Carolyn O'Brien

Carolyn O’Brien (b. 1968) is an American composer of acoustic music and frequent collaborator with professional ensembles, artists, dancers and an advocate and composer for amateur musicians of all ages. She earned a Bachelor’s of Music Education from Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg Kansas, taught orchestra for a decade in Texas and California, earned a Master’s in Music Theory and Composition for University of California at Davis, and is now a doctoral candidate in music composition at Northwestern University and will be completing her DMA by June 2016. 

Ms. O’Brien’s recent works seek to explore the illusion of limited physical space, using harmonic language, register, formal structures and proportions that widen or narrow and contain musical gestures that ricochet off the predetermined ceilings, walls and floors. Many of her works are inspired by kinetic sculpture, theater, visual art, modern dance, and tap dance rhythms, as well as instrumental combinations that create a kind of super instrument or combined timbral color. Childlike exploration and accessibility to all levels of listener, ranging from children and amateurs to the most musically educated adult, has always been a priority in her work, which is heavily influenced by her previous career as a public school teacher. 

She has worked with the Left Coast Ensemble, Empyrean Ensemble, Bent Frequency, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), ensemble dal niente, Momenta Quartet, Trio Phonos directed by Harry Sparnaay, and Ari Streisfeld, among others. She was a chosen fellow for the Music X Festival with ensemble eighth blackbird in 2006 and 2010, the 63rd Annual Composers Conference at Wellesley College in 2007 led by Mario Davidovsky, and granted residencies at the MacDowell Colony in the fall 2013 and Blue Mountain Center in the summer 2014. 

Prizes include second prize in the SCI/ASCAP Student Composition Commission Competition in 2006, the annual call for scores held by Atlanta’s Bent Frequency in 2006, the IAWM Search for New Music Libby Larsen Prize in 2007, the Charles Ives Scholarship via the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009, the William T. Faricy Award in 2011, and the IAWM Search for New Music Sylvia Glickman Memorial Prize in 2015. 

Some of her earliest works were commissioned, including two works that premiered at Dance Week in San Francisco in 2000-2002, and the Herb Bielawa Commission Prize in 2003 at San Francisco State University. In 2007-08 she was awarded a commission and position as composer in residence at the San Francisco Community Music Center for the 21st Century Music for The People project through funding provided by the American Composers Forum. In 2008, her commission, Formicary, for piano quartet, was performed at the Society of Composers, Inc./ASCAP National Conference. In 2011, she received three commissions, which yielded Thing Contained, for saxophone quartet commissioned by the Anubis Quartet, Escapement, for flute, oboe and baritone saxophone commissioned by ensemble dal niente in Chicago, and a final commission and job as composer in residence from the Lick Wilmerding High School Orchestra in San Francisco, CA. In July 2012, her work, Coil, Recoil, for alto saxophone and viola premiered at the Selmer Studio in Paris, France by Jan Berry Baker and Tania Clements, and at the World Saxophone Congress in St. Andrews, Scotland. In 2014, Caprice, for violin was performed by Ari Streisfeld at New Music on the Point in Vermont, was chosen for a Special Selection performance at Cortona Sessions 2014 in Cortona, Italy, and was a winner of Concorde Ensemble’s call for scores and performed by Elaine Clark in Dublin, Ireland in January 2015. In October, Caprice was featured in the Peep Show Instant Choreography Series in Chicago with Striding Lion Dance Company.