Skip to Content

Reflections from the Spring 2021 Early-Career Musician

Posted On August 20, 2021 | 11:37 am | by David Crowell | Permalink
David Crowell reflects on a virtual residency of composing, teaching, and connecting

By David Crowell

When Valerie Stains, artistic director of music at Dumbarton Oaks, first contacted me in spring 2020 about the Early-Career Musician fellowship, the pandemic was hitting New York City with full force. Temporarily stationed nearby in Long Island, I felt anxious but also grateful to be healthy and not living in a crowded city, and to be able to continue the largely solitary work of a composer. The idea of an in-person fellowship was purely aspirational given the circumstances, and ultimately it was decided that both the fall and spring fellowships would be conducted virtually.

The Dumbarton Oaks community came together admirably and effectively through online research presentations and discussion, generating ideas and inspiration to continue working hard toward individual goals. I presented twice, and both times felt lifted by the response to my work and the perspectives of and questions posed by other fellows. These interactions were crucial—by the time of my fellowship, the world had already been through a year of isolation, and outside of my partner and the occasional outdoor visit with friends, I had had no meaningful in-person contact. Dumbarton Oaks was a gift of time to pursue my work, but also an artistic lifeline that helped me maintain structure and purpose during a difficult period. Over the course of the fellowship, I was productive—among other things, I completed a string quartet for Argus Quartet to premiere at the Tribeca New Music Festival in spring 2022 and a percussion quartet that Sandbox Percussion will premiere at DO in April 2022.

Another major source of uplift and inspiration was working online with the kids at John Burroughs Elementary School, a local DC school, through two presentations that included discussions of improvisation, composition, and a performer’s approach to the interpretation of composed material. During several live performances—improvisations on saxophone, and of my cello piece Luna—I also asked the kids to make note of any emotions or mental images they might have, and then to share them with classmates. This exercise emphasized the importance of connecting deeply to the imagination, actively developing this purest source of creativity, and then learning to clarify these experiences to better understand them. The kids were wildly creative in their responses, and the enthusiasm for music was contagious. I left both sessions feeling more in touch with my own imagination. 

Moving forward, I’m honored and excited that Dumbarton Oaks has commissioned a new work from me for the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry, as part of a 75th anniversary concert in the Music Room this April. The program features early Dumbarton Oaks commissions from Igor Stravinsky and Samuel Barber, as well as the music of recent fellows Caroline Shaw and Jessie Montgomery. It will be meaningful to finally make it to Dumbarton Oaks in person, to connect with the people I’ve met online and to finally see the famous gardens everyone raves about!


David Crowell was the Early-Career Musician in spring 2021.