Canadian-born Curtis Robert Macdonald (b. 1985), is a New York based composer, sound designer, radio producer and saxophonist.
He has won commissions from Aszure Barton & Artists, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Kate Weare Company, Hubbard Street Dance, Bayerisches Staatsballett (The Bavarian State Ballet), Larry Keigwin & Co., and The Juilliard School. In 2014, he was co-awarded the first Charles and Joan Gross Family Foundation Prize for his collaboration with Aszure Barton on the dance Awáa, and in 2016 he received a New Music USA grant for his collaboration with Kate Weare in Marksman. In suit, Curtis’ original theatrical scores have been featured across several modern dance and ballet companies worldwide.
Curtis has released three albums as a bandleader, Community Immunity (2011), Twice Through The Wall (2013), and most recently, Scotobiology—the study of darkness, inspired by the effects of artificial light on living beings. He has also authored Introducing Extended Saxophone Techniques published by Mel Bay and is faculty at The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music and Ohio Wesleyan University's New York Arts Program. Furthermore, Curtis is a producer for WQXR/WNYC where he received a Peabody Award in 2015 for his work on the podcast Meet The Composer. Recently he co-wrote, produced, and sound designed a full-length feature with host Terrence McKnight, entitled Leonard Bernstein’s Black America that generated record-reaching audience engagement.
Moreover Curtis has exhibited work at The Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series with the Kate Weare Company, and also with vocalist Helga Davis at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in response to visual artist Nick Cave’s Until. Curtis also has worked closely with the great American composer, multi-instrumentalist and Pulitzer Prize laureate Henry Threadgill as a conductor, copyist and member of his ensembles ‘Double-Up’, and ‘14 or 15 Kestra: Agg’.
Curtis frequently works in several multimedia settings, providing brand-focused original scoring, sound design and final mixing for commercial photographers, marketers, and documentarians. Currently he is developing a new feature on the great actor, singer and legendary American icon Harry Belafonte, coming out in 2019.
I like to see each project I’m involved with as an extension of my creativity—everything comes from the same place. And I think that cultivating a sharp focus is crucial for developing good work. It’s amazing what problem-solving faculties emerge when your mind is still and relaxed. You can take on more and have it feel like less. Many seemingly disconnected moving parts can fall perfectly into place when you’re in this kind of concentration: listening with a clear focus, openness and receptivity.
That said, our modern world has put such an emphasis on being “busy” that, left unfettered, can erode my ability to sustain the deep listening that’s central to my creative process. As an antidote, I take retreats: day, week or month-long sabbaticals during which I put all work aside and create space to hone new ideas and skills, both personally and artistically. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are my chosen place for long retreats. I’ve spent several composition residencies at The Banff Centre for the Arts over the years, which have helped my focus tremendously. For me, it’s important to check in with myself and recalibrate, especially since I’m working in the frenetic energy of large cities most of the time.
My original scores are often inspired by, and mixed with, special “extramusical” sounds that I use as a musical vocabulary. I like to think of it as a “pan-aural” experience, drawing from my influence as a sound designer as well as a performer. For instance, in Awáa—a theatrical work based on an underlying theme of motherhood, I recorded sounds underwater using hydrophones that were sampled and layered into intricate rhythmic, pulsating themes for modern ballet.
I am passionate about developing contemporary scores that take influence ranging from classical grand opera, to ambient minimalism, modern jazz, and electronica. I use sound design as a means to contrast acoustic orchestrations in an effort to create a new, dynamic sound: imagine lush, organic string section phrases suddenly interrupted by humorous vocal samples, and an abrupt return to bombastic orchestral percussion inspired by improvisation. I believe this approach keeps audiences engaged to explore their own journey and dive deep within a story, told through a diverse music and sound palette.