Internationally recognized composer and School of Music Associate Professor Dániel Péter Biró can now add one of North America’s most prestigious awards to his list of honours — the Guggenheim Fellowship. And he’ll be using the one-year award worth $50,000 US to reflect on one of the most important issues of today: global migration.

2017 Guggenheim Fellow Dániel Péter Biró (UVic Photo Services)

“I am happy and honoured to be awarded this prestigious fellowship,” says Biró. “I am also extremely grateful to have time to work on the proposed composition cycle.”

Guggenheim Fellowships are awarded to individuals who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. Scores of Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and eminent scientists are past Guggenheim fellows, including Henry Kissinger, Linus Pauling and Ansel Adams.

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced this year’s recipients in its 93rd annual competition for the US and Canada on April 7. Biró is among a diverse group of 173 scholars, artists and scientists selected from a field of almost 3,000 applicants. The seventh UVic scholar to be awarded a Guggenheim, he’s the second from UVic to receive the honour in the creative arts category.

New work explores concepts of space and place

During the Fellowship period, Biró will work on a large-scale musical composition cycle based on Baruch Spinoza‘s philosophical work, Ethica.

“Exploring concepts of ‘space and place,’ the proposed composition will deal with questions of one’s place in the global world and how music informs and influences our perception of our place in this world,” he explains. “Looking at musical creation as an analogy to the movement of the immigrant — who discovers, remembers, forgets and rediscovers places on his voyage — the composition will investigate relationships to historical space, space of immigration and disembodied space.”

The cycle, also titled Ethica, will be scored for voices, ensemble and electronics and use text from Spinoza’s philosophical work.

The project is inspired by Biró’s time as a visiting professor in the computing and information sciences department of Netherland’s Utrecht University in 2011, where he was living not far from Spinoza’s burial site in The Hague. While one of the greatest philosophers of the 17th century, Spinoza was banned from the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam because of his views — which, says Biró, proved too radical for the time.

“In his philosophical treatise Ethics, Spinoza attempted to present a new type of theology, one that was autonomous from organized religion, such as that of his own Portuguese Jewish community,” he explains. “I would like to create a composition that explores historical dichotomies between religious and secular thinking from the perspective of modern-day globalized existence.”

Unforgettable inspirations

Biró with other Fellows at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute in 2014 (photo: Ben Miller)

During the 2016/17 academic year, Biró was an artist-in-residence with UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society; in 2015, he was made a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, and was awarded a 2014 Fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study, and has received numerous other international prizes and commissions. All of these experiences simply inspire him to rethink and finish years of compositional research.

“My year at the Radcliffe Institute was unforgettable, as I was in dialogue with 49 other scholars for a year from every possible discipline,” he says. “The community at Harvard showed great interest and support for my work and I was grateful to experience the collegial environment.”

As a new Canadian, Biró was also honoured to become a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and was pleased that the organizers celebrated their 2015 gala featuring 600 star academics from all over Canada with two compositions—including one by himself, and one by McGill composer Philippe Leroux.

“It was a good moment for the field of contemporary music in Canada, with the Royal Society proudly acknowledging music composition as an important field of creative research for Canadian society,” Biró says. “Upon hearing my composition for bass flute and electronics, the scientists of the Royal Society had many questions about my practice of notation and use of space in my work.”

Creating complete musicians

A valued asset to both UVic and the School of Music itself, Biró hopes his Guggenheim Fellowship will enhance the School’s already very strong reputation — a nice addition to their 50th anniversary year coming up in 2017/18.

“The School of Music is proud to congratulate Dr. Biró on being awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship,” says School of Music director Christopher Butterfield. “As well as being an internationally acclaimed composer, Dániel is widely recognized for his scholarship on Jewish, Islamic and Christian chant traditions. Since coming to UVic in 2004, he has composed a body of music work notable for its aesthetic rigour and integration of elements from various chant traditions.”

Biró with School of Music students

Biró see his work in combining historical music research with modern creation, as well as contemporary music performance with music technology, as being perfectly in sync with the School’s goal to produce “complete musicians.”

This past term, for example, Biró taught music composition, contemporary music performance, the theory and analysis of 20th and 21st century music, and a graduate seminar in Jewish, Early Christian and Islamic notation practices—all of which he will be teaching again as part of the European/Canadian summer course Narratives of Memory, Migration, Xenophobia and European Identity: Intercultural Dialogues in Hungary, Germany, France and Canada. They also dovetail with his role since 2011 as the managing director of the local SALT New Music Festival and Symposium.

“My ability to conduct research in these areas gives me expertise that I can pass on to my students, allowing them a more comprehensive music education,” he says. “I am grateful to be able to integrate teaching and research at the University of Victoria and am hopeful that this Fellowship will allow the School of Music future opportunities to enhance and integrate music creation, history, technology and performance research, making it a destination for researchers from around the world.”

On cultivating obsessions

Finally, considering the Guggenheim Fellowships are often characterized as “midcareer” awards, what does he see in his immediate future?

“My last composition cycle — completed at the Radcliffe Institute — took me 13 years to complete,” Biró says. “As I tell my composition students, one has to ‘cultivate obsessions’ as a composer. I am hopeful that this next obsession might allow me to discover new universes of musical expression and compositional possibilities in the years to come.”

UVic’s past Guggenheim fellows are sculptor and Visual Arts professor emeritus Mowry Baden (2014), climatologist Andrew Weaver (2008), astrophysicist Julio Navarro (2003), English professor Anthony Edwards (1988), ocean physicist Chris Garrett (1981) and biologist Job Kuijt (1964).