Author: Lisa Bielawa

Vireo, My Tenacious Muse

Having grown up in a house full of composers, I hit my college years with a heavy dose of curiosity about what else lay out there besides new music. At Yale, I was not required to declare a major right away, and I took many courses in music while also falling slowly and deeply in love with the literature major. It was 1986, the heyday of American poststructuralism, and – unlike the composition faculty – the department’s pantheon of literary theory superstars was strikingly diverse: Harold Bloom (father of the Theory of Originality), Shoshana Felman (French-Israeli feminist deconstructionist), bell hooks a.k.a. Gloria Watkins (proto-postcolonial poet and theorist), and pioneer queer theorist (and nascent opera librettist) Wayne Koestenbaum. It was rigorous and nerdy and glamorous all at once. I was hooked.

Eventually, much to the chagrin of my music professors and some of my family members, I left the music major behind, thinking perhaps that I was turning my back on the “family business.” I embarked on a massive senior thesis in the literature major, with Wayne Koestenbaum as my advisor, entitled “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Originality, closure and reproduction in the collaborative discourses of psychoanalytic hysteria and Surrealism.” Here is a bit of nostalgia: a paragraph from my dot-matrix prospectus in 1990 that articulates, for the first time, a phenomenon in Western cultural history that ended up haunting me for the next 27 years:


Here are some images used in my essay and in the research for Vireo:


Painting: Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière. Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887
Dr. Jean Martin Charcot, Parisian neurologist, demonstrates the symptoms of hysteria for a roomful of male students. Charcot was Freud’s teacher.


Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie
Louis Aragon, André Bréton
1928: The Surrealists celebrated “The 50th Birthday of Hysteria” as “the most important poetic discovery of the 19th century,” with images of Dr. Charcot’s patients

Little did I know that this discovery was the seed of what would later become my most ambitious compositional endeavor: Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser.

Stream Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser on-demand at

I got an A on the essay, I graduated, and I disappointed my literature professors (there is a pattern here perhaps) by not going on to graduate work in comp lit but moving to New York City to couch surf, audition for singing work, and write music. I became the vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble and went on the 1992 world tour of Einstein on the Beach. But all the while I also kept reading and reading, about these girls whose fits and starts were the subject of assiduous study by groups of ministers and magistrates in Colonial America, priests in 15th-century Italy, neurologists during the Great War. My essay had focused primarily on psychoanalysis and surrealism, but my fascination with these visionary women continued and the scope of my research expanded. My library grew. Today my bookcase dedicated to this area of inquiry is bursting with wide-ranging works from multiple disciplines and centuries:


In 1993 I was accepted into a two-week program at New Dramatists in NYC called the Composer-Librettist Studio. Four composers and four playwrights created new opera/music theater scenes in a compressed round-robin workshop environment, and brave singers sight-read these scene-lets into being. One of the playwrights was Erik Ehn, whose writing seemed to trigger something in me that made the music write itself. I was in love with his writing, and so I approached him at the end of the session and asked him, with sweaty cold palms, if he would consider working with me on something bigger. I felt like I was asking him to the prom.

We began corresponding, mostly by fax, and I started to send him hefty packages of source materials from my research into young visionary women and the male authority figures who used these girls’ visions and behaviors as proof of their own various theories.


In a rush of dot-matrix pages came the first draft of a libretto for a traditional opera about a young girl named Vireo: “A fourteen year old girl genius. Lives in the 16th century, born in the 19th, does forward roll into the 20th.”


Erik had integrated and assimilated this vastness of source material and created one girl. And on page 29 of this libretto draft, she sang an aria called “The Bat” that seized me immediately:

The Bat.

(Vireo alone in a dark cell, walking circuits. At first she bumps into chair, bed, bucket… but gradually grows accustomed.)


