Ellen Reid: More Than Sound
Ellen Reid’s instinctive team spirit, as well as her awareness that sound always exists alongside other sensory stimuli, informs all the music she creates, whether it’s the score for the emotionally traumatic yet life-affirming opera p r i s m, the soundtrack for a motion picture, incidental music for theater, a sound installation, or a work for chamber ensemble or orchestra.
“Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?” Ellen Reid asked me when I met with her in Brooklyn a few days after the final PROTOTYPE performance of her opera p r i s m.
That question might initially seem odd coming from someone who defines herself as both a composer and a sound artist—someone who pays close attention to sound, whether it’s the careful spatial positioning of objects in an installation or slightly changing the instrumental forces accompanying voices to make listeners think they’re hearing different music. Yet that question made total sense to me after attending two live performances of her music the previous week—the aforementioned emotionally traumatic yet life-affirming p r i s m and the powerful, politically charged choral work dreams of the new world.
Although the music was extremely compelling in both works, it was clearly conceived to be just one of many elements that went into these multisensory experiences. In the realm of contemporary opera, audiences are now accustomed to watching a theatrical experience unfold that is every bit as significant as the pitches in the arias that are being sung, so in that sense p r i s m is not unique. (It is unique rather for the way that the story does not unfold in linear time, and how the music helps to skew the storyline’s altered chronology.) Concert presentations of choral pieces, on the other hand, are usually always focused exclusively on the composer despite the pedigree of the text being set. Yet Reid made it clear in her comments before the performance of dreams of the new world, as well as in our conversation, that her music was just one of the elements that went into creating this piece. For those pre-performance comments, as well as during the bow she took at the end of it, Reid was joined by both her librettist Sarah LaBrie and Sayd Randle, who served as the work’s lead researcher and dramaturg.
“We came up with the concept together,” Reid explained. “We were all involved in each other’s work, and I think that that’s a really honest thing that happens in the craft of making music. I guess in all performative mediums, but especially in more theatrical mediums with a story.”
Reid’s collaborative generosity is extremely refreshing and comes from an extensive background in composing for film soundtracks and incidental music for theater, as well as living for two and a half years in Thailand where she immersed herself in traditional musical practices.
“The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous,” Reid elaborated. “We have put a certain amount of weight on different parts of those things to make some of them seem more important, but they couldn’t happen without the other ones. … I think one reason that I’m really set on featuring my collaborators is that I’ve done a lot of work in other mediums where composers are not the first artist. … [To me,] it feels more like a constellation.”
The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
You can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
One of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Everything’s in response to everything else.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not.
Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
Reid’s instinctive team spirit, as well as her awareness that sound always exists alongside other sensory stimuli, even informs music she creates that would otherwise be perceived as purely “instrumental” or “abstract,” words put in scare quotes here because they’re not particularly adequate descriptors for Reid’s output. For example, even when writing a piece for orchestra, Reid will write tempos a certain way based on her mindfulness of what the conductor will look like during its realization.
“I think there’s an element of choreography and theater in how everything is interpreted as a viewer,” she explained.
Reid seemed to imply that she would be composing for orchestra again in the near future, but since it had yet to be officially announced, she would not offer us any further details about the project other than to acknowledge that whatever she writes will inevitably be informed by the visual realities that occur during the process of a large group of people making music as a result of someone’s baton movements and/or hand gestures.
“It has to be. They’re front and center: a dancer conductor.”
Ellen Reid in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the home of Sarah Baird Knight in Brooklyn, NY
January 14, 2019—1:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Read the Full Transcript
Video Presentations and Photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: There was something that really struck me when I saw and heard dreams of the new world the other night at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York. You did the Q & A before the piece with both your librettist and the anthropologist who helped you do the research; then, at the end of the performance, all three of you took the bow together. I thought it was beautiful and also somewhat stunning; it was such a wonderful challenge to this whole idea that we have omniscient, genius composers who work in isolation creating their music all by themselves. It was a wonderful acknowledgement that a large-scale piece is more often than not a by-product of lots of people collaborating.“The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person.”
