William Susman belongs to the generation of American composers that came of age in the late twentieth century and received traditional academic training while remaining thoroughly engaged with popular music (in his case, jazz). Susman has written orchestral and chamber music for concert performance, as well as jazz and film scores.
The New York Times calls his music "vivid, turbulent, and rich-textured" and All Music hails his album Scatter My Ashes as "the next developments in the sphere (of) minimalism". His music is notable for his integration of a variety of influences, including the Western classical tradition, Afro-Cuban music, free jazz, and several non-Western folk traditions. His music uses an array of musical devices from medieval isorhtyhm and hocket to the Afro-Cuban clavé and montuño.
His orchestral and chamber music has been widely performed in the U.S., Europe, China and Japan, and his music has been played and recorded by soloists such as Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly of the Kronos Quartet, Joseph Gramley of the Silk Road Ensemble, Greg and Pat Zuber of the Met Opera Orchestra and soprano Mellissa Hughes.
The Chicago native was trained in both classical and jazz piano. He studied at the University of Illinois with Herbert Brün, Salvatore Martirano, and Ben Johnston, and for graduate school, computer-generated sound at Stanford with John Chowning with subsequent work at IRCAM. As a result of winning a BMI award in 1985 for his orchestral work Pentateuch, Susman was selected by Earle Brown to receive a commission from the Fromm Foundation. His composition for the Fromm, Trailing Vortices (1986), received numerous international performances including the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra with conductor Ernest Bour, and went on to win awards from Gaudeamus and ASCAP. In 2014, Zydeco Madness (2006) for string orchestra was performed by the Memphis Symphony and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.
He has also been active in the area of film scoring, focusing on documentary films. One of the many films he has scored, Native New Yorker (2005), won best documentary short at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival - New York City. He also was awarded the Pere Lorentz award from the International Documentary Association for Oil on Ice (2004) a controversial film about drilling in the Arctic Refuge. In May 2015, Native New Yorker was honored at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in a retrospective of the best American experimental film.
In 2011, he founded the ensemble OCTET. A new sound for contemporary ensembles, OCTET takes the instrumentation of the American big band and scales it down to a brass section of saxophone, trumpet, and trombone and a rhythm section of piano, electric piano, double bass and drums plus vocals. In 2012, he founded the record label Belarca (with distribution by Naxos) to give wider exposure to OCTET and new composers from around the world.
OCTET's critically acclaimed album debut Scatter My Ashes reached No. 1 on Amazon's Classical Hot New Releases, No. 8 on Billboard's Classical and was featured in iTunes Classical New and Noteworthy. Scatter my Ashes was also chosen as an Album of the Month in the October 2014 issue of textura.
Q2 on WNYC, New Sounds on WNYC, Concertzender radio in The Netherlands, and Echoes on NPR are among the many radio shows that broadcast his music.
His albums are available on Belarca Records and distributed by Naxos. His scores are sold at susmanmusic.com. Steve Weiss Music distributes his percussion music.
-- Biography by Stephen Eddins for All Music Guide