When speaking with authors Emi Ferguson and Nicholas Csicsko, their excitement for the world of classical music is palpable. Having met during their college days at Juilliard, music has always been a significant part of their lives. Their upcoming book Iconic Composers, written alongside adventurous illustrations by acclaimed artist David Lee Csicsko, features an array of classical composers, beginning in the 12th century and moving through time to our contemporary age. Showcasing women, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups, Iconic Composers underscores the fact that music, and the creation of it, is for everyone.
Part of David Lee Csicsko’s People Series, Iconic Composers will be available in bookstores across the US in summer 2023 and internationally in fall 2023.
You both mentioned in the book’s introduction that Iconic Composers is the book you wished you could have had as kids. Was that the impetus behind writing this book?
EF: This is a family book, written for families to enjoy. We’re hopeful that this is a book that’s exciting, not only for kids who are discovering music and these composers for the first time, but also for their parents or their siblings, whether they're older or younger, to get glimpses into the lives of these composers. They are people, more than anything else. We often put them on a pedestal looking back in history, but we've tried to profile them as humans — living and breathing people who lived and loved and made some great music.
NC: When I was working through school at Juilliard I was an usher at the opera house and I would sneak David Csicsko in to see operas. We would always talk about fun stories that I thought were relevant and interesting, about composers. Writing this book, Emi and I learned how hard it was to try to encapsulate a composer's life and keep it interesting in about 300 words.
How have your backgrounds as composers and instrumentalists influenced who you decided to include in Iconic Composers?
EF: It’s important to note that this book is just a selection of fifty composers, and that there are so many more composers out there who are wonderful. This is just a really small sampling. We picked a variety of people who have inspired us and write lots of different kinds of music, and have lived lots of different lives. This is by no means the definitive list of composers. It's constantly changing, because there are tons of people who are writing music today and creating new histories for us. We’re also rediscovering older composers who have been lost to history. Musicians today are bringing back the music of incredible composers who we didn't necessarily know of as kids, but who are well-known now. I think the important thing is that this is just a slice of the pie and the pie itself is so much bigger and constantly growing.
Speaking of subjective, I love the inclusion of Hildegard von Bingen, though she’s not what many newcomers might consider a classical composer in the same way that Mozart is. Why did you decide to include her?
EF: She’s the oldest composer in the book. We're starting roughly 1000 years ago. There were many composers before then, but she was amazing. She’s one of those figures that has always stood out in that time period from a composition perspective. She was an incredible innovator. She was a woman who was composing despite the fact that that was quite unusual at the time. Her music, her artwork, and her writings have all survived and are so celebrated today. So who better to start with than the mother of all of this?
NC: The other part is that, in encompassing 1000 years in the book, professions changed. A composer was not a profession during Hildegard von Bingen’s time. Composing was just part of what she did. It’s very interesting, because it's not until you get a little bit further along in time that you start to even have the conception of it being a profession. Then, by the time you get into the meat of the book, it's become a full-time job.
EF: We try to chronicle that when talking about the people who were actually allowed the agency to make composing a full-time profession. When you get to someone like Mozart, the only thing he did was compose music and he became known purely as a musician, rather than someone like Hildegard who was known for lots of things. She’s the shining beacon of what amazing music from her time period can be.
EF: Something I felt very strongly about is that we start the book with Hildegard, talking about how she is an outlier. During that time in history as a woman, she wasn’t able to attach her name to her work, but her work wasn’t lost to history and that's really unusual. As Virginia Woolf said, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Anonymous was a woman, but Anonymous was also a person of color — so many marginalized composers throughout history, but Hildegard was an outlier. She was just one of what probably were many composers that we don't have a record of today. These 50 people in Iconic Composers are the people that we have a record of. Some we are still rediscovering and trying to make sure that their legacy is passed on.
It's depressing, but it's important to note that there are so many composers throughout history who we’ll never know about. These composers could be women from the 1800s composing alone in their parlors, or people from non-Eurocentric traditions.
EF: All of the composers in the book work within Eurocentric traditions. It’s important to note that we're not looking at this book as a collection of the greatest composers of all time. This is highlighting 50 composers from Western classical music. We’re missing a lot of music because we’re only focusing on the Western classical tradition in this book, and there’s so much music in the world to discover.
What composers, past or present, have most inspired your own personal work?
EF: All of the composers in this book. The amazing thing about living today is that you have access to all types of music in a way that very few of these composers did in their lifetimes. As modern musicians today, we're able to soak up everything, and then process it and figure out how it lends itself to our own creations. You could go through every single one of these people and talk about their influence on either one of us.
NC: I think that it changes over time, and that’s just part of growth. For me I have to admit that, with some of the composers, I didn't know them very well. That was a very fun part of creating the book — getting to know some of these lesser-known composers or individuals who did much more than composing. It was actually quite inspirational.
EF: I will say that the one person who has had a profound influence on both of our lives is Nadia Boulanger, who was one of the Boulanger sisters. Nadia was actually less of a composer herself and much more of a composer's advocate and teacher. She taught everybody from Philip Glass to Quincy Jones, so her fingers are in Michael Jackson's music because of Quincy Jones, as well as so much music and many movies scores that are inspired by Philip Glass. She’s very important to both of us because she had a very rigorous method of musical training that we are the beneficiaries of. We’re like her grandchildren students, because she taught a woman named Mary Anthony Cox who taught at Juilliard for a very long time. Mary Anthony Cox had me and Nick as her apprentices, and taught us how to teach this sort of style of musical training.
NC: When you watch Nadia’s classes, those that are on YouTube, you just kind of understand where it came from. There’s this fascination with process — today we are going to do something that seems very basic from a musical perspective, but we're going to do it until you have complete control.
EF: Nadia was someone who encouraged every single student she worked with to use these skills to create whatever music that was the most authentic to them. That was her superpower. And you see that in Iconic Composers — bio after bio mentions studying with Nadia Boulanger. She encouraged them and also had a very special impact on us.
Why is it so important for the classical world that children are introduced early on to such a diverse array of composers?
EF: It’s important for kids to see that they themselves, wherever they come from, whatever they look like, whatever their musical experience has been, that there's no one way to be a composer. Anybody can be a composer. The most important message that we want to get across is that there should not be an entry barrier to making music. One of the most fundamental parts of being human is making music, and we want to encourage that in every young person. We want them to see that there are people like them, no matter what they look like, who have done it. There are people like them who, no matter what background they come from, have persevered in extraordinary situations. Hopefully it inspires young people to make music of their own, whether or not they have felt the agency to do that before.
Now that the book is completed, what are you both getting excited about? What are you currently working on?
EF: I don't think we have any more books in store right now, but I’m working on a couple of new albums, so that's my focus. Right now I’m recording some new music by composers György Ligeti and Georg Philipp Telemann, who are actually not in the book but whom I love. Ligeti is from the 20th century and his music was used widely in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Telemann is a Baroque composer — we’re mashing their music up in a crazy way, which has been fun.