Ellen Reid: I’m glad that’s you how you read it, because that’s how it felt to make that piece and to make so many pieces. The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person, depending on the medium. I think one reason that I’m really set on featuring my collaborators is that I’ve done a lot of work in other mediums where composers are not the first artist. For example, in theater, the director would often get credit for my work. I would write some kind of musical entrance, and then in the press it would say, “Oh, the director’s musical entrance was great.” In opera, it’s the same thing: I get credit for the director’s work. So I think it’s really important to make a concerted effort to show the different minds that come in to make the work, especially for dreams of the new world. Sarah LaBrie, Sayd Randle, and I traveled to three different locations. We came up with the concept together. We interviewed these people together, and then would spend multiple days in each location talking about what we had heard together, and so we were all really involved in the curation and the editing process—even in the music. I remember at one of the workshops there was this whole section in the first movement and Sarah said, “That’s kind of long.” So then I cut it. We were all involved in each other’s work, and I think that that’s a really honest thing that happens in the craft of making music. I guess in all performative mediums, but especially in more theatrical mediums with a story.
FJO: But what’s interesting is that dreams of the new world isn’t a theatrical piece, even though it has words. It was presented as a concert piece, which is usually just about the music. But you made it so much more than that. One of the things you did was to specify the backgrounds of the singers. This is something that happens in casting for theater or opera, but it doesn’t normally occur for concert pieces since audiences are supposed to listen to them and not really look at them.
ER: Absolutely. In dreams of the new world, there are people’s stories that we told, so there was an element of theatrical casting that had to go into it.
FJO: For you, it seems that this was not necessarily about the sound.“Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?”
ER: Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound? I think that part of a conductor’s work is choreography, so I will write a tempo thinking about how fast they’re moving. For example, in the third movement of dreams of the new world, the section about Los Angeles, it starts at a very slow tempo, because I wanted it to feel spacious. But if the conductor were doing twice that [tempo], which would also work, it would feel more normal. I think there’s an element of choreography and theater in how everything is interpreted as a viewer.
FJO: What’s so interesting though, is that the next day you all went into a studio to record the piece, and that recording is more than likely the way that this work is going to be disseminated to the greater populace. People who were not at the performance the night before, or who weren’t at the world premiere in Los Angeles, will only be able perceive dreams of the new world through the way it sounds. We won’t see the conductor moving around or even necessarily know the backgrounds of the singers involved.
ER: Well, I think it’s about making a thing that can work in various mediums. Every sound on that CD will be perfect, where maybe in the live performance it wasn’t. There are certain things that are the focus of the different mediums. I see a CD as a different medium than a concert work. So the question is: can the piece work in both? And I think it does.
FJO: So then what’s the ideal way to experience it?
ER: I don’t think that there is one. I experience a lot of my favorite pieces just through listening, so my favorite piece I’ve never heard performed live. I’m assuming if I heard it live, it would be excellent, but it would be something very different, because it would involve different senses. But I also think if you’re listening to something, the visual is what’s around you. I don’t know anyone who turns off the lights and listens in the dark.
FJO: Well, there are those Georg Friedrich Haas string quartets that are done totally in the dark, but of course, once you turn off all the lights in a concert hall, the lack of seeing something is what you’re seeing.
ER: Right. But I meant listening to an album in the dark. If you’re listening to an album, the visual stimulus is what’s around you.
FJO: So if you’re jogging down the street or on an airplane or at home, you’re going to have very different experiences even though you might be listening to the same exact piece of music.
ER: Yeah, it totally takes on different meanings.
FJO: This actually reminds me of one of the things that you do in your music that I was hoping to get around to later, but we might as well get to it now since I think it’s tied to this concept. It’s something I noticed both in dreams of the new world and in p r i s m. You’ll take the exact same words, and you’ll set them with different music, and they wind up meaning totally different things, which I think is an extraordinary device, technique, trick—I’m not sure what to call it. It’s about having multiple contexts. In new world, you use the same exact text in the opening of each movement, but it sounds totally different each time and you actually gave each of them a different title.
