Tag: female composers

Complex but Emotional—Remembering Ursula Mamlok (1923-2016)

Ursula Mamlok at the piano (Photo by Simon Pauly)
wie kamst Du in meinen Garten?
Warum bliebst Du nicht dort,
wo Du zu Hause-
im grünen Schilf am See?
Lockte der Duft der Rosen
das tiefe Blau an knorrigen Ästen?

Oder hast Du mich,
einst auch von fernen Ufern,
nur einmal besuchen wollen?
Dich trug bloß der Wind;
mich brachte der Sturm.

Dragon fly,
how did you find my garden?
Why didn’t you stay
where you belong–
in the lake’s green reeds?
Did the scent of roses tempt you,
the blue on gnarled branches?

Or did you come
just to visit me,
who also came from distant shores?
The wind carried you;
the storm brought me.

A fragment from Der Andreas Garten, poems by Dwight Mamlok (Ursula’s husband) and text of the composition with the same name.

Ursula Mamlok: Der Andreas Garten (1987) – V. “Libelle”
The Jubal Trio: Christine Schadeberg, soprano; Sue Ann Kahn, flute; Susan Jolles, harp
From Music of Ursula Mamlok (NWCR806)

Ursula Mamlok, an outstanding composer and my beloved teacher and friend, passed away in Berlin on May 4, 2016. She had moved back to Berlin in 2006.

Ursula Mamlok’s music was transparent but expressive, complex but emotional.

Mamlok was distinguished by her elegant chamber music, and her extensive catalogue of music that includes percussion. She also wrote several works for orchestra. Many of these works have been recorded by Bridge Records, including

One of the last things she did was to arrange her composition, 2000 Notes (originally written for piano in 2000), for percussion trio. She attended the premiere at the beginning of April 2016, shortly before her death.

In the early ’90s, while I was completing my doctoral degree at Temple University, my teacher Matthew Greenbaum suggested that I study with Mamlok for two semesters. I feel deeply grateful for that suggestion. I came to know both Mamlok and her husband, Dwight, who wrote poetry and short stories. That was the beginning of a long friendship. Dwight wrote the poems for Der Andreas Garten (1987), one of her finest compositions.

Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1923 and left in early 1939, a few months after Kristallnacht. Her destination, and that of her mother and adoptive father (her father died when she was a baby) was Guayaquil, Ecuador. Her grandparents stayed in Germany and died in the Holocaust, as did her teacher, Gustav Ernest (Gustav Seeligsohn), with whom she had studied piano, theory, and composition in Berlin during the 1930s.

Ursula Mamlok: Stray Birds (1963) – IV. In a Melancholy Mood
Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano; Harvey Sollberger, flute; Fred Sherry, cello
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 3 (Bridge 9360)

Guayaquil may have been a haven, but it was hardly a center of musical life. Mamlok (then Ursula Lewy) was able to come to the United States in order to continue her music education at the Mannes School of Music. There she studied with composer/conductor George Szell from 1940 to 1943. She later studied with Vittorio Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music from 1956 to 1958. In the early 1960s, Mamlok studied with Stefan Wolpe (1960-61) and Ralph Shapey (1962-64), who helped her to develop her mature style and technique.

In the beginning, I didn’t know many details about her or her husband’s life. They had married in 1947. Dwight (Dieter) was born in Hamburg, and had escaped to Sweden around the same time Ursula left Berlin. He came to the United States after World War II, and by serendipity they found each other in California. Visiting them through the years, I would, sometimes, find her distressed about passages in a composition she was working on, and I couldn’t avoid noticing how protective Dwight was of her profession and her music.

Coming from Colombia, where I had only heard about one other woman composer of classical music before me, I didn’t realize—in all its dimensions—what it would mean for me to study with her. It took me a long time to realize the levels of her strength.

I met her when she was in her early 70s, and initially I didn’t know how to define her. Who was she? Coming from Colombia, where I had only heard about one other woman composer of classical music before me, I didn’t realize—in all its dimensions—what it would mean for me to study with her. It took me a long time to realize the levels of her strength.

She was soft-spoken, tender, and showed a little bit of the fragility that passing time leaves in our older selves. She had survived cancer in the 1980s, when she was in her 60s. I realized that we shared a similarity—the fact that we arrived relatively late in the United States. I came when I was 29, and she came when she was 17. When she went back to get her master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, she felt a little awkward, being much older than the other students, and reduced her age by five years. She admitted this jokingly later on in her life, in that chirpy and humorous way that both she and Dwight had.

Ursula Mamlok: String Quartet #1 (1962/63) – I. With Intensity
Daedalus String Quartet:
Kyu-Young Kim and Min-Young Kim, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; Roman Ramakrishnan, cello
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 1 (Bridge 9291)

We shared the fact of having a duality in our identities that would accompany our lives forever, and maybe that drew me closer to her. She went back to Germany in 2006 when she was 83, one year after the death of her husband. Was that what made her go back to Berlin after having such painful memories there? For me, that was a proof of her strength even if she complained about loneliness when I called her in Berlin. She was emotionally a very strong person and an exceptional composer. She missed her friends back in New York, but her mood would change as soon as she began talking about the composition she was working on. She became a vital and happy soul when she talked about the concerts of her music that she had attended recently or the ones that were coming. During her last years, her compositional language became much simpler, but remained expressive and playful.

In a 1998 interview with Neil Levin, Mamlok gave important information about the evolution of her language. Talking about her early compositions, she said, “I was a composer of tonal music with extended harmonies. But later on, not much later than that, I got interested in twelve-tone music. I felt that you have to do these things. . . . I came to know music of a different style. But it is probably the same music I wrote before, only with a different technique and I still do that. . . . My music is basically lyrical, but also maybe dramatic.”

Later in the interview, she clarified, “In my music there are tonal centers, but it depends how you use the technique. I still like very much the background of the tonal music. . . . My atonal music and twelve-tone music is not that of Schoenberg or other composers who are very dissonant.”

Interview by Neil Levin on February 24, 1998

During the first or second class I took with her, she showed me a sheet of graph paper on which she had written out the magic square for one of her compositions. She explained to me how she structured her pieces before she began to write them. She also told me that she was not very strict in her approach.

Ursula Mamlok: Five Capriccios for oboe and piano (1968) – I. Quarter note = 100
Heinz Holliger, oboe; Anton Kernjak, piano
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 3 (Bridge 9360)

When I saw the magic square, I felt I was in trouble. In the first composition class I took as an undergraduate student of music theory, I had to compose short compositions or phrases experimenting with different techniques and scales: whole-tone, diatonic, modal, and twelve-tone. Yet despite all my love for the transparency, artistry, and beauty of Anton Webern’s music, I didn’t feel comfortable writing music using predetermined series of pitch classes.

As I froze, not saying anything, Mamlok, in her cautious, elegant, and cheerful manner, said that she wanted to share her score, but that her students could compose in a manner in which they felt comfortable. I took a breath and relaxed. I appreciated her openness.

Ursula Mamlok: Woodwind Quintet (1956): III. Allegro Molto
Windscape: Tara Helen O’Connor, flute/piccolo; Randall Ellis, oboe; Alan R. Kay, clarinet; Frank Morelli, bassoon; and
David Jolley, horn
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 1 (Bridge 9291)

The lessons continued, always having a positive tone. At the end, there was always time to eat together, sitting at the table: Ursula, Dwight, and his little parakeet, sitting on his head or on the table; Dwight always fed sponge cake to the parakeet. Dwight loved birds, and birds gravitated toward him, according to a story he had told me. When I took the train back to Philadelphia, I always had a smile on my face. Their humorous stories were on my mind, the sounds of their words and their accents in my ears. I was not the only one with a heavy accent. Maybe secretly I felt good about it.

Both of them captivated me.

Dwight and Ursula Mamlok. (Photo by Alex Shapiro)

Dwight and Ursula Mamlok. (Photo by Alex Shapiro)

One comment I heard continuously from her was the fact that she had learned, and kept learning, by attending concerts. A critical ear was something I had from an early age, a quality that was enriched especially by an important clarinet teacher when I was in Colombia. Now she was emphasizing how important it was to simply listen to music. She attended many concerts, and Dwight was always with her. The adorable couple.

Whenever she was interviewed before a concert, she would be playful but strong. What I realized throughout the years is that she defended her place as a composer with conviction. The little fragility I occasionally perceived at their apartment would vanish, and she was there protecting her music in front of the public, with strength that was often combined with doses of cheerfulness.

