Composer portrait by Yukio Lippit (2018)
Professor of History of Art and Architecture Harvard University
Michelle Agnes Magalhaes (1979, Campo Grande, Brazil) is an acclaimed composer whose music explores the limits between gesture and writing, composition and improvisation. Her work has received glowing praise from music critics over the years, and has beed described as "a lively, layered dialogue among sounds", characterized by "a real sens of patient yet dramatic, even pictorial development", and a pictorical imagination that has reminded more that one critic of the music of Claude Debussy.
Magalhaes's carrer arc reads almost like a bildungsroman following the dramatic arc of a journey in pursuit of musical knowledge. As the composer herself states, she already knew she wanted to be a musician at the age of six. This epiphany was triggered during a walk home by the sounds of a piano, carried by the wind, through an open window. During her teenage years she was tutored in composition by Hans Joachim Koellreutter, a prominent music teacher, who as a young man in the 1930s, took many risks promoting avant-garde music in Nazi Germany.
She would go to study composition at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil, where she obtained a BA and MA, and a PhD in Music from the University of Sao Paulo. During all this, at age of 23, she was the recipient of an artists' prize from Unesco (Ashberg Fellowship) that allowed her to travel extensively in Europe, exposing her to the many different communities of contemporary music on the continent. In 2013 she moved to Paris and became a researcher at IRCAM, the Institute de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique at the Pompidou Center, and also traveled often to Italy to study with Salvatore Sciarrino.
Magalhaes has been awarded fellowships, residences and commissions from Radcliffe Institute (Harvard University), Fapesp, Camargo Foundation, Villa Sträuli, Brazilian Culture Minister, Fondazione Giorgio Cini Venezia, Siemens Foundation and IRCAM.
Her compositions are about the production of sound and physicality. She focus on raw materials, creating complex sounds inside forms that are simple and structured, and she cites as an inspiration the work of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Magalhaes also places a high premium on the engagement of the musician's body with her performance , as well as new approaches to traditional instruments and instrumentation.