To say composer Ashley Fure is celebrated is an understatement. In the past month alone, the assistant professor of music has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and her composition Bound to the Bow was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
And last week, the American Academy in Rome announced that Fure had won a Rome Prize—a residency through which 30 exceptional emerging artists and scholars from around the United States live and work for a year in the Italian capital. (Fure has also heard from yet another residency program, but that news is not yet public. “Yes, I applied to three fellowships and somehow I got them all,” she says.)
More than recognition, Fure says she values the freedom the awards will afford her. This feels like a turning point, she says. “All of these inputs point to a future that feels more and more limitless. There’s a phase as a young composer where essentially your opportunities are defined from the outside world. Now I’m getting to take hold of those reins and define the projects that I want to work on—to find their scope and their scale.”
That scale is big. “I want to make work that breaks out of traditional boundaries,” she says. Her vision requires the creative control to envelope her audiences in what she calls “the ritual experience of the work—staging, lighting, the flow of the evening, the flow of the audience through the space.”
A good example is her opera The Force of Things, a version of which premiered at the new music festival in Darmstadt, Germany, last summer, and will be presented in a more immersive form at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., Oct. 6-8. (The Office of the Provost provided early seed funding for the project in 2015.)
The project, developed with her brother, architect Adam Fure, and a team of lighting designers, sound engineers, and musicians, has been interdisciplinary from the start—a challenge for a work that is not built around conventional narrative expectations. “As the process unfolded, we developed our own language for what the piece was, and our own language for how we communicate across these disciplinary lines that we all speak fluently,” Fure says.
She and her collaborators began to understand that the work was “processing a sense of slow catastrophe associated with things like climate change and the trauma that the Anthropocene and anthropocentric ways of thinking are inflicting on the world,” she says. “We didn’t start from that place—we came to that place. That’s what’s haunting all of us right now. So we progressively acknowledged that connection with a more concerted effort, and started to weave it conceptually into the physical and musical infrastructure of the piece.”
“Our goal was to blur the line between animate and inanimate, and try to get humans to experience a catharsis unrelated to human pathos,” she says. “The materials that we’re working with are not puppets. They have a kind of slippery and flirtatious referentiality, so they’re kind of always seducing us into thinking they’re one thing and undoing those assumptions through lighting and different kinetic processes.”
Bound to the Bow is another example of Fure’s ambitions. Fure accepted the commission from the New York Philharmonic Biennial in part because she was able to work with the orchestra at Interlochen Arts Academy, her alma mater, rather than a professional orchestra.
“The constraints around most orchestral rehearsal cycles are absurd—you have to write a piece that can be performed after three hours of rehearsal, if you’re lucky,” she says. “The reduction in the ambitions of sound and complexity that requires is not that interesting to me.”
In contrast, she had four months to work with the “ferociously talented young people” at Interlochen, many of whom were at first skeptical of the experimental sounds she was after, she says. “By the end I had found some real believers in that group—and now they’re getting to experience this rush of recognition. The beautiful part of making living work is that they nursed something from a totally nascent state to the world stage. That’s really different from playing Beethoven.”
If Fure’s growing collection of accolades marks a turning point for her personally, to a certain extent it also marks a shift in the world of classical music—and for female composers in a historically male field. In a recent New Yorker article, music critic William Robin observed that 2017 is the first year since the music Pulitzer has been awarded that the winner, Du Yun, and both finalists, Fure and Kate Soper, have been women. Robin argues that orchestras—many of whose repertoires are still dominated by male composers—must do more to showcase works by women.
Fure says she feels fortunate to be part of a generation of artists facing fewer barriers than ever before. “There’s incredible work being made by female composers and by composers of color. That’s liberating. The Pulitzer is a great example of that. I couldn’t be more proud to share that podium with Du Yun and Kate Soper. We’re big supporters of each other’s work. So that’s part of the tipping point.”
Last summer at the Darmstadt festival, Fure led a seminar on gender in which she presented data on the historic absence of women in the festival’s archives. “It’s complicated to deal with absence rigorously,” she says. “I wanted to start that conversation from a place of concrete facts. It’s so long overdue that we’re having this conversation in a concerted public way in the new music community.”
At the same time, she says, “I need to safeguard my time to be making work—stretching the canon from within. I’m interested in forwarding this conversation in a way that does not place the burden of activism only on the composers who need to be advocated for.”
While Fure may be a prominent player in a changing global classical music scene, in her Dartmouth classroom she is all about her students, say Susana Kwon ’17 and Grace Carney ’17, who have each taken two of her courses.
“She is so celebrated, but in the teaching setting none of that is important,” says Kwon, a double major in music and English and a classically trained singer. “Professor Fure is possibly the most generous and kind and committed professor I have worked with at Dartmouth.”
Kwon, who is considering attending conservatory after Dartmouth, says Fure’s classes have “dismantled my preconceived notions of what music is. Her composition class opened up a lot of creative avenues for me.”
“Professor Fure is absolutely a role model. I’m pretty in awe of her,” says Carney, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies major. “She is endlessly humble, and really invested in her students as whole people.”
Fure, who joined the music department in 2015, says she didn’t know what to expect from non-conservatory students. “It’s been really moving. For a lot of the students, it’s the first time that they’ve been asked to express themselves in sound. There’s a kind of progressive liberation that I watch happen. I’ve been floored by how fast their boundaries break down, and I watch them produce some really interesting work.”
Though she loves teaching, she is looking forward to spending a year in Rome focused entirely on new work. “The Rome Prize is special because it’s a little bit like summer camp,” she says. “It’s a familial experience—you live together, you eat two beautiful meals a day together, and everybody shows up in September and stays until July. There’s a social infrastructure of scholars and artists from the U.S. and other countries. And it’s Rome!”
The Dartmouth community will have an opportunity to hear works by Fure and other young American composers, faculty, and students—performed by the award-winning Ensemble Itinéraire and International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)—at 7 p.m. May 2 at the New Music Festival in Spaulding Auditorium in the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The event is free and open to the public.