Tag: vocal music

A Primer on Collaborating with Authors

Poetry books

Introduction

I could wax poetic about why composers should set texts by living authors. Some big reasons include texts that stand out amid the sea of well-worn Public Domain poems, topics and style relevant to today’s audiences, more diverse voices and viewpoints, the ability to interact with the author, the possibility of tailor-made texts, and supporting another art form as a living tradition. I’d happily go on in detail about each of these, but I’d rather focus on actionable information you can use to start (or improve) your journey setting contemporary texts. So I will skip the justifications and assume you like working with words and are at least cautiously interested in setting text by a breathing human being.

While it is possible to find interviews where composers talk about specific projects working with authors, there is fairly limited information out there about the nuts and bolts of how to actually start doing it. Dale Trumbore has written about why and how to collaborate with writers in No More Zombie Poets, Part 1: Choosing Better Public Domain Texts and Part 2: Finding Writers Who Aren’t Dead. Aside from that, Stephen Paulus’s Before You Set Those Words to Music includes a clear introduction to copyright, Public Domain, and text-setting permissions. ASCAP and BMI each have some posts about such permissions as well.

My articles will draw on those sources along with my own experiences to explore the process of working with living authors. By authors, I mean writers, poets, librettists, playwrights, or any other creators of words. I’ll cover critical logistics such as finding collaborators, assessing compatibility, creating a text-setting agreement, and navigating the remainder of the process. My purpose is to provide a primer for composers who haven’t yet worked with living authors and to offer another veteran’s perspective to those experienced in collaborating with writers.

Finding Authors

A common question about working with authors is where to find them. If you want to set contemporary text but don’t have a specific author or work in mind, the prospect of finding someone whose writings you like, with whom you are compatible enough to have a good working relationship, and who is also interested in collaborating with you can appear daunting.

Finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though…

In reality, finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though, so this is not something best done when you have a project with an impending deadline. Rather, think of finding authors as a lifestyle and incorporate some or all of the suggestions below into your normal activities. Eventually, you’ll discover authors whose work interests you and start building relationships with them.

Poet Athena Kildegaard

Poet Athena Kildegaard reading her work at the Art Song Lab 2019 Poetry Reading.

You could find contemporary texts and authors by browsing manuscripts at your local bookstore and perusing literary journals or similar periodicals. If you don’t want to leave the comfort of your couch, the American Academy of Poets’ website is a great resource. It allows you to search for poems, poets, keywords, poetry activities in your area, and more. They also offer a poem-a-day email subscription and frequently share poetry on social media.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms are wonderful for connecting with potential collaborators. You may already have writers in your immediate network. Or, you could ask friends or colleagues for suggestions of writers to check out. Finding the social media account of an author you respect and seeing who they follow or whose work they share could also introduce you to new possibilities.

Additionally, some platforms include groups where you could find possible collaborators. I’ve found the following Facebook groups very helpful:

Composer Writer Connection
Contemporary Opera Connection
Librettist Network

Searching for keywords like writer, author, poet, playwright, or librettist bring up many other groups that you might want to check out.

Meeting Authors

Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact.

Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact. Your local bookstores or libraries may have upcoming readings by local authors or those touring a book. Area colleges may have Creative Writing programs that sponsor events, or you may be able to contact faculty to seek possible collaborators.

A Google search for events near you may also be fruitful. When I searched “Connecticut poet,” I found there is a Connecticut Poetry Society. Their website had information on readings and other events, links to local poetry groups and independent bookstores, an annual publication they sponsor, and more. There is a network called the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which lists other state societies. Yours may have one, too, and there may be a city or regional group nearby where you can meet authors. If you travel, you can also look for events in your destination.

Poet Delali Aviyor

Poet Delali Aviyor reading at The Atlantic Center for the Arts (2018).

Some organizations specifically focus on connecting composers and writers. A few examples include:

Art Song Lab
American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice
Nautilus Composer-Librettist Studio
Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory
Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative

The programs listed here are primarily educational. Some are tuition-based, while others may be free or include financial support. Some are highly competitive, others less so. All provide the opportunity to meet and work with authors from a variety of locations on new projects.

Artist residences are another place you might meet writers if you can participate in one or attend their open studio days or similar events. As with the educational programs above, you are more likely to meet authors outside your local area at an artist residency.

Now What?

It may seem obvious, but once you’ve found someone you think you might want to work with, the next step is getting to know them. Get very familiar with their work and try to connect with them either online or in person. Start thinking about whether you might want to collaborate with them and in what capacity.

If you don’t have a pressing need to collaborate with them on an upcoming project, this process can happen naturally through building a friendship. Then you can bring up the possibility of collaborating once you have a project that feels right.

If you already have a specific project in mind—for example, you think something they wrote would be perfect for an upcoming piece—then skip ahead to proposing… a collaboration, that is. Express your interest in setting their text and describe the potential project to see if they might want to work together. If that writer is not familiar with your music, provide a small number of samples similar to the proposed collaboration.

Informed Consent and “The Talk”

Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.”

Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.” This is the phase in which you’ll discuss artistic goals, working process, and the logistics of your partnership including permissions for using the text, your financial arrangements, and any other necessary details. It’s akin to taking a big step forward in a romantic relationship, hence the capital letters.

And as with personal relationships, informed consent is the foundation for a successful artistic collaboration. Both parties must understand how the collaboration is going to work and agree in writing before starting the project.

Arriving at informed consent depends on self-awareness and clear communication. Each person should know their preferences in working with others, their creative process, and their artistic goals or intentions. They must also be able to articulate those elements to their partner, understand how their needs relate to those of their partner and the project, and negotiate any conflicts.

Some of that may happen informally as you and your partner are getting to know one another. Other items will need a focused discussion, either oral or written. Discussions in person, on the phone, or via video conferencing have the benefit of real-time responses and a clearer perception of tone. Both of which reduce the chance of miscommunication. However, this may be uncomfortable for some people.

Typed discussions have the advantage of ensuring that everything is written down and easily referenced. Email and other asynchronous methods may also be easier for scheduling. But the participants should be especially conscious both of their own wording and how they are reading the other person’s responses since typed communication can come off colder and harsher than intended. I typically use oral discussions for big issues and email to finalize details or give straightforward updates.

Regardless of how you do it, having The Talk is essential in setting the collaboration up for success. It will be the foundation for your written contract and a roadmap for navigating your partnership. These discussions also help you to get further acquainted and make sure that you really want to work together before you commit.

The next two articles in the series will go more into the interpersonal and legal issues that should be covered in The Talk.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
ASCAP Foundation Logo

Brilliant, Funny, and Fueled by Passion—Remembering Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominick Argento in the audience for a performance in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence and Boosey & Hawkes)

If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats.  Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”.  It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.

Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.

When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live.  If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.

If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfalseason after season of newly conceived work.

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!  He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.

At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s seasonDominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.

Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.

At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work.  We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera.  I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.

Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had!  No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.”  We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways.  Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”

Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition.  Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration.  You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape.  Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence.  I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments.   He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray?  No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.