During her final years in Berlin, she sometimes felt lonely. I would call her every other week and I could hear in her voice that she was excited to hear from me. She enjoyed immensely the occasional visits of old friends from New York or her new friends from Germany. At the Tertianum Residenz, an assisted living facility where she lived, there were many people of her generation but she still felt a sense of not belonging.

Until the very end of her life she was always involved in small music projects and I could hear in her voice a youthful happiness and sparkling energy when she described them. Music was her lasting companion.

Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra (1976) – I. Spirited
Heinz Holliger, oboe; Ensemble SurPlus conducted by James Avery
From Music of Ursula Mamlok, Volume 1 (Bridge 9291)

When I visited the Mamlok’s New York apartment, I spoke occasionally with Barry Wiener, the musicologist who dedicated much of his time to studying Mamlok’s music in the years immediately preceding her departure from New York. He looked at her older pieces, and helped her to complete the massive process of revising and/or editing more than two dozen forgotten scores that became an important part of her catalogue. When she moved back to Berlin, Bettina Brand, her manager and friend, successfully promoted many of these works in Germany, and she became a celebrated figure in the musical world. In New York, Joel Sachs and Cheryl Seltzer repeatedly championed her music.

Mamlok created a unique, sophisticated voice while absorbing many influences. She used twelve-tone rows together with Wolpe’s methods of pitch organization. She included thirds and triads, and disguised consonant intervals preceding or following dissonances. She played with the rows as if she were playing chess, anticipating the move of the players–her notes full of elegance and expressivity.

Five Takeaways from the Conversation on Female Composers

shocked computer kid

In case you were lucky enough to miss it, on September 16 The Spectator ran a bizarre, demeaning article entitled “There’s A Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers.” Not surprisingly, lots of people had lots to say about that. I wrote a sarcastic blog entry examining it (“In Which I Learn Why There Are No Great Women Composers“). Over the weekend, both The Spectator and my blog, Song of the Lark, accrued hundreds of passionate comments, thousands of Facebook shares, and thousands upon thousands of page views.

comment count

Now more than ever, the music world is talking about women—and especially female composers. Consider all the recent headlines. Late last year, the field was rocked by allegations and then denials that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote the six cello suites. (One wonders: would an allegation that Bach’s son had written the suites have been met with such incredulity?) Last fall, the Baltimore Symphony released a series of infographs exploring trends behind 21 major American orchestras’ 2014-15 seasons. A disappointing, disconcerting 1.8% of the pieces programmed were written by women, and only 14.8% of the pieces by living composers were. Most recently, 17-year-old Jessie McCabe seized headlines after creating a change.org petition asking the directors of the Edexcel A-Level Music syllabus to include the work of at least one woman in their 2016 edition. Two weeks ago, McCabe received an assurance from the managing director of Pearson UK that the absence of female composers “will change.”

This is clearly an ongoing conversation, and it appears to be one that is gaining steam. Here are five big takeaways from my marathon weekend of writing, reading, and responding:

1) Lots of people have lots of ideas why there are no female composers in the pantheon of immortals. I’m struck by how wildly divergent our explanations for the phenomenon are. It’s women’s fault! (Women are not biologically suited to write great music! Women can perform but can’t create!) It’s society’s fault! (The game is rigged! Women were expected to stay home and make babies!) The subject of gender in music even leads to the subject of genius in music. (It’s the pantheon’s fault! There were great female composers; they just aren’t recognized!) And here’s one of the most striking suggestions I read: there are so few great female composers because there are so few great female critics. At that, one can’t help but glance at the genders of the current crop of classical music critics and wonder.

Some of those justifications make sense, but I doubt that any one of them alone is sufficient to explain the near total absence of music written by women, especially in orchestra halls. The conversation needs to continue. Hopefully with time we can come to a greater consensus about why women’s compositions are so often marginalized. Then surely it will become easier to change the status quo. (Or at least make the decision not to.)

2) When we’re discussing the absence or presence of female composers, we’re not just talking about female composers. Rather, we’ve moved on to even bigger questions about how a culture creates a canon. As one of my readers, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, noted in a comment on my blog: “Including Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, etc. on the syllabus is a great way to tie in many wider questions, like the way canons are constructed, how power relates to definitions of value, the place of music within 19th/20th/21st-century societies, and so on.” Clearly one of the main reasons this topic upsets and excites so many people is that it forces us to question the very foundations of our canon. If the criteria that labeled Beethoven great are fundamentally flawed, then what do we have left?

Sometimes I play mind games with myself, imagining wild alternative musical histories. Granted, this scenario has its limitations, but imagine: what if the entirety of Mozart’s oeuvre had somehow been lost for two hundred years and was only resurrected today? Imagine the press conference: “We’ve uncovered the work of the famous child prodigy!” How would we treat this new old music? Would Mozart instantly be recognized as the genius we know him as today? Or is part of our modern culture’s affinity for—indeed, deification of—Mozart partially based in that culture’s sheer familiarity with Mozart?

Another alternative history… Maddalena Laura Sirmen’s six violin concertos (one of which was actually praised by Leopold Mozart) were in print for quite some time after their publication. What if Sirmen’s six violin concertos—dating from the 1760s—had been played and analyzed and discussed and debated and, most importantly, performed, while Wolfgang Mozart’s set of five—dating from the 1770s—was only just being discovered today? How would our musical world be different? How would it be the same?

In other words, putting aside questions of gender, how much of a handicap is sheer obscurity? I don’t claim to have particularly satisfying answers to that question. But the thought experiments are exhilarating, unsettling, and even a little bit scary. And that’s one reason this is all so interesting: the discussion about female composers is never, ever just about female composers.

Spectator screenshot

3) Clickbait is affecting the cultural discussion in very weird ways. I refuse to believe that an entire team of professional writers and editors at The Spectator found their article’s argument compelling, intelligent, or well-crafted. Full stop. They’re never going to admit it, but their rhetorical laziness is clearly canniness in disguise. Presumably the primary goal was to rack up clicks, rather than to advance meaningful or actionable ideas, and by that measure, the article was a roaring success.

Based on the reactions I’ve read, though, I’m willing to bet that a considerable percentage of the 2000 Facebook shares actually consisted of people saying, “Can you believe this bullshit?” Which brings up the mind-bending question: does that mean that articles like these actually advance the opposite of their stated or implied agenda? Do they actually contribute to the discussion by encouraging widespread and ultimately productive backlashes? Is The Spectator aware of this? Does it care? (Should it?)

4) People who want to hear more new music and people who want to hear more music by women are fighting similar battles. What are the two big reasons why obscure pieces aren’t programmed? Say them aloud with me: people don’t know them, and therefore they won’t buy tickets to hear them performed. It’s a hard process to add new music to a canon, to catch ears, to persuade performers and then audiences…especially if we’re working within the confines of one of the big institutions.

So I propose we all compare notes. If people who specialize in new music have methods that have expanded their audience, I think there’s a chance that those same techniques might also work to expand the audience for music by women, and vice versa. What works? Pre-concert discussions? New media? Unique performance spaces? Particular performers? New ensembles? Or should the dissemination of knowledge occur in another format altogether? Let’s have that discussion. I think it would be very interesting.

But the greatest takeaway from this weekend was…

5) People find the subject of women in music to be fascinating. And why wouldn’t we? We all have an instant connection to the topic. We all have experiences with either being a woman or caring deeply for women. These discussions aren’t theoretical like so many musical debates; they are intensely real and personal.

Given that truth, I’m flummoxed. Why are the roles that women have played in our art as composers, performers, and muses not more celebrated in our modern culture?

Attention, performers, ensembles, writers, administrators, artistic directors: there is intense interest here. Classical music especially loves to panic over its imminent irrelevancy and demise. So I would think that everyone who loves it would be racing to embrace new angles that people show interest in. This may mean deliberately spotlighting the contributions of any number of fabulously accomplished women from throughout music history.

The ultimate disrespect to the topic of women in music would be to say relatively little about it, as has happened for far too long. But I have hope that that is changing. The hubbub around the subject is an intensely hopeful sign.


Emily E. Hogstad

Emily E. Hogstad

Emily E. Hogstad is the 26-year-old writer of the widely read blog Song of the Lark, which first came to international prominence for its coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout of 2012-2014. She has appeared on or in MinnPost, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, National Public Radio, WQXR, Performance Today, and The New York Times to offer thoughts on topics as diverse as the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic 2015 trip to Cuba, what it means to be a music nerd, and social media activism in the orchestra world. Her great passion is researching the history of women in music, especially the great forgotten female violinists of the past. She currently makes her home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, with a violin, a viola, a laptop named after Lili Boulanger, and two rescue cats, Gwendolyn and Genevieve.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: The Full 360

A conversation at the composer’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
August 6, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

September is gearing up to be a big month for composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. A recording of her impressive 13-part song cycle Unremembered will be released by her label on September 4, and the North Carolina Symphony will give the world premiere of her Hiraeth just a couple of weeks later. Her 2015-16 season will also include premieres with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York.

