Biography

Daniel Sonenberg is a composer, performer and educator living in Portland, Maine. He is best known as the composer of The Summer King, a two-act opera on the life of Negro League baseball great Josh Gibson. With the support of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the opera received its concert world premiere in 2014 at Portland, Maine’s Merrill Auditorium, in a concert presented by Portland Ovations and co-sponsored by the University of Southern Maine. The opera has been in development for over ten years with the Brooklyn-based company American Opera Projects.

In February, 2016, Pittsburgh Opera announced that it would present the staged World Premiere of a revised Summer King, in five performances at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center beginning on April 29, 2017. Featured members of the cast include mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, baritone Alfred Walker, tenor, Sean Pannikar, and bass Kenneth Kellogg, with stage direction by Sam Helfrich and music direction by Antony Walker.  Mr. Sonenberg worked throughout 2016 on a substantial revision of the opera for its world premiere with librettist and dramaturge Mark Campbell, working from a libretto originally penned by Mr. Sonenberg and the poet Daniel Nester.  Additionally, he composed over 30 minutes of new music, cut over 35 minutes from the original version, and reorchestrated the entire opera for the larger orchestra of the Pittsburgh Opera premiere. In March, 2017, Michigan Opera Theatre announced that it would mount a second fully-staged production as the concluding work of their 2017-18 season. 

For the past several years, Mr. Sonenberg has divided his creative energy between works of concert music and recording and producing albums of his original rock music. In each domain, Mr. Sonenberg has allowed his involvement in the other to infiltrate his music making. His Machine Shop (2015), for marimba and recorded electric guitar, was commissioned by the Utah-based percussionist Lynn Vartan with the support of Maine Arts Commission grant, and premiered at the University of Southern Maine in April 2015. At Vartan’s request, the piece makes overt references to math rock, and features a pre-recorded guitar track (performed by guitarist Aaron Clarke) that makes full use of Sonenberg’s experience as a producer of rock music. 

Other recent compositions include Delve! (2013), commissioned and premiered by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Takes One to Know One (2012), for bass clarinet, cello, double bass and percussion; 41 Fathead (2012), for piano and percussion; Grab That! (2012) for oboe, violin, cello and piano; Black’s The Life (2014), for piano trio, Seven Jarring Dances for Clarinet(s) and Steel-String Guitar (2011), and the song cycle Detuned Radio: Ecstatic Reminiscence and Arguments about Music (2010). Many of these compositions deal with Sonenberg’s lifelong involvement with popular musics. On both Takes One to Know One and Seven Jarring Dances, he composed himself into the piece as a performer, in the first case on floor tom and kick drum, and on the second on steel-string guitar. Grab That! originated as a contest piece, where the composers were instructed to incorporate two “dance forms.” Sonenberg used 70s funk and 90s trip hop. For Detuned Radio, commissioned by the New York-based group Two Sides Sounding, Sonenberg solicited texts from his friends on Facebook about the relative merits of classical and popular music, and their own most transportive musical memories. All of the pieces juxtapose his interest in driving rock and funk rhythms with an overt lyricism and love of melody. 

In recent years, Sonenberg has also released several albums of rock music. His band Lovers of Fiction released a debut E.P., The Bear, in 2013, and a full-length album, Long Overdue, in 2015. In between those two efforts, and immediately following the concert premiere of his opera in 2014, Mr. Sonenberg recorded a solo album, Peaks Island Ferry (2014), for which he played all of the instruments. He was the principle mixer and recording engineer of all of the albums as well. 

He is Professor of Music at the University of Southern Maine, where he has taught since 2004. Mr. Sonenberg is the founder of the USM Composers Ensemble, a large new music ensemble dedicated to rehearsing and premiering student works that celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015. He additionally teaches composition, music theory and aural skills, and graduate seminars on topics ranging from late Beethoven to the Beatles. 

In addition to his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Sonenberg is the recipient of grants from the Maine Arts Commission, New Music USA, Meet the Composer, and the New York State Music Fund, as well as fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. 

In addition to his work as a composer, Mr. Sonenberg has written articles and given conference papers on the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, about whom he completed his doctoral dissertation at the City University of New York. He has written reviews of Joni Mitchell books for the Music Library Association Notes and the Bulletin of the Society of American Music, and has presented at national conferences of the American Musicological Society and both national and international conferences of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.

He lives in Portland, Maine, and is the father of triplet sons, Satchel, Pablo and Levi, who turned eight in November 2016. 

[last updated March 30, 2017]

photo by Wohler & co.