I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.

The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.

I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.  The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work.  He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom.  Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.

Libby Larsen, Dale Warland, Dominick Argento, and John Neuchterlein seated at a table in a restaurant.

Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom
right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.

Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts.   These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit.  We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond.  We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends.  We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall.  During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.

The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world.  In doing this he taught  each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music.   Thank you, Dominick.

Are Operatic Voice Types Inherently Gendered?

A woman in a dark red coat, blue shirt and dark lipstick posing as the role of a prince for an opera

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installment delved into why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward, and later installments will discuss possibilities for the continual adaptation of voice classification systems.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Imagine, for a moment, a mezzo-soprano. Who do you see? If you’re having trouble, this is what Google came up with:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "mezzo-soprano"

You’ll notice that they’re all women. I can’t make assumptions for those I don’t know, but of those I do know, many of the women shown here are cisgender, not transgender or gender non-conforming, women. (They’re also mostly white. But that’s another topic for another article.)

Now, imagine a countertenor. Who do you see? Here’s what Google sees:

A screenshot of a Google Image search on "countertenor"

It’s also interesting that both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types. Countertenors are a contemporary version of the Baroque and Classical era castrati. Mezzo-sopranos didn’t exist as their own voice type until the 19th century.

If a mezzo-soprano and a countertenor share the same range and often the same roles, then why are they separate types? And why is there an obvious gender difference?

Of course, the obvious answer is that timbre and ability are different between mezzo-sopranos and countertenors. And that timbre/ability difference, on the most basic and overly generalized level, is due to the physical differences of the vocal cords.

As much as I love science, I don’t think it’s beneficial to go into it here. Instead, I’d like to speak about my own experience transitioning from average “female” vocal cords to testosterone-affected vocal cords that more closely resemble average “male” vocal cords. I’m using quotation marks here, because the gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing. A body part or an article of clothing may have societal or traditional associations with a specific gender, but that isn’t enough to gender it; instead, these things take on the gender of the person they belong to.  Since I’m a transmasculine nonbinary person, my vocal cords are transmasculine and nonbinary as well.

All of this aside, the mechanism that I’ve spent years training as a mezzo-soprano feels and operates completely differently since hormone replacement therapy caused it to change. Not only has the timbre and range fluctuated, but the overall sensation of singing with these changed vocal cords is now foreign to me.

That said, am I still a mezzo-soprano if I have the range, the roles, the experience, and the training? Or am I a countertenor now, since my vocal cords more closely resemble “male” vocal cords? Or, perhaps, I’m neither. This is where the inherent gendering of the voice types becomes more apparent and far less useful.

  • Both the mezzo-soprano and the countertenor are newer voice types.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • The gendering of body parts is as useless as the gendering of articles of clothing.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist
  • Critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles.

    Aiden Feltkamp, vocalist and librettist

Perhaps I’m being a bit flippant about decoupling gender from voice, since it’s still a topic of hot debate when it comes to operatic casting as well as recital repertoire. There’s still the question of who’s “allowed” to sing Winterreise (spoiler alert: the answer is “everyone”) and critics continue to make women’s bodies a big deal (generally, but especially) when they’re performing trouser roles. Perhaps my own concept and experience of gender is too opaquely coloring the conversation here. I just can’t move past the fact that boy sopranos are boy sopranos and I don’t personally know any female operatic tenors. To me, this seems too constrictive to be adaptable.

As I mentioned in the last part of this series, I believe that adaptability is crucial to an art form’s success and relevancy into the future. I’m thinking we could go about solving this with one of two major shifts: we could remove the gender implications of our current voice type system (as the German Fach system has attempted to do, especially in regard to transgender singers) or we could create a new system that has a lack of gendered implications. Or, perhaps, it’s as easy as normalizing gender as part of the voice type. Then, female tenor will be as much a voice type as dramatic tenor. I’ll dive into these possibilities in the next part.

Too often, it seems that the answer to “Has society gendered this?” is “Yes.” It’s no different with operatic voice types.

Where Is Do?

Walking Woman In Center Of Spiral Stairs

Walking Woman In Center Of Spiral Stairs

Our voices do not have keys, bars, valves, positions, or switches. Singers are without an instrument the naked eye can see. So, for long and far, we have instructed as we were instructed—that solfège is representative of the order of scales and chord members in all of their colorful permutations.

When presented with new music, there is a question my voice students ask in quiet panic: “Where is do?” Where do I start? Where do I go? Woe is me!

According to the established choral curriculum, we just cannot agree. For me, do is every pitch class that is C. And tonic, or any given center of tonality, could be anywhere. The world of sound is vast and ultimately pandiatonic. For them, I fear, the world is a little less colorful, and I will explain why.

Brace yourselves! It’s about to get technical.

Fixed vs. Moveable

My older brother taught me how to sight-sing before I learned my way around the piano. The solfège we learned in school, I came to find out as a grad student, was a chromatic fixed do. But, the do to which most American singers are accustomed—and which I am obligated to teach—is called moveable do.

For those unfamiliar, fixed do is the system in which solfège corresponds strictly with letter names. The traditional European version calls ti “si,” and chromaticism is intuited rather than represented by chromatic solfège. In other words, they stick to do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si in every key and mode.

On the other hand, moveable do defines solfège strictly based on diatonic function, where do is tonic, mi is mediant, and so on. This do, however, is loosened by secondary dominants and unstable harmonies, e.g. fully diminished sonorities. Thus, moveable do necessitates the addition of chromatic solfège to account for tonicization and modulation. Then, we see fi as “raised four,” te as “lowered seven,” si as the leading tone to a relative minor, etc.

solfege

Additionally, many choral classrooms display hand signs, which correspond to solfège and serve as a kinesthetic means by which to develop tonal memory. But, with moveable do, the benefit of these tools is limited to perceiving harmonic function.

Like moveable do, chromatic fixed do incorporates chromatic solfège to account for the accidentals, and the hand signs are still applicable. The difference is that, with chromatic fixed do, singers develop muscle memory, which reinforces their tonal memory. And rather than harmonic function, the ear develops the skills to understand relationships between specific pitches.

Consequently, we are presented with two models of aural pedagogy. The standard moveable do trains the ear by using solfège to trace the relationships of intervals. For example, in F major, F up to C is do up to sol; and in Bb major, F up to C is sol up to re. Presented precisely the same interval, we perceive a difference in diatonic function.

With chromatic fixed do, in every key and mode, our example of F up to C, is always fa up to do. Again, it’s a perfect fifth, but we are left to imagine an exciting and mysterious variety of its function.

Taken as a harmonic interval, the fixed fa and do offer a name for particular colors that occur in tertian harmony. Fa and do stabilize in F major, but simultaneously bend towards B­b minor. They cool in D minor, blur in Db major, alarm in E minor, broaden in G major, and lighten in Ab major. My ears delight in the profound potential of fa and do.