ER: It’s actually the same melody each time, too, and it’s even harmonized the same each time, but I think what’s happened before it and the surrounding area makes it feel really different.
FJO: Well, you also use different orchestrations, so there were different timbres each time…
ER: Yeah, different orchestrations, but the same harmonic language and the same melody. Sometimes it’s a smaller or a larger group. Plus if you’ve heard [these words], it’s generally positive, but if you’ve heard this really devastating story right before it, the positive words are like salt on a wound. It’s very sad. I’m really interested in how, if you juxtapose things, they shift their meaning.
FJO: And of course in p r i s m, in the beginning of the opera, audience members are not supposed to know what the words mean and the whole piece is about figuring out this kind of secret code that you’re hearing. So as the meanings of the words become more apparent, they sonically take on a different form, too.
ER: Yeah. So, when you heard the Bacardi song in Act II during the big choral moment, did you have any idea that that was the same text from Act I?
FJO: Well, I recognized the words, but…
FJO: …and then there was this kind of a-ha moment…
FJO: I don’t want to give away the goods in the course of our conversation, because I think part of the amazing thing about that piece is kind of the surprise element in how it unfolds. Of course the tricky thing is if this ever becomes standard repertoire—it should and I hope it does—people will know the story in advance and it will become a whole different experience.
ER: But then if you know the story, other things take on different meanings. To me, the more you know, the more meaning you can find, and that particular discovery you’re talking about won’t be so central but every time you‘ll hear it, you’ll know what it’s referring to. And then other moments in Act I will have a different meaning.
FJO: I wanted to go back and see it a second time to see if my feelings about Act I would be different, because Act I just throws you into the experience with no guideposts. Yet, to me, that was what was so exciting about it. What happens once you have a context?“You can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it.”
ER: Well, you can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it. So there’s no way [for me] to know.
FJO: I want to get back to our early conversation about how performative work is a by-product of so many people unless you’re singing and playing your own music alone on a guitar or a piano, and even then the instrument was made by somebody else.
ER: Exactly. And someone set up your mic. Someone’s amplifying your sound. There are so many collaborators.
FJO: Yet for better or worse—I’d say worse—we don’t really have this notion that music in the Western tradition is always a collaborative activity. So I’m curious about how you came to think this way. You got obsessed with writing music as a sophomore in college.
FJO: But you were already performing music before that. So I want to take it back there and talk about how you first got exposed to this music, and what you thought about it, and how you came to be really collaborative in your work. I think the root of it might be from your primary experiences. But I don’t know.
ER: What do you mean by “this music”?
FJO: Hmmm, maybe I don’t know what I mean.
ER: Great. Let’s figure it out.
FJO: That’s exactly what I was hoping we’d do!
ER: Okay, cool. So I started writing music when I was in college. I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later. As I grew up, I sang in church choir. I loved it. I loved being surrounded by music, especially that sound. And I grew up playing piano, which is something I really wanted to do when I was really young. I was three, and I was obsessed with the piano. And I played percussion in band. But I didn’t know anyone who was a professional composer or even a professional musician really, so it wasn’t on the radar as a potential life path. Then I went to college. I went to Columbia, and I thought I would be more of an academic. I was interested in sociology, and the sociology of music, questions like: Who’s listening and why? Who’s writing about it? If the same concert happens in two different venues, why does it cost different amounts? All these different questions about the levels of engagement within music.“I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later.”
My professor at the time was George Lewis. I was writing a thesis with him, and then he heard one of my pieces. I wasn’t studying with anyone in the actual program. I was just writing music on my own because, when I heard the kind of music that the people were making at Columbia, that didn’t speak to what I was doing. But George Lewis was like, “Why are you writing papers? Your paper is not that great. And this music is really good.” This thing he heard had harmonies and things that I wasn’t hearing people doing around me in the academic context, but it was such a shock to me, because I had started writing music only a year before. It was the first time anybody ever said that to me, and it really made me think, “Well, what if I just do that?!” So I started writing more music. I had also been writing texts and other things like that. Then some cool opportunities opened up to me as a young person in New York City with different dance companies and that opened up a new set of possibilities in my life.
