Tag: composer residencies

Mantras & Filters: Overcoming Composer’s Block

Path blocked

Composing at two different residencies in the span of less than a year brings the problem of “composer’s block” clearly into focus. I experience it not as a block or wall so much as a mental filter through which all ideas must pass, a filter clogged by a steady stream of self-criticism: This sucks. This sounds like second-rate [other, more accomplished composer]. I should only write choral music, because clearly I’m terrible at writing for “real” instruments. Who let me into this residency, anyway? The judges must’ve needed another female composer; maybe I was the only one who applied?

It gets bad. At a residency, when composing is the main—or only—activity on the schedule, the music flows more easily than usual, and when the block hits, that hits harder, too. The beauty of residencies, though, is that they come with a finite amount of time. There’s only so much time before self-pitying and the accompanying doubt—I’m wasting my residency!—become more cumbersome than the act of getting notes down.

I’ve finally figured out how to break through the filter of self-doubt on a fairly reliable basis. For me, what works is a series of mantras—nuggets of wisdom from people smarter than I am that I can repeat until the filter unclogs. Here, in the order in which they are usually deployed, is everything I know and tell myself when composing feels impossible and my brain kicks in:

This music absolutely sucks.

Mantra #1: Wallow.

So you’ve been sitting at the piano/computer/desk for a while, and nothing’s flowing? Take a—brief—moment to wallow in how much it sucks. Everything sucks. The music is terrible. Composing is hard. Life is hard.

Mantra #2: Take a break.

Okay, enough wallowing. Go—briefly—do something else. You’re allowed to take a break. You should take a break. Feeling creatively blocked is the only time when cleaning seems like an appealing activity to me, so I take advantage of it when I can. My house gets cleaner, and I view it as a win-win situation. Wash the dishes. Go for a walk. Read a book. Listen to someone else’s music—music that knows what it’s doing. Change locations. Go for a drive. Take a shower. Watch some trashy television, but only one episode. Do any task where your hands or body are occupied with a banal task, and your mind is free to roam.

I’ve forgotten how to compose.

Mantra #3: Just sit down (at the desk, at the piano, at the computer).

This can be the hardest step, I think, especially when writing hasn’t been going well. At home, my “office”—barely a separate room from the living room—is about ten feet away from where I usually eat breakfast. The hardest part of getting started each day can be walking those ten feet and doing work. So just sit down. Sit at the piano. Sit at the computer. As Jane Yolen and countless other authors have said, “Butt in chair” is the great secret to writing. Tell yourself you can even sit at the piano/desk and not write anything. Just sit down.

Mantra #4: Fix the things you know how to fix. —Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

In case of emergency, first go back and work on what you already have. Edit. Make sure slurs and dynamics are present and in the right place. Make minor fixes. Clean things up. Often just editing an older section of a piece results in re-familiarizing yourself with this material, which suggests another way to approach or rework it later in the piece. Skip ahead to a part of the piece where you know what’s happening. Skip to something you can take care of, something you feel confident about.

This music is utter crap.

Mantra #5: Shitty first drafts.—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Okay, now that you’ve tricked yourself into sitting back down and getting back into the work by any means necessary, it’s time to create. For this, I use writer Anne Lamott’s mantra of “shitty first drafts”: no one’s going to see what you’re writing, so it’s fine to write particularly horrible music. Maybe you know the sound you want, but you’ve forgotten how to notate it, or you can’t remember at this particular moment whether it’s even physically possible to produce that noise on this instrument. You can get stuck in the filter telling yourself that this makes you an ignorant, wretched composer, or you can say—out loud is particularly helpful—“shitty first drafts,” get it down, and remember you can always burn it later. (Or hit the delete key.) But just write something.

What is going on with this section? What is this music even doing?

Mantra #6: Delete, delete, delete.

As you think about the music, play it back, work through it—What feels right? What feels wrong? If it feels wrong, get rid of it. It’s terrifically freeing to delete what just plain doesn’t work. Better yet, save it somewhere else so that you can come back to it if you do miss that material (a tip from Stephen King’s On Writing, where he also quotes Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings”). But the chances are, you won’t miss the material, and you’re better off without it. At one point, this essay was at least three paragraphs longer; now that those paragraphs are gone, not only do I not miss them, I can’t even remember what they said.

Mantra #7: Trust yourself.

You’ve composed in the past; you’ll do it again. Trust that whatever you write next will be better than 1) whatever you’ve deleted, and 2) whatever you’ve written in the past. You learn from the music you’ve already written, and you fix whatever didn’t work in those pieces in your next piece, so your music is constantly improving. The knowledge of how to compose doesn’t go away. Trust that knowledge.

Mantra #8: Do what’s easy.

Think “easy” in the artistic sense, not in the “sitting on the couch and watching Netflix” sense. The most elegant solution to a problem is often the simplest one, especially if it emerges from embracing your strengths and choosing what comes naturally over something that feels forced. You’ll never reach this solution if you don’t delete the crap first, though, or if you judge your instincts without trusting them.

This isn’t complex/long/original/good enough.

Mantra #9: Don’t judge. Or: Write first, judge later.

Do you like it? That’s all that matters. I have a few quotes stashed away for whenever the filter goes but this work is terrible. It doesn’t matter that I really want this cadence here; the rest of the world is going to find it horribly clichéd and take away my composer card. Plus, I’m pretty sure this other composer already did this, and they did it better than I’m doing it.

I love this quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: “Stop worrying if your vision is new / Let others make that decision—They usually do.” This quote from Philip Glass helps, too: “The main thing is to love the work that you do, because you may get no other reward.” Write for yourself. Yes, of course, you should keep the musicians for whom you’re writing in mind as you write them a piece. But in the moment of composing, the music itself is for you.

Even when we feel that we don’t know what we’re doing, even when we’re trying to judge everything that comes out of our fingers or our brain—even with all of that, it feels good to have written, and it usually feels good in the process, too, once we finally sit down and start. It’s supposed to feel good; this is why we write. That’s why we’ve chosen to be creators: no matter the pain and frustration of composing, it’s more painful to be stuck in the filter, not composing.

I have one final mantra, derived from one of my favorite quotes about composing—in the moment, and as a career:

I would tell any young composer: Go for it now. Don’t wait. Don’t say, ‘Well, I’m going to do that when I have time.’ Keep the writing going, and let everything be in a mess if it’s in a mess. Just don’t stop.

—Dale Warland, from this interview with Abbie Betinis

Mantra #10: Let everything be in a mess.

I think of this one as “shitty first drafts,” but for life. Composing is what matters. Sometimes I take this phrase very literally: so the dishes are in the sink, and there’s laundry all over the floor, and the area surrounding the piano is covered in sheet music. It doesn’t matter. Let it be in a mess, and if your score is a mess, let that be in a mess, too; you can fix it later, and you can clean later, but you will never get back this time that you have right now to be composing.

Put your butt in the chair. Write a shitty first draft. Everything that’s not working? Delete, delete, delete. Write first, judge later (or don’t judge at all). Trust yourself; you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. Reward yourself when you’ve done the work. Come back to it the next day, and let everything be in a mess. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Watching TV at Copland House

Copland's desk

The Desk of Copland! The Living Room of Copland!

I don’t know why Copland House has cable. Some residencies don’t even have internet access, let alone 200 channels. But Copland House did, and so while I was there, I watched TV.

At the time, I didn’t know why I was spending my time at this coveted, greatly anticipated residency watching television. I woke up every morning delighted to be there. I read Copland’s autobiography. I spent time studying Copland’s scores in tandem with the ample CD collection at the house, pouring over his work daily. It’s hard to sit at Copland’s desk without thinking: I am sitting at Copland’s Desk! The Desk of Copland! The whole house feels that way: I am in the Living Room of Copland! The Kitchen of Copland! I am doing laundry in Aaron Copland’s Basement!

When I did sit down to compose my own music, though, I got more frustrated than I’ve ever been with my own ability to create—or not create—music. My thoughts churned rapidly into a downward spiral of “Why am I even here?” “I’m wasting Copland House’s time and money.” “I don’t deserve to be here.” “I’m a terrible composer.” “I’m probably the worst composer they’ve ever let into this residency.” More than once, I imagined the scowling ghost of Aaron Copland wondering who’d let me into the house.

I don’t know why these feelings chose this particular time and residency to emerge. It didn’t help, I suppose, that even at the beginning of April, the woods surrounding the house were completely barren; the view from the composing studio was absolutely striking, but also a monotony of brown. One morning—in April—it snowed.

I’d experienced writer’s block at my last residency, but never to this paralyzing degree, where I immediately rejected everything I wrote as trite and terrible. So I walked away from the piano, from Copland’s Desk, to Copland’s Living Room. I walked away from composing, and I watched TV.

I watched the season premiere of Game of Thrones. I watched the series premiere of Silicon Valley. One night, I re-watched Can’t Hardly Wait, which I realized has an irrationally high percentage of actor-overlap with the cast of Six Feet Under. While eating lunch, sometimes I’d watch E!’s noontime reruns of Sex and the City. There may be no greater way to make yourself feel like a bad composer—the worst composer, really—than watching the fluffiest of all fluffy shows in the house of one of the Great American Composers while being paid, essentially, to live there and compose.

I was composing, too, for long stretches of time, but I hated everything I wrote. Somehow, this particular residency and this particular piece brought up every insecurity I’d flirted with in the past. I spent my days careening between total giddiness at my surroundings (Copland’s Desk! Copland’s Porch! Copland’s Basement! Copland’s Music! Copland’s Autobiography!) and the worst composing insecurity I’d ever experienced. Halfway through the residency, something had to change: I couldn’t spend the entire residency rejecting everything I wrote before I even set it to paper. I settled into a routine, and that routine revolved around two things:

1) Compose.