Modes Are in the Air

Instead of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, I fed my adolescent ears Debussy, Ravel, and Brahms. In choir, I was exposed to everything from Tomás Luis de Victoria and Monteverdi to Honegger, Dello Joio, and Jonathan Dove. So, I missed out on standard keyboard harmony, and my listening was not organized by the conventions of diatonicism; but, the modality of music became elemental to my listening. And because of my fixed do upbringing, to me, music was modal before it was ever diatonic.

My sensibilities deepened when I had the privilege to take in a lecture by Narcis Bonet—a disciple of the enduringly influential pedagogue Nadia Boulanger—as a student in the European American Musical Alliance in 2009. To paraphrase, Bonet posed that the unraveling of tonality through the eras corresponds with the natural phenomena of the harmonic series.

After the fundamental do and the second harmonic up an octave do, you have sol, which constitutes a structural open fifth—the Middle Ages. Add do and mi—the Renaissance. Then, it’s sol and te—the threshold to the Romance, a.k.a. Beethoven. And eventually, the supertonic re—Debussy. In other words, as time goes on, the harmonic series builds, and composers free the tones that follow.

With the understanding that our sense of tonality, no matter the do, is governed by perfect fifths, the possibilities seem to be endless. The aural atmosphere is rich with modal interdependence, and composers are able create tonal portals by simply dropping the local tonic by a perfect fifth. What sorcery is this!?

Harmonic Language

Modes are ubiquitous. They’re colorful, emotionally charged, and expressive in their own right. So, I have come to the conclusion that moveable do has whitewashed my high schoolers’ ears. They lack in ready perception of modes.

I also humbly recall my composition professors, who on multiple occasions would ask, “What key are you in here?” More recently, it’s my commissioners or colleagues who persist, “Why don’t you resolve to one?… Can you end on one?… We would really like a strong ending.”

Scratching my head, my response is the same: “But, it’s all modal!” It’s how I experience music, and I think, it will always reflect in my work.

Austin: Conspirare’s Moving Light

Craig Hella Johnson - photo by Danny Brod

Craig Hella Johnson
Photo by Danny Brod

What are the first few names that come to mind when you think of Texas music? It’s not a stretch to imagine that Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, or Billy Gibson (of ZZ Top) might pop up, and it should come as no surprise that these are just a few of the people who have been honored as the Official Texas State Musician of the Year in the eleven years that the award has been around. However, it’s not only grizzled road warriors and guitar-slingers getting recognition in the Lone Star state. Selected for a one-year appointment by the Texas Poet Laureate, the current State Musician, and the State Artist Committee, last year’s honoree was Conspirare founder and artistic director Craig Hella Johnson. His career in Texas spans over twenty years, including a decade at UT Austin, and in that time he has taken a one-off project for the Victoria Bach Festival and turned it into a powerhouse of contemporary vocal music. That these accomplishments track in the world of concert music is no surprise, but the fact that they’ve garnered recognition as representative of the state at large is exciting.

Often referred to as “Conspirare’s Craig Hella Johnson” the truth is actually the other way around. Conspirare in many ways is Craig Hella Johnson, and when you see them perform you are seeing his vision come to life. To bring the members of an ensemble (let alone the audience) along on a journey takes the ability to show confidence and sincerity and to instill trust and wonder. I saw him speak about his life in music before a group of composers last summer and about twenty minutes into a two hour chat half of the people in the room were weeping. Several people had to leave the room to collect themselves. These were mostly simple stories about important mentors and moments in his development, but he had a way of talking about them that brought everyone in the room into his world by relating to similar stories from theirs. It was neither a motivational speech nor one that seemed to be engineered to endear; the guy just connects, and it comes through whether he’s on the stage or kicked back in a comfortable chair.

Conspirare Symphonic Choir - photo by Danny Brod

Conspirare Symphonic Choir
Photo by Danny Brod

“Moving Light,” Conspirare’s most recent concert offering, was held on campus at the massive University Presbyterian Church on March 28, and consisted of two light-themed pieces: Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Luminosity by James Whitbourne. The former has become a bit of a warhorse in its short life and generally finds itself paired with heavy hitters of the canon such as the Brahms or the Faure, while the latter is even newer and shows it with solo parts for tanpura, viola, and tam-tam. I’ve seen Conspirare’s professional chamber choir, Company of Voices, on more than a few occasions, but this was my first experience with the full symphonic choir. Playing to an absolutely packed house, the 80-member choir filled the stage to begin the concert with the Lauridsen. Cast in five movements and clocking in at just under 30 minutes, the work draws its text from ancient liturgies including the Requiem Mass and its musical inspiration from the late Renaissance. The movements are played without pause, and Austin Haller’s organ accompaniment more often traded moments with the chorus as opposed to playing with it.

It’s no wonder the piece has been played regularly since its premier in the late ’90s. A thoroughly approachable piece overflowing with clean consonances, it struck me that such a texture really does put into stark relief the few sharp edges that pop out from time to time. In particular, the theme which materializes homophonically in the outer movements is not harmonically adventurous (and need not be), but its coalescence in a sea of flowing lines was quite striking.

In contrast, the Whitbourne showed up in some flashier clothes by way of the Shay Ishli Dance Company, which joined the singers on stage. The seven movements draw freely and liberally from a variety of religious texts in which light plays a role, and as these unfolded the dancers moved around and behind several screens through which the light flowed, at times creating shadows and silhouettes and at others showing through what appeared to be smoke from a smoke machine. I was up in the balcony for this one, so it was tricky to see if the smoke played a larger role below my field of vision, but from where I was sitting it was subtly handled. Throughout, Mousumi Karmakar’s tanpura played its foundational role, intoning 5-1 at various points as Sean Harvey accented entrances and colored the texture with tam-tam. Violist Bruce Williams played beautifully and managed to project even through the thickest of moments, all while the chorus delivered a strong performance under Johnson’s direction.

It’s heartening to know that among those named Official Texas State Musician of the Year is a prominent classical musician (two actually; Robert Dick was the inaugural honoree), mostly because it’s not simply a token honor. It’s indicative of Johnson’s impact on Conspirare and, by extension, on the Texas choral scene, and he more than warrants such recognition. I’m not sure that it’s the kind of thing that’s really on his radar though. He’s planning the next twenty years.

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.

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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.

New England’s Prospect: Celebrating Ned Rorem @ 90 in Boston

I am the key to my simplicities, but the lock’s painted over.
—Ned Rorem, The Final Diary 1961-1972

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is, at the moment, hosting a reminder that what you look at and what you see are not necessarily the same thing. The reminder concerns the museum’s great unhealed rift: the theft, in 1990, of thirteen works of art, including paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet. Because of the terms of Mrs. Gardner’s will—which puts strict limitations on altering her original collection, even down to the gallery arrangements—the stolen items still maintain an absent presence: the walls and displays formerly occupied by the works are left blank and bare. The larger paintings still hang as empty frames: visitors sit at a desk to look at the spot where Vermeer’s The Concert once resided or stand in front of what used to be Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and see an expanse of damask wallpaper bound by a gilded rectangle.