In the morning in my house
Before it’s light
I can walk as if the light
Were shining through our
High windows

If in the dark a chair has moved
I can move around it
I know the room so well
There is no out of place

I am not out of place in a jail cell
I close my eyes and cross to make
A breakfast fire
I remember very well and
Solitary suits me
Decorative as a memory

(To the dark, speaking.)
How well do you remember? Are you going to stop?

Here is the very first sketch of music for Vireo from 1993. This eventually became the aria that opens Episode 9 – Alcatraz:


My own singing voice was still very young then, and when we went into the studio to record the few songs and arias that I created in that first year, I sang the title role myself, with a variety of archaic sampled instruments accompanying me. This was a cutting-edge MIDI demo in 1994!

The Bat 1994 Demo Recording

Erik and I revised. I kept composing. We went into the studio again. We created packets with synopsis, budgets, and cassette tape work samples (with baritone Gregory Purnhagen as The Doctor, a role he would develop further with terrifying precision 20 years later). I applied for every grant I could find. I sent packages to every opera company in the country, with a letter of support from the then-president of the board of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which I was an alumna. The SFGC had given me my first performances and my first two commissions, and they took special interest as I began work on this ambitious undertaking.


I followed up my mass-mailings with phone calls, leaving message after message. But I was just 25 years old and had almost no track record of professional performances of my music. A few kind souls offered bland encouragement; most simply ignored us. After a year and a half of dedicated partnership-seeking, it was clear that Vireo was not finding a home. It wasn’t her time.

I told Erik that I couldn’t foresee any project of this size happening before I built a professional life from the ground up. I felt we needed to shelve Vireo for the time being. He and I both undertook other creative endeavors, sometimes in collaboration on smaller-scale projects. Many years passed, during which time I wrote many, many hours of music – solo, chamber, orchestral, chamber opera, and music theater. Commissions and opportunities grew, and slowly the scale of my projects ramped up. I created massive public-space works for up to 800 professional, amateur, and student musicians. My community of collaborator colleagues grew and deepened: Kronos Quartet, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Alarm Will Sound, cellist Joshua Roman, violinist Jennifer Koh – these musical friendships sparked with possibility.

In all this time, the two years of sketches I made for Vireo lay largely untouched. Correspondence, research, grant applications, and drafts were boxed up. Life took its twists and turns; the box and I moved from the Bronx to Queens, then from Queens to Manhattan. I never “mined” these musical materials for other works, but I always felt their presence at the back of my mind.

The internet came to be. Collaborations unfolded over email instead of fax. Research exploded online, rendering my weeks buried in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale a kind of nostalgic curiosity. In 2009 I made a simple setting of “The Bat” aria for solo English horn, for a series of 15 short works I wrote, each bearing a six-word title. I titled it “I Know This Room So Well.” Vireo was coming back into my consciousness. The remounting of Einstein on the Beach found director Charles Otte, who had been Robert Wilson’s assistant director in 1992, and me back on the road together again, talking about new opera, film, and new media on the bus. In 2013 I became the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, bringing my artistic focus back to the voices of exceptional young women.

Meanwhile, I had started exploring new project ideas as artist-in-residence with the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. GCAC’s Chief Curator and ED John Spiak introduced me to a wide range of potential partners to help generate ideas for how I might make work that could catalyze new relationships in Southern California. He introduced me to Juan Devis, chief creative officer of KCET in LA, and Maria Lazarova, then director of the Classical Voice Conservatory of the Orange County School of the Arts, one of the premier public charter arts schools in the nation. A coin dropped in my mind – here was a school full of young women with superb classical voice training. Maybe Vireo was here! And KCET was at the forefront of arts streaming programming. What if we made a TV/internet series that was an opera? What if that opera was Vireo?!

Things moved forward very fast then. Kronos wanted the pilot. KCET signed on as a partner. Charlie Otte brought a visionary concept and design. The box came down from off of my top shelf, and I excavated.


A page from “The Box”: from Draft 1 of the libretto, with notes scribbled during a collaborative meeting between Erik & me in 1994.

