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Born 12 February 1923 in New York, Mel Powell began his musical life as a prodigious jazz artist, working as pianist and arranger with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and later, the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. Soon, however, a strong compositional instinct prompted his matriculation at Yale University, where he studied with Paul Hindemith. Under Hindemith, and throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Powell composed primarily in a neoclassic style producing such works as the Cantilena Concertante for English horn and orchestra, Divertimento for violin and harp, and Trio for piano, violin and cello.

In 1959, Powell's musical personality blossomed and the influence of Webern was manifested in a brevity of forms and transparency of textures. An innovative and consistently adventurous musical style embraced experimentation with extended string techniques and invented notations (as in the Filigree Setting for string quartet), musical blocks of chords, pitch sequences, rhythms, and colors(represented in Modules: An Intermezzo for chamber orchestra), and tape and electronics (such as in the song cycle Strand Settings: Darker). Duplicates:A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, illustrating Powell's meticulous craftsmanship and singular skill at assembling richly expressive yet intricately complex musical structures.

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