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Emerging Black Composers Project Winner Sumi Tonooka's Music Takes Center Stage at SFCM

Tonooka's EBCP commission will have its world premiere with the SFCM Orchestra under Music Director Edwin Outwater on February 11.

February 2, 2023 by Alex Heigl

By Alex Heigl

Sumi Tonooka has been "breathlessly busy" since her Emerging Black Composers Project win, but that doesn't mean she's slowing down.

Not only is she preparing for the premiere of her piece stemming from her EBCP win—Feb. 11 with the SFCM Orchestra—but she's also working on a commission for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra that will premiere in April and juggling multiple recording and collaborative projects on the East Coast with, among others, jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and composer Jen Shyu.

"There's just a lot of things on the horizon, and it's like everything's kind of happening all at once," Tonooka said. Reflecting back on her win in 2021, Tonooka said "This opportunity came right at the right time. I had actually totally forgotten that I applied for it, and then when I did win it, I was kind of shocked, you know?

"I had been questioning whether I should keep going with writing orchestral music," she continued, "because of the amount of time that it requires. But I'm finding now that each piece that I write that I'm starting to fall more in love with the orchestra and the potential possibilities in that sonic realm. I just feel like, whoa, like what have I lifted a lid into?"

For her piece premiering at SFCM, Tonooka explained, "I wanted to choose a theme that was related to an African American theme, so I was researching a lot of poetry by African-American contemporary women poets and I kept coming back to this poem that was written by a great Philadelphia poet named Sonia Sanchez. She wrote a poem called 'Haiku and Tanka for Harriet Tubman,' about 24 stanzas about Harriet Tubman and slavery. The way she used the traditional Japanese poetic was very compelling, and the poem itself is very visceral and full of life and energy and imagery."

Getting readings of the piece with the SFCM Orchestra, Tonooka said, "has been huge for me," and she had kind words for SFCM Music Director Edwin Outwater. "He has such skill and abilities to communicate with not just the musicians in the orchestra but also with me. Just last night he sent me questions about the piece, catching some things in the score, which neither I nor the copyist had actually seen."

Tonooka admits that even at this stage, the scale of an orchestral composition can be daunting, but she celebrates the learning curve, even with its challenges. "The 'beginner's mind,' in Zen, is a good thing to keep in mind. That childlike perspective of what it means to actually play and be excited by new possibilities. It can be incredibly scary on one hand because there's a lot of vulnerability and judgment too that can go along with it, but sometimes we have to get out of our own way."

Applications for the third annual Emerging Black Composers Project are due February 13th. To further identify and highlight young artists and support their careers, this year’s competition invites applications from composers under the age of 35 to apply today.