Anthony Cheung at the piano Credit: Ben Gebo

Anthony Cheung hates facing a blank sheet of staff paper when he sits down at his desk. “I completely dread having to start each piece,” says the 34-year-old composer. “It really is a feeling of—just, like, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Somehow the notes get on the page.” Lots of creative people have trouble getting new projects off the ground, but Cheung makes his own problem worse. His roving, curious mind constantly latches onto “ideas of things that happen to catch my ear or catch my attention,” and he fills hundreds of notebook pages a year with such material—every one of these myriad conceptual fragments waits to lead him down its own path to a distinctive composition.

The paralyzing profusion of options that Cheung faces is redoubled by his wonderment at everyday sounds. His 2010 composition Fog Mobiles was inspired by the way the foghorn notes that drift and ricochet across San Francisco Bay vary according to distance, weather, and the natural overtones of the horns themselves. His 2012 “sonic travelogue” Synchroni­Cities reflects his fascination with relatively quotidian noises from around the world: the swipe of a subway card, the electronic-­sounding chirping of cicadas, the quiet shuffling of visitors in sacred spaces. He incorporates field recordings from his travels as well as piano sounds representing musical languages from different eras and places—the piece combines piano parts in conventional Western intonation, passages that use pitch-correction software to approximate ancient tuning systems, and samples of Cheung playing an out-of-tune piano used by 19th-century composer Franz Liszt during his stays in Rome.

Cheung’s overflowing imagination also takes cues from music history, classical and otherwise. He often finds new life in older pieces—he’s based part of one composition on the Thelonious Monk jazz standard “Epistrophy,” for instance, and alluded to Debussy’s piano prelude Feu d’Artifice in another. He says that drawing from so many potential sources can be “incredibly liberating and also crushing at the same time, because you don’t know where you want to start.”

Cheung also feels a strong drive to introduce new things each time he begins to write. “I never really want to repeat myself,” he says. “If the last piece was about a certain kind of thing or with a particular kind of effect, I try to go in a different direction. It’s not even very conscious—it’s more that I would get bored with myself if I wrote the same kind of piece over and over.”

Despite the huge variety of inspirations Cheung works into his compositions, though, they share a recognizable set of commonalities. They clearly belong to a lineage that’s connected to classical tradition—Cheung embraces conventional forms such as the sonata and concerto grosso—but at the same time he uses a modern sonic language that includes samples, microtones, and even manipulations similar to Auto-Tune. On Thursday at the Harris Theater, Chicagoans will get a chance to hear Cheung’s new viola concerto Assumed Roles, given its local premiere by the acclaimed International Contemporary Ensemble as part of this week’s Ear Taxi Festival.

International Contemporary Ensemble with students from the People’s Music School, Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, Bienen Contemporary Music Ensemble

Part of the Ear Taxi Festival. Conducted by, respectively, Ben Bolter and David Fulmer, Donald Nally, and Ben Bolter. Anthony Cheung (Assumed Roles), Marcos Balter (Divertimento Concertante), Hans Thomalla (Wonderblock), Ted Hearne (Consent). Thu 10/6, 7:30 PM, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, $20, $10 students, festival passes $24-$200, all ages

Cheung has served as an assistant professor of music at the University of Chicago since 2013, though he’s on leave this academic year. He was born and raised in San Francisco and began studying classical piano at age six. His parents weren’t musically inclined, but they subscribed to concerts by the San Francisco Symphony to encourage their son—this exposed him to a wide range of sounds, including daring 20th-century works. He remembers being blown away as a preteen by concerts conducted by avant-garde Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. “When you’re that age and no one’s telling you that you’re not supposed to like it, you just naturally like it,” he says.

In high school Cheung joined the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and he became obsessed with writing his own music, using as models the pieces he’d studied. His appetite extended beyond standard 18th- and 19th-­century repertoire into contemporary music—but in the 90s, with the Internet still in its infancy, scores and recordings of new compositions were often difficult to obtain.

Cheung tracked down scores for some of his favorites, and to try to learn how they were composed, he meticulously compared written and recorded versions of each piece. “The thrill of actually finding something on your own and curating a listening experience based on that and going to the next step, the next degree of separation from that—that was all very thrilling,” he says.

The budding composer also got remarkable opportunities to hear his early work performed: in 1999, when he was 17, the adventurous Berkeley Symphony included his first orchestral piece in a public reading series. Cheung started at Harvard in fall 2000, earning a double major in music and history—at first he wasn’t committed to the idea of pursuing composition as a career. “At the very beginning I was very open to whatever I might fall in love with there,” he says. “But my biggest passion was still writing music, and that never wavered. It only increased, and the enthusiasm for other things, proportionately, grew less.”