FJO: So what made you write that first piece, and what was that first piece?
ER: It’s so good. You’re gonna die!
ER: Who knows what makes you write the first piece? With 20/20 hindsight, I can guess that it had something to do with being a freshman at Columbia, coming from a small town in east Tennessee, and my first weekend of college being September 11 and not being able to process that. Everyone at school couldn’t get anything done. There was this weird kind of haze over everything and this feeling of rupture that I didn’t know how to express at that point. That’s my guess. So I started writing, and the first thing I ever wrote was a musical of Dead Poets Society that was called Captain, My Captain. We produced it in this beautiful dorm that looked kind of like a prep school at Columbia, and it was really successful. It sold out every night, and my friends that I worked on it with were super supportive. My family came up from Tennessee to see it. It was pretty awesome, but it’s also hilarious to me.
FJO: I always love to hear everything, so do you have a recording of that somewhere?
ER: Oh my God, I do! Royce Vavrek wanted to hear it because he thinks it’s really funny. And so I was listening to it and I was like, “Oh, yeah!” It’s interesting. There’s something about it that’s not self-aware. The music just starts; it doesn’t need to be, “Okay, I’m about to start now. Okay, and I start.” I think then I went through a phase of overthinking things, so it was interesting to hear the non-self-awareness of it.
FJO: Was it your own text, or did you work with a lyricist?
ER: From the movie’s original screenplay, I made the libretto, but then I wrote the texts for the different songs.
FJO: So did you secure the rights for it?
ER: Yeah. The story was by a friend of my mom’s from college, or some guy that had dated my mom’s roommate, and she reached out, and he gave me the rights. But basically Disney owns the name, so that’s why we called it Captain, My Captain.
FJO: So it could theoretically be picked up and revived.
ER: Oh my God! I would die! I mean of laughter. I think it would be hilarious. But, if somebody wants to redo Captain, My Captain, that would be amazing.
FJO: There’s one thing I read in the bio on your website about your beginnings as a composer that I thought was very interesting that you haven’t mentioned, so I’m going to bring it in and see where we go with it.
ER: Oh great.
FJO: You had a synesthetic experience after attending a performance of the Ring Cycle at Carnegie Hall.
FJO: So it was not a staged thing?
FJO: So you didn’t actually experience the whole gesamtkunstwerk?
ER: No, I didn’t.
FJO: You just heard the music.
FJO: But you swooned the way people did in the 19th century.“I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music.”
ER: It was quite weird. I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music. You know, I would go see different groups that were touring through like rock concerts, or touring theatrical productions, or ballets and that kind of thing. So it was probably one of the first. I think it was through Columbia that we got free tickets to go, and I was really overwhelmed by the music. And it was a synesthetic experience unlike anything I’ve had before or since. It was really interesting. It was also around September 11, so I think that there was some kind of titanic shift happening in the way my brain was processing things. I don’t know.
FJO: When I read that in your bio, I wondered if there was a connection and an inspiration, and then perhaps a reaction, to Wagner in your development as a composer somehow, since his work embodied this whole idea of gesamtkunstwerk—it’s music, poetry, theater, dance, and ritual all at once. But, of course, the way it was presented and the way it has been packaged and promulgated is that it’s this one person’s giant ego, whereas the real gesamtkunstwerk that was to happen occurred a generation or two later with the rise of motion pictures where you have an art form that is comprised of all these different elements, but which, for the most part, is the work of many, many, many people. Despite what film historians write about the great auteur directors, it really does take a village to make a movie.
FJO: Of course, it also takes a village to produce a Wagner opera, but we tend just to focus on his force of will to write the whole thing. It’s the opposite of the collaborative way that you work; Wagner has become the ultimate composer-hero-god-myth.
