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A phenomenally gifted young composer

City of Los Angeles honors Derrick Skye at a concert of his work

April 25, 2022

Noting his contributions to contemporary music, the City of Los Angeles paid tribute to Mount Saint Mary’s faculty member and instrumental ensembles director Derrick Skye at a performance by the Afro-American Chamber Music Society Orchestra (AACMSO). The concert, at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, featured two of his pieces, “As I Heard When I Was Young” and “Prisms, Cycles, Leaps: Part I.”

Janise White, AACMSO’s founder and director, presented Skye with a certificate of recognition signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and members of the City Council. The document refers to Skye as “a phenomenally gifted, young and emerging African American composer [who] has been enhancing the symphony orchestras in the City of Los Angeles and nationwide with his culturally innovative music.” 

Composer Derrick Skye, music department faculty member and instrumental ensembles director, received official recognition from the Los Angeles mayor and City Council for his culturally innovative music.
Composer Derrick Skye, music department faculty member and instrumental ensembles director, received official recognition from the Los Angeles mayor and City Council for his culturally innovative music.

“I was just floored,” says Skye of the honor. He notes that the gesture is especially moving because it shows that his work reaches people not only in the classical music world, but also in the wider community. “They’re saying, ‘We see what you’re doing and we love it.’ It was a very good motivation for me to keep writing!”

Conductor Vincent Womack, who led that night’s performance, first met Skye about 10 years ago. As part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Symphonies for Schools program, Skye mentored young musicians at the Foshay Learning Center where Womack teaches.

AACMSO had been looking for young composers to help re-invigorate its programs. “And, of course, I thought of Derrick Skye,” Womack says. “His work is so provocative and deep.” 

The top portion of the official recognition declaration that Derrick Skye received; the bottom portion, has all the signatures from the mayor and the City Council.
The top portion of the official recognition declaration that Derrick Skye received; the bottom portion, has all the signatures from the mayor and the City Council.

Skye’s philosophy as a composer, with its emphasis on melding diverse musical traditions, also made him a fine choice for the city’s recognition, which was awarded on AACMSO’s recommendation, Womack says.

Besides bridging cultures, Skye’s work also bridges genres, often incorporating theater, dance or electronics, says Therese Fassnacht, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music at Mount Saint Mary’s. “He’s gaining a lot of well-deserved accolades here in the city of Los Angeles and around the world.”

And he’s made a strong mark on the Mount. “He is extremely generous with his time,” Fassnacht adds, “and is approachable to music students who are studying performance and composition, and learning about the music industry. He has expanded their experience of music making beyond the Western European canon. It’s exciting that West African drumming is a fundamental component to the Bridge Orchestra. Students also have the chance to collaborate with musicians from his ensemble, Bridge to Everywhere.”

Skye says that Mount students are constantly participating in workshops and developing cross-cultural classical music. Through that work, students learn to combine elements from multiple musical traditions to make something new, a sort of mosaic. “I think that’s a very effective approach for helping young people understand that there’s always going to be more to learn about and explore.”

Because the Mount’s music department is small, it’s nimble enough to move quickly, Skye says. “We can adapt curriculum to fit where the music industry is and where things are going. That is a super power of the music department at Mount Saint Mary’s.”