It was like seeing the work of a student – a student full of promise but also in way over her head – and yet this student was a younger me. All of the musical ideas felt familiar yet strangely distant. Major structural reworking of the libretto ensued, to embrace the new episodic format. I sifted through the original musical sketches and discovered that I had taken at least a cursory stab at melodic or harmonic material for slightly less than half of the opera. Sometimes I just kept the essence – a harmonic color, a certain phrase, a rhythmic figuration – and other times I started over.


I lifted this one phrase out of early sketches. From it grew the whole “Birth of Caroline” scene in Episode 6, in which you can hear this exact phrase in a whole different setting.

In a few cases, like “The Bat,” I revised only lightly and honored the original. I let the obsessive energy of my earlier self inhabit me, and I felt the power of 20+ years of experience serving to bring the piece to its deserved epic scale. And I let the prodigious gifts of young Rowen Sabala, just 16 years old and a junior at OCSA, breathe new life and inspiration into the role of Vireo.

I would never have dreamed, back in 1990 as a literature major at Yale, or in 1993 when I spent so many months back and forth between the fax machine and the piano, that Vireo would eventually find such complete fulfillment. Now, 350 cast members and musicians, 400+ participants including designers and crew, 12 episodes and over 250,000 viewers later, I feel a certain wonder at the delicate thread that kept the project alive in the back of my mind, in a box at the back of my closet, for so many years. Its protracted latency period gave Vireo the opportunity to feed off of many life lessons, relationships and maturations. Her metamorphosis is complete.

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Remsen Allard

Roundtable: Facing the Hard Questions

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments. –MS]

Lisa Bielawa

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Phil Mansfield

Is commissioning the best way for you to make new work? Are other models “better”? In what ways?

For me, because I tend to concoct musical scenarios, presentations, and experiences that are—for one reason or another—not within the parameters of existing organizations’ initiatives, I would not say that commissioning is the best way to make this kind of work. The large-scale projects I have launched in the last few years—especially Airfield Broadcasts, involving 250 musicians in Berlin and 800 musicians in San Francisco, both spatially mapped on historic airfields that are now public parks; or Vireo, the opera that is being created in 12 episodes for broadcast and streaming media—have required me to build a kind of institutional structure expressly for the project, and then seek partners that can participate in various aspects of the creation of the project. These kinds of projects are more like entrepreneurial ventures, and as such, they require financial risk-taking and the willingness to take on fiscal as well as artistic accountability.

When creating large-scale projects, we are also creating communities around the work. In order for these communities to function as viable systems—and that includes financial viability—we need to know what each participant hopes to gain through their involvement. It is rare that true entrepreneurial partnerships—in artistic endeavors or otherwise—will draw partners to it that have merely mercenary interests. Each partner needs to have its/his/her own relationship to risk and investment within the project. I am always seeking partners (collaborators, musicians, organizations) who see a meaningful benefit beyond just money in the project itself. That benefit can include longer-term financial stability (through increased visibility, connections with the other partners involved, etc.) as well as other less quantifiable value.

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

And lastly, I always make sure I honor all collaborators and partners as professionals. We all need to be paid—it can be a special arrangement, perhaps, and all agreements can contain other elements besides money. But I do not generally feel comfortable with favors and trades. I have had to design a life that is self-sustaining, and I treat others as if this is also true for them. We must do what we can to make our field as sustainable as possible for each other!

What is the most difficult piece of the financial side of your career, eg. applying for grants, negotiating commissions, budgeting, balancing non-related work, etc.?

There are two major challenges to making work in this way. One of them is that fundraising and partnership building do require some of the same kinds of creativity and vitality that creative work requires. So it is incredibly important for me to be good at managing my own time, staying well physically and mentally so that I can handle the stress of greater responsibility, including responsibility to many, many others involved in the project. I’ve gotten better and better at managing all of this, but it is still sometimes overwhelming. The other big challenge is simple scheduling. In order to make a living, while also sustaining projects whose budgets are many times the size of my own income, it sometimes feels like I need to clone myself. But I just plan my travel and my expenditures—personal and project-related—very carefully. It takes great organizational skills.

