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Cleveland Institute of Music's Keith Fitch wins Guggenheim Fellowship

In 2011, Keith Fitch was inspired by the instruments he saw in Picasso's works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He plans to use the fellowship to complete his composition, "Picasso's Guitar," by next year.
Keith Fitch
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Cleveland Institute of Music
In 2011, Keith Fitch was inspired by the instruments he saw in Picasso's works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He plans to use the fellowship to complete his composition, "Picasso's Guitar," by next year.

Aaron Copland, Thelonious Monk and Keith Fitch. All of these composers have been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. But Fitch, head of composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, was named earlier this month and plans to use the financial freedom of this award to create a work marrying his love of music with visual arts.

It all started with Leonard Bernstein.

“My earliest musical memory is sitting on the floor with my mom listening to Bernstein's recording of ‘Peter and the Wolf,’” he said. “I thought that Lenny was speaking to me, that I was Lenny's friend. The minute I encountered music, in some way, I understood it.”

His love for music was matched only by his passion for visual art. And that’s what led him in 2011 to take one of many trips to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“They had an exhibit… of all of Picasso's work featuring the guitar, including paintings, collages and constructions,” he said. “I realized, in looking at all this work, virtually everything in these pieces is a sound source. You have the guitar, obviously, and then you have the violin, which Picasso often includes. And there's one that just says 'strings'... There was a bottle which said 'bass' and I assume like Bass beer, but I translated that into double bass.”

A decade later, his Guggenheim application outlined his plans for a piece using sound sources from Picasso works.

“They send you a letter, about a month in advance, saying your name is on the list to be approved by the board,” he said. “But you cannot say anything at any time. I think I went back and read that letter every day until I got the official letter, just to make sure that it was real.”

Once selected, Fitch found it “overwhelming.”

“It really is the best type of recognition because it's by one's peers,” he said. “The panels that review all the various applications… are Guggenheim winners in those areas. So, they're kind of admitting people to the club. It carries a certain weight with it.”

Fitch plans to start composing after this semester ends at CIM.

“I'm writing the piece for the guitarist Colin Davin, who used to teach at CIM and is now at Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia,” he said. “I'm a slow composer. Colin and I have decided we're shooting for a premiere in the 2024-25 season.”

See more below about the MoMA exhibit, "Picasso: Guitars," which inspired Keith Fitch.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.