On the other side of the museum, in the Gardner’s newer, modern expansion, French artist Sophie Calle’s 1991 installation Last Seen, which is being paired with a new, smaller sequel called What Do You See?, combines large-scale photographs of those empty spaces with textual accompaniment, derived from interviews with museum staff and visitors about the stolen works. It is, on the one hand, a memory piece, but also a piece slyly poking at the question of just what it is we look at when we look at art. Visitors, after all, still go to the Dutch Room just to see the empty frames.

An empty frame in the Dutch Room of the Gardner Museum

An empty frame in the Dutch Room of the Gardner Museum, where Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black once hung.
Image via FBI.gov

On November 3, across the way from Calle’s installation, the New York Festival of Song visited the museum’s Calderwood Hall with a program celebrating Ned Rorem’s 90th birthday. (It was something of an out-of-town tryout for a November 5 concert at New York’s Merkin Hall.) Mixing Rorem’s songs with repertoire by contemporaries—both friends and rivals—the idea was to present a sketch of a composer and his influences. The outlines, both in the selection and Steven Blier’s program notes, made for a familiar image of Rorem, the brash individualist breezily sailing against prevailing winds, be it in his vocabulary (tonal), his musical accent (French), or even his life (that of an uninhibited and unapologetic gay man). But as the songs unfolded, those outlines began to blur and shift. By the end, the portrait of Rorem was, perhaps unwittingly, more true to the subject’s complexity, more like the charged, eloquent lacunae that Calle was investigating down the hall. The frame—the tonality, the lyricism, the elegant hedonism—is obvious; but what’s contained within the frame, what is and isn’t there, is something considerably more elusive.

Never mind that Rorem, in song and diary, has seemed to cultivate a persona of almost compulsive indiscretion. It is a gambit, a strategem. “The undisciplined first-person involuntarily inclines more to disguise than a novelist does,” the man once remarked. “I am Rose and when I sing / I am Rose like anything,” Gertrude Stein wrote, words that Rorem set with almost bald-faced cheer and lucidity—but words that also hint at a mutability of identity. Pianist Michael Barrett introduced the song by quoting from an interview:

[Rorem]: “I Am Rose,” on a darling poem of Gertrude Stein’s, is short, about ten seconds long. There are as many ways to sing it as there are singers, and it can go fast or slow or in between. It’s my masterpiece.
[Interviewer]: Oh?
[Rorem]: I’m being cute.

The thing is, in Rorem’s music, “being cute”—that dance between admission and retraction, between candidness and concealment—is serious business.

Much was made, in the concert, of Rorem’s Francophile tendencies, but there is one decidedly Germanic streak in his songs, and that is the idea of continuous variation, the idea that Schoenberg analyzed out of Brahms as a justification for his own perpetual permutations. The context might be worlds away, but the technique is the same: Rorem’s ideas almost always return in slightly different guise, a musical nod to the quiet churn of even the most benign emotion. In a way that seems to bow to both Heraclitus and Sondheim, Rorem never does anything twice.

That was especially apparent when the songs were contrasted with strophic counterparts. The distance between Marc Blitzstein’s “Emily” (from his Airborne Symphony)—a World War II bombardier writing a letter to his sweetheart before a flight—and Rorem’s “A specimen case,” from his cycle War Scenes—a Walt Whitman portrait of a dying Civil War soldier—was striking: Blitzstein hewing to verse and chorus in serene tension, Rorem letting the musical expression overrun the form. Even in gentler songs, “Full of life now,” say (a lushly Impressionist Whitman setting from 1989) or “Come In,” a Robert Frost poem included in the 1997 cycle Evidence of Things Not Seen, Rorem never quite returns to where he began, the vantage point continually on the move, the seemingly unguarded style nonetheless staying a step out of reach.

The concert, then, had both a plausible feel of being a true portrait of Rorem and a strong sense that it was only one of many possible such portraits. It was painted with skill: Blier and Barrett divided the piano duties, with unimpeachable style; the singers were quite fine, baritone Andrew Garland all polished stentorian brawn, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey more mercurially expressive and playful with the text (though also, at times, more distractingly mannered, in a breathy-straight-tone-cabaret way). Rorem’s familiar hits were there: “The Lordly Hudson,” “Alleluia” (reimagined as a bright, anything-you-can-do competition between Garland and Lindsay), and “Early in the Morning” (an encore, sung in unison by a group of New England Conservatory students, turning Rorem’s delicate Parisian sojourn into something more like the crush of a tour group), The groupings were smart—not only the Blitzstein and “A specimen case,” but Francis Poulenc’s “C” flowing alongside “The Lordly Hudson,” for instance. The angles, though, were carefully chosen.

The between-number narration, drawn from Rorem’s writings and interviews, tended toward the witty and wicked—how could it not? But the music told an additional, parallel story. Near the program’s end came Rorem’s 1949 setting of Elinor Wylie’s “Little Elegy.” It starts off with an almost in-your-face expression of confident naïveté: a diatonic scale, up and down, simply harmonized, over which the voice weaves its way. But the harmonies start to shift, the piano’s lower register slips in and troubles the waters ever so slightly, the camera turns off center and toward the shadows. Rorem’s frames are so prominent and unmistakable that it’s easy to miss how much he has shifted the image inside them, how much the picture is a moving one. What do you see?

Sounds Heard: Florestan Recital Project—Early Songs of Samuel Barber

One of the more endearingly paradoxical indications of compositional success is that interest gets piqued in music that even the composer had largely forgotten about. Unpublished works, unfinished works, juvenilia—when even that becomes fair game, you know you’ve (posthumously, usually) made it. The latest recordings from Florestan Recital Project pay that tribute to Samuel Barber (1910-1981), collecting six songs, mostly written during Barber’s teenaged years.


The group first reclaimed the songs for posterity in 2009; their multi-concert survey of all of Barber’s songs included a host of then-unpublished works preserved in manuscript at the Library of Congress. (Since then, most of them have made it to print via a collection published by G. Schirmer.) The six recorded here make it clear just how much Barber was at home in vocal music from an early age, primed by temperament and family ties. (His aunt and uncle were Louise and Sidney Homer, Metropolitan Opera contralto and art-song composer, respectively; Louise Homer premiered many of Barber’s earliest efforts.) “Three Songs from Old England” show a precocious confidence: spare harmonic and melodic sequences for John Wilbye’s “Lady, When I Behold the Roses”; off-balance phrasing and contours in Thomas Wyatt’s “An Earnest Suit to His Unkind Mistress Not to Forsake Him”; cheerfully persistent diatonic suspensions in an anonymous “Hey Nonny No.”