2) Feel good about composing, by any means necessary.

I’d wake up; I’d study two or three Copland scores; I’d eat breakfast; I’d read Copland’s autobiography. I’d compose something, anything, and gradually, I stopped judging what I wrote. I’d go for a walk. Sometimes I’d compose more.

In the evening, if I felt like I’d had a productive day, I’d watch TV. I told myself that Copland, who mostly composed at night and enjoyed having friends over to his house during the day, wouldn’t have minded my taking a break as a reward for getting through the day, for sitting at the piano for hours and getting the notes down. Was the music I was writing good? Maybe, maybe not. But I got something down every day, and that became all that mattered.

Near the end of the residency, I stumbled on a Patti Lupone masterclass on HBO. Patti was teaching several high school students; at one point, she tells one of them, “Failure is the only thing that teaches, success does not. Success limits you because you try to repeat your success.” I wrote it down. I felt like I’d spent the previous two weeks failing at composing.

I’ve established a few things that I do consistently at artist residencies, but not necessarily in my ordinary life: I go for long walks. I read books I’ve been meaning to read for months but have put off, or new books I’ve gotten just for the residency. And yes, if it’s there, I will watch TV. (I recently applied to a residency that doesn’t even allow cell phones, which would obviously offer a very different experience.)

I have to believe that taking breaks helps to feed the art. Everything that’s not composing, everything that offers rest—journaling, reading, a walk, even Game of Thrones—is important, maybe even necessary to the process. One feeds the other. Failure feeds success. Self-doubt makes, sometimes, for a stronger resolution, when one returns to the piano, or to Copland’s Desk, to get the notes down, without judging them in the process.

So at Copland House, I read Copland’s autobiography daily. I worked my way through almost every one of Copland’s scores. I went for long walks. For the first time, since I don’t have cable at home, I watched a Game of Thrones season premiere when it aired. I hit a double bar on the chamber piece, Footnotes to a History of the Jewelry Box—which I’d continue to edit, but only gently, for months afterward—and started three new choral pieces. Right before I left, the multitude of bright yellow tulips planted around the property came up all at once, just in time for me to return home and find my way forward to another routine.

2015-2016 Rome Prize Recipients Announced

Composers Nina C. Young and Christopher Cerrone

Composers Nina C. Young and Christopher Cerrone

Composers Christopher Cerrone and Nina C. Young have been named recipients of the of the 2015-2016 Rome Prize. They—along with 29 other artists and scholars in the fields of ancient studies, architecture, design, historic preservation and conservation, landscape architecture, literature, medieval studies, modern Italian studies, renaissance and early modern studies, and visual arts—will be provided with a fellowship that includes a stipend, a study or studio, and room and board for a period of six months to two years in Rome.

The winners are selected by independent juries through a national competition process, and approximately thirty individuals working in the arts and humanities are invited to Rome to expand their own professional, artistic, or scholarly pursuits, while drawing on their colleagues’ knowledge and experience and on the resources that Italy, Europe, and the academy have to offer. The annual application deadline is November 1. The academy community also includes a selected group of residents, affiliated fellows, and visiting artists and scholars.

Bobby Previte Awarded 2015 Greenfield Prize

Bobby Previte

Bobby Previte
Photo by Michael DiDonna

The Hermitage Artist Retreat and its partner, the Philadelphia-based Greenfield Foundation, have announced that the 2015 Greenfield Prize will be awarded this year in music to composer Bobby Previte. This award includes a $30,000 commission for a new work to be realized within two years. In addition, the winner is given residency time at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, a performance by a professional arts organization on the two-year anniversary of the award, and assistance with future performances for the work.

“Winning a prize is always good,” remarked Previte. “Winning a prize to create music for great musicians is better. Winning a prize and writing that music on a beach will be…heaven!”

Semi-finalists, who will each receive $1000 along with a Hermitage residency, are composers Don Byron, Tyshawn Sorey, and Julia Wolfe.

The mission of the commission is to bring into the world a work of art that will have a significant impact on the broader or artistic culture. A small group of semi-finalists, selected by a jury, is asked to submit a proposal for their project based on this guideline. Serving on the jury that selected Previte were Linda Golding, former president of Boosey & Hawkes Music publishers, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, and Anne Ewers, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.

The Greenfield Prize is awarded in three rotating arts disciplines every spring. In addition to music, the award is also given in drama and visual art. Previous winners in music include composers Eve Beglarian and Vijay Iyer.

(—from the press release)

Bobby Previte is also a New Music USA project grant recipient! Learn more about his work here.

League of American Orchestras & New Music USA Announce 12 New Music Alive Residencies

Twelve orchestras and composers have been selected to receive Music Alive: New Partnerships grants of $7,500 each, the League of American Orchestras and New Music USA announced today. Matching composers and orchestras who have not previously worked together, the program will support a series of one-week residencies between 2014 and 2016, each culminating in the performance of an orchestral work from the composer’s catalog. Orchestras with operating budgets of approximately $7 million and below were eligible to apply.

“These new Music Alive residencies provide communities across the country with invaluable opportunities to hear the music of our time while connecting in-person with these talented composers,” said League President and CEO Jesse Rosen. “Supporting orchestras in their commitment to perform the works of living American composers has always been an institutional priority for the League, with programs such as Ford Made in America and the ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming historically playing an important role at the organization.”

“Through the generosity of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and our other funders, we are delighted to be continuing our support of collaborations between composers and orchestras,” commented Ed Harsh, President and CEO of New Music USA. “Through Music Alive and in many other ways, New Music USA supports the dynamic, sustained relationships between individual creative artists and orchestras that are essential to a healthy musical ecology.”

The composer/orchestra partnerships are:

Clarice Assad and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra
Douglas J. Cuomo and the Grant Park Music Festival (Chicago, Illinois)
Annie Gosfield and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra (New York)
Takuma Itoh and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra (Arizona)
Jingjing Luo and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (New Jersey)
Missy Mazzoli and the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra (Colorado)
Rick Robinson and the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (Houston, Texas)
Carl Schimmel and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (New Orleans)
Laura Schwendinger and the Richmond Symphony (Virginia)
Derrick Spiva and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Sumi Tonooka and the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra (Sioux Falls)
Dan Visconti and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (Little Rock)

Forty-four orchestras and 219 composers applied for the program and two artistic panels selected the twelve grantees. Each residency will include a performance of a work by the composer, as well as individually tailored events, enabling the composers to reach new audiences, interact with youth, and take part in community-centered activities.
Now in its 14th year, Music Alive supports composer residencies in the concert halls and communities of orchestras throughout the country by providing funding, administrative support, and resources for both short and multi-year orchestra-composer collaborations. In addition to the new Music Alive: New Partnerships program, Music Alive also currently supports a three-year residency program for five composers and orchestras, most recently announced in 2013. Since 1999, there have been 127 Music Alive orchestral residencies; that number includes 78 individual orchestras and 110 individual composers (several orchestras and composers have participated multiple times). Music Alive programs help orchestras increase new music opportunities for audiences, artists, and administrators; identify model practices for sustained partnerships between artists and communities; help orchestras fully and comprehensively achieve their missions; and enrich orchestral repertoire with fresh and inventive music of our time.
Funding for Music Alive is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, The ASCAP Foundation Bart Howard Fund, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, and The Amphion Foundation. More information on Music Alive is available on the New Music USA website.

(—from the press release)

A Very Long Walk: Time, Distance, and Creativity on the PCT

Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass

When I initially started walking the Pacific Crest Trail as a mobile residency, my usual daily concerns–tea, the garden, my cat–were immediately swept away, and so was the work-related concern: composing. Finding myself in the middle of a windy, dry, hot desert in Southern California those first couple weeks, I primarily spent my time figuring out how to meet my basic human needs in order to stay alive. Acquiring water became a particular obsession; when the weight of carrying 5-6 liters at a time is coupled with only coming across water once or twice a day (every 10-20 miles), for me thoughts about it simply became all-consuming.
Needless to say, composing while hiking the PCT has been a radically different experience than at my usual studio pace at home. My normal routine is something like this: 6-7 a.m.–wake up and see what the more easterly time zones are up to and read emails. Between 7 a.m.-12 p.m. is when I get pretty much any creative sort of work done; really much after 11:30 and my brain is toast! Afternoons are the time I reserve for doing most of my communicating and handling the business side of things and that may or may not trickle into the evening, which I generally reserve for attending music or art events or just cooking and socializing. Breaks for tea, exercise, or gardening, etc., punctuate the day.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

So, composing on the trail was necessarily going to have to be different. Initially I was really weight conscious. I got rid of my trusty yellow legal pad and moleskin within the first couple days and instead began writing everything on the backs of my topo maps as I went through them. Without instruments at my disposal for notes, I now occasionally use a dinky little keyboard app when I’m lucky enough to have some spare charge in my phone (it’s fueled by a solar charger out here). When at home if I have a nuanced question about an instrument that my reference books can’t answer, I’ll just jump online and tweet out a question or text a friend who plays said instrument. However, most of the time on the trail there’s little cellphone coverage and even less possibility of enough reception to use good ol’ Google. So, I spend a lot more time thinking through ideas and trying to figure things out on my own, writing things out the best I can and carefully recording queries to pose to Google or musicians when I reach a town or happen across reception.
Highway-like sign on the PCT
As you can tell, composing on the trail is a pretty solitary and isolated activity! In fact, I have attended zero concerts since starting my trip and haven’t really had time to get into any new music when briefly in towns either. At the time of my writing this, I’m taking three days off the trail to go to a new music event of mine at the Soundwave Festival in San Francisco and I’ll see a friend, sound artist and occasional collaborator Chris Kallmyer, then. He’s the first fellow in our community that I’ve seen in person since May! So, this self-created residency takes on new levels of isolation not just from general society but from our community as well–something even most rural or remote artist residencies don’t do. Instead of working at a desk, I work out ideas in my head all day, then spend time in the evening after dinner writing things down.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

