UT Alumnus Michael Kurek Named Composer Laureate of the State of Tennessee
UT School of Music alumnus Michael Kurek (BM Music Theory, 1977) has been blessed with a rare honor: to be named composer laureate of the state of Tennessee.
“I’m very deeply touched,” Kurek said. “I’ve spent most of my life in Tennessee and to get this kind of recognition as a composer and a citizen on a state level is incredibly meaningful.”
His numerous career distinctions include an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Academy's Charles Ives Award, and the Tanglewood Music Center's Fromm Fellowship in Composition, to name a few. His music, which has included a stylistic progression from modernism to postmodernism to a fully narrative traditionalism, has been performed live and/or heard on radio or TV throughout the U.S. and, internationally, multiple times in 43 other countries, including France, England, Germany, Japan, Korea, Denmark, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Russia, Portugal, Australia, Brazil, Italy, and Sweden. It’s for reasons like these that the bill which designated him composer laureate, which was recently signed by Governor Bill Lee, described Kurek’s music and talent as “unparalleled.”
It's rather fitting that the honorary title, a lifetime appointment, is itself a rarity – only a small handful of states have such designations. The only previous incumbent of the position in Tennessee was David Van Vactor, a former director of the School of Music (then known as the Music Department). Since Van Vactor’s death in 1976, the position has remained vacant. The two composers have an additional connection as well – Van Vactor was Kurek’s first music composition instructor when the latter was at the University of Tennessee as a student.
“What sticks out to me about my time at UT is the people,” Kurek said. “I had particularly well-qualified, smart, sophisticated, and caring teachers who gave me extremely rigorous training. When I became a professor at Vanderbilt, I used some of the same material I had gone through at UT, and some of the same notes I had taken as a student.”
From the time he was a child, Kurek has felt a compulsion to create music of his own. Following UT and graduate school and the University of Michigan, Kurek has excelled as both a composer and a teacher. Now a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University, he continues to compose and has numerous upcoming works, including a 45-minute symphony that will be recorded in Europe and a commissioned ballet for full orchestra. As he looks back on his career, he says this kind of creative spark is interwoven with – rather than separate from – his experience teaching.
“It’s a sort of wheel; they feed each other,” he said. “Doing music gives the teacher energy and desire to teach, and then the teaching gives back to the teacher a desire to make music. If I weren’t making music, I couldn’t have been a very good teacher. You must feed your own soul before you can feed others.”
When asked about his legacy, his answer combines these two things in a way, displaying a love for creating music, and a student-focused approach – one in which he still sees himself as a music student as well.
“I didn’t really achieve any kind of wider recognition until I was probably 50, because it just took me that long to learn to do it well,” he said. “I never stopped working to improve, and I’m still trying to improve.”
Photo credit: Steve Green, Vanderbilt University