ER: Right, and he was an incredibly problematic person.
FJO: Yeah, that too. So it’s weird that this experience with the Ring was such a big moment for you. But of course the music’s wonderful.
ER: Exactly. Yeah, the music’s wonderful. I remember when the LA Opera did the Ring Cycle. It was a really great experience. I’ve had multiple great experiences with it, but I don’t ever think of myself in the lineage of Wagner.
FJO: And, also, what a problematic story. If there’s any story that’s about the supremacy of one group of people over another, it’s the Ring Cycle.
ER: Yeah. I mean, what can you say? I think there’s something about how you see the lineage. I think there’s something in your question about what is the lineage right now of being in a dramatic storytelling medium. It’s definitely problematic to take it from that particular lineage, because it’s not accurate. And it’s not the world we want to be living in. And there are so many different media that tell stories that we can feel in a lineage from those. A lot of the questions in the industry, like: Is there a future for opera? Why don’t we have an audience? These big questions that come up at roundtable meetings. I think part of the answer is: What’s your lineage? What’s your story of what opera means? Because if that story is directly from one lineage, then that might be a problem going forward.
FJO: And I think what makes your work so compelling and such a different take on all of this is that you have an extensive background working in many kinds of media. You did a lot of incidental music for theatrical productions, and you’ve done several film scores. All of those things are inherently collaborative, and as you said at the outset of this discussion, you would create music for a theatrical production and it wasn’t even acknowledged in terms of how a critic perceived it, or how an audience perceived it. You weren’t singled out the way a composer is singled out in opera. I think those experiences made you more—I don’t want to say amenable, because it would sound like you were some other way that you weren’t. It’s more like for you there is no other way; you wouldn’t even conceive of another way of creating. But I think it was reinforced by working in these other media where the composer was just one of many people involved in the production team.“One of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera.”
ER: Definitely. It feels more like a constellation, like who’s in the front this time. And if we worked together here, then you’d be in the front. Also, one of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera, which is super different from Western opera. Learning about different operatic and musical storytelling traditions from different places in the world was really exciting.
FJO: How long were you in Thailand?
ER: Two and a half years.
FJO: Wow. And were there musical influences from those years that also rubbed off on you?
ER: I think you can’t help but be. I was living there and working with Thai-trained classical musicians. So it was like a different point of gravity and just realizing that it also works if you have this point of gravity for musical catharsis or structure. It’s not so much that I’m like, “What would they do in the Thai classical medium about this?” It’s more that I know that there are different ways. It’s opened up the possibility of asking what other ways there are to create meaning.
I was in my early 20s at that point, and I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world. So I asked my Thai classical musician friends, “If you want something to sound sad in Thai classical music, what do you do?” And they said, “Oh, you use a flute.” That’s so interesting, the idea of harmony versus orchestration.
FJO: Since their whole musical system derives from what is basically an equidistant seven-tone scale, there is no major or minor.
FJO: There is this one uber-mode that then you extract subsets from, but not in terms of making something happy or sad the way we do with major being happy and minor being sad.
ER: Exactly. But, if you think about it, a flute can sound really sad, you know. It really can.
FJO: So has that seeped into your orchestration sensibility now?“I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world.”
ER: No, I would say it’s more that it’s opened up the possibility of other answers to very basic questions. Like, how can we make this sad? There are so many more ways than minor. It kind of breaks up some of the traditional Western chromatic teaching that I have, because then it’s a whole other framework to think about which then makes it feel way more relative. Creating a piece, or even “What is a composition?”, these very basic questions all have absolutely different answers. The idea of a composer is kind of weird there.
FJO: So now, to take this back into working for film and for theater.
FJO: In those roles, a composer is brought in traditionally to enhance the drama, to really convey something. So there you would get an assignment, theoretically, like: oh, this has to be really sad; we want the viewer to focus on this. So I’m curious what the process was in the films you scored and what the working relationship was like with the filmmakers and how those things came about.