In short, I’m just, well, out there. Even though my wife has joined me now for a couple of months, we still usually only see a few people a day out on the trail. So, though my days are spent meeting basic human needs, making field recordings, and doing a lot of walking, for the most part I have endless time to just think and few decisions to make. Besides composing, I’m making many field recordings for my project so it’s my job to spend endless hours simply listening. In Dave Grohl’s 2013 keynote address at SXSW, he returns frequently to the idea of the creative process for himself being the product of simply being left to one’s own devices without anyone telling you what to do. It’s an almost archetypal stereotype (whether it’s true or not) of childhood–that one has nothing really to do, no big responsibilities, and an endless amount of time to mess around, get bored, make trouble, and just play. That very same day-dreaming drifting time is the luxury that I have out on the trail. Instead of my usual pattern of working on four or five things at once, I work on just one piece, mulling things over sometimes for days before actually writing them down. I’m not distracted by emails or petty bickering on social media. This is just one very long period of time to think about sound, and to organize a little of it for folks. My legs have just healed from having several dozen mosquito bites after being swarmed, and I’m sure there will be another unexpected physical hurdle soon, but I wouldn’t trade the luxury of so much time left to my own devices to work on music and sound for anything…well, except maybe for having some Chinese food delivered on the trail.

Where’s Nat at?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Listening to the Journey: Hypersensitive Hearing on the Trail

Sun on the Pacific Crest Trail
Since I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail seven weeks ago, I’ve undergone a number of physiological and mental changes. Living outdoors and walking somewhere between 10 and 20 miles a day has made my feet stronger and more agile (along with the rest of my body), my idea of what tastes good and my desire to eat is in constant obsessive flux, and my sense of time has expanded, too. One of the biggest changes that has occurred, however, relates more specifically to working with sound and music as a composer—an alteration in my sense of hearing.

Over the last few weeks, my hearing has changed dramatically. Sounds are much sharper and clearer, as well as more complex. I take time to analyze what I’m hearing and to react to it. This shift in perception is also part of an overall greater alertness in all my senses, such as vision—spotting the tiniest of things moving on the hillside or being able to make out a friend’s shoe print amongst others. A sea of sagebrush has greater relief and detail and parsing out the different shades of gray in clouds is easier—they seem infinitely more complex than any clouds I’ve seen before. Birds I may have disregarded in an everyday city moment now alert me to look up and see a rattlesnake on the trail. At other times, the perception of sound becomes downright psychedelic—hearing becomes not unlike the experience of certain ethnobotanicals. Occasionally voices seem to arrive out of water, echoing off a rock face; the particular way the wind sounds in trees will strike me as funny and I’ll chuckle endlessly at it, or a birdcall will echo in my head, morphing and becoming almost like a series of sine tones until I’m no longer sure what part is birds, what part is sounds in my head, and what’s happening in real time.

Part of this new sense of alertness in hearing comes simply from not being in a city environment for a prolonged period of time—the current, though ever-shifting sonic surroundings are for the most part without too much human intersection. That is to say, I have the luxury of experiencing one sound at a time usually—just the infinite sounds of the natural world that are all around us without the trappings of cars, refrigerator humming, phone buzzing, music in the distance, etc., that our busy sonic landscape is filled with in contemporary life. However, this new sense hearing also comes from a physiological alteration of my brain becoming better at picking out sounds, which stems from the pure endurance of what I am undertaking by walking great distances for days on end. When under duress our bodies pump a cocktail of hormones into our brains, a primal reaction meant to help us simply survive. These two factors intertwining are what is creating my current state of sonic perception.

This altered mental state finds a home in other arenas of endurance as well. Since the 1960s in Occidental culture, we find many people hunting that “runners high” or a similarly psychedelic perceptual brightening that comes from rock climbing or even roller coaster rides. In Japan, an esoteric sect of Tendai Buddhism utilizes running as an ascetic form of meditation—running for 100 days followed by isolated meditation for several days. Once when speaking to a monk, he described to me the sound of the ash falling from burning incense during the final days of mediation sounding like thunder. In my own Zen practice during a retreat once, I heard a thud behind me, but upon inspection later I discovered that it was simply the petal of a tulip that had fallen. So, perhaps endurance events and meditation, when intertwined, affect our hearing in similarly expansive ways.

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

Part of my project while on this hike involves attempting to instill bioregionalism via field recordings that I’ll surely use in the music I’m writing all summer, but more specifically through the music that my series of West Coast collaborators are writing. When we listen to field recordings, at least a small amount of this heightened awareness that I’ve been talking about occurs, and it opens up those doors of perception. Scott Worthington is the second of the eight composers to receive and work with my field recordings, and he had this to say about hearing, field recordings, sense of place, and his writing process:

I had never composed with field recordings before and making this piece gave me two strong impressions. First, I immediately noticed that, when played continuously, the recordings made me imagine being at the site of their creation. For example, in my piece, when I hear the birds fade in around one minute in and continue for a few minutes, I imagine sitting in a dense forest just after dawn. This isn’t a daydreaming kind of imagination; I am both transported and completely aware of my actual surroundings. Second, during and after writing this piece, my own local surroundings—in my apartment and walking around town—literally sounded different. I noticed the same kind of bird calls from the recordings. I heard sounds I’m positive I’d been hearing for the past year as though for the first time. Even traffic sounds different. I didn’t hear these “new” sounds as music, but they made me feel more attached to my surroundings in an aural sense (which is a sense I’m quite fond of).

Being a little less than halfway into the hike, I’m curious what other physiological changes will occur in relation to my senses—certainly an unknown factor, and one I’m excited to embrace. Perhaps, to paraphrase Gary Snyder, this sense of hearing and alertness that comes with living closer to the natural world is a reminder that, as living beings, we are not only invited to the feast, but we are also part of the main course. In this deep sense of alertness and awareness, we find the root of simply being alive, and at the moment this feels to me like the place where language and music arise from in humans—making order out of the perfectly balanced chaos of the earth.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Read Nat’s previous post here.

March: Virginia and the Dancers

Mary Page Evans's Big Amherst Sky

Mary Page Evans’s Big Amherst Sky

In March I traveled through an unlikely southeastern snowstorm to spend the month at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It’s a kind and peaceful place—far from the forceful, dramatic aura of my first formal residency at the Banff Centre, which sits at the confluence of two rivers surrounded on all sides by immense mountains. The VCCA won’t carry you to the terrifying brink of the sublime, but if you stay quiet for a few days, a little bird might land on your shoulder.

The center sits on a hillside from which little is visible but trees. Across the road is Sweet Briar College, a tiny school on an enormous property with miles of wooded trails. The setting fosters extended walks and quiet minds. The place itself almost disappears as your thoughts take the foreground. There is only you, and the work.

It was deeply dark the evening I arrived, the steep driveway covered with ice. I carried my bags into the residence. A group of people sat talking and drinking wine by the fireplace.

There is only you, and the work, and a host of wonderful artistic characters.

Something about the VCCA encourages quiet modesty; residents tend to be serious about their work and disinclined to pry into that of others, with the result that one can easily pass the first week of a residency without knowing anything about anyone’s art. You sit together at dinner and talk about the missing Malaysian Airlines plane or the new Wes Anderson film. It is only when someone plans an evening of presentations that you realize what deep, bizarre, and fabulous artistic worlds are clicking along behind all those closed white studio doors.

My favorite piece these days is Peter Garland’s first string quartet, In Praise of Poor Scholars (1986). Like the VCCA, this piece sneaked up on me. It pleased me with its superficial warmth and charm while setting to ravaging work on the walls of my subconscious. It wasn’t until about the fifth listen, when the final theme came pealing on, that I felt all the surging emotion beneath this music’s surface decorum and restraint. Suddenly I realized how linked it all is. The piece is a series of dances, flowing from one to the next; it takes a few listens to recognize that though the dance is continually changing, the dancers are always the same.
The first showing I attended at the VCCA featured paintings by Olive Ayhens and Markus Kircher. Olive is a New Yorker who paints incredibly detailed cityscapes in which everything seems about to rip apart with nervous energy. She has also spent time in Montana and Wyoming, and some of her paintings feature bears or buffalo descending on urban environments. She is at home with paint and less so with computers. One evening I helped her write a Facebook event page for a gallery event she was curating.

Olive Ayhens's Manhattan Rooftops

Olive Ayhens’s Manhattan Rooftops

Markus is an affable Austrian who paints a one-page piece every day in a large book. It’s already bound in there, then, and he has to accept it. The next day he paints another, on the back of the page, and so on. On a walk one day I encountered Markus returning from the Sweet Briar library. He was excited: he had borrowed Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I spotted a few ’90s rap albums in his jacket pocket.

Natasha Mell-Taylor is from Philadelphia. We chatted a number of times before I got around to asking about her work. “I mostly paint Godzilla,” she said. Natasha’s sense of humor reminded me of certain corners of my work with the Grant Wallace Band. She knows it’s funny that she paints Godzilla over and over, but she’s also completely serious about it.