“Fantasy in Purple” (with words by a then-up-and-coming Langston Hughes; Barber probably got the text through a friendly English professor) and “Watchers” (text by the prolific and forgotten Edgar Daniel Kramer) are both grim, high-drama scenes; if they lack the embellishment of unpredictability that marks so many of Barber’s songs, the skill on display is uncanny for a 15-year-old. Interestingly, the only dud dates from Barber’s twenties: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” ca.1935, which sets Robert Frost’s famous poem in almost diffidently prosaic fashion. (That Barber left it unpublished is at least a testament to his critical standards.) The performances, by Florestan artistic directors Aaron Engebreth (baritone) and Alison d’Amato (piano) are first-rate—stylish, lived-in interpretations with high technical polish. (The former vocal coach part of me could listen to Engebreth’s diction all day long.)

Still, even given Barber’s considerable and continuing popularity, this is obscure, old repertoire—awfully old for a publication called NewMusicBox, certainly. But the release is interesting in itself: the recording is free. It was funded by a grant—the first such—from Thomas Hampson’s Hampsong Foundation. Recording grants are nothing new, but a grant for a recording designed to be given away is a sign of the online streaming, post-record-store state of recordings going forward, I think. Florestan Recital Project’s first recordings—a two-CD set of the complete songs of Daniel Pinkham—were self-produced, self-released physical products, but since then, they have opted for the free download, first with Libby Larsen’s The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes (a Florestan commission), and now with these Barber songs.

At a symposium last weekend I heard a panel discussion on music publishing and recording during which Jim Selby, the CEO of Naxos, did his best to finesse the same paradox that his pop counterparts sidestepped at the “Rethink Music” conference I wandered around a couple of years ago: labels are increasingly interested primarily in artists who engage in a high degree of self-promotion, a criterion that would seem to preemptively make moot one of the basic advantages of signing with a label in the first place. In the meantime, the philanthropic apparatus of classical music is beginning to create funding channels for completely different models, high-quality DIY recordings sent into the market as a freely available resource. The give-it-away model has its own disadvantages and pitfalls, without question, but give Florestan Recital Project credit for using it in a savvy way. Glimpses of the teenaged Barber’s raw talent and potential would probably be an extreme niche product; for free, its road-less-traveled aspect feels special enough to be more than usually generous.

Stacy Garrop: With a Story to Tell


In the garden at the Church of the Ascension
New York, New York
April 17, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Poster image by SnoStudios Photography

Stacy Garrop is a composer of remarkable balance and discipline. Her composition catalog neatly covers all manner of ensembles, and her subject matter has ranged from Medusa to Eleanor Roosevelt. She may not be one to aggressively sell her music at cocktail parties, but she won’t shy away from cold calling performers from her desk the next day. She teaches her students to identify their weaknesses and figure out how to manage them. It’s a lesson she applied to herself first, pinpointing personal composition hurdles and designing neatly efficient ways to combat them.

When we met during rehearsals for her choral work Love’s Philosophy in New York this past April, she moved between performance preparation with the singers in the Church of the Ascension sanctuary and on-camera conversation in the venue’s garden courtyard, fielding questions about her music and her career with an easy confidence but a notable lack of pretension. Those character traits are perhaps what attracted her to the Midwest, where she now makes her home. Though raised in California, her education brought her to the University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and finally Indiana University. She eventually settled in Chicago, where she now heads the composition department at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

Stacy Garrop is also a composer with stories to tell. The role of narrative—whether indirectly or overtly applied to the final composition—is a central factor in her typical working process. In it, she had found a way to shape and chart the sonic image she wants her music to ultimately project to the world beyond her studio.

When all is considered, Garrop appreciates that it’s a mix of many factors that have contributed to the music she makes and the success she’s achieved, but ultimately it hinges on what she is willing to do for the work herself:

I think you not only have to have the discipline to write and to get back to people and to be on top of your website, but you also have to be disciplined about chasing down opportunities. You can’t just sit back and think that maybe a publisher will do that for you, or maybe your recording will get out there and, miraculously, everyone will want to do the piece. I just don’t know if one competition or one recording or one piece can change your path all that much….In general, these careers are slow building. They’re one step at a time, and you have to be organized to make that happen.

They are steps Garrop keeps taking. The evening following our interview, the Voices of Ascension performance of Love’s Philosophy won her The Sorel Medallion in Choral Composition.

***

Molly Sheridan: You’ve spoken often about the place of narrative in your work, so I thought we might begin by discussing how important that is in terms of your working method, and how vital it is for you to communicate that to the audience. Are you demonstrating that storyline to them in the music and the program notes, or is that simply a private part of your own working process?
Stacy Garrop: As a composer, I’m both a visual and auditory person. The visual part likes to see a story in my head—like a movie, basically. It’s not that I’m a movie composer, because I’m far from it, but I feel like if I can tell myself a story, and have myself follow that story as I’m writing, then that narrative will help me guide the shape of that piece. Sometimes I think it’s important to the audience: If it’s about Medusa, I want people to understand that Medusa is going from being lovely to being hideous. But other times the narrative is just mostly for myself. So I have a piece called Frammenti which is basically five miniature movements, but each is based on an abstract idea. For me, what was important was the narrative within each movement—Is it going to get louder? Is it going to get softer? Is it going to get boisterous?—whatever those characteristics were. In that case, I don’t care if the audience gets it or not. That’s not the concern of the piece.
MS: I heard you speaking about the working process surrounding Becoming Medusa in a promotional video, and you mentioned sketching it out and thinking about it narratively in a way that I would imagine a novelist might. What is your working process in that case?
SG: I do like to use charts a lot. In years past, especially when I was working on Becoming Medusa, I had a picture where she was half beautiful and half ugly. I put that up right in front of me as I composed. But I also have a line graph that basically shows tension along the y-axis and time along the x-axis. If it starts with Medusa being ugly, because it’s a foreshadowing, then I’ll have a big spike on my chart and that might say “introduction.” Then I get to the A material, and the tension is now very low. So I can track and write out the form of the piece before I actually start putting notes down. But usually I try to put a few notes down—at least get motives, some idea of what I want to play with. Then that starts to suggest more and more of a shape to me. Usually by the end of the first couple of days, I have the shape down, and more often than not, when I go back and look at it [after the piece is done], I’ve actually attained that shape. Earlier on, I wasn’t so good at that. But now I seem to be doing much better.

Garrop explains the graphs she uses while composing.

Garrop explains the graphs she uses while composing.

