Assistant professor and award-winning composer John Wineglass debuts new works

John Wineglass

John Wineglass is an Emmy-winning composer and assistant professor at Cal State Monterey Bay. | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

January 30, 2024

Allegro, vivace, presto – whatever fast-paced music tempo term you choose, any or all of them describe the speed at which composer John Wineglass has been working these days. The Cal State Monterey Bay assistant professor has three world-premier pieces and one New York-premier work debuting in February. 

“This month is a little unusual,” Wineglass said. “It’s very busy.”

That’s saying something for Wineglass, an Emmy-winning composer whose impressive string of music and awards leaves one to wonder if there is any time when he isn’t making music. In the past year alone, his works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Monterey Symphony, among others. 

His February schedule includes:

Feb. 3-4: “Pastures of Heaven,” a seven-movement orchestral and choral work celebrating the history of California, performed by Ensemble Monterey, Cantiamo! and the Cabrillo Youth Chorus at First Presbyterian Church, Monterey (Feb. 3) and Peace United Church of Christ, Santa Cruz (Feb. 4).

Feb. 10: “Jubilee,” an overture drawn from Wineglass’ catalog, performed by Stockton Symphony

Feb. 15: “And the Summer was Over,” a piano quintet presented by the New York Composers Circle.

Feb. 17-18: “The Great Migration,” a concerto for piano and orchestra in three movements, performed by the Monterey Symphony.

Wineglass, who became a full-time faculty member of the Performing and Visual Arts Department two years ago, has been affiliated with the university as an instructor since 2008. His most recent compositions have helped him get even more in touch with the region. California is a major theme in his work. And in “Pastures of Heaven,” he draws on from John Steinbeck.

Years ago, when he first came to Monterey County, impressions from the Steinbeck books he read in the seventh grade – books such as “The Red Pony” and “Of Mice and Men” – came rushing back. 

“I remember coming down from [San Jose’s] Mineta Airport into Salinas and seeing the rolling hills and fields described in the ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” he said. “It was beautiful. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’m living here now.’ Eventually, I want to write an entire symphony dedicated to Steinbeck.”

Last fall, Wineglass spent time working, and sometimes living, in Steinbeck’s cottage in Pacific Grove. It was nothing fancy, but it was inspiring, he said.

“It’s a one-bedroom efficiency,” he said. “But the spirit of Steinbeck is there. You’re literally drawing from it.”

Part of “Pastures of Heaven” is dedicated to that spirit. 

In his program notes for the piece, Wineglass writes, “[It] is a musical homage to the enduring spirit and vitality of California, quoting hymns of the Christian missionaries, the Mormon settlers, and African Americans migrating from the segregated South looking for a better life.”

Wineglass said the Gold Rush, the building of the railroads, the western migration and the histories of the diverse populations in the state, are all represented in the music of the piece. 

Relocation is also a primary theme in “The Great Migration,” which focuses on the movement of African Americans from the South to other parts of the United States at the beginning and throughout much of the 20th century. His parents also made the journey from the South. Both came to Washington D.C. in the mid-1960s, where they met and where Wineglass was later born.

The work, Wineglass said, “is dedicated to those who survived and escaped the severe Jim Crow Era laws of oppression of the Post-Civil War segregated farm-country South.”

Amid all the writing, Wineglass finds the time to teach his CSUMB students about music theory and the process of composing. Taking on a full-time role at the university has brought a certain amount of structure to his life, he said.

“Being at CSUMB has made me more organized,” he said. “It gives me a little more structure. It’s been good in that way and I’m doing what I love to do. I bring my scores to class and explain composition techniques. The students are getting a front-row seat and I think that’s a valuable experience for them.” 

Some of that instruction involves sharing the way the music develops in his mind. Much of Wineglass’ work has been scoring television shows and movies. Visualization is a key part of his creative process.

“For me, I just need someone to create a picture,” he said. “It’s kind of a storyboard in my mind.”

With “The Great Migration,” he said, “I started with the slave ships coming to South Carolina – what does that sound like? OK, now they’re moving to the North – what does that sound like?” 

Color also plays a big role. 

“I have what’s called synesthesia,” Wineglass said. “I associate color with tonalities. For instance, red is D-minor, yellow is E-major, purple is G-minor. I see these colors and that helps formulate the story as well.”

Becoming a full-time partner with CSUMB has cemented Wineglass’ ties to the Monterey Bay region. Between drawing inspiration from the local environment and trying, in turn, to inspire his students, he said, he’s found the perfect situation in which to create.  

For more information on Wineglass’ work, visit his website.