Natasha Mell-Taylor's Prostitutes and Fashion Models meet GODzilla

Natasha Mell-Taylor’s Prostitutes and Fashion Models meet GODzilla

Shortly before departing, I met an ebullient septuagenarian named Mary Page Evans. We sat at the dinner table and talked about J.S. Bach and Dave Brubeck, two of her favorites, as she sipped red wine on the rocks. She studied music in college, and now she paints landscapes with a joyous embrace of color and texture. We share a birthday, April 24 (along with such luminaries as Willem de Kooning, Dave Volpe, Erik DeLuca, and Barbra Streisand). Mary Page lives in Delaware. She likes to paint clouds at Joe Biden’s house.

An abstract painter with a penchant for the geometric, Laura Young lives in my home state of Iowa and shows at my hometown’s Campbell Steele Gallery, where I’ve played piano a number of times. She also regularly visits New Mexico–to teach painting classes at a place called Ghost Ranch–so we had plenty to discuss. One rainy day in the lunch room, the topic of meditation arose. The unlikely international home of the Transcendental Meditation movement, Fairfield, Iowa, is also the site of one of Laura’s favorite galleries.

Laura Young's Structure III

Laura Young’s Structure III

A.K. Benninghofen writes short stories of snappy charm. She previously worked as an actor in New York and Los Angeles, and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She is almost uncomfortably similar to a certain ex-girlfriend of mine: they come from the same place, have parallel life stories, and speak with an eerily identical cadence. Late one warm afternoon, I sat in the gazebo listening to A.K. tell stories from her acting career. I thought about the old European doppelgänger myths.
One of my favorite characters, about whom I learned not enough at the time, was a writer named Jeffery Paine. He was reticent in groups, but turns out to be a prominent explainer of Eastern religious cultures to Western readers. He is working on a book about Crestone, Colorado, another unexpected spiritual center. He has spent a number of summers there and says it’s the only place he fits in, but he won’t consider moving full-time from his home base of Washington, D.C. “My abiding sin is indolence,” he told me.
That’s just a sampling, just a few of the wonderful artists I got to know in one little month. Such evanescent cohabitations of diverse creative personalities are among my greatest inspirations. I study these people’s life stories like Catholics study the lives of the saints. They teach me.

In the afternoons I set out for long walks and runs, along the road, down the hill, across the highway, and over to Sweet Briar to explore the network of trails. This sort of roving reminds me of certain childhood Saturday afternoons when I used to cross the street, walk through my neighbors’ backyards, and similarly drop into the woods. There were patches of forest near my family’s house that appeared to be unclaimed territory. Leaving the linear, programmed world of the video games I’d been playing inside, I entered a liminal, analog universe of sounds and smells. I’d drop into those woods, get away from the roads, walk awhile and emerge someplace else, surface in a park down the way or in the backyard of some house I’d never seen from that angle. There followed a delicious moment of recognizing the house and recasting my geographical understanding accordingly. I gained a different sense of the physical connections between things, a new experience of space, away from the grid of the streets. It wasn’t unlike walking the surface world of one of the old Mario side-scrollers and disappearing down a pipe to find another region opening, below and apart from the two-dimensional state in which I’d been proceeding.

I want music to make me feel like this, like I’ve dropped into another numinous dimension where I have access to new senses and unused potentials. I want to drop in and emerge somewhere else, linear connection uncertain. The Necks’ Open is like this; Morton Feldman’s late music is like this; Peter Garland’s first string quartet is absolutely like this. Garland walks you through a canyon, leaves you by yourself, but then you suddenly find yourself in a palace observing a stately dance. One moment is wispy and intimate, the next stentorian and communal. He throws you around in time (“Back to the 14th Century,” one tempo marking reads). I seek in my own music this special, steady non-linearity.

Evidently I also want life to make me feel like this. Because I keep moving around, as though attempting to simulate some manner of non-linear existence.

On one VCCA walk I was listening to a podcast called 99% Invisible. The episode in question involved a surprising find on Google Maps: a small island in Massachusetts labeled “Busta Rhymes Island.” With apocryphal place-names in mind, I proceeded down an afternoon-length Wikipedia rabbit hole, and by dinnertime I had a scheme for a cryptogeographical jazz album called Mountweazel Songs.

Lillian Mountweazel, you see, was a fictitious person included in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia as a copyright trap: if any other encyclopedia was discovered to have a Mountweazel entry, the NCE had evidence they’d been plagiarized. Lillian’s fabricators wrote her a fetching bio. She was a fountain designer and mailbox photographer by trade. Unfortunately she met a tragic end in 1973, in an explosion, while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.

So I poked around that afternoon and found nine nonexistent places. Some of them are fictional like Mountweazel, “paper towns” invented as copyright traps for atlases. Some are islands long charted but never conclusively found. Some used to exist but are now under the ocean. I wrote a little piece of music for each place. I love writing music about places. Even fake places.
I wrote them with a lovely, simple, and absolutely rigid morning ritual. I had breakfast early, went to my studio, played Bach for thirty minutes, meditated for ten, and then composed until about noon. My day thereafter was unstructured. Sometimes I’d stroll to Sweet Briar, drink coffee and attend to business matters. There is a little Starbucks on campus with a TV always blasting CNN, which was inevitably and interminably poring over the tragic and mystifying story of the Malaysian plane gone missing over the Indian Ocean. Various experts were engaged to speak about grieving, about closure, about relevant airplane and satellite technology, about the truly enormous size of said ocean. One anchor weighed the possibility that the plane had been sucked into a black hole. The passengers on the missing flight included a group of 24 artists and calligraphers, one of whom was vice-chairman of the Chinese Calligraphic Artists Association.

The coverage was yellow and the story was sad. I usually tried to tune it out, listening to Donny Hathaway Live, clicking videos my friends sent along, like this gem of Elliott Smith singing “Independence Day” with Brad Mehldau. Staying current with friends and colleagues.

I would practice later in the day, but not compose. I’ve found that I am most productive and happiest with that productivity when I respect composition by addressing it each morning, for a reasonable and bounded time, and then leaving it.

What I sought through this strict procedural geometry, in Mountweazel Songs with its little meters that shift back and forth by a single sixteenth and its musical patterns that repeat and repeat while always slightly changing, is a trait which, in the warm, wet vagueness of my mind, I call “Objectivity,” and which I can explicate no further within the partitions of logic—though I can admit that I see it in Schoenberg’s early piano music and Travis LaPlante’s solo improvisations, in Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and Bartók’s Out of Doors, in the duet performances of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, in Ben Hjertmann’s Bicinium and Eric Malmquist’s Piano Sonata, in the warm swirls of Chris Cerrone’s Memory Palaceand of The Sea and Cake’s Oui, in Elliott Smith’s chord changes, in Captain Beefheart’s growls, in the crisp two-part harmonies of the Murphy Beds.

Douglas Preston’s book Cities of Gold recounts the author’s 1989 journey on horseback to trace the conquistador Coronado’s 1540 path across what is now Arizona and New Mexico. His companion was a painter named Walter Nelson. One night, Nelson explained how a tragedy in his life propelled him toward that which I so non-rigorously label Objectivity:

I realized at that point I wasn’t the only hurt person in the world…I’ll tell you, Doug, this is a hard thing for us to realize, being creative people…To ourselves, we are the greatest, most unbelievable person. To us. But actually we’re just one thing in billions of trillions of other little things out there. That’s what we really are. You have to realize that, and when you realize that, your creative work will start having a lot more validity…When you start realizing that you’re just one person among billions, the work that you do start producing, it can end up being unbelievable. It can actually deal with the unknown.

Objectivity: am I referring to the sensation of hearing music being made from outside one’s self?

When we leave ourselves behind in this way, our selfish doubts dissolve. In the period just after I finished my master’s degree, I would often lie in bed at the end of the day and wonder what the fuck I was doing, how I would ever survive, whether I was doing the right things to capitalize on my talents. Now I know the end of the day doesn’t matter: it’s the beginning that counts. At the beginning of the day, all of them, I am a musician. I just attend to music first. This way there can be no question. The artist residencies of my twenties taught me this discipline, taught me to play the long game, and in a way, these lessons saved my life.
My first formal residency was a ten-week stint at the Banff Centre in 2010. After three weeks it snowed and the temperature dropped to about twenty below, and for the remainder, I experienced a heavy bit of loneliness. I had left, in Chicago, a nascent professional network and a precarious girlfriend. To go to Banff and sit alone at the piano all day, I jeopardized my relevance in the former and irreparably kiboshed my relationship with the latter. That winter I read Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in which several pivotal scenes take place at the bottom of a well. We all visit such wells, the moments in our lives when we feel our efforts don’t matter and no one is paying attention. In Banff I sat in the well for two months, and I found, left to my own devices down there, that I was still a musician. In my lowest moments, I still wanted to write and play music. I don’t lie awake worrying anymore, because I know that when I wake up in the morning I’ll still be a musician. And that I’ll be fine.

Mary Page Evans's March Mountain #2

Mary Page Evans’s March Mountain #2

I left the VCCA on March 30, caught a ride to Charlottesville with a poet named Richard Foerster. Richard grew up in New York, went to grad school at UVA, and has held numerous residencies at the VCCA. He now lives in Maine. His poems are dense, viscous, ruminative. When he read them aloud to the group it was hard to follow the semantic thread, but easy and rewarding to slip into the sonic flow of his complex diction. A few days later I found a book of his poems in the VCCA library and paged through it, giving each idea the time it deserved. One expects a Maine poet to write about nature, and Richard does write nature poems, but they seem to really be about people and our caprices. Actually I suppose they are emphatically about nature, inasmuch as they beautifully recognize that people are nature.

