Michael Torke is a contemporary composer whose works attract both classical audiences and the general public. His music is a fusion between styles, with neo-romantic music taking shape in jazz-like idioms. At the same time, he uses minimalist approaches in some pieces to create almost hypnotic patterns. Torke makes use of colorful timbres, and modern dance-rhythms occur in some of his works. A number of his works are ballets commissioned by various professional ensembles.
Torke was born in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and studied at the Eastman School of Music, where he earned degrees in both piano performance and composition. He went on to study composition at Yale, where his teachers included Christopher Rouse and Jacob Druckman. Starting in the early 1980s Torke composed a number of pieces that combined classical form with popular content. Among these works are Bright Blue Music (1985), commissioned by the New York Youth Orchestra and The Yellow Pages (1985), a chamber work inspired by the telephone book. He followed these works with several other compositions which have a color in the title, such as Ecstatic Orange (1985), Green (1986), and Purple (1987). Those works were later incorporated into Torke's Color Music (1991), a suite for orchestra.
Torke later explored vocal idioms, starting with his Mass (1990), for baritone, chorus and chamber orchestra, and a television opera King of Hearts (1993), which was commissioned by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. These works show a fusion of style and resemble, in some ways, the more popularly oriented works of Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s and 1970s. They are readily accessible and, at the same time, carefully composed.
Torke is sometimes regarded as a post-minimalist composer, and this approach becomes apparent in his Four Proverbs (1993) for female voice and instrumental ensemble. In this work he intricately blends melodic cells with series of syllables to produce a highly textured work based on a few basic ideas. The approach is akin to that of Philip Glass, but the result is wholly Torke's own
Of his later music, the "sonic Olympiad" Javelin (1994) is an outstanding piece, which was commissioned by the 1994 Olympic Commission to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It is a mature work which takes the symphonic orchestra into new directions. Javelin has become one of Torke's more popular works, and one recording of it even reached first place in Billboard's Classical Crossover listing. ~ James Zychowicz