Kari Watson receives the 2024 Cathy Heifetz Memorial Award

Kari Watson headshot


It is with great pleasure that the Department of Music announces Kari Watson as the recipient of the 2024 Cathy Heifetz Memorial Award. The Award was established to commemorate the life and honor the memory of Cathy Heifetz (1949-1976), who came to The University of Chicago in 1973 as a student in the Department of Music. The Memorial’s first endowment created an annual award to honor a student in the Department of Music whose associations as a member of this community have been singularly marked by a spirit of caring and helpfulness. Students are invited to submit nominations, from which the faculty selects the honoree. In 1977, the first recipient to be so honored was Jennifer Willard.

One of Watson's nominators wrote, "Kari has been a perennial source of cheerfulness and encouragement since they first entered the department. As a member of the GMS board, Kari helped organize fun events that were often a site of relief for students overwhelmed by coursework, projects, conferences, and more. I have found them time and again lending a thoughtful ear to students contending with the challenges of graduate life—at colloquium, at concerts, at dinners—leaving students feeling understood and with a smile on their face."

Kari Watson (b.1998, they/them) is a composer, performer, and sound artist working between the mediums of contemporary concert music, electronic and electroacoustic music, live performance, and interactive installation work. Motivated by a passion for narrative and musical drama, Watson works to create music that is clear, tactile, and emotionally driven. 

As a performer playing analog synthesizer, they engage a customizable spatialization software built in MaxMSP with spatial speaker arrays to further explore issues of tactility and drama in immersive, sonic environments. With roots in vocal study and performance, their work is informed by the vocal line and often incorporates text. In recent works, Watson has explored different ways of working with text and language, such as text construction/deconstruction with IPA and polytextual settings. Inspired by their burgeoning research on electronic mediation of the voice and its relationship to identity, gender and sexuality from 1960-present, Watson explores the voice as a raw material to be manipulated and processed towards various dramatic ends.

Their work has been performed and recorded in the United States and abroad by several ensembles, most recently by Ensemble Dal Niente, the lovemusic collective, the MIVOS Quartet, the Chicago Philharmonic, Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble with Sandbox Percussion, Quatuor Diotima, Axiom Brass, the Constellation Men's Ensemble and the Friction Quartet, among others. Watson’s work has also been featured on a variety of concerts and festivals, such as at the 2023 Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Les Écoles D’art Américaines de Fontainebleau, the Ravinia Festival, Chicago's Frequency Festival, the Ear Taxi Festival, and at the New Music Gathering.

Recently featured by the Washington Post as one of the 23 for ’23: Composers and performers to watch this year, Watson has received several awards and distinctions for their work such as the 2023 Kranichstein Music Prize for Composition from the Darmstädter Ferienkurse, the 2023 Nerenberg, Gerts and Hammond Prize from the Musicians Club of Women, a 2022 Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a 2022 Student Composer Award from Broadcast Music Industry.