Richard and I drove in the chill and rain and he told me about the loves of his life, the joys and the tragedies, the unexpected turns of fortune, the slow developments and the sudden transformations. He remarked a number of times on how much Charlottesville had changed. “There was nothing here before,” he said, once on entering a residential neighborhood on the south end of town and again passing through a faceless landscape of big-box stores on the way to the airport, from which I was scheduled to fly back to Albuquerque.

First, though, we grabbed a quick sandwich and a matinee of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is really about the same challenge I discussed in the previous essay, about maintaining a sense of art, a sense of decorum, and a belief in details, and the importance of all of this to civilization, even–especially–in the face of war. It’s a bit like Peter Garland’s first string quartet, isn’t it?
The Grand Budapest Hotel drops the viewer into the forest of a nested structure, beginning in the present day before jumping back to the 1960s and then settling down for most of the narrative in the 1930s. One of the narrators is an author who writes the story of the titular hotel. In the first and final scenes, a contemporary student holds the book at his grave. A monument is printed with his name: AUTHOR.

Just Author. Because he’s all of us who write something.

Composing on the Pacific Crest Trail

A couple weeks ago I had just drifted off to sleep when I was awakened by a slow crunching sound and a sense of movement under me. A few seconds later, the ground on one edge of my tent gave way and the whole thing toppled over. The next morning (after I had moved my tent at 3 a.m.) I awoke and looked at the map, reminded that the next water source was 19 miles away. And so, I took off down Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California, walking for 12 hours on a trail from a sparse dry alpine forest at well above 10,000 feet that steadily transitioned into a sweltering desert—slowly descending 7,000 feet of elevation over that 19 miles—until I got to a small water fountain near a privately owned spring that feeds a gated community of 20 houses clustered together in the middle of nowhere, around five miles from a huge wind farm on the desert floor. After setting about hydrating myself and putting up my tent, I settled into a night of 80-mile-an-hour winds (apparently there was a reason that wind farm was there), once again having my tent toppled over, even while having all of my possessions in the tent with me.
Pacific Crest Trail: Wind
Despite life-long experience in the great outdoors, and a good long while as a composer as well, so far my self-created residency on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before on a backpacking trip, and also unlike any few months of time dedicated to simply writing music.

In a way, the concept of the Pacific Crest Trail in and of itself is rather odd. Other long-established sacred walking sites in traditional cultures are in fact part of the landscape for those who exalt it—think of circling sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet or the traversing of the Diamond-Womb trail by the esoteric Buddhists the Yamabushi in Japan, blowing conch shells and chanting—but on the PCT because of weather, water availability, and other things over a huge (but arbitrary) geographic area, you’re really only waving hello as you pass through myriad different types of landscapes or, previously, regions of different Native American tribes that used to fill and use the land in a very different way. The sheer ability to be able to walk it, though most of it is wilderness, is actually a product of the infrastructure of our society, and the reasoning for doing so exclusively individualistic.

Though I’m surely imbibing in this sense of individual exploration by walking and writing my own music, I’ve attempted to remove myself somewhat from this and tried to imbue my project with a sense of place by bringing in eight different composers along on this 2600-mile stretch. While walking I’m making a series of field recordings, which I then send to different composers living nearby. They then take a few minutes from a field recording and layer a brief musical response on top, which will be posted online. By doing this, hopefully my role becomes one of facilitator and collector as much as composer, and the project then is infused with a strong sense of bioregionalism. That is, the people who live nearby these sounds surely relate to them differently or more closely than I do, a tourist in a foreign land. For instance, Carolyn Chen, who received the first memory card filled with recordings as she is furthest south, knows the sounds of things like acorn woodpeckers or the Santa Ana winds howling through the trees, and therefore will think about them differently. By instilling bioregionalism into this collection of music and sound, people will be able to better understand the places they live, each other, how we relate to the natural world, and, perhaps, the arbitrary nature of the boundaries we’ve created for ourselves.

Beyond exploring our ever-evolving relationship to the natural world over tens of thousands of years, deep ecology, and humorous battle stories, 314 miles into my walk there have been a number of practical concerns and adjustments to make in my remote, mobile residency. I have a number of items with me that are needed to simply make the work, but even more items that are needed simply to live. However, since everything on my back weighs something, it became immediately apparent that I’d have to re-think how I was going to operate. My long-time standard yellow legal pad was the first to go as I opted to recycle the backs of my topographical maps instead of carrying extra paper weight, soon followed by my precious staff paper moleskin, spare writing utensil, and extra batteries. While walking I think about the direction of the sun not only to find shade if I need a mid-day siesta in the desert (the first 800 miles or so), but also where best to place my solar charger that is necessary to charge the batteries I use in my little Tascam recording device to make field recordings.
Pacific Crest Trail: Sculpture
Each month through September I’ll be posting more thoughts on composing while slowly meandering through the wilderness—exploring ideas central to my work and thoughts on simply being a composer who’s removed from traditional city-life experimental composing. What happens when, due to battery/solar charging life, you have to take time to decide which music you’ll listen to every few days? One’s hearing changes when in the wilderness for a prolonged period of time, so how does that effect a sound-based creative practice? What is the effect if one does not attend concerts, hear live music or much new music for a period of time? How does the current incarnation of man’s sounds intersecting with nature’s impact us as people? I’ll be thinking about questions like these and writing about them when I take a break and come into towns and cities. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go purify some water.

Where's Nat At?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Lisa Bielawa: Fire Starter

At the composer’s home in New York City
November 18, 2013—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation and text condensed and edited by Molly Sheridan

It’s difficult to stand anywhere near composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa and not feel energized by proximity. Her dynamic personality fires up a room, making it easy to see how, just a few weeks prior to our meet up for the interview posted below, she rallied hundreds of musicians for the performance of her massive outdoor work Crissy Broadcast on a repurposed airfield in San Francisco.

Raised in the Bay Area, Bielawa has recently returned to her hometown to serve as the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, an ensemble she herself was once a member of as a young artist. Yet as a touring performer (in addition to her compositional activities, she has sung with the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1992), she began a kind of nomadic existence that continues to carry her from city to city. New York has been her primary address as an adult, but her music has also led to long stints in places such as Boston, where she was in residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for three years; Berlin, where she mounted the first of the Airfield Broadcasts; and Rome where she was a fellow at the American Academy and produced a performance of a previous outdoor work, Chance Encounter, along the banks of the Tiber River.

An extrovert to the core, Bielawa acknowledges that her highly social nature has taken her in some specific directions both as a composer and as a musical citizen. Community building and close collaboration with performing artists is often central to her compositional process. In 1996 she co-founded MATA, a festival which allows young composers to celebrate other young composers outside of a competitive context. Yet the flip side of this outward focus is a deep love for language and careful reading that led her towards a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University and now continues to fuel her artistic output.
While there may be some unusual twists to her career trajectory and the scope and scale of her music, Bielawa is quick to point out that her path should not been interpreted as a rejection of traditional concert presentation or compositional education. She is focused on broadening the reach of new music, not completely rerouting it. And in the course of so doing, she is able to allow the sparks and energy of her ideas to fly.


Molly Sheridan: You began your career in a sense as a young singer with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and now you’ve come full circle by returning to serve as the organization’s artistic director. As you listen to the students and reflect back on your own time there as a young performer, how much have things changed—both musically and culturally?
Lisa Bielawa: Before I actually, officially took over my position as the artistic director, the girls came to Berlin to participate in [my work] Tempelhof Broadcast. One of the reasons I got back in touch with them in the first place was that I was working on the project and wanted them to be a part of it. So that discussion started before any discussions about the new position began. I had been in West Berlin on tour with the chorus when I was a girl. It was the first time that I had ever left the country—I was 14 or something—and I remember thinking, “Wow, I really like being on the road!” Of course, apparently I really do like being on the road, because I’ve been on the road ever since.
It was really amazing to see the girls in Berlin and remember what it was like for me to travel with this group—making music with people and understanding that making music at a high level was one of the things that makes travel meaningful. That cultural exchange through music is something that especially young people are hungry for. I think the ambassadorial role that musicians have in the world is incredibly important—just listening and making sound for each other, creating work for each other and with each other across cultures. The world is much more interconnected than it was when I was in the Girls Chorus. Now you’ve got girls from San Francisco meeting host families in Berlin, and they’re still texting each other. But there’s no replacement for actually making music together physically and in community. There are many wonderful uses of social media and interconnectivity online, but music reminds us that engaging with each other face-to-face in space and in real time is irreplaceable. That’s what music making is.
MS: Your own compositional roots are also partially connected to the Girls Chorus in a special way.
LB: For a lot of girls who come through the San Francisco Girls Chorus, that’s where they start their music education. That wasn’t the case for me. I started my music education at home and, at the age of three, in the Suzuki violin program. I had musician parents, so the chorus is not where I got the beginning of my musical education. I got something really important that’s different from that, which is I individuated at the Girls Chorus.
At home, everyone was a composer. When my brother and I were little, we would write music at the piano, just sort of playing at what dad does. You know what that’s like—you play at what your parents do. So I had written music already when I got to the Girls Chorus, but I had experiences there which were my own. I’d come home to the dinner table, and I had had an experience with Brahms or something. It was the first time that I ended up having individual musical experiences that were emotional for me, and that started to build my own sense of what I wanted to hear and why that was. I started writing music that my friends and I could sing. Elizabeth Appling, who was the founder and the artistic director at that time, really fostered that. She saw that I was doing this with my friends and she started to program my music on our actual concerts. She had me conducting my own work at Davies Symphony Hall during the holiday concerts, and it was really the first time that I saw myself as a musician, the way that someone might see someone from the outside. I got a chance to have a witness outside of my family. That showed me that I was an individual artist, and that I had something to offer that was mine. So that was a really important training point for me.