So Snider was already mentally juggling quite a few projects when she hit pause in order to sit down and chat with us. Once her husband (the composer Steven Mackey) and So Percussion’s Jason Treuting wrapped up a high-volume session in the couple’s downstairs studio, she quickly opened up about her approach to integrating disparate influences, embracing deeply emotional content, and the process of developing her signature works.

And being a female composer and mom, of course. No, no…just kidding.

Well, sort of. During the car ride between the train station and her home, we actually joked about how even well-meaning interviews with women in new music too often defaulted to questions about the impact of child rearing and gender on the creation of music, yet we also agreed that there was much that still needed to be said. In her household, she pointed out, the question might be better addressed to Steve, the parent more likely to chaperone their two small children to lessons and outside activities, but it was not one he tended to field as a matter of course. So would we talk about it, should we avoid it? We debated. In the end, the answer emerged as naturally as the bigger themes our conversation centered around: that embracing the full diversity of one’s creative life and mind was essential to generating the most interesting and powerful work—and to better understanding and supporting the artist behind the music.

Molly Sheridan: It seems as if no writer can resist pointing out how you mix pop and classical elements in your work, and clearly there are reasons for this—from instrumentation to vocal style to the artists you work with. The tone of shock that often accompanies this sort of description, however, has always seemed strange to me, as if composers were otherwise kept completely sheltered from contemporary life. Still, was this integration of elements a style that you developed over time or was it your instinct from the start?

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Well, looking back for a second, I grew up a total classical music nerd, studying piano and cello, and singing in choirs, but at home my parents were always playing pop music. So I had this life that was filled with a lot of music. I would go to my orchestra rehearsals or my piano lessons and hear classical music, and then I’d be home hearing the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. For me, it was all just music. I didn’t have anybody telling me that pop was down here and classical was up here. It was all just ways to express oneself musically.

I started writing music when I was a kid, but I didn’t take my first composition lesson until I was 25. At that point, my first teacher made it very clear to me that I needed to bifurcate and strip away the pop influences, set aside my interests and just focus on the classical tradition. I definitely got the message that you were supposed to keep them separate. Then going to Yale was interesting because it was a much more relaxed mindset and there were professors and students with lots of different ideologies. I became increasingly uncomfortable keeping the pop influence away. I remember leaving a seminar at Yale and getting in my car and listening to Sleater-Kinney, and I was just like, why is there this weird divide? And the reason why it was often Sleater-Kinney was because of the female issue. I was frustrated; I was the only female in my class at Yale for the first two years, so it was a constant issue for me. I realized that I was subconsciously associating all the things I didn’t like about new music—pedagogy, ideology, over-intellectualization—with a male mindset, and so I would need to go and get in my car and listen to Sleater-Kinney so that I could just steep myself in a completely different vibe and mindset.

I think that, subconsciously, that also had to do with the reason why, when I left Yale, I started incorporating my pop influences. It was a bit of a rebellion.

MS: So you felt required to strip away something that was important to you. Yet was there something valuable to be found in that because that forced you to stretch in other directions?

SKS: Absolutely. I went into composition with the zeal of a convert, and I didn’t see it as a bad thing that I was being taught to open my mind. My first lesson was with this amazing teacher, Justin Dello Joio. My undergrad degree was not in music, and so he was trying to give me all of that in our private lessons. I brought him a piano piece, and it was basically within the span of two octaves. He said, “Use the whole instrument. You’re not thinking idiomatically enough and you’re not thinking virtuosically enough about the instrument.” I started studying a lot of piano music—which I had played, but I hadn’t looked at from this perspective. I really wanted to write music that was technically demanding and challenging. We studied everything from Palestrina and Bach to Ligeti and Lutoslawski, which really pushed me as a composer.

So there was a lot of great stuff that came from that—thinking about rhythm differently, thinking about harmony. He definitely got me to open up. I’m really grateful for all of that. The only negative thing to say, I guess, is that I felt like there was a side of my musical personality that I couldn’t access in my writing. So it took a while for that to come out, and there’s a very practical reason that unlocked it, which has to do with Penelope.

MS: And what was that?

SKS: After Yale, the playwright Ellen McLaughlin asked me to write music for a commission she had from the Getty Center to do a piece on the five female characters of the Odyssey. Initially, it was supposed to be a song cycle, but then it became a play—a play with some music. It evolved a lot, but in the end, we had a play that she wanted to perform as a monodrama for herself.

She hadn’t sung in years and she couldn’t read music, so it was very important that I write something that she could learn by ear. She and I had been to new music concerts together, and I knew she was frustrated with a lot of the music that she would hear. She felt like there wasn’t a strong enough emotional component. I also knew the kind of music that she liked, which was the ‘60s folk tradition. I wanted to write something that she could really own and get inside of and be herself singing, as well as learn by ear. That gave me permission to write in a style that did incorporate my popular music interests.

It was initially difficult for me, because I felt the voices of my teachers on my shoulder telling me not to do a lot of the things that I was doing—not to write four-bar phrases, not to write antecedent-consequent phrases, not to have verse and chorus. A lot of the poetry that Ellen gave me was written intentionally to have a verse-chorus structure, and she had no hang-ups about that. So I felt like, okay, I need to put aside the problematic things I learned while a student at Yale and try to just write this music the way I think she would like it to be written. So, that’s what gave me permission to write Penelope in that way, but I’d never thought that I would do anything with it. In fact, I kept saying to [my husband] Steve [Mackey], “Oh, I’m spending all this time on Penelope, but you know, it’s never going to get performed again after this.” And he’s like, “You just wait and see. This is really beautiful. You should make a record out of it.” And I was like, “Really? Because this isn’t the kind of music that the new music world would embrace. I’d be blacklisted for writing this kind of music.”

Anyway, I’m sure in certain circles I have been but, bizarrely enough, it became my most successful piece, which I think says a lot more about the musical climate we’re living in now than it does about me as a composer. People are just more open to that now. I guess a cynical person would say that classical institutions are desperate to bring in new audiences, and they’re throwing out all of their important principles. Whatever. It became my most performed piece and the piece that’s gotten me the most commissions. So it’s been an interesting lesson.

The other lesson I took from it was that I really enjoyed writing that kind of music. It felt really good to access that side of myself again. It was the kind of music that I had written from the time I was ten, mixing Debussy and Joni Mitchell, and to me that felt very natural. This is me when I’m in the dark and nobody’s watching. I can just let all of this come to the forefront and not feel self-conscious about it. But, actually, I find that I do still feel self-conscious about it. It’s always an issue, because once you get taught these shoulds and shouldn’ts, it’s hard to get them out of your head.

MS: It’s so interesting that this piece became your calling card, but it started out as this sort of secret side project.

SKS: It really was a secret shame. I probably shouldn’t say that, but honestly, it was. I felt so self-critical, and so apologetic. And I felt very worried about how [the recording] would be perceived by the classical world, and so it completely floored me that it made these top ten lists and that certain classical critics were saying nice things about it.

MS: We put so much stock in the authenticity of a creative voice. In a sense, whether you were willing to admit it to yourself or not, were you taking steps toward your authentic self through this work? For as admittedly loaded as all those words are.

SKS: It wasn’t consciously that, but I think it was that. What I was trying to do when I wrote that music was just immerse myself in the story. Ultimately, I was trying to write from the point of view of this woman who was dealing with this very difficult situation. That more than anything is the guiding principal that I try to have in mind when I’m writing a piece of music.  It’s like: What is the emotional story here? And how do I immerse myself in that?  And how do I be true, most true to that emotion?  And how do I be the most honest, and the most candid, and put aside all of those well-intentioned shoulds and shouldn’ts that I learned in graduate school? I try to think about mood and emotion more than style, or all of that.  Because I think that all of that stuff separates you from what is really a true emotion that you’re feeling.  I think all of that can be very emotionally crippling actually and can really strangle you creatively. I didn’t write any music for my first six months at Yale because I was so worried about breaking any rule that was in one of my teacher’s minds.

I actually think it’s one of the more interesting questions about the whole gender issue that nobody wants to touch—that women are acculturated to be in touch with their emotions. Girls are taught by society that it’s okay to cry and talk about their feelings. And music is an inherently emotional medium—at least I would argue that it is. Stravinsky might say otherwise, but for me there’s no other art form that is as viscerally engaging. So it’s a strange thing to then feel you have to have an intellectual foil for every earnest expression, which was one of the messages I got in my studies.

