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Shields, Alice (Ferrée )free

  • Jessica Payette

(b New York, NY, Feb 18, 1943). American composer, opera singer, and educator. She studied literature and music at Columbia University, earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees. Her primary voice teachers were soprano Helen Merritt and Marina Ahmed Alam, a Hindustani raga singer. She studied composition with vladimir Ussachevsky , whom she first encountered in an undergraduate counterpoint course, and otto Luening . Ussachevsky eventually taught her the methods he developed for studio electronics and became her principal supervisor. During her student years she collaborated with Ussachevsky on film and television scores, including Line of Apogee and Incredible Voyage, which combined pure electronic and concrète sound sources; Shields also embraced this approach for many of her electronic music-theater pieces and operas. Her DMA in composition was conferred in 1975 with the completion of the third segment of a tripartite opera, begun in 1970, entitled The Odyssey of Ulysses the Palmiped. As a graduate student and after, Shields, along with colleague Pril Smiley, played a formidable role in overseeing the operation of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. She was a technical instructor in the studios from 1965 to 1982, an Associate Director of the Center from 1978 to 1982, and the Associate Director of Development at the independent Columbia Center from 1994 to 1996. Her numerous honors for composition include grants from the NEA, CAPS, the National Opera Institute, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Presser Foundation.

Shields’s early works from the late 1960s are remarkable for the manipulation of her own voice and texts within an electronic medium in which she uses analog studio techniques to heighten, or mollify, the dramatic content. These pieces employ early modular synthesizers and exhibit a sophisticated treatment of feedback and reverberation. Although Shields routinely incorporated multicultural themes and sounds into her early pieces, her compositions—some of which are purely acoustic—from the 1990s and 2000s reflect her intensive study of Indian classical music and dance, especially Bharata Natyam dance–drama. During this time she studied and worked with Swati Bhise’s dance company, performing as Nattuvanar (vocalist/rhythmic reciter). These idioms imaginatively enrich Shield’s large-scale vocal works. Apocalypse (1994), an electronic opera for live and recorded singers, is unique for its combination of standard operatic dramaturgy with a multilingual libretto, electronic “chorus” and accompaniment, and Indian rhythmic structures. Indian ragas are juxtaposed with Nancy Dean’s largely Middle English libretto in Shields’s opera Criseyde (2008), a feminist reconstruction of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde scored for eight singers and chamber ensemble.


(selective list)

  • Wildcat Songs, 1980, Opus One, LP 13; El’s Aria, 1984, Opus One, LP 90; Coyote, 1984, CRI SD 495; Apocalypse (excerpts), 1993, CRI, CD 647; Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center 1961–1973, 1998, New World Records 80521 [Dance Piece no.3 and Study for Voice and Tape]; Shenandoah, 2004, Albany Records, Troy 699