Early compositional efforts

Early work composed at 4 or 5 years of age.

Then I went to Yale, and my very first commission was from the Girls Chorus. My second commission was from the Girls Chorus. That kind of training-wheel support went on. So it’s very meaningful to have it come back around now.
MS: I know that your actual degree from Yale was in literature. That might have been just a formality or perhaps not, but student composers often have a vision of how their education has to go. So when it goes somewhere different, I think it’s worth exploring the impact—both in terms of the big ideas and the practical skills.
LB: One of the things that I’ve actually started to say when I talk to people about this is that I really don’t want to be the poster child for DIY. I’m trained. I came from a family where there was formal training available at home. I trained on the violin. I trained on the piano. I trained vocally. I learned to read music in my mother’s church choir before I even read English. I did composition workshops at the summer music festivals in San Francisco. So to some degree, that means that I had already created a little body of work before I went to college.
My intention at Yale was to major in music and something else. The only thing you needed to do to take advanced classes in music at Yale was to be advanced enough in music to take them. I studied composition there and had private teachers as an undergraduate. I did all that stuff. However, I had gotten very interested in literature in high school, and here I was in the school of Harold Bloom! There was this incredible energy in the air, and all of the boys I had crushes on were literature majors. I was so turned on by the exchange of ideas that I felt you could have as a literature major. But what I discovered was that it was a very competitive major, and you couldn’t get into any of those classes if you were not a major. Plus, if you said you were a double major, then you were deemed not serious enough. In order to take advanced classes in literature and music, I had to major in literature.
So that’s the answer. I think there was a lot of pressure the entire time I was at Yale to major in music. I’m sure I probably fulfilled the major, but I just didn’t declare it. I think it was the right choice for me because I really got so much out of my studies in literature that wouldn’t have been open to me if I hadn’t declared that.
MS: Was that the end of your formal training then?
LB: Yes, it was. I moved to New York two weeks after [graduating from] Yale, and my intention was pretty vague. I had a friend who had graduated a couple of years before me who seemed to be getting some commissions in London. I was sleeping on sofas and basically trying to scrape together enough money to go to London or apply to graduate schools in something. I didn’t know what yet.
I knew I had musical skills, but when I was at Yale, I auditioned for voice lessons and didn’t get accepted. It’s a big opera school, and I didn’t have a big old opera voice. I had a different kind of voice. So I came to New York not really believing that I was a composer necessarily, and not really believing that I was a singer necessarily, but doing both well enough and in ways that were useful enough that I was making a living somehow, here and there, with also some administrative jobs and things like that. Then, through a series of flukes, I got the job with the Philip Glass Ensemble. I was 22 years old, and that totally changed my whole life.
MS: But it doesn’t sound like you were necessarily ready for that life.
LB: I had no idea. I didn’t have any indication from anyone else around me that I was a soloist. In fact, when I first got the job, they were just desperate to have somebody, and they probably would have hired someone more experienced with a more trained voice than mine if they had been able to. But who’s going to be available for a five-and-a-half-week tour in three weeks, except for someone who’s starving and 22?
So, I was really lucky in that I auditioned into that job on sight reading and rhythmic musicianship and the skill set that I had as a basic musician. As a singer, they weren’t so sure about me. And they shouldn’t have been. I was no great shakes as a singer yet. Once I got over the headiness of the first tour, I came to understand—and it was not very easy for me—that I had to get my act together. I had to get formal vocal training, which I basically had never had, or I was not going to keep my job. So I wasn’t an official member of the Philip Glass Ensemble until almost two years after I had started touring. They were actually looking at several people, and I was basically a sub until I could improve my abilities as a singer. It was a very difficult time, and expensive, too. It meant that my standard of living didn’t go up that much. I was getting platinum-style voice lessons and eating canned beans for dinner for the first year or so because I was just trying to catch up.
MS: But in the midst of all that high-pressure catching up and then the ongoing touring with Philip Glass, you still kept the composing going, too.
LB: That’s true, but again, taking myself seriously as a composer and/or as a singer? I knew that I was a musician, but it wasn’t clear to me, or basically anybody around me really, what I was. My brother, who’s 20 months older than I am, was at that time getting his doctorate in composition, and so my family was focused on my brother as a composer. Suddenly then we were kind of focused on me as a singer, but we were all a little surprised, I think. I had sung some of my father’s music as a soloist and when I was in the San Francisco Girls Chorus I got a few solos, but I was not one of the prized soloists in the group. I wasn’t really sure what I was.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

A singer, a composer, and definitely a leader.
Photo by James Block

I was writing music, but I didn’t think of myself as a composer necessarily until somewhere in my 20s. I wrote a piece for the San Francisco Girls Chorus that won the highest ASCAP young composer award and that completely took me by surprise. I had some people take me aside and say, “Look, maybe you’re a composer.” I just didn’t really understand yet—possibly because it was an over-populated environment. My family was over-populated with musicians, then I went into a school that was over-populated, and then I came to New York and was just trying to figure out how to be useful to make a living. I was always writing music, but it seemed like it was always the wrong kind of music. When I was at Yale, I was writing choral music, and I was writing cabaret songs, and I was writing arrangements of jazz standards for a cappella groups; I wasn’t writing serious music. So I just assumed that that meant I wasn’t a composer.
MS: Do you think not having a structured undergraduate music education, for all the reasons you outlined above, might have contributed to this in a certain way—as in, rather than your path in music being set out for you in clear formal terms, it was all on you to self-direct?
LB: It was all on me. But when I did study composition privately as an undergrad, I wasn’t really a very easy student. The irony is that now I feel very passionate about mentoring younger people. I love teaching, especially teenage composers. I’ve sort of specialized in that, but not because I had such a satisfying experience as a student. I was proud, and I was really independent-minded. I didn’t respond so well to somebody trying to guide me. I just didn’t.
MS: You said you like mentoring teenagers. It’s funny: You weren’t an easy student, and now you specialize in teaching perhaps the most challenging demographic.
LB: Well, teenagers are cool. Grad students are great, too, but they’re really colleagues already. They already have an ideological direction that they’re going in. You’re either going to feed into that ideological direction because you share that, or you’re going to butt up against it, and then you’re going to have to be arguing with your students.
I find that with teenagers, they’re all over the place. They’re discovering that they’re composers. They’re coming up with all these ideas, and they’ve got this fountain of musical energy. They’re complicated because their egos are also developing alongside their abilities in ways that they get ahead of themselves, or they’re super insecure, but there’s something about that sloppiness and about the fact that there’s personal development happening at the same time as musical development that I feel really prepared to deal with. I was writing music that young, too, and I remember what it was like to be trying to figure out who I was as a person at the same time that I was trying to figure out who I was as a musician. It was really an important part of my struggle. And I envied kids who were already cellists by the time they were 16 or who knew they were composers when they entered grad school. I didn’t have that luxury.
MS: You spoke some about how your voice wasn’t the right fit for Yale. A lot of your pieces have a soprano vocalist, but I was surprised to find out that those weren’t necessarily supposed to be sung by you. You were actually writing for a voice much different from your own.
LB: That’s true, although I will say that this spring I had two commissions, both of them European. One of them was for the Academic Male Choir of Helsinki. They wanted me as soprano soloist with this group—fifty men and me—and bass drum of course, because why not. Then there’s the piece for Radio France, which is for myself and chamber ensemble. I now feel ready and totally happy for that to happen. I know how to sing well enough so that I can actually find it interesting enough to write for myself.
First of all, the reason I got into vocal music was really more because of my relationship to language. It had very little to do with the fact that I was a singer. I was a singer because I had played all these instruments, but I didn’t have enough money to buy them. Your voice is free, and I had to make a living. How I became a professional singer was almost accidental and the kind of singing that I was doing—not just for Philip but for Toby Twining, who actually hired me even before Philip Glass did—my music is not like that, and I don’t use the voice that way so much in my own music. So I wasn’t really the right soloist for my music anyway. I wouldn’t have hired myself.
I’m also a collaborator. I just love to have the creative process be about getting to know others. That process is less interesting for me if it’s just me getting to know me some more. Though this last year, it’s been fun because I am finally finding things in my own voice. Something about being in my 40s, it’s like my voice is mature now. There are things it can do that are cool, that I’ve worked my whole life to figure out. I feel like I won’t have that forever, so it’s interesting to celebrate that. But my interest in writing vocal music had very little to do with being a singer. It had mostly to do with being close to language.
MS: We actually spoke at some length about your relationship to language almost a decade ago, just before the American Composers Orchestra premiered The Right Weather. Clearly you still take this aspect of your work very seriously. So why use music and not words exclusively in your creative expression?
LB: I love writing, but I also think one of the things that I love about writing is that it’s not my profession. So it’s a creative thing that I can deepen and that I can get better at, but I can also get away from it for a while and it doesn’t cause any anxiety. It’s nice to have an area that I’m deeply informed about, that I care deeply about, that’s not professionalized—because I have a lot of different areas of my life that are professionalized.
Then there’s also the fact that when I’m deeply moved by something that I read, usually my response is a musical one. So there’s something that happens that’s organic. I read on the sofa in the morning; if something is so beautiful to me that it makes me feel a certain way, that has to be resolved by sitting at the piano. That’s a way of working that when I have to start cranking out music and I’m on the road in practice rooms in universities, or writing music in hotels or on planes, I don’t always have that luxury—that deep cycle that involves contemplation, reading, responding to reading, and then composing. But if I don’t have that cycle every once in a while, then I lose my artistic ground.