Do you worry about the stability of your income in the short term/long term?

Not really 🙂

I probably should! But life is short. And the risk is worth it. I don’t recommend the entrepreneurial approach for those who are happiest with more of a work-life balance. It is an entire lifestyle. I have no family, no regular schedule, no fixed place of work. I am on the road over 30 weeks a year, sometimes earning income as a performer or lecturer or conductor or panelist, and sometimes in connection with my own compositional work. This lifestyle works for me, but this is because of my temperament. I would not be happier with a steady, fixed income, or with a more traditional domestic life. But I absolutely respect that these are needs that many have, and I don’t think any one lifestyle is superior for creative work than another. I’m just so glad I’ve found the right one for me!

Composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in musical composition. She takes inspiration for her work from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997 she co-founded the MATA Festival, which celebrates the work of young composers. Bielawa was appointed artistic director of the acclaimed San Francisco Girls Chorus in 2013 and is an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California.

Bielawa’s music is frequently performed throughout the US and Europe by top ensembles such as The Knights, American Composers Orchestra, Akademen, Brooklyn Rider, BMOP, and more at venues such as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Whitney Museum. Bielawa’s latest work for performance in public places is Airfield Broadcasts, a work for hundreds of musicians that premiered on the tarmac of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in May 2013 and at Crissy Field in San Francisco in October 2013. Bielawa is currently at work on Vireo, a new opera created for episodic release. Her latest album, The Lay of the Love, was released on Innova in June 2015.

Your Administrative Muse: Task-Management Strategies for Composers

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Azzurra Primavera

Let’s face it—no one ever said that musically inclined people are all mysteriously endowed with the concomitant administrative and organizational skills required to make musical ideas a reality in these complex times. Email and the internet have arguably increased our productivity, but no one ever explains how the human organism itself can adapt to such new heights of efficiency. Yes, the machines can do more, but can we?

Maybe you write music with no angst, but when you start thinking about the hoops you need to jump through to get a score or a letter of inquiry out the door you get hives (or you open a beer and that next Netflix envelope). Or maybe you feel like all you ever do is drop scores and letters of inquiry in the mail and then find that when you sit down at the piano or your work desk, all you can think about is that other package you have yet to send. Unless you are comfortable with a) never catching much-needed opportunities for your work to be heard or b) writing an opera about sending packages, you have a brain-cell management issue. Welcome to the club.

I don’t have The Answer. But I have had many of the problems, and I am discovering ways—through experimentation and desperation—to navigate through many of these challenges more effectively. Here are some strategies that have helped me the most.

Know your own cycle. Do you write best between 6 and 9 a.m.? Do you prefer to have one whole day to devote to it? Analyze the demands of the rest of your life, both external (paying bills, doing your money gig, calling your sister) and internal or self-generated (sending that string quartet score to the nice violinist who asked to hear your stuff, asking for that letter of recommendation, researching grant programs that might help you get to that performance of your saxophone and marimba piece in Toronto). Experiment with your schedule, to the degree that this is possible, to find out when and how these other things can be accomplished without giving up your golden hours. Analyze how alert you need to be to do a task. The less sophisticated the task, the better candidate it is for your worst time of day. If I’m not sleepy when I get home from the fun party, I might be caught spiral-binding. What else is my mind suited for at a time like that? But I’m a morning person. You may get home from that same party inspired and full of energy, so you should sit down at the piano. Your spiral binding will take place tomorrow morning while you are making coffee, and while I (across town, split screen) am already at work at the piano.

Readiness is all. For the self-published composer, the wave of the present is to work with a music printing service like for score duplication. If you go this route, they keep .pdf files of your pieces on file and will prepare scores on-demand for not much more than it costs to produce the average do-it-yourself-at-Kinko’s score. I, however, am still more of a 20th-century composer and do my own photocopying. Every time I send out materials, I check my pile to see if I have everything I might need for a while. If I don’t, then before I go to the copy place for one task, I go through and see which pieces I’m running low on and make three or four copies of each.