ER: One filmmaker I work with most frequently is named Sarah Andina Smith. She is wonderful. We were in college together and have literally been working together since then. So I feel like we have a lot of shorthands because we’ve been working together for such a long time. The feature film we did together was called The Midnight Swim. The sound that I was working on for that film was between composition and sound design where it was almost heightened Foley, because it was supposed to be this horror film where these magical and mysterious things were happening. How can you make the wind sing? Can we hear this lullaby we’ve heard before in the wind? I was almost trying to embed the entire environment with different sounds, heightening and extracting normal human sounds to make it feel more resonant. So the sound of fluorescent lighting would have a melody or a pitch.
FJO: The film also involves somebody drowning and disappearing under the water, so I imagine you were also trying to convey what sound is like under water to some extent, too.
FJO: So that makes me want to go to another area. This conversation has taken a completely different path than how I thought it would go. We’re talking about everything out of order, but I suppose that’s okay because linear order is not necessary.
ER: It’s overrated.
FJO: Of course, p r i s m is totally non-linear.
FJO: I think that’s a big part of what makes it so effective. Anyway, you describe yourself as a composer and a sound artist. So I imagine that those two terms mean two different things to you because you use them both. So I wanted to unpack that a bit. What’s the difference and why?“Composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear.”
ER: That’s a good question. I almost think composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear—so speaker placement or other ways of experiencing the music that don’t have to do with the score is how I think of being a sound artist. I definitely sit at my computer and do work by myself thinking about sounds, which feels like [being] a composer. But I think that “sound artist” is my way of trying to convey something beyond that, thinking about the sounds in the world.
FJO: I also wonder, given what you said about initially being interested in how music is perceived by an audience, if the terms “composer” and “sound artist” bring up different associations when somebody who experiences the sonic information is told, “this is by the composer Ellen Reid” versus “this is by the sound artist Ellen Reid.” Are people going to be hearing it in a different way because of that?
ER: I think so. Don’t you think so?
FJO: I do, but I’d like to unpack that more.
ER: I think it’s maybe they’re different realms of the work. Composition feels like it’s the realm of the notes and the performance, and sound art is around the realm of how it’s heard.
FJO: But, in a way, with all contemporary music, isn’t it all about how it’s heard at this point? It’s more than just the notes. I don’t know.
ER: I don’t know. I think also that I’m interested in things beyond concert music. I’m interested in sound installations and other things that you could call compositions as well, but I’m interested in a broader spectrum.
FJO: The most intriguing sound installations of yours—that I’ve heard only a snippet of—is this thing you called Peel.
ER: Oh, yeah. At the Getty. It was so cool.
FJO: I’m curious about how that worked. Was there a score for it? Did people learn it? What was the process for creating that?
ER: Well, it was actually pretty compositional. There was this wall at the Getty in Los Angeles where there’s travertine, but the way they mounted the travertine is there is space between it and the wall. So all of the different pieces of travertine have a slightly different pitch. And they’re all pitched where you hit it and it sounds like a marimba. So I went with a handful of collaborators that I was working with on the project and we made a diagram of the pitch of each of the stones on this wall that we would be using. Then we wrote pieces for them and memorized the pieces together. I played four people’s pieces, and they played my piece, and then we would work with the audience that was there in a kind of guided improv on the wall.
FJO: So once again, it was a totally collaborative process.
FJO: But by the same token, you’ve written completely notated, fixed compositions like the sextet you wrote for ICE and that fabulous piece for the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, which I imagine was completely worked out as well. Even with those things, however, you can have very precise ideas and you do—I was very intrigued by Julian Wachner’s comment in the talk back after p r i s m about how you were very clear about what you want in your scores—but, since your dealing with human beings, no two interpretations will ever be the same.
ER: That’s okay. We did p r i s m in two different spaces. Red Cat and La MaMa are a similar size, and it definitely worked in both. But it feels really different in those spaces to me, so I think in that way, working with any person, you’re welcoming their interpretation into the piece. And it’s exciting. For me, the specificity is more about the shape and about the energy of it.