Bielawa's Steinway

Bielawa’s Steinway

MS: That seems like a constant through the years with you. You drill down into text. This is not a surface feature—you began learning Russian to compare Pushkin translations! So what does that end up doing to the music in concrete terms?
LB: Making it possible? I remember when I was writing The Right Weather, and I was thinking, “God, I’m such a loser. I’m supposed to be writing for orchestra and there’s no language in this. I don’t know if I can write music if I don’t have language that I’m setting.” And then I thought, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe I am a loser; maybe I’m not a loser. But just because there are no voices singing here doesn’t mean that this is not connected to language.” I could either look at that as a crutch, or I could see myself in it and realize that that’s what it is. Some composers respond to nature. Some of them respond to paintings. Some of them respond to a number of things. It’s just the thing that hits me the most deeply and the most consistently. The place where I can find the most depth in myself is as a reader. So it helps me get to the place where I want to be when I’m writing music.
MS: You touched on collaboration and the importance of that in your work. I was thinking about this particularly as I was listening to your two-CD set In medias res, and I thought it might be good to talk specifically about your relationship with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in this regard.
LB: The truth is I was actually quite scared of what my job was going to be in Boston, because the expectation was that I was going to be there for three years and was going to write these massive orchestral works. There was still a part of me that was like, am I a composer? Not for lack of ideas, but just something about the way I saw myself—or didn’t, or others did or didn’t. Who knows? Maybe it’s left over from the early years when I first came to New York. But I had people around me who had faith in me and who really wanted to see this happen, namely Gil Rose, who really believed in my music and felt that this would be an opportunity for me.
I wanted to make sure that I could keep myself on a schedule so that the piece that I wrote at the end of my residency, In medias res, would fulfill the potential of that. In order to do that, I decided that I would write these short, three- to five-minute Synopses—short pieces for solo members of the orchestra—and that I would write each of them during a week that I was in residence. Composers in residence seldom actually compose in residence, but I was going to write pieces when I was in Boston.
Of course, it was a pleasure, but it did force me to have a regular diet of engagement with the individual musicians for whom I was writing this much larger piece over a long period of time. And it meant that I was actually tilling the soil—not that I know anything about farming, but I was keeping that whole area of my mind and these relationships really fertile for the whole time. So when I was writing the big piece finally, which took me around seven months, I was informed by these 15 shorter pieces that I had written for the individual members of the orchestra.
That personalized it, and that was really helpful for me. Collaboration for me means that you’re beholding the amazingness of some other person and what they can do. Then I’m using my own abilities as a composer to make that shine or to engage with it. That’s a really great way to know people in the world, right? It deepened my connections with the musicians that I was working with, which heightened community in the orchestra itself. And it brought a sense of process to the audience there that was seeing these pieces unfold. So those are the kinds of ideas that I’ve designed for myself along the way—to keep myself on a schedule, but also to enhance community and therefore make composing less lonely and bring the vitality of interaction into the process in as many ways as possible. It’s helpful to me because I’m social and composing is not that social. I’m not really temperamentally cut out for this work, unless I can make it a little more social for myself.

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa greeting musicians at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Those Synopses then later ended up influencing a piece you did for a dance work, correct? And there are other examples of you developing ideas through multiple works. I thought that was really interesting: it wasn’t that all of your work was a piece of some single uber-arc, but each piece wasn’t always completely self-contained either. Would you speak some about what you hunt for and gain through that kind of occasional revisiting?
LB: I often think that it takes more than one piece to work through an idea. Individual compositions can get burdened down if you try to make them completely saturate or satiate one idea world in one piece. So I like to take the pressure off individual pieces. What if I had been working on one of the Synopses, let’s say, and the purpose at that point was for me to learn as much as possible about the harp and write something amazing for the solo harpist, right? But then later on, some of the material that I developed could, if the piece had gone a different way, maybe have been something really interesting to explore in relation to the human body through dance. I mean, I could just start over every time, and sometimes I do. It’s interesting looking back at pieces—did this come out of the germ of some other piece, or is this a whole new thing just by itself.
But generally what I find with shorter pieces is that I don’t actually feel very comfortable in small forms. I’m a large-scale person. So the only way that I can fulfill those kinds of commissions is to, at least in my own mind, embed them in some larger journey. Then it also ends up creating relationships that mean that those other pieces come along later. Some of these solo instrumentalists that I wrote the Synopses for were actually then the soloists in the dance piece. So it also brings the possibility of deepening those relationships and bringing them further. Many of the musicians that I’ve worked with I’ve written multiple pieces for in some guise or other. Look at Colin Jacobson, who’s been in, what, like nine or something? But they’re all different—just him, or sometimes there’s a whole orchestra, his string quartet. Sometimes I pair him with somebody like Carla Kihlstedt. And those relationships, as they deepen, I think that they really open me up, too, and help me find things through that trust that I would not otherwise find.
MS: What attracts you to the large-scale format with such intensity?
LB: I think it’s just a suitability thing—it’s my temperament. I admire Chopin enormously for the way that he was able to find a whole world in the solo piano works. He’s not here to answer, but we could ask ourselves, why didn’t he have a whole lifetime of writing symphonies or operas? He didn’t. This is what he wrote. It’s inconvenient for me sometimes that I end up wanting to write pieces for hundreds of musicians on an abandoned airfield. But it’s even more inconvenient to try to fit into certain assigned ways of making work that don’t fit. So I’ve accepted that I have to make it work for myself and the best way for me to do that is to go ahead and see things in terms of the larger picture and in terms of broader strokes—whether or not an individual performance or composition is seen that way. I need to see it that way in order to make it work for me and in order to make the best work I can.
MS: Before we get into those big airfield pieces and the musical communities you encourage through those, I want to take a step back. Because in a sense I see things such as the founding of MATA, which takes us all the way back to 1996, as another aspect of this big and social piece of your artistic life.
LB: Yeah, MATA. I really felt a need for it when we started it. I felt that there were all of these contexts in which I was coming into contact with my peers, but every time we came into contact with each other we were actually competing. I’d see so and so because we were two of the four finalists of the such and such thing. We would each have a piece read, and then one of us would win. Yeah, we would have fun and there would be a party, but underneath it all was the knowledge that somebody from on high was going to choose one of us.
There is this sort of protracted adolescence for composers: you get all your graduate degrees, and then you go to summer programs and you study with so and so. That’s another place where you can meet your peers, right? You’re all 31-year-old students of so and so, in like, Europe somewhere. And there may be value to that, too. I participated in both of those kinds of things and had some positive experiences. But why not support each other by having a festival where we all encounter each other’s music, and nobody was going to come and decide or teach. We don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like everything. Nobody’s the winner. I think that was a really driving motivation for me.
And that’s one of the reasons that, as I was nearing 40, I was feeling like I was not immersed enough and my ear was not to the ground as much as it needed to be to be MATA’s artistic director any more. All of a sudden, I was going to become the person on high who was choosing the commissionees for the festival. It was starting to turn into the thing that we were trying to be other than. So I’m still on the board and I’m very committed, but I cycled out and wanted to get younger people in charge. And we’ve really managed to do that, and I’m really super proud of that.
MS: So you shook things up some with MATA, but pieces such as Chance Encounter also gently stretch conventional ideas about how things are done. I love the degree that the venue is woven into the work itself, from finding the text to presenting the piece. But when you take your work out of the concert hall, how does it change the goals and impact of what you make? The loss of control seems like it becomes part of the point of the piece.
LB: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s like talking about the fact that I never got degrees in music. It doesn’t make me an anti-degrees-in-music person. I have nothing against the concert hall. I find myself so often in environments where people really want the fact that I do these public space works—which I’m very passionate about—to mean that I’m against the concert hall. That’s not true—I love the concert hall! These pieces are an affirmation; they are not a rejection. And that’s really, really important to me. I still have more to affirm outside the concert hall. They come out of the fact that I’m a very urban person. I think in my life I’ve been healed by city life. If I’ve gone through difficult times in my life, one of the things that I always know I can do to fall in love with humanity again is to just walk around the city. I’ve had this experience in San Francisco where I grew up, in New Haven where I was in school, in New York, where I’ve lived my whole adult life. Boston, Berlin, all the cities where I immersed myself.
That’s another thing besides reading and besides collaboration: urban life. That’s super important and inspiring to me. There are certain ideas that I have that make the most sense right there in the cradle of active urban life because that’s where my head is. Chance Encounter actually has Susan Narucki singing things that we overheard, so in order to write the piece, she and I had to immerse ourselves by eavesdropping on people for 14 months to collect all these things. There’s no better way to fall in love with humanity than to just go around the world and eavesdrop. So tender, the moments you hear.
Susan Narucki and I did a performance together of Birtwistle’s The Woman and the Hare. I feel like The Woman and the Hare is one of these pieces that if you were to stumble on it, just in the hall of your local community center, it would be a really arresting experience. She and I were talking afterwards, and she said, “I wish there were some way we could make work like this in an environment where people could just encounter it.” So it really came about as a collaborative light bulb. We thought we should make a piece that’s intended to be performed that way. It was only later as I was working on it that I decided to use overheard things. The idea was to have the kind of experience you have with concert works that I love, but to provide that outside in public space. And I’m not done with that.

