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Ralph Towner was born in Washington state in 1940, moved to Oregon state at age five and grew up there. He began to improvise at the piano at age 4, imitating recordings from the WW II era. His mother was a piano teacher and church organist, and each member of the family played one or several musical instruments well. Instruments from the brass, string and woodwind groups were all represented in the family orchestra. Ralph began formal study on trumpet, and began playing in dixie-land, swing and polka bands at age seven, and became the youngest member to ever perform in the municipal band of Bend, Oregon. He studied classical composition at the University of Oregon, graduated in 1963 and went to Vienna, Austria to study classical guitar, an instrument he discovered in his fourth year of university. He studied one year under the renowned Professor Karl Scheit, returned to the University of Oregon for graduate studies in composition with Professor Homer Keller, then returned for a second year of study in Vienna with Professor Scheit. He then moved to New York City in 1968 to continue his career as guitarist-pianist-composer in earnest. In 1980 he added the keyboard synthesizers to his instrumental arsenal.

Since 1970 he has recorded over forty albums under his own name and has collaborated in concert and/or recording with Oregon, Keith Jarrett, Weather Report (Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter), Egberto Gismonti, Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Jan Hammer, Eddie Gomez, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Michel Portal, Dave Holland, Paul Winter consort, and many others. He has won numerous awards, including: two German Grammies (Deutsche Shallplatten Preis) for the best jazz recording of 1976 world-wide, (Solstice, with Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and Jon Christenson), and again in 1988 for Ecotopia with his group Oregon (Paul McCandless, Glen Moore, Trilok Gurtu); the Downbeat magazine poll for acoustic guitar: The New York Jazz Award as best New York City acoustic guitarist; and A Grammy nomination in 2000 as best composer for Oregon in Moscow: He has performed in concert world-wide in Asia, Africa, South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Mexico and North America; in jazz clubs and major concert halls such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Berlin Philharmonic Hall, and Viennas Mozartsaal.

Towner has recorded over one two-hundred of his instrumental compositions. His works for orchestra have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Freiburg Festival Orchestra and the Stavanger Chamber Orchestra of Norway. He has been commissioned to compose large orchestra works by the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, where he was composer-in-residence, and by the AT&T-Rockefeller foundation. He received a WYNC/ Aaron Copland commission to compose the piano sonata Simulacrumin 1999; His film scores include Un Altra Vita by Carlo Mazzacurati as well as numerous documentary films. He has composed music for LIsola Incandescente, a play adapted from the writings of Vincenzo Consolo, and incidental music for Shakespeares Midsummer Nights Dream. His compositions have been used by numerous dance choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Pilobolus, and Murray Louis. He was honored by Apollo astronauts, who carried his music on cassette to the moon and officially named two moon craters after two of his compositions.

His most recent record releases are: Oregon in Moscow, a double CD of symphony orchestra music (10 compositions by Towner for Oregon and orchestra) recorded with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in Moscow on Intuition Records; and Anthem, a solo guitar CD on the ECM label.

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