FJO: Of course, the one area where you theoretically don’t have to deal with other people is if you’re creating something with electronic sounds on a laptop or in a studio; then, every single sound could be just you. Yet what I find so fascinating about the stuff of yours that I’ve heard that you created that way is that you deal with pre-existing recordings of people. So you are still letting other people in.
ER: That’s cool. Which piece are you talking about?
FJO: There’s this piece you have using Ella Fitzgerald’s voice.
ER: Oh yeah, that’s a piece for theater. I made it for a play, so it was already for a piece that was collaborative. We did it at Edinburgh and in Los Angeles.
FJO: I’m curious about what leads you to putting sound together that way, always having a collaborator, even if that collaborator is someone who created pre-existing work that you then manipulate.“Everything’s in response to everything else.”
ER: I think everything’s in response to everything else, and so even if I think I’m doing it by myself, I’m not. Somebody built my computer. Somebody designed this program. Somebody is gonna release the album. Nothing’s ever alone. We have put a certain amount of weight on different parts of those things to make some of them seem more important, but they couldn’t happen without the other ones.
FJO: So to take it back to opera. I didn’t see Winter’s Child; I only saw and heard a few excerpts of it online. But, from what I know about it, it’s also the story of a relationship between a mother and a daughter, which is a theme you returned to for p r i s m.
ER: Basically the trajectory from Winter’s Child to p r i s m is that we were working on Winter’s Child, but I was working on it with a different librettist. I did something kind of adjacent to it at CalArts before I finished my master’s. Then the librettist was more interested in doing other things, so the project couldn’t move forward. So we took a minute to regroup and the people involved with PROTOTYPE were interested in something like Winter’s Child, and so we came up with something that used similar forces, but I think it’s a really different piece. It’s a different story that involved Roxie [Perkins], bringing her into the process and starting from scratch with her with some of the givens that there would be two female leads and a choral component.
FJO: The other thing I found interesting about Winter’s Child is that although you had a librettist, it was based on a story that you had co-written with two other people.“People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not.”
ER: It’s hard to find writers who are interested in working in opera. I think part of it is what we were talking about before: who’s in the driver’s seat? People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not. Both of the people who worked on developing that wanted to be playwrights more than librettists.
FJO: One of the most provocative things that Beth Morrison said during the talkback the other night was that opera really should look to screenwriters as librettists. I thought that was such an intriguing paradigm because even though screenwriters do such incredible work, they’re never in the driver’s seat.
ER: That’s true. And there is space for the visuals to tell the story. They’re used to leaving space. I think that there are a lot of great places to mine for writers. Roxie is a screenwriter as well as a playwright, so a lot of different parts of her background came into making the piece.
FJO: So in terms of storytelling, did you initiate the story for Winter’s Child?
ER: Yeah, I mean kind of. I mean, it was me and the director and this playwright. We came up with this kind of mythic story together. We were in grad school, and so it was very collaborative.
FJO: But p r i s m is Roxie’s story.
ER: Yes, but it’s also collaborative. We would have workshops. We gave Roxie some limitations and were like: let’s just see how this goes. And then she took a lot of liberties and came up with some really exciting ideas, and then we’d work as you do when you’re making a piece and kind of refining it to make it speak through the medium—with James Darrah the director, me, Beth, the whole team, kind of looking at it to make it work.
FJO: In a way, given what we’ve been talking about today about collectively making work, I feel like I shouldn’t even be asking questions about who did what because it’s a collaboration.
ER: Right, exactly. It’s like, well, here we are. Everyone’s involved.
FJO: I’ve been referring to p r i s m as your second opera, but it sort of isn’t. In a way, it’s your third, because you were also one of the composers involved with Hopscotch.
FJO: But once again, here it’s even harder to talk about who the auteur is—well, it was the brainchild of Yuval Sharon, The Industry’s artistic director. But there were many composers involved in it, so there was no musical auteur; it was a completely different creative process than it is with most operas.