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounters

Souvenir chair from Chance Encounter

MS: You can’t really speak for the audience, but was the experience that you anticipated having ultimately the experience that you had when listening to the performance in this setting?
LB: I actually have to take the fifth because I have no idea. I have performed Chance Encounter, but my preferred role in the performance of these large-scale public space pieces is to just be like anybody and walk around. I like to put myself at a distance from everybody and feel myself in space. I like to change the arc of my own experience by moving towards or away from certain groups. And I notice that other people do that, too.
I certainly noticed that with Crissy Broadcast in San Francisco. There’s an overhead time-lapse video. There are the groups of musicians that stay together, but in the middle, there was just this constant latticework of people moving around. I heard responses from people that they were having this kind of awareness of being in a space where they were also integrating the sound of traffic and the dogs, and that’s part of it. The music has to sit comfortably in an environment where other sounds are also there. It has to feel mostly successful like that.
So I seem to be getting somewhere with it. I like working in that way. I feel like my experience of it has been sometimes different from what I imagined, but in a positive way. Or other times, it’s not what I thought and I was disappointed. But maybe I would go to the next performance, and the wind changes and then it’s what I hoped, or maybe it’s just that I was not standing in the right place; someone else had the experience that I had designed and imagined for myself.
MS: I guess that’s my question: how much can you even anticipate when you’re working on a scale like this and in an outdoor venue? There are so many wild cards. In some ways, maybe it’s not even possible.
LB: It’s absolutely not possible, but it’s not possible in any music. This is not the exception; this is just the obviation. I’ve heard from some people that they felt that by listening to these pieces, the Airfield pieces for example, that it brought them in touch with that existential thing: I’m always only me, and I’m always hearing what I’m hearing. Even though you’re out in public space, the experience of these pieces is one that’s very private and sometimes quite lonely. You realize that you’re an audience of one inside your own head, and that’s the human condition.
You were asking about the control that I think I have, or can have. There’s a lot of control going on in these pieces. It has to do with the fact that I’m dealing with amateurs and students. It has to be a safe performance environment for hundreds of people. I’m asking them to do some crazy things out there and it’s outside the box for everybody. It’s outside the box for the professionals! So contrary to what it may feel like when you’re out there in it, the listeners hopefully feel an amazing openness. But the actual compositional process has an enormous amount of control of material. If I set up a situation where this group is playing this or that, and there are some choices being made—aleatoric sections where maybe cues are being given from one group to another—I do actually try to imagine every possible way those things could work out using a kind of lay person’s game theory. I do try to imagine every possible outcome of every decision that I’ve allowed people to make in each section, and I have to be O.K. with the sonic result of every possible combination of decisions. If seven out of the nine decisions are going to be really cool, and two of them are going to sound really stupid, then I change the whole game. So there’s a lot of control.
MS: Even The Right Weather at Zankel Hall back in 2004 had you walking through the space and timing out planned musician movement, but I saw the charts you made for the Airfield pieces and this is a whole other level. How did you even begin structurally to make this work?
LB: Chance Encounter is a piece for one soprano and chamber orchestra in two different groups. So in that piece, I was able to experiment with what it means to have groups that are far enough away from each other that they can’t possibly be expected to play together, but they can respond to each other. I got the chance in five cities to experiment with different air densities and different winds, and to experiment with what kinds of sounds and what kinds of cues carried across space. So that was really important, because once I started bringing in more than just two groups, then at least I had that experience with communication between musicians across distances out in the real world—how to make rules, how much to tell them, how little to tell them.
When I started putting together Tempelhof Broadcast, the very first thing I did was work with The Knights again. They wanted me to write a piece for this concert that they did at Central Park in 2011. It coincided with my communications with the Berlin Parks Department, such that I realized that if The Knights were into it, I could use this commission to start working on some ideas, not about distance and space, like I did in Chance Encounter, but to work on some free, aleatoric decision making—large groups of musicians playing things that cue each other in such a way that there is no conductor. It’s 40 musicians or so, and it was a chance for me to experiment with some of these game structures where groups of musicians are communicating with other groups of musicians across the stage. So there were these intermediate steps.
With the Tempelhof Broadcast, frankly everything you do, you can’t really hide. You rehearse [on the field] and you’ve kind of done the piece, right? So in September of 2012, which was eight months before the premiere, we tried some of the sections with 50 musicians out on the field, and it was a way for me again to start experimenting with these large distances and these materials. So I gave myself a lot of experimental stages with this. By the time I got to between 230 and 250 musicians there, I was working with around six to eight different groupings; whereas in San Francisco for the Crissy Broadcast, I had 14 groups and 800 people. It’s like a balloon [being inflated] before the Thanksgiving Day parade gradually becoming Snoopy. It took, like, three and a half years for this balloon to fill. All along the way, I had to design the balloon with no air in it. So it was back and forth between an experiential and a conceptual process involving acoustic research that I did and collected from both parks departments. I took an alto saxophone and a pair of crash cymbals out on the runways and walked around with a pedometer learning about what carried. It was just a long and deep process, and that’s my favorite kind of process. So that graph [you asked about] was maybe the third or fourth solution that I found to write down the material that I had already been developing for months or years. I was just finding a way to represent it to myself, because a score was not going to work, and I finally found this way to use a multi-colored graph. It was in my hand the whole time; I had it in my hand for two months.

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

Charting out Crissy Broadcast

MS: Artistically, what is the point of 800 people on an airfield?
LB: It’s an acoustic decision. The artistic decision is the airfield. Eight hundred people is a pragmatic solution that has to do with no amplification. No amplification is an artistic idea that has to do with the fact that sound comes from a certain place. If you want to experience a space, one of the ways that you feel yourself in the space is if you hear the sounds coming from where they’re coming from. You hear a dog bark; it’s far away. It’s over there. If you heard that dog bark through quadraphonic speakers all over, then you’re no longer in a field. If I want to write music that celebrates a certain space, which I’m interested in, then the way to do that is to articulate the space honestly without manipulating it through amplification. Amplification is a way to erase a space and place another sonic space on top of it in such a way that you no longer feel the space.
So, in order to have an acoustic rendering of a space with human beings, you need hundreds of them. But the great thing about hundreds of them, which is an acoustic necessity, is that it happily brings in a whole other thing that I’ve become passionate about, which is celebrating the whole musical life of an urban area and shining light on all these other corners. Look what this middle school band director has been doing with so little funding for all these years with these amazing kids in the public school system! Check out this chorus that is organized through the Community Music Center in San Francisco of people from the various elder care centers! They have a chorus. That’s so cool. Turns out it was too cold out there for them to be there for my piece, but it’s really awesome.
That was something that was really effective in San Francisco. These hundreds of people—most of them middle school and high school kids—they encountered each other in this project and they were calling out to each other on a field, playing these signals to each other across space. There’s something very beautiful about it, and they really embraced it.
MS: So the piece had to be composed to suit amateur and student musicians?
LB: If you’re outside on a field, you have mezzo-forte and above available to you. The material has got to be declamatory. I wanted it to be joyful. There were some yearning moments, but I wanted declamatory, joyful, bold-colored shapes because that’s what works out there. And you know what? Middle school bands can play that. So can professionals. Everyone can play those things. I don’t need 800 super advanced contemporary music technicians to play this piece. Sometimes I do need them. I love virtuosity. This piece is not about virtuosity. This piece is about something else.
The fact that the model itself can be inclusive of performers at any level then touches something else that’s important to me, which is community. I need 800 people because it’s an airfield, and they can be at any level because the kind of material I need to write, many levels of musicians can in fact achieve together. And so it ends up being a natural fit.
MS: Are you satiated yet on these big pieces, or is this becoming something of a calling card?
LB: Steve Schick was my right-hand man out there in San Francisco. We were joking and he said, “After this, are you going to write a string quartet?” I don’t know! I’m of two minds. I absolutely love working on this project, but I don’t want it to be the only kind of thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I also really loved writing the Synopses, and I think those are good pieces. There’s an intimacy that I also need in my work that I may need to cycle back around to soon. But that doesn’t mean I’d be abandoning this forever either. I think the fact that my work sometimes goes in this direction where I’m interested in engaging community in these larger, bolder shapes out in these spaces, that’s a certain direction in my work, but it’s not the only direction. So I don’t think I’ll ever abandon it. I also think, God, are you kidding? If there are other airfields that are now public parks that have city agencies and music communities around them that want to do this, I am so game!

Lisa Bielawa at Crissy Broadcast

Bielawa in the thick of it at Crissy Broadcast
Photo by James Block

MS: Hopefully those airfields exist in a country where you already speak the local language.
LB: So I don’t have to keep learning languages. That’s so right.
MS: I am interested in how deeply passionate you are about community building. You yourself have lived in so many communities in sort of semi-longterm situations in the sense that you go in, deeply connect and make some precision drills, but then when the work is done, you move on.
LB: There’s a really specific thing that happens at the end of the Airfield Broadcasts. The groups go away from the center. By the end in San Francisco, there were 14 groups all around the perimeter of the park, and so the ones over here couldn’t even hear the ones over here. It was just too far away. And then in Berlin it was two, and in San Francisco there were three meeting points where these groups come together. There’s a small group of people that starts playing this little dancing phrase. They start playing that, and then most of the other groups around them join in with them—I wrote them all different parts that all go together, no matter when you enter—so there’s this big party that happens. In San Francisco, it’s like 200 people all doing that. Then some other group, like the Berkeley High School Band or something, shows up and plays something else completely unrelated and interrupts them. And they all stop.
But what you didn’t realize was that while this whole big party was going on, the original people who started playing that little dance-y thing, they snuck away. When the interrupters come and they all stop, [this small group] starts doing it again somewhere else and then they all go over there. This is happening in three separate places on the field inaudibly far from each other. This is exactly, I think, the poetry. There’s something so beautiful about that.
But that’s also kind of what I do, too. I want to go somewhere and I start a party. I get the party going. Then, when the party is at its fullest, I like to sneak away and start another party somewhere else. I wrote it into the piece, and I didn’t even realize I did that. I don’t know why that is. Leaving a party at its height—that’s heartbreakingly beautiful—and then you go somewhere else. That’s my role. I start fires, you know, and then I leave.