MS: You did have a long road to your official start as a composer. Now your work seems so sophisticated and carefully considered. There’s a lot of core skill—probably what you walked away with from Yale and the associated studies. So there were these skills learned, but it sounds like you struggled with how to fit your innate approach into that toolbox.

SKS: The music that I wrote at Yale was definitely emotional. No question about it. But it was this painful process of extracting it. I had a teacher who early on said, “You know, as a woman, you’re going to encounter some discrimination about your writing if it’s very melodic and lyrical. For a man to write melodic, lyrical music, that’s courageous. If a woman writes it, it’s sentimental.” When I got to Yale, I remember having a conversation with another teacher there who said something very similar. So there was always this push and pull, where I felt like, eff that: I’m just going to write as emotionally as possible because the only way we’re going to change this is if women actually do it so much that it becomes a normal, unremarkable thing. But at the same time, you know, you have to worry about competitions or your teachers recommending you for things. I often felt like there was a certain way to be emotional that was acceptable, and there was a certain way that wasn’t. Plus there were all these technical goals that I was wanting to achieve with the music at the same time. It would take me a lot of time to write a piece that I felt really good about.

MS: Do those pieces now feel like homework assignments, in a way, because you were exploring craft and you were going about it in a way that allowed you to produce quality music, but there were some fundamental things skewed about it?

SKS: You would think that, but actually, even when I had to do fugue exercises, I would wind up breaking whatever rules I had in order to make the piece more expressive. That’s why I got in to writing music. My earliest memories are musical ones where I was singing and narrating everything in song. I want to communicate with a listener and that’s always been important to me. So even my homework assignments were always probably some of the more overwrought with emotion. It’s just the way that I think musically.

MS: You have orchestral premieres coming up this season in North Carolina and in Detroit. I was thinking about the success of Penelope and the album release of your song cycle Unremembered in September and wondering about how you apply this voice when you now sit down to compose for these more traditional formats. Do you have to change your aesthetic or your approach to create the work? Do you feel like you’re actually shifting gears, or is it more a case of “This is the music I make. I’m simply going to create a piece for this type of ensemble.”?

SKS: I really don’t feel like I’m shifting gears. I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere. So all of that is how I’m thinking when I’m composing. I’m not thinking about genre and style.

In the case of Unremembered, that was a project where the commissions came from two different places and the piece sort of evolved over time. It started out as a Roomful of Teeth commission. I wrote these five songs, based on these poems that I asked my friend Nathaniel [Bellows] to write. These poems felt like a leather-bound book of old stories that I wanted to dive into. I really loved writing those songs, so when we were finished, Nathaniel kept writing more poems and I decided to make it a song cycle. At the same time, I got a commission from the Ecstatic Music Festival, and because the commission was coming from Ecstatic, which is run by my [New Amsterdam Records] co-director Judd [Greenstein], it felt informal and relaxed, and they also are open to music that brings together different influences—in fact, they seek that. So I felt comfortable going into my most interior, honest, musical self. It’s a place that all of my music comes from, but here it had more opportunity to really show that melding of influences because it’s written for voice and you’re hearing non-classical singers. Well, I shouldn’t call them non-classical. They all have classical training. Padma [Newsome] and Shara [Worden] both have degrees in classical music—Shara in opera, Padma in composition—but they sing in a style that brings together lots of different influences. I think to me the music is not really any different from the other music I write, it just sounds different because of these singers.

Yet it’s a really interesting question because I do think that there’s an element of unselfconsciousness that I have writing a piece like Unremembered compared to writing a piece for, say, a piano competition. When you’re thinking about who you’re writing for, for me that definitely winds up influencing the music. If I’m thinking about a classical institution and their values and their history, that’s going to inevitably bring out something different in me than a piece written for my good friends who love all the same bands and the same classical composers that I do, and who understand that love of both worlds. For Unremembered, I felt like I could go even deeper into that because Shara had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds. She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip. Like I can just close my eyes, be in the dark room, summon the most me that always felt a little bit repressed, and just let it say whatever the hell it wants to.

I get very confused by this question because I think about this a lot, and I wonder: How is the music different? I don’t want to think of it as being different, because then it feels like I’m holding back in some pieces. Writing this orchestra piece I’m writing now, I don’t feel like I’m holding back anything. I feel as at home writing this as I did writing Unremembered. But I listened to so much pop and rock music growing up that it felt like a home to me. Classical music did too, but in some ways, pop felt even more like a home because there weren’t things I didn’t know. I’d performed classical music since I was kid, but I was always aware that there was so much history and theory I didn’t know — I felt very intimidated and ignorant, and that stressed me out. Whereas with rock music, I’d communed with that music so deeply that it felt like it didn’t have anything over me.

MS: Well, where you might argue that a decade ago this intermingling was a specific side stream, those delineations continue to disappear by the year. You developed your own voice in the midst of that transition.

SKS: Now it’s normal. It’s almost weird if you don’t do it.

MS: Now, even when it comes to such a tradition-bound ensemble as the orchestra, it seems like the media has been suggesting that there is a swell of interest in new work—perhaps especially by this cohort of composers more comfortable with more mainstream musical idioms. Are you seeing evidence of such a move?

SKS: It’s tough because it gets to this idea of accessibility and no composer wants to talk about this. Because how do you define what’s accessible? And calling something accessible makes it sound dumbed down or not challenging, or like you’re compromising. But at the same time, audiences say things like, “I love this music. I felt like I could get into this music. Other new music, I can’t get into. I don’t understand. It feels like I need a degree to understand it.” There’s something real to that.

I think there’s something about narrative. I think there’s something about people feeling like they have a way in and can follow along—follow a story or that there’s some rhythmic hook or beautiful textures. I think it does have to do with things as basic as melody and narrative and having the form be something that feels grok-able by an average person. Average person? See, it’s so hard to talk about this!

MS: You’ve mentioned narrative a few times now. And a lot of your projects end up with additional elements, whether that’s videos or images, to carry some of that narrative weight, or there are performers on stage singing, using language. That seems like a preference for you.

SKS: I’ve always been very interested in narrative, and I’ve always been very interested in tension and release, which is really all that narrative is. Having problems and conflicts in the music, and then resolving them, all of those things are what drew me to classical music as a child. I was fascinated by the stories that Beethoven would tell, and the stories that Chopin would tell. I thought of them as stories. As a kid, I would want to know, “How was this conflict going to get resolved? And how are these characters going to figure out how to agree or co-exist?”

So I’ve always been really interested in that. This orchestra piece that I’m just finishing now for North Carolina, we created a film component to go with it. I was working with Mark DeChiazza, who works with new music composers and creates film that doesn’t compete too much with the music, but somehow complements it and provides another dimension, or another lens, through which to experience the music. He was saying that he feels like he’s picturing to score, as opposed to scoring to picture. When I’m writing this music, it feels like I’m making a film, or writing novel, or a short story. I really think about it in those kinds of terms. That’s how I get from one note to the next.

I need to have that, but when I was first studying composition, I was fighting that impulse a lot, because that wasn’t in fashion; having climaxes—that’s romantic and not really cool. You’re putting your heart on your sleeve. One of my teachers used to say that my music was too clear, that the audience always knew where they were in my pieces. I thought that was a good thing! There was a lot of new music where I had no idea where I was. The form felt totally random and arbitrary, and that would drive me nuts. I’m not trying to slag on any other kinds of music, but I need order. I think for me it’s because the world is such a chaotic place, and music feels like a place where I can actually take comfort in the order of things. So it’s an interest in telling stories, but I think it’s also a need for things to have purpose and meaning and reason behind them. I think that’s a huge part of what drives me—taking the chaos and the randomness of the universe and putting it into something meaningful to me emotionally.

MS: So if we can come down from the philosophical for a second, how does this actually work? What is your working process?

SKS: I start with tunes. I get a lot of melodies — motives usually, more than melodies, like short little melodic cells — stuck in my head. I sing them into my iPhone, and I have thousands of these. I take walks, and I’ll think about where an idea could go next. But it always starts with these little motivic cells. Then I’ll go to the piano and see what my hands have to say about it, because I find that my hands have other things to say than my brain does—so many years of being a pianist, so I always like to see what comes out of that. But then most of my music I just write directly into the computer. I don’t sit at the piano or a keyboard. I just hear things, and it’s a very intuitive process.