Join forces. One popular way of handling the perennial self-motivation quandary of exercising is to get a personal trainer or go running with a friend. This method makes us accountable to someone besides ourselves for our workout, even though the overarching motivation is its private benefit. Some administrative and organizational tasks can be handled this way too. Make a grant-research or envelope-stuffing date with a colleague. Maybe your friend is lousy at printing out nice-looking materials but great at making phone calls and asking difficult questions. Your hands may get clammy on the phone, but perhaps you design a mean spreadsheet. Even if you are both good at the same things, making a date to do them at the same time will ensure that you will actually spend that time doing them, which frees up your brain both before and after.

Make your lists. Whether you use paper or software to make your to-do list, make sure you can break it down into easily conceptualized categories—by project or by kind (financial, new opportunities, filing, household)—so that it’s less overwhelming. Even separating it into an A list and a B list can be helpful, especially as you start organizing projects.

E-Triage. Email management is one of the most talked about stresses of modern life. Everyone I know is bemoaning the amount of time they spend dealing with email. Here is my method, which seems to be working so far: If something in the inbox can be handled right away, I just do it. After answering it, I file it in an email sub-folder to get it out of my inbox and help keep my messages manageably organized. If it’s something that needs to be answered with more attention and care than I can muster without some thought, or that needs attention beyond a mere response (a phone call, a package, a document), I leave it in the inbox until I can answer it. (After which I file it and get it out of my inbox). If something in the inbox needs special attention and is very time-sensitive, I flag it and also incorporate it into my A-list of things to do so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. This method ensures that everything in my inbox is waiting for my attention, and everything that no longer needs requires action is no longer visible.

When overwhelmed, always weigh your priorities. “Eek! There are six different grant programs with deadlines of January 15, and I need letters and recordings and scores for all of them! And it’s January 13!” Are some of these quarterly? Read the fine print on all of them before starting any of them. Are you and your project really eligible for all of them? In a pinch, three strong applications are more likely to yield interest in your work than six shoddy ones. Start keeping a calendar with future grant deadlines identified much further in advance. Then cut yourself some slack and get to work on those three, starting with either the gnarliest or the most important or the one most likely to yield results. Just because something made it onto your list this week doesn’t mean that, on further reflection, it needs to stay there. We’d like to think that everything on the list is just as important as every other thing, but when this assumption gets oppressive, it’s time to reassess.

Multi-task selectively. Not everyone is cut out to do all varieties of tasks on top of one another. Sometimes multi-tasking can become a whole mode of experience, and I find that I become less effective when I work this way for too long. Promise yourself some non-multi-tasking time every day. This can be either work time or down time, as long as it is one-thing-at-a-time time (remember, sometimes we even multi-task our leisure activities!). Some tasks fare just as well in combination with others: eating, printing stuff, preparing materials and packages, walking/talking, laundry, sorting, some phone calls. Other tasks are best focused on one at a time: eating (people are generally of two minds about this), much email correspondence, writing proposals and application materials, important phone calls, making your lists of things to do. Effective multi-tasking can show up in strange places: I’ve found that I work out compositional ideas while running, for example.

Space—the final frontier. We’ve all been told that if we live and work in the same space, living space and workspace should be separate. Many of us who live in big cities have to manage tiny apartments, so this advice can be hard to follow. I have found that if your life is, by necessity, a rather integrated flow of different demands and kinds of attention, it is best to let your space reflect that. Books I read for pleasure in the morning while making coffee live in the kitchen. Study scores and books for inspiration live near the piano. Books for which I need to get text permissions live by the office desk. Depending on what I’m using my laptop for, I will carry it to different rooms. Paying bills? Office area. Blogging about my current project? At the piano. Writing a grant application? On the sofa with a cup of tea. I do a certain kind of thinking well in each of these parts of my apartment, and the advent of the laptop makes it possible for me to range freely among them for optimum productivity and mental comfort.

