September, 2015: We are saddened to learn of the passing of Susan Allen, who was an active member of the Los Angeles Chapter amidst her many and varied musical activities. 

Susan Allen grew up in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from CalArts in 1973, where she later became a faculty member; she was Associate Dean at the time of her passing. Ms. Allen was especially interested in commissioning new music for the harp,  free improvisation, and world music. She was a member of Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures musical improv group, and performed with other free improvisers including Yusef Lateef and Vinny Golia. She also played harp and kayagum (Korean zither) in a free-improvisation trio that included Rus Pearson on bass, and Nicholas Chase on laptop and turntables. 

In her own work as well as her teaching at CalArts, Ms. Allen was exploring large-group free improvisation from the viewpoints of philosophy, sociology and quantum physics. 

She will be missed by her many colleagues, friends and students. 

Below: Paul Baker, Susan Allen and Linda-Rose Hembreiker, March 23, 2014 at the AHS-LA Music Education event at which Ms. Allen was the guest adjudicator. 

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Below: Susan Allen discusses her life and her work at CalArts. 

Below: Susan Allen performs in a large-group free improvisation with Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph.

Susan Allen's website:


Below: performing with Pierre Boulez at Disney Hall. 

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Below: Susan Allen in Mali, Africa.

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Memorial tribute to Susan Allen, by Ellie Choate, presented at the January 18, 2016 annual membership meeting of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Harp Society.

When in the presence of the extraordinary artist, certain words seem ubiquitous: “Dynamic”, “unique”, “a force of nature”; the list is almost predictable in its hyperbole, albeit all richly deserved descriptions.

But what is it to be that artist?

Susan Allen passed away on the morning of September 7, 2015, in the company of her mother and stepfather in Seattle, Washington.  Born on May 10, 1951, it can obviously be stated that at only sixty-four years of age, she was taken from us “too soon”.  Surely the cancer diagnosis came as a shock to her, along with the realization that the disease had advanced beyond the point of possible recovery.  She hadn’t finished her book; so much left undone.

“Dynamic”.  “Unique”.  “A force of nature.”  All true, and true on many levels.  When Susie entered a room everyone took notice.  Her presence at a social gathering attracted everyone’s attention; she had a knack for zeroing in on some hilarious aspect or topic, as well as for offering insight that blazed beyond the purely conversational. Her outward appearance commanded attention, with cutting edge hair stylings and comfortable yet statement-worthy fashion. One of her inimitable laughs or comments could stop conversational traffic. On the personal level, she was at once a gregarious, fragile, compassionate, critical, accepting, encouraging, blend of friend and adversary: A polite, encompassing description would be “complex”.

As an artist, Susie’s reach was universal; few artists can claim her breadth of expertise across so many genres.  In her youth as a student of Suzanne Balderston in Santa Barbara she learned from some of the best and brightest at the Music Academy of the West, under the direction of such luminaries as Leon Fleischer and Maurice Abravanel.  That was just the beginning.  Her harp studies continued at the Boston Conservatory after high school with renowned Bernard Zhighera.  Although she reveled in the exposure to the great teaching of Zhighera and, later, Grandjany, she found the focus on only classical music stifling. After one year in Boston, she returned to California to study in a new conservatory that was just starting, California Institute of the Arts, with harpist Catherine Gotthoffer.

CalArts was the perfect incubator not only for Susie’s talent, but her extraordinarily progressive thought.  As a member of the first graduating class of the school, she was at the forefront of new music and improvisation, and ready to launch her career as a pioneer, proponent, advocate, and collaborator in new music, world music, jazz, and free improvisation.

Susie’s skills were highly developed, enabling her to work in any area of music, any genre, any circumstance, but her influence far exceeds the exhaustive “Who’s Who” list of her experience and accomplishments. Susie was a veteran soloist and ensemble performer in Boston, New York, on the scoring stage with her friend film composer Arthur B. Rubenstein, and beyond. She collaborated with artists such as Anthony Braxton, Dave Brubeck, Jacques Burtin, Yusef Lateef, and Roman Stolyar. Her interest in new music led her all over the world, premiering hundreds of works with harp, including works by composers Ruth Lomon, Earl Kim, William Thomas McKinley, and James Tenney. Some of her proudest moments sprang from her abiding associations with life-long mentors, composer Mel Powell, and harpists Marcella DeCray and Catherine Gotthoffer. Among her most cherished performances were those with the CalArts New Century Players and Pierre Boulez as composer and conductor at the Ojai Festival, reprised at his request at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

From the earliest days of her career, Susie was a visionary.  After her graduation from Cal Arts, she returned to Boston to assist in founding chamber organizations:  Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, Cambridge Chamber Players, Marblehead Music Festival, and Composers in Red Sneakers were the product of those efforts. In 1983, she returned to CalArts to teach, eventually assuming the position of Associate Dean of the School of Music (later renamed the Herb Alpert School of Music). She remained a guiding force at CalArts to the end of her life, teaching, performing, developing new courses, and mentoring students of all stripes.

Throughout her life, collaboration was a gift and a passion.  She was as adept at working with the world’s great artists as working with students of all ages and levels, encouraging and prodding them not just to explore their own potential but to push the limits of convention in all genres.

“Dynamic”.  “Unique”.  “A force of nature.”  Without question, Susan Allen embodied these.  But at her core, it can be said that she was truly “a stranger in a strange land”. Susan Allen understood the sounds, form, and structure of new music and free improvisation in the roots of her being.  There was no adjustment to the New, there was only the raw, yet ultimately sophisticated exploration of all things New, and true communication through the generation of sound.

Susan Allen’s life was a quantum leap. She seemed to have come into this existence with an innate understanding of what was to come in music, and she dared to chase it and urged those around her to join in her quest. Her deepest joys and most profound pain were teased out in her music.  She was driven to bring others into acquaintanceship with the world of sound that she foresaw and understood and loved.  To this end, Susie’s influence reaches beyond the harp community, perhaps even beyond the music community, and far into the future.