FJO: How did you get connected to that project, and how do you feel that it fits into the overall trajectory of your work?
ER: I had a great time working on Hopscotch. We did a workshop of Winter’s Child with The Industry, and Yuval and I enjoyed working together. I really appreciated how seriously he took the music. It was one of my first experiences actually having someone read what was on the page and commit to that. So it was a great experience. And then he asked me to be a part of Hopscotch. I loved Invisible Cities and respect him as an artist, so of course I wanted to and it was a really exciting idea. So it was almost like mini-operas. We would write these ten-minute scenes that had to have an element of flexibility. Talk about collaboration; you’re collaborating with the forces of nature in Hopscotch! It was really a great experience. And I met Sarah LaBrie, the librettist for dreams of the new world, through that process. We would all meet once a month to talk about the project and there were so many different, interesting points of collaboration on that project.
For example, I was working with Mandy Kahn, an incredible poet, on my scenes, and she wrote this one text for another work that Marc Lowenstein scored about a ring around a character’s neck. The ring was her mother’s ring because the mother had passed away earlier. Then all of a sudden, all of the actors that were playing the character had a ring around their costumes. There are all these interesting points of connection in that project that were really exciting.
FJO: Now we talked a little bit before about dreams of the new world being recorded and being eventually released in an audio-only format. You can’t see it. But with a work like p r i s m or Winter’s Child or Hopscotch, you really don’t get it all if you just hear it. You really need to see it as much as hear it. So I’m hoping that there’ll be some kind of video release at some point; p r i s m would make an incredible film, I think.
ER: Thank you. We documented the performance with multiple cameras. It was a great performance at La MaMa, but I’m not sure of the plan for release, whether it will uploaded online and visible or how that will work.
FJO: Of course, someone seeing it on a screen won’t get the immersive aspects of it, but maybe it’s not essential. I’m not sure.
ER: You mean for the intermission segment?
ER: They recorded in the lobby.
FJO: Right, but if you’re watching it on the screen, you’re not in it; you don’t break the fourth wall.
ER: No, that would be weird if we could do that.
FJO: That’s maybe the next step in technology.
ER: Exactly. I do think p r i s m could make a great actual film, but I think that having video will bring you closer to the experience than just audio.
FJO: And obviously, if it were a film, it would be different. It would have multiple shots and cutaways. There’s a lot of stuff you can do. There have been people who have attempted to do opera as film, opera as television—what Robert Ashley started doing in the 1970s. There’s been some exciting work along those lines, but I feel like that’s an area that could be really developed further. And I think you would do great work in that medium.
ER: Thank you. It could be fun. Even serials. Serials are so popular these days. There are so many different options.
FJO: So along those lines, what other kinds of pieces do you want to write? And what’s coming up?
ER: Well, I can’t tell you yet. It’s a little early because of when this is coming out for me to tell you what I’m working on next.
FJO: Top secret?
ER: Yes. But I’m excited about some orchestral pieces, a sound installation piece, and some choral works.
FJO: Of course, writing for orchestra is a very different process than most of what we’ve been talking about. Given the rehearsal limitations, you have to be very specific about the sounds you want and it’s very much about the people making the sound. And it’s the conductor who deals with the orchestra; maybe the composer gets to sit in and make some comments, but it’s from somewhat of a distance. How do you feel about that working process?
ER: It is very different, but it’s just a different process. I think it works really well when the conductor is involved in what the piece is because they are such an important part of the conversations around it, and the organization, too. I wrote a piece last February for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and they were really interested in a piece that was spatialized. That helped me to launch into making the piece, because it was a collaboration between the people in the group and some of the people who run the group. So I think that it doesn’t always feel so separate.
FJO: I also loved what you were saying earlier about writing the score in such a way that the motion of the conductor is an integral part of the piece, paying attention to the choreography of the conductor. Without giving away what this piece is that you’re writing, since you can’t tell me about it, will that be an element?
ER: I’m sure. It has to be. They’re front and center: a dancer conductor.