Be a human being. One of the great myths among freelance creative people is that more structure (in time and space management, and perhaps in composition as well) is always good. We are not machines. The value of unstructured time and space is a relatively new discovery for me, and I find that not only is it making me feel better equipped for the logistical challenges of such an existence, it is actually making me happier all around (which, in turn, makes me more productive and more clear-headed in all of my endeavors). Unstructured time is a way of courting serendipity, and serendipity is the friend of creativity. Creativity in task management needs serendipity too, even if it is less glamorous than musical creativity. Let your administrative muse emerge!

Lisa Bielawa is “Music Alive” composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Artistic Director of the MATA Festival. She is currently at work on Chance Encounter, for soprano Susan Narucki and 12 instruments in transient public spaces, under the auspices of a grant from the Creative Capital Foundation. In 2007 the Tzadik label will release a CD of her music on the Composers Series.

View from St. Petersburg: New American Music Goes To Russia

Lisa Bielawa

[Ed note: Lisa Bielawa‘s The Right Weather, for piano and chamber orchestra, was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra and pianist Andrew Armstrong at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on February 27, 2004. In January she visited St. Petersburg, Russia, to hear Armstrong perform a solo recital including a movement from The Right Weather—Wait, for piano and drone. When we learned that Bielawa kept a journal of her experiences during her stay there, we asked if we could publish a few excerpts.]

In January, the pianist Andrew Armstrong was invited to play as a ‘special guest artist’ at the Maria Yudina International Piano Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. When he presented repertoire options to them for his various appearances throughout the week, they settled on Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, and—much to our delight and surprise—my piece for solo piano and drone, Wait, based on an excerpt from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought a ticket to Russia to see how my little piece would acclimate to a Russian piano competition atmosphere and audience. My own contacts in St. Petersburg came through a recent trip I made there with the Philip Glass Ensemble—promoters and presenters of world music and multi-media avant-garde, a roiling, volatile new scene in Russia. Andy’s hosts were at the opposite end of the spectrum—denizens of a long-cherished system of musical education that has continued, virtually uninterrupted, throughout all of the cultural upheaval of the last 15 years.

These are excerpts from my journal over the dense, four-day trip.

Wednesday, January 7, 8:15 p.m.
St. Petersburg

I almost missed my flight—increased security at Newark, combined with the unfortunate concurrent departure of a 747 to Bombay. A full hour in line at security with many big Indian families. Such a culturally dissonant scene—incredulous Indian women of all ages trying to remove all of their copious gold jewelry—bangles, anklets, multiple necklaces worn under the clothes, rings, toe rings, gold-decorated sandals. Husbands helped with safety pins, young women sat on the floor to breast-feed.

But I made the flight, changed planes in Heathrow. Today I arrived in St. Petersburg—it’s Orthodox Christmas here. Seva Gakkel (part of the production/presenting team for the Philip Glass Ensemble’s appearance in St. Petersburg just a couple of months before and organizer of the Sound Lab Festival in St. Petersburg) picked me up at the airport—such a gentle guy, fun to get him to laugh. I reminded him of the time on the last trip when I was practicing reading Cyrillic, and I asked about the words on a particularly imposing building in the Leningrad section. He reported, bemusedly, that it was the former Ministry of Furs.

He helped me get settled in a beautiful apartment off of the Nevsky Prospect. The stairwell is all rusted iron and damp concrete. The stairs leading down from the entryway door lead directly into indiscriminate sludge. But once you turn the heavy old-style key four full times to the left and open the heavy door to the apartment, suddenly you find yourself in a turn-of-the-century Parisian drawing room.

But I didn’t stay long because I wanted to find the hotel where Andy and all of the competition judges were staying. I had only the name of the hotel—no address.