I use a lot of the craft that I was taught, and if I get stuck, that really helps a lot. Steve and I often joke, well, if you’re stuck, did you go through the inversion? Did you go through the retrograde inversion? Did you try—? You know, these tools that you wouldn’t think would be associated with the kind of music that we write, but that sometimes can be very helpful. And all of those things are a part of the toolbox which helps you see what your clay looks like: the shape of it, the feel of it, the texture, the look, and all of that. So I spend a lot of time doing that, trying to intellectually massage my material, but it always comes from a more emotional place initially.

MS: What about the fact that, at least for pieces such as Penelope and Unremembered, you’re writing for some very particular voices? Though it was interesting to me to realize that they had actually been written for several sets of very unique voices throughout a project’s evolution. So was that a conscious part of the compositional creation of the work? Or just a feature—that your work then can showcase that sort of artist?

SKS: After the theater version of Penelope was complete and I decided that I wanted to make a song cycle version out of it, there was this interim period where I worked with Signal and a classical singer— Rachel Calloway, who is an amazing singer, and I loved working with her. But I found that she wasn’t as comfortable singing it in a more pop style—which makes perfect sense. I realized it wasn’t really fair to ask a classical singer to go outside of that persona. It really needed to be sung by somebody who was coming organically from both worlds at the same time.

So I thought of Shara because I knew her music, and I had read that she had studied opera. Judd and I were talking about this one day, and I said, “You know, the only person I can imagine doing this is Shara Worden, but we don’t know her. How do I get her to do this? Why would she want to do this?” And he said, ” Actually, she’s a friend of Padma’s.” So I sent Shara an email out of the blue, and we met at a practice room in Midtown and played through some things. Immediately it was like, “Oh, this is exactly what Penelope needs. I don’t have to articulate anything to Shara about how it should be sung.” She just immediately got it.

So I went back home, opened up the cycle, and I changed a lot of things and tried to make it more relaxed and open to what Shara brings. That was a fun experience, artistically gratifying, but it still ultimately wasn’t something that was conceived from the ground up for Shara. And I wanted to do that. So, after the Roomful of Teeth versions of Unremembered, I then wrote eight more songs—just letting my imagination run wild, knowing Shara’s voice as well as I did at that point in time. It felt very natural; I had lots of ideas. I knew they would work for her, and I knew that she would get it. Working with her is like a mind meld. We don’t really have to talk about anything. She looks at the music, she sings it, and we’re there. You just don’t have that opportunity too many times in life, and that artistic connection we have has brought us closer as friends. It’s all part of the same thing.

MS: It seems that for a lot of these projects, that’s a palpable thing—that the artists have a sense of family or feel a part of a band. Is that an important aspect of music making to you?

SKS: Definitely. Particularly if it’s a piece like Unremembered—and this is why I’m so excited to see lots of young new performers who are bringing different sides of their musical loves together in their performance technique, because I think that that’s something we weren’t seeing for such a long time. But with Penelope and still to a degree with Unremembered, I worry: How will this piece live on after Shara or after I’m gone? Because it’s such a specific kind of voice. It’s really tough to find that. Who knows what the future holds for this kind of music. Understandably, if Shara hasn’t been available to sing it, a lot of institutions and ensembles haven’t wanted to do it because who else were they going to find to sing this music that way?

I want my music to sound like it was written by these other performers. In the case of, say, Penelope and Unremembered, I want it to be performed in a way that sounds like they wrote it. They own it. And yet, I do have this composer control freakiness where I write every single note and every single inflection, and there’s not a thing that they do that I hadn’t asked for. But I want it to look in the end like my hand is invisible in the product; it was just this thing made by this character. Not made by Shara, or David [Stith], or Padma per se, but by the characters who are singing these songs. That’s very important to me.

MS: What is your approach to text setting in that case?

SKS: God, I feel like I sound so emo. But again, it’s just getting back to this emotional center. I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude. And so I’m always thinking about the emotion and then the ideas come from there. I want the text setting to sound very natural, so I’m very particular about the texts that I set. That’s why I wanted to work with Nathaniel, because we’re old friends and I knew that he would be able to understand that and could write using very direct, concise language that packed a big punch imagistically. That was really important to me, because one problem I have with a lot of new music text setting is that there’s so much language being crammed into a musical phrase, and music really bloats a text. If you have too many words, you can lose some of the punch emotionally or musically. So I start with texts that I really like, and then I really just think about it in terms of storytelling and narrative and the emotion of the characters who are singing these lines.

MS: And Nathaniel helped you out there, right, because he actually sent you illustrations?

SKS: Yeah, that was a wonderful surprise. He sent me the poems, and then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I did some illustrations. I don’t know if you want to see them. Maybe they’d be useful.” And my mind was blown. They really inspired me tremendously, and I got immediate musical ideas upon looking at them, which was really interesting to me because that was the first time that had ever happened. I would see a picture of a girl running in one corner of the illustration, and I would hear one motive. And I would look at another part of the illustration where there were kids around a camp fire, and I would immediately hear something else. It was really great to have that be such an organic part of the writing process because I felt like I was really plugging into his psyche, where these stories came from for him emotionally.

MS: Listening to Unremembered yesterday, I really felt as if with this piece you had reached a certain significant point of arrival as an artist.

SKS: Well, something I’ve never said on record about Penelope is the extent to which it didn’t feel representative of me and all that I’d gone through as a composer in a lot of ways. It was getting back to my teenage me in a way, integrating my love of pop music, but it was leaving out all of this technique that I had worked so hard to bring into my music. That complexity is a big part of who I am as a composer, so it was nice with Unremembered to feel like I could put some of that back in. Everybody got to know me as the writer of Penelope and thought that that was what I did, the only kind of music I’d ever written. Nobody knew about this string quartet that I wrote, which sounds like the Second Viennese School, or this cello piece which was very Kodály, and these other pieces I’d written which were so different sounding from Penelope but which also felt like a really important part of my musical personality. Unremembered is still closer to Penelope than it is to that string quartet, but it was nice to feel like okay, this is 100% my piece, my design. I can make these songs anything I want.

So it’s funny when you say this feels like an arrival. I guess in a way it is because it is the first piece I’ve written where I’ve really brought together these two sides of my personality equally. I’m finding a way to integrate them that feels truer to the hybrid animal I feel like I am.

MS: I also heard in this piece perhaps darker, more aggressive language, and I wondered, since we were speaking about gender and expectations earlier, if the inclusion of male voices in the work had any influence on opening you up there?

SKS: I don’t think that having male voices really allowed me to explore a more aggressive side of myself musically. I mean, you look at The Witch, which is a song Shara sings, and that’s one of the most aggressive performances on the album. But it was really fun for me to get to explore that side of myself in vocal writing. I have a darker personality, I would say, than a lighter one. I felt like my whole life growing up was about putting on a smile and being a good girl and not showing that side of myself, and so when I get to go into the music that I’m writing and let that out, it just feels so great. Because it’s like I can finally say these things I’ve been wanting to say, and I won’t offend anybody. Maybe I will offend them musically, but I won’t be impolite. It’s great to be able to explore that side of myself in a very safe space.

I think being able to authentically access emotion really shows in the music itself. I’ve always felt like my nerves were on the outside. I’m hypersensitive and when I was a kid, I always felt like there was something wrong with me because I seemed to feel things in this outsized way compared to my friends, and I felt like that was weird—but it actually helps my work now. So there are good and bad sides to having—let’s call them—emotionally quirky personalities.

I’m trying to think of some helpful things to say about mental issues, and I’m failing. [Composer and New Amsterdam co-founder] Bill [Brittelle] and I talk about this a lot because we feel like it’s such a huge part of our writing, but we feel like we’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s weird because in pop and rock music, it’s good if you talk about it. It sells more albums and it sells more magazines. There’s something weird about new music where we like to divorce our personal side from the music. As a composer, you’re supposed to represent yourself more as like a good student who is articulate and responsible and intellectually and emotionally in control. This is why I thought it was so great that Nico Muhly came forward to talk about his personal struggles with mental well-being. It would be great for composers to be more comfortable talking about who they really are, and not be afraid to show the full 360 of their personhood.

I think this is related to what I was talking about with regard to the pop and classical bifurcation in the early- to mid-20th century. We’d had World War II and nothing you could say in music could do justice to the horror of the Holocaust. So music became as intellectualized as possible—let’s not even try to comment emotionally, because nothing we could say could address all of this. And also, of course, the rise of science and objectivism, and the prizing of those rational values over irrational ones. As a result, I just feel like, generation after generation, we were taught to tamp down our emotions, both in our music and personally in the way that we relate to audiences. One of my frustrations in grad school was just this, the fact that in seminar we would never talk about the emotional meaning of something. We would never talk about how a piece of music made us feel. It was always about more dispassionate, scientific pursuits—the form, the harmony, the gesture, articulations.