Upon graduation in 2004 he went directly to grad school at Columbia University in New York, where his classmates that year included future Wet Ink Ensemble founders Kate Soper and Alex Mincek (the latter of whom has just joined the composition faculty at Northwestern University). He began studying under composer Sebastian Currier, but by his second year his primary instructor was the great French spectralist composer Tristan Murail; he also took classes from George Lewis and Fred Ler­dahl. Absorbing the city’s cornucopia of live music was also a key part of his education. While still in San Francisco, Cheung had developed an interest in jazz and improvised music, so he especially appreciated the chance to learn from Lewis, a longtime member of the AACM. “George is so eloquent—obviously as a performer and composer, but also in how he’s able to verbalize some of these ideas and make it relatable and to draw connections to, let’s say, more strictly notated European music or whatever we happen to be discussing,” he says. “Or at a very meta level, talk about things like improvisation as a way of life, which were all really relevant ideas.”

In 2007 Cheung cofounded Talea Ensemble, one of the most important new-music groups to emerge in the past decade. He’d been involved on an administrative level with the Manhattan Sinfonietta, and in 2006 he’d met Talea’s other founding director, percussionist Alex Lipowski, at a music festival in Aspen. They both wanted to start a group to play modern music that wasn’t being programmed in New York at the time, such as the monumental late-50s Karlheinz Stockhausen work Kontakte, with which Talea opened its 2009 season. Due to geographic separation and the demands of his teaching job, Cheung rarely plays with Talea anymore, but the ensemble will perform as part of the University of Chicago’s Contempo series on December 2 at the Logan Center.

Cheung in Providence, Rhode Island, where his wife, composer Wang Lu, teaches at Brown University
Cheung in Providence, Rhode Island, where his wife, composer Wang Lu, teaches at Brown UniversityCredit: Ben Gebo

Cheung played an improvised gig with saxophonist and composer Steve Lehman this past spring at U. of C., but in general he rarely performs as a pianist these days. He notes that playing and composing are difficult practices to balance. “They’re two such different uses of time,” he says. “As a performer, you just put in your energy on an almost athletic level—you put in your practice, you put in your hours, you get the notes down and eventually an interpretation comes. But certain things just need to be done. With composition I can sit at my desk for days and weeks and not write a single note and just marinate the ideas, and that would never work as a performer. So I appreciated being in those two spaces, but I also found them to be really incompatible sometimes.”

Cheung eventually earned his PhD from Columbia in 2010, and from 2009 till 2012 he pursued a postdoc at Harvard. Even before he finished his formal education, he’d begun racking up honors for his work. He received the prestigious Rome Prize in 2012, and he won composition competitions that led to commissions from some of the greatest new-music ensembles in the world: the International Composition Seminar held by Germany’s Ensemble Modern in 2008 and the Tremplin commission awarded by France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain in 2012. Cheung’s wife, composer Wang Lu, was awarded the other Tremplin commission that year. “We thought that there was some kind of cruel joke that one of our friends was playing on us when we both got the same e-mail,” he says.

Cheung’s relationship with Ensemble Modern blossomed, to the point where the group released his first portrait album, Roundabouts, in 2014 on its own Ensemble Modern Medien imprint. (At that point he’d only had a handful of pieces appear on other releases.) The great German new-music label Wergo just released a second collection of Cheung’s music, Dystemporal, with performances by Talea and Intercontemporain.

Last year Cheung became the Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow of the Cleveland Orchestra for a term that runs through 2017. He’s currently spending his leave from the U. of C. in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lu teaches at Brown University. Cheung was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition this year, and he’s using it to write a commission for his Cleveland appointment.

Like many composers these days, Cheung makes his living as a professor, but he treats it as more than just a day gig to support his writing. “People sometimes look at teaching as something to fall back on or something of secondary importance to your main creative activity—and if you’re thinking of it in any way like that, you shouldn’t get into it at all,” he says. “It totally takes over your life, and you have to have a passion for it. You have to think it’s the most important thing, because you’re also affecting the lives of everyone else that you’re mentoring. That’s a heavy responsibility to have.”

Though Cheung will spend this academic year away from Chicago, he says he’s been greatly energized by the city’s music scene, particularly its communal quality—he’s impressed by the mutual respect and cooperation demonstrated by many of the ensembles that have formed here over the past decade or so. “I feel like that’s been missing from the other kinds of music scenes that I’ve seen and that I’ve been around, whether in New York or Boston,” he says. “The willingness to absorb it all and be part of it all, and this kind of fresh energy, this new wave—that’s been incredibly refreshing.” v