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An American Legend: Composer William Bolcom at 80

color photo of William Bolcom sitting in a theater and looking over a musical score
Peter Smith
Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer William Bolcom

He was pivotal in reviving the American musical genre of ragtime. He has composed music in a range of styles that all but erases the lines between art music and popular music.

And he has taught and mentored some of the foremost composers in America today — including some working right here in Central Ohio.

Now, he's turning 80. I'd say that's cause for celebration.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer William Bolcom celebrates his birthday this Saturday, May 26.

Join me at 6 p.m. Saturday (and 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 29) for a Bolcom birthday celebration on The American Sound. Enjoy an hour of some of Bolcom's most delightful works, along with music by some of the many composers who were once his students.

I had a chance to chat recently with Bolcom about how he got hooked on ragtime, how his personal philosophy manifests itself in some of his most important works and about a fateful conversation that changed his music — and his life. Take a listen:

Born on the cusp of World War II, Bolcom came of age as a composer during the Cold War years, when an aesthetic of defiantly dissonant atonality governed the world of art music, especially among composers working in academia.

Bolcom never embraced full-out atonality during his early years as a professional composer, despite, he says, countless reports to the contrary. Instead, he questioned adhering to what amounted to a single narrow artistic worldview, a single musical voice.

A life-changing conversation Bolcom had with American composer John Cage would affirm Bolcom's penchant for exploring various modes of musical expression.

"Scales fell from my eyes," Bolcom said in a recent phone interview. At that moment, he said he realized, "I could do whatever I want."

Bolcom's new-found artistic freedom allowed him to explore virtually every musical style, from ragtime, which had lain more or less dormant since the late 1800s, to blues, jazz and more.

He also experimented with country western music, unapologetically incorporating it into the work that stands as his magnum opus: the massive oratorio Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bolcom worked on the oratorio for a quarter-century, and it stands as a testament to his personal and musical philosophies.

Be sure to join me at 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday for a celebration of Bolcom on The American Sound.

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Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.