MS: What are you actually thinking about when you’re in that very, very early process and you’re making shapes and charts?
SG: The worst part of composing for me is the beginning of a piece. I can’t get settled. If the apartment is messy, I have to clean it. I feel like I have to get my mind in order. And if there’s anything distracting me, I’ll use that as an excuse to run away from the paper. But what I have learned over the years is to just get myself to sit down long enough to brainstorm on a blank sheet of paper—not even manuscript paper, just written ideas about what I want for the piece. So for Medusa, I wanted to tell the story that she starts off the piece as a beautiful woman, who then taunts a goddess. Then the goddess turns her into the gorgon that we know. That’s a slightly different story than the Medusa that we know about from the movies. That gave me enough to say, okay, this is what I’m going to do in words. Now I can sit down at my keyboard and start just noodling around and see what kind of ideas I can come up with from there.
MS: Because your attraction to words is coming up again, why not use words? Why use music to tell these stories?
SG: Actually I’ve started to try to write short stories. I take the El to and from work every day in Chicago, and it’s about a 45- to 60-minute train ride. I absolutely love science fiction short stories, so I started trying to write them. It’s really hard to have that kind of control over words. I have that control, I feel, over music, but not at all in words. So right now it’s a really fun, but kind of scary, side venture. I did try writing poetry much younger in my life, until I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay and then realized I had nothing on her. That was pretty much it for my poetry days.
MS: But you do feel comfortable writing music?
SG: Yes, once I get past the problem I was describing about not knowing how to get started. Another thing that I do to really help with that is I have what I call a “minute a day” challenge: Every day when I’m starting a piece, I have to write a minute of music. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be bad. It just has to be a minute of music. And that way I feel like at the end of seven days, I’ll have seven minutes of music that I can choose from and start to say, “Okay, that’s a good idea over here, but that’s terrible”—and we just throw that part away. But that gives me some choices. Usually I start that within whatever genre I’m working in. So for instance, right now, I’m working on a piece for the Lincoln Trio, and I’ve been looking at a lot of piano trios. I’ve been looking at Joan Tower’s Trio Cavany and Aaron Kernis’s Still Movement with Hymn, which isn’t actually a piano trio. It’s a piano quartet. But I’m writing a 25-minute piece, and both of those pieces approximate that length. So I’m looking at their ideas, and then I’m brainstorming about what it is that’s important to me that I want to put in there.
MS: You’ve mentioned that you’re a visual person, and I know that somewhere you said that your studio was the mostly brightly decorated room in your home. What do you like to surround yourself with when you’re doing this work? You mentioned pictures and charts, but is there more to that visual comfort zone for you?
SG: My husband and I finally were able to get a condo. It was really great because we’ve been in apartments for so long where you can’t put any paint on the walls. So I painted my studio purple. Then, in addition to that, I went to a lot of colonies back when I was in my early 30s, and I kept meeting all these artists. That’s where I really started getting the visual interest going. So I started collecting pictures, both from trips I was taking and from colony experiences. I also began trading CDs of my music with other artists at colonies. So I’ve had visual artists draw pictures for me or paint something, and all the artwork I’ve collected is sitting on one whole wall of my studio. I also go to a lot of art expositions and things like that. I mean, I can’t really afford the art itself, but artists tend to make these little postcards that have a picture of their artwork, so that goes up on my wall, too.
I also have done pottery for ten years, and I feel like doing pottery helped me think about process in a whole other way. It’s the same thing I got out of going to artist colonies where you sit down with a filmmaker or a writer, and you talk about their process. Then you start to see, wow, they’re using a different language, but they’re also talking about how you get from point A to point B and in a way that’s convincing. Pottery has also taught me a lot about patience. If you are at all trying to force a piece to happen, you’re going to nudge the clay, and then it’s going to be forever ruined. So I think that kind of patience actually has helped me back in the composing world: To just take a deep breath, do my thing where I write a minute of music a day at the beginning and know at the end of that week, I am going to have options. I think all those things are processes that let me know that I don’t have to go with my first impulse. I can really take my time and find the ideas that I feel very strongly about.
MS: That’s a very tactile thing to engage with, too. I suppose composition can be, depending on your working methods, but it’s not quite the same thing.
SG: I think composing is such an isolated thing. Obviously, we have our concerts with performers and all that. But the creation itself, the process for me is sitting in a room by myself, working at my piano. So to be surrounded by 20 other potters and hearing all these conversations going on as you’re trying to work, it’s the utter opposite experience of being a composer. Also, it teaches you that it’s okay to mess up. I think we all get to a level in our careers where we feel that it’s scary to mess up. If we mess up, someone’s going to notice and they’re going to write a review that isn’t positive. In pottery, I feel like I can just mess up all the time, and no one will ever know. I just stomp it back down into a lump of clay and try again. So it’s given me some freedom that I don’t have in the musical world.
MS: What is your musical background? You were a pianist originally, right?
SG: I did play piano, although I was never very good. I can admit that. I sang in choirs starting in third grade and all the way through my master’s. I absolutely loved singing in choirs. I was an alto, and I think that’s why I write such good, juicy bits for altos in choir pieces, because I always felt like we got cheated. I also played saxophone in marching band for three years in high school. So I started off doing all that, but then in my junior year of high school, there was an AP music theory class. The teacher was a jazz trumpet player, and he said one night to go home and write a piece of music. I’d never before thought that anybody wrote music. I was pretty naïve as a kid. I’ll admit that, too. I mean, I know I was naïve because I thought all the history had already been written. But in this case, the minute he said go home and write a piece of music, it was like this door opened that had always been shut. Suddenly there it is and you’re looking at a whole new room, and all these colors are there. I just didn’t want to leave it. So, after that assignment, I just started writing more and more pieces. Then a friend of the family hooked me up with a composer in the Bay Area, and I studied privately with him for the rest of high school.
MS: Voice is obviously something you’ve spent a lot of time with, but overall something that stood out to me about your catalog is that you’re a very balanced composer. You have all the bases covered. It’s a very neat though broad package.

Garrop with the the Capitol Quartet after the premiere of Flight of Icarus March 2013

Garrop with the the Capitol Quartet after the premiere of Flight of Icarus March 2013