Unaccountably, I found Andy in his little practice room at some tiny music school near his Soviet-holdover hotel. My broken Russian, luck, tenacity—all of these helped me locate him, and Tamara Poddubnaya, the judge who had invited him. In the hotel there are monitors on every floor who manage passports and meal vouchers. The rooms are uniform, non-descript. The café is a carpeted room like any other, with a Dutch door where one can order any number of microwaved selections.


Thursday, January 8, 12:15 p.m.
Malle Sal (Glinka, the smaller Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg)

Tonight is the winners’ concert. Andy will open the festivities with a Chopin prelude. I am now watching the winners as they have their time in the hall. A young cellist is playing—it seems that everything distracts him and yet nothing distracts him. Whenever anyone enters the hall he looks at them and smiles, but his sound doesn’t change at all. But his young accompanist has an utterly private musical voice, unfolding concurrently with technical flawlessness. Clearly the sometimes-garish public trappings of music competition playing doesn’t distract her from her more private musical world.

Now there is a piano trio—the coach is dancing, singing, holding her hand up to the cellist’s bow while he plays so that he has to bow exactly straight, through her fingers. I hear the sound color change, improve, as she coaches him, even though—again—the expressive contours are so fixed that they seem unaffected by her edits.

Seva told me last night that he was a cellist for years, in an underground band. His Soviet jobs were numerous, but he always pursued the posts that allowed him to read all day—several stints as a security guard came to mind. His ‘real life’ was after hours, and his band was outrageously successful, if illegal. After perestroika, however, he gave up playing. His friends who continued playing were suddenly enjoying sanctioned status. But it seemed to me after talking to him about it that he saw many of his former underground colleagues divide into two camps—those who were taken over and eventually defeated by drinking, and those who are now receiving special awards and honors from Putin himself. Seva ran a club during the years after 1994 and now organizes a festival. The founder of this SKIF festival brought it to the Knitting Factory in New York in 1997 and had such a dismal financial failure that within two months of returning to Russia, he had committed suicide. The shame and hardship of such financial failures are not tolerated well here.

Seva hasn’t touched alcohol in 20 years, and hasn’t played the cello since 1994. He couldn’t really explain to me why he had to give it up, but I get the impression that he feels fortunate to have separated himself from his former context when things really started to change. He gets some residuals now, but only for the master recordings, which have been released gradually over some considerable time. Piracy is rampant, and there is no recourse for him, so he seems basically unconcerned.

His formal musical education was incomplete—a mere four solid years of intensive study, which falls quite short of the 13-15 years of formal training usually required before a musician can be considered to have left student-hood for Free Artist status. His failure to fulfill the official path opened up a whole world to him.

Today I am watching many students who are wholeheartedly dedicated to the fulfillment of that path, in the uninterrupted traditions of Russian musical pedagogy. Here the teacher-student hierarchy is everything, which explains why Tamara, who heard Andy play in the U.S. and invited him as a special guest of the competition on the basis of simple cross-generational musical
simpatico, is widely assumed to be his teacher. Andy, like me, had some strong musical training very early, but pursued a liberal arts degree in college and has begun his professional life more or less as an autodidact. This is unheard of here. They are always asking me who my teachers are, and when I answer that I have had wonderful guidance from many senior colleagues, they want to know when my long-term training will really begin.

Later, 7 p.m.
Glinka Hall

This afternoon I heard the young people’s concert, designed to give children something to do in the afternoon since school is closed for the holiday. I got to see what Russian presenters think suits a young audience. The answer seems to be virtuosity, and its manifestation in a few exemplary young people. A 12-year-old harpist in a white dress worthy of her first communion or bat mitzvah played the most touching, richly textured solo piece—I don’t know who wrote it. And then there was the arrangement of a movement of Vivaldi’s Winter for a teenage xylophone wonder, with piano accompaniment. Many of the pieces we are hearing here are presented like this—in part, and/or in arrangements that jettison intended instrumentation in favor of featuring players who excel, on whatever instrument. Then there was the young soprano, whose set began with Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” delivered entirely with hands folded in earnest prayer. Every hand movement was just as rehearsed as every musical nuance.

