Composer Michael Sahl is acclaimed as one of the earliest composers to write in the genre-blending style favored by the downtown New York scene, and it is certainly true that he successfully managed to straddle the line between classical "new music," pop, rock, jazz, and musical theater well before many musicians cared to experiment with such combinations. Born in Boston, Sahl began to compose at age five and received instruction beginning at the age of eight, when his family relocated to New York City. He cites Israel Citkowitz as being particularly important among his early instructors, and took an interest in the early folk music scene in New York in the late '40s. Nevertheless, by 1954 he was bitten by the "new music" bug and was sent to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship. After a round of Darmstadt festivals and attempting to break into the style of international serialism, Sahl realized that his natural sense for melody prevented him from moving into such circles. He returned to the United States in 1963, and after working with Lukas Foss and the Buffalo Philharmonic for a spell, became musical director for then reigning folk diva Judy Collins.
Sahl's earliest acknowledged musical work, String Quartet 1969, was written upon his departure from Collins. From this time forward, Sahl made his reputation as a composer of operas, musical shows, and instrumental works, several of which have a "jazz-rock" feel. Among the stage works that have gained him renown are Civilization and Its Discontents (1977), Junkyard (1992), and John Grace Ranter (1996). He has also done a great deal of work writing commercial jingles and other more lucrative kinds of music. He is fond of combining "Romantic"-styled melody lines with "rhythm-section grooves" and has said that his rediscovery of traditional tonality after the baptism of fire through "new music" represents "progress, in the sense of recovery from an illness."