional support came from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, an unusual major gallery housing 95% of Still’s total works.

Romig said, “Anybody who has gone to see a gallery filled with work by the same artist has had the experience that I hope people will have with STILL, which is looking at multiple iterations of something that allow the viewer or the listener to get an idea of a bigger whole, and I think that’s what Still was after with his paintings.

“One place where the music is different from the museum: if my piece of music has 43 segments to it, when you’re listening you’re really not aware of the boundaries between them. At the museum, there are boundaries between the artworks, and even if you’re wandering through at a steady pace, there’s still the empty space in between the paintings.

“So with mine, I suppose I’m doing that thing that music is so good at, which is creating a sort of fractal situation, where there are small things that reflect the large. In a way, if I was going to speak metaphorically, I could say that my entire work, that lasts an hour long, is one painting, and then you can look at different parts of it. Or, at the same time, we can say that there are 43 little individual segments that make up a museum or a gallery or something like that. So I like the fact that music can work on multiple scales that way.”

Romig and his lead commissioner, Pianist Ashlee Mack (Director of Piano Studies at Knox College), have been able to take their “museum of sound” around the country:  to the Figge Museum in Davenport, the Milwaukee Art Museum and, of course, the Clyfford Still Museum.

Romig said, “That was a remarkable experience. They rented a large Steinway grand piano and put it in a gallery. Without consulting with us, it just happened to be (by) three of our favorite paintings, so we were just overjoyed when they let us into the gallery and we got to see it.”

Romig doesn’t know who nominated STILL for the Pulitzer.  He described it as a mysterious process that comes as a pleasant surprise. As for now being in the company of previous finalists like Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, and Bright Sheng, he called it an interesting situation.

“As flattering as it is, it’s not the main goal of an artist to win these awards, and you certainly don’t think about it while you’re doing it. The main thing that I wanted to do is create something. And then, after you create something, what you want to do is share it. And we’ve had the opportunity to share this piece many times with many audiences. So, without sounding ungrateful or smug, we felt like the piece was a success before. So this is very, very nice and very exciting, but since it wasn’t a goal, it’s not something I’m going to worry too much about, I’m just going to enjoy it thoroughly.”

James Romig is enjoying his newfound identity as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and his continuing identity as Professor of Theory and Composition at Western Illinois University.