Composer Donald Sur was born in 1935 of Korean parents in Honolulu and eventually settled in Boston. During his life he also resided at various times in California, Korea, and Rome. As a child he studied the ukelele (his first instrument), the mandolin (his favorite), violin, viola, bass and a little piano. He attended UCLA, UC Berkeley and Princeton, studying with Colin McPhee, Seymour Shifrin, Andrew Imbrie, Roger Sessions, and Earl Kim. His works have been performed at Lincoln Center, New York; BBC, London; Radio Cologne; National Theater, Seoul; Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; InterArts Hawaii; Symphony Hall, Boston; Tanglewood; and in many other locations.
Sur served as a delegate to the New Music Notation Conference in Ghent, as guest composer at Musicultura 1974 in Holland, and on advisory committees of the Asia Society, New York, and WGBH, Boston. He also engaged in research of Korean court music at the National Music Institute in Seoul.
Sur received commissions from the Foundation for Broadcast Culture for a work for the Seoul Philharmonic, Taejon International Exposition for violinist Sarah Chang, the Library of Congress, Cantata Singers & Ensemble, Speculum Musicae, Contemporary Music Forum, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and Collage New Music. Sur received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, the governments of the Netherlands and Korea, and the Ford Foundation. While writing Slavery Documents he was granted residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Cummington Community for the Arts.
His principal works include: Catenas I, II and III for varying small ensembles; Red Dust for twenty-nine percussionists; Penumbra, Focus and Echo for a film of Martha Hanslanger; Il Tango di Trastevere for four contrabasses, later orchestrated for orchestra of low-pitched instruments; New Yorker Sketches; Violin Concerto; The Unicorn and the Lady based upon the Cloisters Tapestries; Kumidori Tansaeng for violin, chorus and orchestra; Lacrimosa for chamber orchestra; Sonnet 97 for a cappella chorus; Berceuse for violin and piano; and Slavery Documents (1989), his largest work for vocal soloists, chorus, organ and large orchestra, based upon antebellum and Biblical texts. Sur was working on a second, equally large part of Slavery Documents when he died in 1999.