Later, 11 p.m.

The long prize ceremony was like a graduation. This year the competition had as its main sponsor “Aquaphor,” a water filter container company. It was strangely sad to see each young pianist presented with a certificate and a filtered water pitcher, both touching and unsettling to see ‘product endorsement’ operate in such an un-mainstream context.

Friday, January 9

Today Andy played his solo recital at the little Samoylov Museum. Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata, Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ and my piece. Andy had enlisted Olga Nazarenko, the director of activities at Glinka Hall, to help me sing the drone. Seva had enlisted a friend named Polina Runovskaya, a jazz and extended-techniques singer from his idiosyncratic musical world. Before the house opened, the three of us tried singing the drone together from several spots around the room. Maria Petrovna Panfilova, president of the Maria Yudina International Piano Competition, seemed so irrepressibly fascinated with the drone during our run-through that I invited her to be a part of it. Later I saw on her Government Committee of Culture business card that her official title is, “Chief specialist, Honoured Worker of Culture of Russia Chairman of Leningrad Region Section Of Concert Union of Russia.” Polina has no title and no business card, but she gave me two CD’s of her recent collaborative projects with various other artists. Between the Rachmaninoff and the Mussorgsky, my piece felt—to me at least—delicate by comparison but in warm and gracious company. Maria’s rough but expressive contralto, Polina’s expert ear and warm tone, and Olga’s exuberant, flighty soprano combined with my own voice, made less reliable with emotion, in a truly memorable, if motley, shared note. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to concentrate my full attention on the magic that Andy was weaving with this piece, after a week of such close company with masterworks that everyone in the audience already knew backwards and forwards. People were listening in a way that I hadn’t seen them listen before. They were fully engaged in hearing something new. Perhaps they listen in such an engaged way because they usually DO know every note, and are therefore accustomed to a very intimate way of listening.

Natalia Entelis, another of the generously-titled women of the competition (“Vice-president of Association of lecturers-musicologists, The International Union of Musical Workers”), was so delighted with Andy’s performance today that she invited him to play—for a fourth time!—at Glinka Hall tomorrow on another variety program.

Sunday, January 11, 3:35 p.m.
Pulkovo 2, second largest international airport in Russia

Andy played Chopin again yesterday, a performance with unheralded lightness and joy. And the rest of the day was carried along in a constant stream of cognac, vodka, and long, tearful toasts. Polina came to the concert, but I didn’t find her afterwards because Andy and I were whisked away before the end of the first half (!) by the competition matriarchy—Tamara, Maria, Olga, and Natalia—to put a proper finish on our auspicious visit here. All of them were full of ideas and plans—new pieces for me to write, more chances for audiences at competitions in other countries—Bulgaria, the Netherlands—to hear Andy play. And they gave us lovely gifts—mine is a Lomonosov ceramic teacup, so delicate. Their toasts were personal and emotionally urgent. Andy and I responded in kind, making tributes that would seem like purple prose at home, I suppose, and yet it felt so good to speak so purely about the searing humanity that comes forward in music-making. Maria Petrovna said she could hear in my music the feelings and lives of all of the people whose hearts I have seen into. Tamara said there was neither a note nor a silence that wasn’t absolutely essential in my music. I praised Tamara for the balance she strikes between the confidence, excellence, authority and vitality she brings to her teaching, and the generous openness and spirit of discovery that surprises it, which turns it all into something so free, after all.

It seems that however keenly one feels one needs to “find one’s place” in one musical world or other, it is when these worlds shift around us that we discover the greatest presence of musical humanity in ourselves and in each other.

This trip yielded two new projects for me, a projected collaboration with ‘underground’ vocalist Polina Runovskaya and a commission to write a compulsory piece for the 2005 Maria Yudina International Piano Competition. These two musical worlds may not meet often in the musical life of St. Petersburg, but I know now that every time I go there, I will be immersed in both of them.