I think we’re still recovering from that, but I feel like we’re coming into this golden age now where there are a lot of composers who are more comfortable incorporating lots of different styles into their music, and being more themselves in the way they relate to the audience, which makes perhaps the music more accessible to audiences. Who knows? But the audiences are enjoying it, and it shows on their faces when they come rushing up to the composers afterwards and are telling them how much they loved it. I mean, when we were down in North Carolina recently, it was like we were rock stars. There was a long receiving line of audience members, and their genuine and enthusiastic expressions of delight were so moving. You know, while there are these dire reports saying that classical music is dying, they’re notably not being written by people who are actually in the field. I see tremendous growth happening in terms of the relationships between the audience and the composers and the administrators, and this sense of excitement about the potential there.

MS: So with your perspective at this point, how does the work of New Amsterdam compare with other similar aesthetic shifts but from earlier times, such as Bang on a Can? Because it seems like there are intersections, but also some strikingly different aspects.

SKS: Bang on a Can—I mean, they’re gods and goddesses. Their influence on composers of my generation is huge. The praises of it can’t really be sung highly enough. But I think the music of the world of Bang on a Can and the music of the world of New Amsterdam are a bit different. I think a lot of it has to do with, of course, the time in which both originated. [For BoaC] there was still this idea that you had to sort of define yourself in the language that was created by your enemy. They were rebelling against modernist strictures, but it was still like, “Okay, we need to write music that is defensible in terms of systems, and practices, and processes.” There were still a lot of shoulds and shouldn’ts, to be honest. And when Judd and Bill and I first started talking about New Amsterdam, we felt like, gosh, there’s still this sense of you can do this, you can’t do that. So let’s do all the things that we’re really not supposed to do. Let’s bring in bad taste. Let’s bring in indecorous musical behavior. Let’s write climaxes. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves. Let’s tell stories with clear narrative arcs. Let’s bring in cheesy electric guitar. What is the music that would come out of us if we hadn’t had a single composition lesson, or been exposed to the worlds of who was successful as a composer and who wasn’t? It was really a thought experiment. We all had some anxiety about it to varying degrees.

So that was the ideology, or the philosophy, the ethos, whatever, behind starting New Amsterdam. I think that also is what separates it a bit from Bang on a Can. It is a different time. I don’t really know how they pulled off what they did; it’s so much easier for us. We have the luxury now of living in a freer time and place. We like that New Amsterdam is really hard to describe. We just want it to be a place where composers are exploring all the music that they love, while still using the tools of their training as composers to write it.

MS: With all that freedom, do you feel now that you’ve sort of settled into a voice that you will hone, or are you still exploring.

SKS: I feel like it’s an honest reflection of everything—of my loves as a person on the planet, and my loves as a composer specifically. So I feel really good about it in that sense. But at the same time, I hope that I’m always growing and changing. I think that will keep me interested in the music that I’m writing, and hopefully keep me interesting as a composer. I never want to feel like I’m stuck in a comfort zone. That kind of terrifies me.

In fact, one thing that was troublesome to me about Penelope was that I would get commissions where people would say, “Can you write something like Penelope?” I felt a little bit pigeon holed by that. That’s why I started incorporating more chromaticism immediately after Penelope. I needed to remind myself that that wasn’t the only thing I can do. There’s a whole other world of music that I want to write.

This is a tough thing for a composer. If you get a bunch of good reviews telling you that you did this one thing really well, then you want to keep doing that thing and keep getting that positive feedback. But I think you can get stuck writing the same piece over and over. Composition can start to lose the luster if that happens. So I hope that I’m always able to keep evolving my voice.

OPERA American Awards $100,000 to 7 Female Composers

Opera Grants for Female Composers

(l to r): Jing Jing Luo, Odaline de la Martinez, Kitty Brazelton, Kamala Sankaram, Su Lian Tan, Patricia Leonard, and Laura Karpman.

OPERA America has announced the recipients of Discovery Grants from the Opera Grants for Female Composers program, made possible through The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. From among 61 eligible applicants, an independent adjudication panel selected seven composers to receive a total of $100,000 to support the development of their opera compositions.

The recipients of Discovery Grants are:

Kitty Brazelton for The Art of Memory
Laura Karpman for Balls
Patricia Leonard for My Dearest Friend
Jing Jing Luo for Ashima
Odaline de la Martinez for Imoinda
Kamala Sankaram for The Privacy Show
Su Lian Tan for Lotus Lives

The Opera Grants for Female Composers program, launched in December 2013, is implemented in two-year cycles. The focus of the program alternates between Discovery Grants, which are awarded directly to composers, and Commissioning Grants, which are given to opera companies. This recent group of Discovery Grants initiates the second cycle of granting. Discovery Grants aim to identify, support, and help develop the work of female composers writing for the operatic medium, raising their visibility and promoting awareness of their compositions. In addition to receiving financial assistance, grant recipients will be introduced to leaders in the field through a feature in Opera America Magazine and at future New Works Forum meetings and annual conferences. Supported works will be considered for presentation at future annual conference New Works Samplers.

The independent adjudication panelists for the Discovery Grants included director Sam Helfrich, composer Laura Kaminsky, composer Libby Larsen, mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, conductor Anne Manson, and coach/conductor Laurie Rogers.

Information for the second round of Commissioning Grant applications will be announced in December 2015.

(–from the press release)


Sarah Kirkland Snider Awarded DSO’s 7th Annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider

Sarah Kirkland Snider has been awarded the seventh annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award for Female Composers from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Snider will compose a new work that will be given its premiere in the 2015-16 season. In addition to concerts presenting her work, Snider will receive a $10,000 prize and a one-month residency at the Ucross Foundation, an artist’s retreat in northern Wyoming.
Snider was chosen by the following jury: Evan Chambers, local composer; Johanna Yarbrough, French horn; Joe Becker, principal percussion; Marcus Schoon, contrabassoon.

Last year’s winner, Wang Jie, debuts her work, Symphony No.2, “To and From Dakini,” under the direction of DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin at this weekend’s concerts. Previous winners also include Stacy Garrop, Margaret Brouwer, Cindy McTee, Du Yun, and Missy Mazzoli.

The Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award was inspired by composer, teacher, poet, artist and lecturer Elaine Lebenbom, a resident of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, who died in 2002. The DSO has premiered three of Lebenbom’s works. Kaleidoscope Turning received its world premiere under the direction of DSO Music Director Emeritus Neeme Järvi in 1997. Reflections on a Rainbow and Gamatria were debuted in 2004 and 2007, respectively, both after the composer’s death.

Details and submission deadlines for the eighth annual Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Competition for Female Composers will be announced this fall. The international competition, launched in 2006, is the only annual symphony orchestra sponsored award granted annually to a living female composer, of any age or nationality. Each year, one winner receives a $10,000 prize and the opportunity to have her original work premiered in the DSO’s Classical Subscription Series. The award is made possible by an anonymous donor.

To be considered for the award, participants must submit a resume; a completed application form; sample scores of up to three completed works, including one scored for full symphony; and supporting audio and/or video representation of at least one, preferably the symphonic work. Submitted entries will be judged by a committee formed by the DSO. More information can be found at dso.org/lebenbom. For questions, please contact Kathryn Ginsburg at [email protected].

(from the press release)

Why Do We Write Where & When We Write?

Sometimes, I envy my composition students. I loved being a student. I remember sleeping in until noon. That was awesome. I remember the excitement of learning new things about new music things, and writing new things at all hours of the day and night. I remember we ticked away on malleable composer-clocks. That was fabulous. Time felt easily scheduled and free. In 2002, I left school and somehow continued to write things; yet I wrote under a new umbrella of anxiety and discomfort. I did not have a hold on how I could control and shape my writing time.

Over the course of the last decade—a path that runs through a handful of adjunct teaching jobs, having a kid, living and freelancing in New York City, and now nearing my fifth year on the other side of the desk as a full-time faculty composer—it became necessary to snap my Dali-glob of a composer-clock into a strictly delineated circular grid. Apart from the time we take for performances, networking, promoting our work, etc., I am fascinated by how we composers inhabit our composer-clocks. Writing time: where is it, when is it, how is it.