SG: I think that was maybe more a result of the schools that I went to. The first was University of Michigan, and they had a really good percussion program and very strong saxophone program. That’s also where I saw composers writing for orchestra and I began experimenting with string quartets. I went to the University of Chicago after that. That was a research school and I really didn’t have as many performances. I discovered that I was probably a happier person if I’m at a performance school. So, I got my master’s, and I went on to Indiana University. They had six orchestras, choirs everywhere, and, once again, they had a strong saxophone program and a strong percussion program. So that really helped open some doors that otherwise I might not have considered. All the saxophone writing I had done is because of the saxophonists that I met, especially Christopher Creviston who is teaching now at Arizona State University, Tempe. We were students together at Michigan, and he asked me to write a piece. Fifteen years later he found me and said, “Do you remember this piece?” And from there, that’s led to a commission with his current group, Capitol Quartet, for saxophone quartet.
But I do feel like I try to be balanced. I want to have orchestra, choir, and chamber, and in particular within chamber, I want to have piano trio and string quartet and saxophone music at all times. I really do want that kind of diversity. The problem I feel like is that there are certain pieces I want to be writing and I’m not necessarily getting the opportunities to yet. For instance, solo piano. I can’t believe out of everything I’ve done, I only have two solo piano works. There was one more at one point, but I didn’t think it should last the test of time so I destroyed it. But other than that, it really is quite funny that I’ve gotten this far without more solo repertoire.
MS: I was curious about another aspect of your works list because there is one piece from ’92 listed in your catalog, and you can the count on one hand material from the late ’90s, and then this huge body of work explodes from there. I’m trying to do the math on your age and where you might have been at that point in your education. Did something concretely shift for you in there, artistically or circumstantially?
SG: It’s funny you noticed that because I feel like, as a composer, I have a sliding scale of what I think works. I call it seeing the holes. When you’re writing a piece, you think it’s perfect. You’re thrilled. Maybe four to five years later, you start to see the holes in it, and realize, okay, that’s not as strong. Maybe it can be two years. But as I was going through school, I was changing and evolving so quickly, that the seeing-the-holes period was only about six months to a year. It really started lengthening after I finished my training or was getting close to finishing my training in Indiana. So what I took out were almost all the student works.
The reason why the one from 1992 is in there is because it’s my first string quartet. I didn’t want to eradicate it. I’ve gone on and I’ve written three more string quartets, and you can’t call something number two if there’s no evidence of a number one. And honestly, for a student piece, it’s not that bad. So I’m okay with it being out there. Actually, that piece helped get me onto a concert series that helped change and shape my entire career. So it’s not bad to have these student works out there, as long as you’re okay with it getting performed. There have been a few other pieces along the way, like the piano solo I mentioned. It took about a year to realize that it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, and I should just remove it from my catalogue. So I think for me, the test of “Am I getting better as a composer?” is, “Do I have less of that happening? Is my catalog staying steady, or am I taking things out?” So at this point, I think I’m doing pretty well.
MS: I was wondering if that was the direction you were moving or if there was a danger you could just become increasingly hypercritical of yourself.
SG: I’m really not that worried about it. There are certainly a lot of areas that I’m very comfortable in now, like the chamber world and the choir world especially. Orchestra writing is always a little trickier because you try to get the balance as well as you can between the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion and everything, but it takes going to the rehearsals to really start to sort out what’s really going on. But I feel like now, if I know I’m writing badly, I stop myself much sooner. That was my mistake years ago. I wouldn’t do that one minute a day trick, I would just go with my first impulse and, more often than not, I knew along the way that something was wrong. But it was too late. The commission was due, etc. So, what I’ve done is start each piece with just brainstorming for a week. No pressure to just delve into it. That really helps, as well as having a big buffer zone on commissions. If a commission deadline is, let’s say, September 1, I will actually have that score due a month or two before that in my own calendar. Then I have the pressure that I need to make the work happen, but if I’m unhappy with the piece, I know that I’ve got the time to fix it.

Garrop lecturing

Garrop lecturing about various Chicago artists and their websites.

MS: Every time I speak with you, I take away the impression that you are a very disciplined person, both in building your career and making your art.
SG: I feel like going for the doctorate really teaches you how to organize your head. I think that’s the biggest thing anyone can learn going through school. All the time I’m telling my students, you have to figure out how your mind works, and then figure out where your strengths are. If you know where you’re weak, like you’re a procrastinator, you’re going to have to work around that. So I feel like for me, the challenge of all the years of school was figuring out all those issues, so when I graduated, I could really hit the ground running as a professional.
In addition to being organized, as much as I can be, I took on some campaigns earlier in my career. So I wrote a choir piece. I would cold call 30 choirs, and I would send out a recording and the score. I did campaign after campaign like that, but they paid off. It only takes one person programming that piece to then lead to four more commissions. So I think you not only have to have the discipline to write and to get back to people and to be on top of your website, but you also have to be disciplined about chasing down opportunities. You can’t just sit back and think that maybe a publisher will do that for you, or maybe your recording will get out there and, miraculously, everyone will want to do the piece. I just don’t know if one competition or one recording or one piece can change your path all that much. I mean, granted if you were to win something like the Pulitzer or the Grawemeyer, perhaps. Or even the MacArthur. But I think in general, these careers are slow building. They’re one step at a time, and you have to be organized to make that happen.
MS: You don’t strike me as a particularly aggressive self-promoter. So, for you to have started cold calling ensembles in such a strategic way is unexpected. Where did the idea even come from?
SG: The funniest part is that growing up in California—not that California has anything to do with it—I was just very laid back and shy. I guess in my undergrad years, I learned to make friends with musicians. But it wasn’t until my doctorate that it finally hit me: If I was going to take control of my career, I had to do it myself. No one else was going to do it. There was one defining moment where I put this all together. I was staring out my window and realized I could keep staring out that window forever, or I could get off my rear and start making phone calls and get a recital together. And I went with option two.
The campaigns though, I think it’s because I watched too many people in academia who had wonderful music, but it wasn’t getting out there anywhere. And I would ask, “Well, what are you doing about it?” And they would say, “Oh, you know, just getting it published,” or “Just getting it recorded.” It didn’t seem like that was the best strategy for me. I would need to start to push it out there further. I didn’t go to any East Coast schools, and I wondered perhaps if I had, if maybe some more connections would have been presented. But nonetheless, I felt like, okay, I can do this. I just looked at Chorus America, ACDA, the North American Saxophone Alliance. You look at some of these big websites and see who their members are. Chamber Music America is a particularly good one for that. Actually, I did a campaign in the last year or two using Chamber Music America. I got [a list of] all their member string quartets and piano trios, and I sent them all information. This time through email, since now it’s become more acceptable.
MS: You have written a lot of text-based or text-inspired pieces, which makes sense to me considering your narrative interests. It surprised me when you said Edna St. Vincent Millay’s work squashed your own poetry ambitions, because you’ve actually set a lot of her work!
SG: It started because one of the very first artist colonies I went to was the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York. While I was there, I was working on a piece for saxophone and piano called Tantrum, but I came across a book of her poetry, of course, and thought, since I’m here, I should give it a whirl. I began reading her sonnets, and they were just so eloquent—14 lines long and having a rhyming verse, but still relevant today. I just thought, okay, I would love to do some massive project, where I set—I think I was aiming for originally about 30 of her sonnets. As the years went on, I think I wrote one sonnet set per year from 2000 to 2006. I got around number 17 or 18, and I finally had to call it quits because a very wise conductor, Christopher Bell of the Grant Park Chorus in Chicago, said to me, “You should really set something other than Millay. You should have more in your portfolio.” And he was right. I was just so thankful that he was blatantly honest with me. Composers need to hear that honesty every now and then. And that’s when he said, “You really have to get past the Millay and move on.”
It’s been really tempting to try to go back and finish the project. I had actually paired up a bunch of sonnets into particular sets. So there’s a set about love, and there’s a set about war, and so on. Maybe someday I’ll go back and visit that. In the meantime, I’ve done other big projects involving text. One is The Book of American Poetry. That’s about an hour of music, and it’s four volumes of poetry. Each volume contains five poems by five different poets. I set the first ten for baritone and Pierrot ensemble, and the second ten are for mezzo and Pierrot. But then I’m also making piano arrangements of all of them.
MS: You’ve done that in a few places, right, offering options on work to give it a broader life?
SG: Yeah, I wrote it for Pierrot ensemble because it was for the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. They had a competition, and I won and they said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to do a Book of American Poetry.” Once they understood the scope of my project, they were on board. But then I discovered that it’s really hard to get Pierrot ensembles together elsewhere with baritones. So to give the piece more life, my husband is doing the piano arrangements for volumes one and two, and I did the arrangements for volumes three and four.
I’ve done it the other way, too. I wrote a piece called In Eleanor’s Words, about Eleanor Roosevelt; that’s a big song cycle. It started off as a piece for piano and voice, but then David Dzubay at Indiana University and I were talking, and he said, “I’d love to have you come out for a residency. What pieces would you like to have done?” And I said, “How do you feel about an orchestration of In Eleanor’s Words?” So that’s when I created the larger version. That’s also when I discovered that it’s much easier to go from large down to small than it is from small out to large. At least for me it is.
MS: In all these examples of your interest in stories and setting text, it strikes me that these are not your personal stories, but very often items of historic importance or mythology or poetry. What about that speaks to you so strongly?
SG: I wish I knew. I mean, some of these things happened because of commissions. In Eleanor’s Words was a commission by Tom and Nadine Hamilton. They’re residents of Washington, D.C., and they commissioned a piece in honor of Tom’s mother who had been in public service all her life and who liked Eleanor Roosevelt. Since I teach at Roosevelt University, it made sense to put it all together, and what do you know? Out comes a piece. I think that it’s easy for a composer to just see what the flow of the commissions are and to just go with that, whereas if you really have your own agenda, you have to start to force that every now and then. So in the case of the Millay sonnets, I felt so strongly about that project. When I did that cold call many years ago, where I sent out my music to 30 choirs, Volti in San Francisco was the choir that answered. They not only performed the piece that I sent them, but they commissioned three or four others over the next decade and many of those were the Millay sonnets. I said to them, “I want to do Millay. I want to do this big cycle.” And they said, “Great! Let us help you out.” So it’s great to have commissions, but it’s also great to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and make sure that you work that into your commissioning schedule, if you can.

