Published December 14, 2021
Cellist and visiting UB scholar Seth Parker Woods, praised widely for his evocative work, is earning more accolades.
The Chamber Music of America, a New York City-based non-profit for ensemble musicians, has tapped Woods as the recipient of its distinguished Michael Jaffee Visionary Award for 2022.
Named for the chamber’s founder, the award is given annually to “promising, creative thinkers and innovators who are challenging traditional models and have recently had — or are on the way to having — a noticeable impact on the ensemble music field.”
That fits Woods to a T, as the UB community learned last month at Slee Hall during his multimedia show “Difficult Grace.” Inspired by historical writings about the Great Migration from the South, the cellist incorporates narrative, dance, visual works and film into the program.
“I’m not just playing the cello,” explains Woods, 37. “I’m the narrator, the teller of stories, about past and present histories that are connected to small towns and big cities in the U.S.”
The genre-bending style that earned Woods recognition from the Chamber Music of America reflects his own multifaceted career as an artist and musician, whose talents have taken him around the world.
His latest stop: UB.
Woods is among a cohort of eight scholars in residence at the university this academic year as part of the Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program. Now in its second year, the visiting faculty program is sponsored by the Center for Diversity Innovation and created to host highly accomplished scholars and artists who, through their work, student mentoring and varied experiences and perspectives, advance diversity, equity and inclusion at the university.
“The background that Seth has, and the breadth and interdisciplinary nature of the work that he does, is exactly what we envisioned for this program,” says Maura Belliveau, director of the center and the Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program.
Woods hopes students can benefit from his own experience of taking the road less traveled.
“I’ve tried to show others what is possible beyond the route or avenue that is peddled all the time in the conservatory,” Woods says. “You don’t only have to be an orchestral player. You don’t only have to play in the ballet or in a quartet.”
Woods is a native of Houston, the son of a father who was a gospel and jazz singer, and a mother who was a former modern dancer.
Even before graduating from Brooklyn College with a degree in cello performance and chamber music, Woods was already finding work as a musician — subbing in ballet and Broadway orchestras and playing with such artists as Peter Gabriel, Sting and Lou Reed.
After graduating college, he spent eight years overseas, where he earned his master’s in chamber music at Musik Academie der Stadt Basel in Switzerland and his doctorate in performance research from the University of Huddersfield in England.
All the while, he continued to perform and create. A fierce advocate for contemporary art, Woods has tapped into a wide range of art forms, including the use of a cello sculpted of ice in his work “Iced Bodies.”
“I haven’t necessarily taken an easy route,” Woods says, “but it has allowed me to tap into a wide variety of fields in areas that most never get to because they stay siloed.”
Since his debut solo album in 2016, Woods has garnered media attention from such outlets as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Gramophone Magazine and the Guardian, which called him “a cellist of power and grace” who possesses “mature artistry and willingness to go to the brink.”
His performance this year presented by the University of Chicago was named by the Chicago Tribune as one of its Top 10 defining moments in classical music, opera and jazz for 2021. And a musical group of which Woods is a member made the first round of the Grammy ballot this year.
Most recently, Woods has been a lecturer in the music departments at Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago, and served as artist-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony and the Kaufman Music Center.
He’s happy to be at UB this year.
One component of the Distinguished Visiting Scholars Program is outreach to the community. Woods is currently working with middle and high school students from the Liberty Partnership Program and Buffalo String Works. His work with young people in the community supplements the work he is doing in his mentorship role to students across disciplines at UB — another key component of the program.
“For me, it’s great to hear their stories and how they got here and where they’re trying to go,” Woods says.
“For someone who has lived and seen so much of the world, I feel like I can draw on that and help students understand what it is to arrive in a university, what it is to exist in an academic environment and how they can see where they are right now and imagine something larger,” Woods says.
The Chamber Music of America will recognize Woods during a ceremony to be held virtually on Jan. 9.
What an inspiration to us all. Thank you, Professor Woods, for showing us richer, more integrative ways to tell our stories as teacher-artists. I can't wait to follow in your footsteps!
Kenton B Anderson