Professor earns prestigious fellowship
Marcos Balter, director of composition studies in the Music Department, has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, a program designed to support exceptional artists, scholars, writers and scientists.
The fellowships were awarded April 10 to 175 individuals from more than 85 academic institutions who demonstrated that their work has been recognized as outstanding. Recipients are awarded grants in varying amounts to support their endeavors, according to an April 11 press release from the foundation. Balter said the amount of the
grant is confidential .
“I was never a shoo-in, and I was not counting on getting [the award] at this point in my career, but it feels really good,” Balter said. “It’s a very gruesome application process.”
Balter, 39, said he had to submit samples of his composition “Descent from Parnassus” and had to write an extensive biography of his work and what he hopes to accomplish with the fellowship.
He said he was notified a month ago that the selection committee chose him as a finalist. He was approved by the board to officially become a fellow on April 10.
Balter said because he received the fellowship, he will take the year off from his duties at Columbia to focus on his compositions.
Balter said he never had a year off in his life and is excited about the prospect of focusing on his music.
“I get to give the most valuable commodity to myself: time,”
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Balter came to the U.S. to study music composition, according to his website. He holds a doctoral degree from Northwestern University, where he has taught, and has also taught at Lawrence University and the University of Pittsburgh., according to his website.
Normally, Balter travels for performances and composes 10–15 pieces a year, but with the extra time he said he plans to prepare for several upcoming shows
He said he will prepare for performances at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in April 2014, a New York music festival this May and in his native Brazil in August, where he will perform a piece for string orchestra and choir. He is also composing a piece for renowned flutist and 2012 MacArthur fellow
During his four years at Columbia, Balter said he has steered the composition studies program toward focusing on modern composers and today’s music industry. He said the composition program is 21st century-oriented, allowing stu-
dents to study more advanced composers early in their education.
“It feels like [the Music Department] is re-setting things,” Balter said. “We want the program to be unique compared to other music composition programs.”
Balter said his favorite part of working at Columbia is the inspiration he draws from his students. He said there is a valuable exchange between him and his students; he shows students music they don’t necessarily know and vice versa.
“I teach them what I know, but it’s also great to be in touch with a generation I don’t belong to,” Balter said. “My students provide me very fresh perspective on what direction I can take with my career.”
Nathan Bakkum, coordinator of musicology in the Music Department, said Balter is deserving of the award and finds the intensity of his students inspiring.
“[Balter] has brought an intensity, a focus and a spirit to the composition program that is really exciting,” Bakkum said. “He has really brought a new technical focus that is allowing his students to come out of the program with a good understanding of what today’s music compositional options are.”
Ilya Levinson, an assistant professor in the Music Department, said the flow of Balter’s pieces moves him.
“Musical flow is what distinguishes a good piece of music from the rest,” he said.
Levinson said he likes that Balter is part of a newer generation of composers and that he is tuned into the latest news on music composition. He said Balter further engages the student body by bringing in his composer friends, like Chaya Czernowin, the composition director at Harvard University, to his classes.
Levinson said the fellowship is a credential booster and the award will elevate Balter’s career to a new level. Bakkum echoed his sentiment, pointing out that the fellowship is considered a mid-career award.
“It’s such an honor for any composer, especially for someone so young,” Bakkum said. “It is an unprecedented honor.”
Despite being granted such a prestigious award, Balter said he doesn’t measure his career by his accolades but by his love for music.
“As [awards] come, I’m humble and I’m grateful,” Balter said. “But my only goal is to compose the best music I can.”