In 2004, I had a late-night drink with composer Betsy Jolas after we had gone to hear the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir present Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Betsy spoke of the first time she met Stravinsky, her summers at Tanglewood, and her children. I asked her, “How did you find time to write while caring for young kids?” She explained: First, one makes time to write; second, she had a special attic, all her own. She would sneak upstairs at 3 a.m. and write until the children awoke. She called it “my precious, protected, space and time with my music.”

I grew up in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, in a house built into a hill nestled beneath the Flatirons. Along with a perfect view of the south side of I.M. Pei’s stunning National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) building, our house had a funky, small, modernist layout. The “yard” consisted of multiple levels with rock steps leading to little curious outside-spaces to explore. I often awoke at night to one cricket singing, deer rustling, aspen leaves twinkling in the breeze. It was quiet.

The most dazzling place I knew as a kid was my mom’s parents’ house in Northern Indiana’s Dune Acres, on the shore of Lake Michigan. With architectural characteristics of Bauhaus and the International Style, its layout was supreme funkytown: cool angles everywhere, half-walls, a bewindowed breakfast nook that jetted out over trees, a “yard” of multiple levels with rock steps leading to secret, small, side patios. I often awoke at night to the steady waves whispering on the beach. It was quiet.

I love visiting friends’ and colleagues’ “places of work.” The way we as individuals shape the environments devoted to our creativity is telling. Our spaces are windows into who we are as creative thinkers: precisely where the piano or keyboard is placed; if there is a writing table, its size, shape, and location; what, if anything, one chooses to hang on walls. Compelling among these spaces are those in New York City—workspace design gets mighty quirky in minimal square-footage. (Mine was seven-feet by three-feet when I lived there.) There is also a fun-ness in our dealing with our “stuff”: some studios are so pristinely organized they verge on being hermetically sealed; some have scores of scores, books, sticky notes, instruments, electronic gear, piles of paper seemingly strewn haphazardly. We all have our ways of organization, organized chaos, or preferred chaos here.

Throughout the apartment-hopping days of college to today, I have meticulously laid out my writing spaces. I also obsessively studied the history of architecture. I wrote, and still write, music inspired by buildings. I now understand the symbiosis of all of this: a thirty-eight-year evolution of a cognitive comfort zone, deeply rooted in, and informed by, the architecture of the spaces I inhabit. To ease the struggles of writing, I devote varied compositional activities to specific locations. These days, the writing time I have in my office at school, or in a coffee shop, is devoted to proofreading, editing, and making to-do lists. Large- and small-scale imagining, choosing notes, pacing while considering what comes next, I do best in my tiny home studio. It is a nook; it looks west over the Ann Arbor treeline, and its walls form a funky-angled trapezoid. The space feels easy.

In 2007, I caught up with composer Chen Yi over lunch. She was immersed in a busy season full of travel. I asked her how she manages to keep up her writing with her packed schedule. She told me she often writes on planes, and lit up at the possibility of the middle seat being empty, allowing her to spread out her work.

Whatever we have, whatever we choose to do, fills our lives. Composers with kids are no more busy than those without, composers who teach are no more busy than those who do not, and composers with multiple converging deadlines are no more busy than those with lengthy stretches of time between. Each of us is simply different-busy. The obesity of to-do lists ebbs and flows in seasons of varied intensities for everyone.

Student composers are a particular sort of different-busy, in part because they are still gaining a multi-textured self-awareness, one not limited to their evolving creative capacities, but also including the development of time-management skills. When a student opens a lesson with, “I didn’t have time to write much this week,” we talk about what that means: Are they scheduling writing time? Are they able to stick with that schedule? Do they protect their writing time from external interruptions (e.g., turn the phone off)? How are they using that time?

I believe it is important, particularly for young composers, to commit to a diligent habit of writing every day. Seth Godin has a great blog post about every-day writing, and what applies to writers of words is also relevant to writers of music. Godin’s blog is primarily focused on small-business marketing strategies. I like his posts because they are short, interesting, and frequently contain little gems of creative wisdom that resonate with an artist’s life. I often check @ThisIsSethsBlog on Twitter first thing in the morning, which one day revealed this delicious irony.

Over the last few years, my primary writing time has settled into fairly consistent spans of late night or early morning hours, which was not merely born out of a necessity from “much else to do” during the day. Although managing my own different-busy—I parent, I compose, I teach—my choice of these wee hours for creative focus is also informed by the sonic spaces and thinking-time of my youth; a propensity as a kid to enjoy awake-time when everyone else was asleep, and possibly most importantly, my efforts to carve out a specific space with a veil of silence: I need silence to write. Within the mountains of emailing, meetings, proofreading, editing, phone-calling, and even fun-having, I am comfortable allowing for interruptions. Given that which fills my life, my wee hours are best suited for the kind of writing that warrants its own, protected, space and time.

The term “writer’s block” should be stricken from the universe as a term. Composing is a multifaceted activity, one which requires the use of thinking-muscles, and one must figure out how to use those muscles in comfortable, useful ways. It troubles me to hear young composers express fear that creative thinking-muscles might atrophy. They get this notion from someone somewhere, and it can be paralyzing. In addition, telling a young composer they should write every day for at least an hour, and leaving it at that, can be equally paralyzing.

What is writing time, and how does one fill it? If not feeling particularly note-y or conceptual-y, take a walk for twenty minutes and think about titles. This is writing. Have a pile of empty bars waiting to become a contrasting section? Hit a coffee shop for an hour and make a list of adjectives describing how it can, or cannot, sound. This is writing. If staring at the blank page when starting a piece, unsure of what to do: relax, settle in some place comfortable, and simply imagine what it can be, how it can sound. Over and over, imagine it, without putting anything on a page. This is writing. An afternoon roaming a museum pondering visual likes and dislikes: this is writing. Spending fifteen minutes on a bus considering what piece one would write if one could write anything for any forces: writing.

Mentors, friends, and books suggested some of the above to me when I was a student, yet none put it like so: Make time for your writing; vehemently protect it; set a timer if it helps; find or create spaces solely devoted to writing; pay attention to how your writing sensibilities change, and respond to them; during your writing time you are available only to your creativity. P.S. Turn off your phone.

Holy smokes the world provides a lot of input. In some ways it is super cool. Our ability to rapidly disseminate information is mind-blowing, and can be useful. I love reading composers’ blogs, many of which explore our efforts to “filter out the noise” as we navigate the layers filling our different-busy schedules. The most poignant shift in my daily composer-clock ticked into place in 2005 with the birth of my son. Turn-on-a-dime time, people. Baby asleep = hurry up and write / Baby awake = stop writing. While I have little memory of choosing the notes I chose for the first two years of my son’s life, it was a tremendously informative time in shaping how I write now. Time to write = writing time. Period. I am still working on filtering out the noise during non-writing times; yet I am grateful that at least I am aware when the noise is fading in.

I wrote my first music at my grandparents’ Dune Acres house. We visited there most summers of my childhood. When the weather held, we spent long lazy mornings at the lake. After lunch, while others napped, I would sneak outside to my secret side patio. I made up songs, sang with the crickets, waves, and trees. It was the beginnings of my precious, protected, space and time with my music. Sometimes, I went out alone in the rain.

Kristin Kuster

Composer Kristin Kuster “writes commandingly for the orchestra,” and her music “has an invitingly tart edge” (The New York Times). Kuster’s music takes inspiration from architectural space, the weather, and mythology. Recent CD releases include Two Jades with violinist Xiang Gao and the UM Symphony Band, and the title work on the PRISM Saxophone Quartet’s New Dynamic Records CD Breath Beneath. Kuster’s music has received support from such organizations as the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Sons of Norway, American Composers Orchestra, the League of American Orchestras, Meet The Composer, the Jerome Foundation, the American Composers Forum, American Opera Projects, the National Flute Association, and the Argosy Foundation. Born in 1973, Kuster grew up in Boulder, Colorado. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Michigan, where she now serves as Assistant Professor of Composition.

Let’s Celebrate Today

We Can Do It

It’s International Women’s Day! To properly celebrate, I say let’s all burn, sink, or plant a piano Annea Lockwood-style. Perhaps in keeping with the times we could extend this practice to electric keyboards as well. Be sure to send photos!

Not only would I like to take advantage of this occasion to point you towards David Smooke’s post from Tuesday, in which he runs a few unofficial yet telling numbers illustrating gender representation in some small slices of the concert programming world, but also offer some potential solutions via Timothy Rutherford-Johnson’s exellent IWD-themed playlist for today, not to mention pile on some additional numbers (which are actually not as abysmal as I expected).

