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Life and career
His musical career began in Chicago as a jazz musician (1944–49). He graduated from the University of Illinois (1954) with a degree in percussion performance and composition, including studies with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Festival and Lukas Foss at Tanglewood. He served two years as timpanist in Seventh Army Symphony in Stuttgart, Germany and then spent eleven years supporting his composition activities as a free-lance percussionist in New York City where his performance experiences included such varied groups as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, The Metropolitan Opera, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Recording Orchestra's Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series, and numerous ballet, opera and jazz ensembles. He organized the percussion sections for Gunther Schuller's recordings and concerts, as well as for recordings and premieres of new works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varèse and Harry Partch. During his New York period he continued to study composition with Wallingford Riegger (1958) and Ben Weber (1958–60).
Colgrass has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic and The Boston Symphony (twice), as well as the orchestras of Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, St.Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto (twice), the National Arts Centre Orchestra (twice), The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the Manhattan and Muir String Quartets, the Brighton Festival in England, the Fromm and Ford Foundations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and numerous other orchestras, chamber groups, choral groups and soloists.
He won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic piece Déjà vu, which was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic. In addition, he received an Emmy Award in 1982 for a PBS documentary Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass. Other awards include two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, First Prize in the Barlow and Sudler International Wind Ensemble Competitions, and the 1988 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music.
Among recent works are Crossworlds (2002) for flute, piano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered with soloists Marina Piccinini and Andreas Heafliger. In 2003 he conducted the premiere of his new chamber orchestra version of the Bach-Goldberg Variations with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Most recent premieres are Side by Side (2007) for harpsichord, altered piano (one player) and orchestra, commissioned by the Esprit Orchestra, The Boston Modern Orchestra Project and The Richmond Symphony featuring soloist Joanne Kong. The Toronto premiere took place on 13 May 2007 under conductor Alex Pauk, and the Boston premiere on 2 November 2007 under Gil Rose. Also Pan Trio, for steel drums, harp and percussion (marimba/vibraphone), commissioned and premiered in Toronto on 21 May 2008 by Soundstreams Canada and featuring pans virtuoso Liam Teague. His work is also featured on the Mark Hetzler 2015 recording Blues, Ballads and Beyond.
Recently, he devised a system of teaching music creativity to children which he has taught to middle and high school music teachers who have used his techniques to teach children to write and perform new music of their own. His articles on these activities have appeared in the Music Educators Journal (September 2004) and Adultita, an Italian education magazine. He has also written a number of works for children to perform.
As an author, Colgrass wrote My Lessons with Kumi, a narrative/exercise book, outlining his techniques for performance and creativity. He also gives workshops throughout the world on the psychology and technique of performance.
He has performed with the ensemble of Harry Partch.
Colgrass lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and makes his living internationally as a composer. His wife, Ulla, is a journalist and editor who writes about music and the arts, and his son Neal is an editor, journalist and screenwriter.
He is an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre.