Carolyn O'Brien

We commissioned the Chicago based composer Carolyn O'Brien to write a piece for us. We will be premiering Nocturne for contrabass flute and djembe in Chicago on December 1, 2013.


Chris met Carolyn in 2011 after a show with Ensemble Dal Niente in Chicago. The two became instant friends over a glass of bourbon, discussing music, life, and the future. A few days later, Chris met with Carolyn for some coffee to discuss a couple of her scores and brainstorm about an idea she had for a percussion solo involving spring coils.

It didn't take much convincing when Chris showed Meerenai some of Carolyn's work. It was, as they say, a "no-brainer". 

We are excited to play her piece, and even more excited for another glass (or two) of bourbon after the premiere!





After a career as a public school orchestra director and freelance violist, Carolyn O’Brien began studies in music composition at San Francisco State University with Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez. In 2007, she completed an MA in music theory and composition at University of California at Davis, where her principal teachers were Yu-Hui Chang, Pablo Ortiz and Laurie San Martin. Ms. O’Brien is currently pursuing a doctorate in music composition at Northwestern University with principal teacher Lee Hyla.

Ms. O'Brien's works have been performed by the Left Coast Ensemble, Empyrean Ensemble, Bent Frequency, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), ensemble dal niente, Anubis Quartet, Trio Phonos directed by Harry Sparnaay, and Graeme Jennings among others. She was a chosen fellow for the Music X Festival with ensemble eighth blackbird in 2006 and 2010, the 63rd Annual Composers Conference at Wellesley College in 2007 led by Mario Davidovsky, and granted a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony for the fall of 2013.

Ms. O’Brien has been awarded numerous prizes including second prize in the SCI/ASCAP Student Composition Commission Competition in 2006, the annual call for scores held by Atlanta’s Bent Frequency in 2006, the Libby Larsen Prize in 2007, the Charles Ives Scholarship via the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009, and the William T. Faricy Award in 2011. Some of her earliest works were commissioned, including two works that premiered at Dance Week with choreographer Lea Wolf in San Francisco in 2000-2002, and the Herb Bielawa Commission Prize in 2003 at San Francisco State University. In 2007-08 she was awarded a commission and position as composer in residence at the San Francisco Community Music Center for the 21st Century Music for The People project through funding provided by the American Composers Forum. In 2008, her commission, Formicary, for piano quartet, was performed at the Society of Composers, Inc./ASCAP National Conference. In 2011, she received three commissions, which yielded Thing Contained, for saxophone quartet commissioned by the Anubis Quartet, Escapement, for flute, oboe and baritone saxophone commissioned by ensemble dal niente in Chicago, and a final commission and job as composer in residence from the Lick Wilmerding High School Orchestra in San Francisco, CA. In July 2012, her work, Coil, Recoil for alto saxophone and viola premiered at the Selmer Studio in Paris, France by Jan Berry Baker and Tania Clements, and at the World Saxophone Congress in St. Andrews, Scotland.

For more information about Carolyn and to see what she's up to visit 


A/B: Any pre/during/post composition rituals?

Carolyn: Yes. Clutter drives me mad, so I obsessively clean my workspace until every surface is a clean slate, before and after I compose a piece.

A/B: Favorite drink after finishing a composition?

Carolyn: Splitting a really fine bottle of wine with my husband.

A/B: Cake or pie?

Carolyn: Oooooh, definitely pie. Pear pie!

A/B: Favorite book?

Carolyn: Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn

A/B: Your first LP, tape, CD, etc. purchase?

Carolyn: A 33LP of Pete Seeger's children's songs: Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Fishes. I hold it so dear, that I just bought it again last year!