It is very true that there are fewer female composers in the world than male composers, and for that reason we will probably not anytime soon reach a 50/50 split in concert programming across the board. I agree that a big reason for this is a lack of role models and female composition teachers. (Indeed, I can almost guarantee that I would not be working in this field today if I had not had female composition teachers from day one.) However, the issue at present seems less about persuading more young women to enter the field, than about celebrating the female composers who are here now, making music now. I also urge the female composers out there to celebrate (obviously well beyond today) yourself and your music. Get out there and bring it, ladies. It’s up to those making decisions about concert programming to pay attention and look beyond their immediate circles of influence to hear and see the music of the many amazing female composers active today, and responsibility also falls on the composers to put their music out there with everything they’ve got.

I do think that numbers are improving, but it’s slow going, and many institutions (the larger ones especially) have a lot of catching up to do. However, I am heartened by the number of college professors (both male and female) who are incorporating a diverse range of music by female composers into their curricula. I hope a day will come when we can look back at these statistics and laugh.

Sounds Heard: Florence B. Price—Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor

Since yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought it was an appropriate day to listen almost exclusively to music by African-American classical music composers—a group of composers who all too often get excluded from the pantheon of our nation’s most significant creative artists even at a time when we make extremely valiant attempts to celebrate diversity. While a handful of African-American composers alive now have the opportunity to hear their music performed by orchestras and other large-scale enterprises around the country and the past giants of jazz, blues, and other genres are rightfully revered (some even on postage stamps), pioneers like William Grant Still (1895-1978), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), and many others have yet to enter the standard repertoire of concert halls. Probing deep into the history of American music, an intrepid musicologist will discover that long before Jerome Kern attempted to elevate the Broadway musical to the level of opera with his 1927 Show Boat (the plot of which is curiously about miscegenation) and George Gershwin attempted to bring Broadway sensibilities to opera with his 1935 Porgy and Bess (the plot of which focuses on African Americans), the African-American “king of ragtime” Scott Joplin created an opera that did both—Treemonisha—in 1911. Long before Charles Ives and Henry Cowell exploited the sonorities of tone clusters in their piano music, a blind composer-pianist raised as a slave named Thomas Wiggins (a.k.a. “Blind Tom” Bethune) was tossing out tone clusters in a tone poem about the then-occurring American Civil War Battle of Manasses as far back as 1862 (when he was 12-years old)!

And then there’s Florence Beatrice Smith Price. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, she was admitted to the New England Conservatory as a keyboardist (performing on both piano and organ) at the age of 14 and wound up studying composition with George Chadwick and Frederick Converse, two of the leading American symphonic composers at the dawn of the 20th century. She returned to Arkansas and, in 1912, married a prominent Harvard-trained African-American lawyer Thomas J. Price, who represented Black defendants arrested following the 1919 Arkansas race riots and was a founding member of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. But following a gruesome lynching, they and their two children relocated to Chicago in 1927 where she remained for the rest of her life. While this was a tragedy for the people of Arkansas, it was a mitzvah to Florence Price whose music got to the attention of, among others, the prominent Chicago composer Leo Sowerby with whom she studied and who became a staunch advocate. In Chicago, she flourished as a composer, creating four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto, plus numerous compositions for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and choruses. By the time of her death in 1953, she had completed over 300 pieces of music, many of which received prominent performances—her Symphony in E Minor (her first), which Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony in the premiere of in 1933, was the very first symphony by an African-American woman ever performed by a major symphony orchestra in the United States and remains one of the few to this day. Yet after her death, performances waned and, aside from a few of her spiritual arrangements being championed by Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price (no relation) who sang one at the White House in 1978, the only recording devoted exclusively to her music is a now out-of-print Women’s Philharmonic disc released in 2001 by Koch International Classics (which is now owned by E1 Entertainment and which they ought to reissue). That disc, which should have made listeners eager to hear more of her music, featured performances of three of her orchestral works—the expansive Mississippi River Suite, her formidable Symphony No. 3 in C Minor from 1940, and a mysterious shorter piece called The Oak which was discovered in the Eastman School of Music’s Sibley Music Library and might have never been performed during her lifetime.

The most recent attempt to right the wrong of the current neglect of Florence Price’s music is the latest installment in an ongoing series of CDs entitled “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora” featuring the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and released by Albany Records under the auspices of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Like its aforementioned Women’s Philharmonic forebear, the latest addition to the Florence Price discography is also the result of some intrepid musical archaeology. The disc opens with Price’s Concerto in One Movement, a work which premiered in Chicago in 1934 with the composer as soloist and which was subsequently performed by another early 20th century African-American female composer-pianist Margaret Bonds, who later became a close friend of and frequent collaborator with Langston Hughes. Yet the original orchestral score for this composition is lost; all that has survived are three manuscripts (all in the composer’s hand): a solo piano version, a three-piano arrangement, and a two-piano arrangement containing some marginal notes about instrumentation (although it is not known if these were written by her before or after the completion of the original orchestration). The Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to reconstruct an authoritative orchestration from the surviving materials, and this work received its premiere on February 17, 2011, with pianist Karen Walwyn and the New Black Repertory Ensemble conducted by Leslie B. Dunner; the same forces appear on the present recording. The Concerto, in its current guise, is an extremely exciting and approachable work. Although it is in one movement, as the title makes clear, the Concerto is parsed in three clearly discernible sections. The opening Moderato section echoes the sound world of spirituals which were so important to Price’s musical sensibilities. The Adagio section, in which the rest of the orchestra is mostly silent, contains some extraordinary piano writing which is the most overtly jazz-tinged music of Price’s yet to be recorded. The concluding Allegretto is inspired by the Juba, an antebellum folk dance which also inspired the third movement of Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, as well as her very first Symphony in E Minor. The performance is crystalline, with Walwyn and the NBRE often sounding like a period-instrument outfit tackling one of Mozart’s fortepiano concertos.

The rest of the disc is devoted to that historic first Symphony in E Minor, a massive nearly 40-minute work. She originally intended to subtitle the work “Negro Symphony,” which immediately begs comparison to William Grant Still’s earlier Afro American Symphony from 1930 and William Levi Dawson’s 1934 Negro Folk Symphony which postdates it. But even without the verbal acknowledgement in its title, the work’s saturation with spiritual-like melodies belies its intent. Another symphony which casts a huge shadow on Price’s work is Dvorak’s 1893 New World Symphony which also uses spirituals, so much so in the first movement of Price’s symphony that her piece occasionally feels like something of a doppelganger of that celebrated work. But considering that Dvorak was borrowing his material, it is perhaps fitting that someone from the community from which it was borrowed should reclaim it for similar symphonic ends. Of course what is somewhat problematic is that Price was reclaiming this material a full four decades later, making her music sound something like a throwback to an earlier era of American symphonic music—the era in which a generation of composers responded to Dvorak’s advice to create a viable American symphonic music using native materials. This is a claim that certainly cannot be made of Price’s Concerto in One Movement, a work whose incorporation of jazz harmonies make it as up-to-date as contemporaneous attempts to do so by composers as diverse as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, George Antheil, and James P. Johnson—a great African-American composer now principally remembered only in the jazz community for his exciting stride piano recordings. But thankfully the shadow of Dvorak that hovers over Price’s first movement is less obvious in the symphony’s remaining three movements: the second movement contains some assured brass writing (would that Price had composed for symphonic winds, maybe there’s a piece lurking somewhere in someone’s archives); and the fourth contains some exciting interplay between the strings and the woodwinds—though admittedly it too sounds like music from an earlier era. My favorite part of the piece is the Juba-inspired third movement, a rondo which includes orchestral imitations of folk fiddling and banjo picking and features a slide whistle which provides a few welcome moments of true musical weirdness. Once again the performance and sound quality of the recording are outstanding.

Now to find more of Florence Price’s music! In his keynote speech to the 2012 Chamber Music America conference on January 13, 2012, Aaron Dworkin, the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization (which advocates for a greater role for Black and Latino musicians in classical music) opined that less than one percent of music performed by American orchestras is by Black or Latino composers and that he only learned that such composers ever existed when he got to college. In the list of names he cited who became heroes to him as an adult (Still, Dawson, etc.), Price was conspicuously absent. Women composers have suffered similar neglect at the hands of orchestra music programmers. Florence Price is part of two underserved demographics in our repertoire. But if the music didn’t merit rediscovery, it would just have curiosity value. The fact that she created at least a handful of worthy repertoire candidates (and who knows what else is lying around in an archive somewhere)—I treasure the Mississippi River Suite and the Concerto in One Movement (which now, thanks to Trevor Weston’s re-orchestration, can re-enter the canon)—means that attention must be paid.