Photo by Don Fogg

World premiere of Garrop’s Songs of Joy and Refuge by PEBCC’s high school mixed voice choir Ecco, conducted by Clifton Massey on March 23, 2013.
Photo by Don Fogg

MS: Where did you get this business sense? It seems like you have a really smart way of approaching your career, and I’m curious where you learned this.
SG: I don’t really know. I think part of what happened is I saw how other people handled their careers. For instance, there was a guy at Michigan when I was there. He was very talented musically, but he also had this incredible gift to be able to walk up to anybody and sell his music to them, to basically say, “Hey, I’ve got a performance tonight. You should go hear it.” He would walk up to performers he’d never met and hand out his music. I tried to emulate it, and I just felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t do it. It was not in me. About 12 years ago, as I was getting out of school, I just made the decision that if it took me a little longer to have a career, then that’s the way it was going to be. I’m not the person that’s going to be really in your face all the time. So that’s where I started getting very good at campaigns, and getting good at having a web presence, and doing a lot of business through email. If someone emails me, I answer within 24 hours. So all those parts put together I think eventually started to fill out the bigger picture. Sometimes I do wonder, maybe my career could have moved a little faster if I’d been a little bit more aggressive, but I would not have been comfortable doing that.
MS: Yeah, but on the other hand, you clearly have found what does work for you.
SG: Right, but I think it took all that experimentation back in school and trying to emulate the behavior of others to realize, “Oh, I can’t do that,” or “Okay, that worked.” I think it was observing that really helped me figure out what I wanted to do.
MS: Very early on you mentioned specifically that you’re not a film composer. I was curious about that. For as diverse as your portfolio is, and as much as you love exploring storylines, I don’t believe there are any film scores or video games in it. In a way, that seems like it would be a natural affinity, but you stayed away from that.
SG: It’s not so much staying away as it is that I really haven’t stumbled across the opportunity yet. I have to admit I know a little more about video game music than I should. My husband plays these games, and I realize the music is getting quite, quite advanced. I would love to go into writing movie music, but I’m in Chicago. I’m not on the right coast. Although I do think it would be hard for someone like me. The things that interest me the most in music are form and tension and relaxation. So if there’s not a strong formal structure, then I’m not happy with the piece. What can be hard about writing for movies is that you’re constantly having that formal structure ripped out from under your feet. If you have to extend it by five seconds or they don’t like a theme that you wrote and you have to rethink it overnight—that can be hard if you’re used to having final, set structures that you really feel good about. So, I’d love to explore it someday, but you know, sometime in the future. Not any time soon.
MS: You mentioned not being on “the right coast.” How important is Chicago to you? What made you decide to build a career and life for yourself in that place?
SG: People used to say to me when I was in school, “You should pick your last school carefully, because that might be where you end up.” And I thought, “Ha-ha, that’s really funny!”, but I actually did end up in the Midwest. All my schools just circled the Midwest area.
I feel like Chicago has been really good for me. In the last 15 years, maybe even the last 7 years in particular, there’s just been an explosion of ensembles. So we have new music ensembles. We have choirs. We even have a new opera company that has formed. It’s a great time to be in Chicago. So for someone like me, it’s been a perfect city to not have to go to New York—no offense to New York. It’s a great place to visit, but I’m more of a Midwesterner I would say at this point.
MS: That’s interesting because you came from the West Coast, right?
SG: I’m from California, and I have to admit, every time I go home and visit it’s like, “Why did I give this up? It’s so beautiful out here.” The weather is nice almost the whole year through. But I think at that time, there weren’t enough composition teachers in the West Coast area. Almost all the schools I looked at were in the Midwest or on the East Coast. I have also really enjoyed building a composition program at Roosevelt University. After going to two very large performance schools where there’s a faculty of five or six people, it was a little bit surprising to go into a program of just two people. But that also allowed me to shape it a lot faster than I probably could have if I had been at a major performance school. So my colleague Kyong Mee Choi and I have really tried to focus on giving opportunities that you might not get in a regular college setting. We bring in people like Timothy McAllister, the saxophonist from Prism Quartet, or Timothy Monroe, the flutist from eighth blackbird, and they do workshops with our composers. They sight read the works; they give feedback. We have a competition, and they choose a couple winners and perform the pieces on concerts at Roosevelt. We do the same with Gaudete Brass Quintet—all the students have to write little fanfares. We’ve been having the Vector Recording Project with the orchestra, so students don’t just get a piece read, they actually get it professionally recorded.
Particularly with continually rising costs for a university education, I’m asked by prospective students about the value of a college degree as a composer. In looking back over my own training, I couldn’t have learned all the skills I needed to outside of a university music school—my high school music training had been weak, and I had many, many skills to acquire before I could call myself a composer. I feel that attending a university as an undergraduate is very important to one’s development as a composer, as you get a complete, well-rounded experience over the course of a four-year program. Depending on what you wish to do next, you may have enough skills to exit straight into the real world and carry out a career, or it could be that taking the time to get a master’s first will help you obtain even more skills that you’ll find useful. People who wish to teach at a university need to earn a doctorate in order to have the credentials schools are looking for when hiring, but if you’re not planning on doing so, perhaps you don’t need to go any further if you’ve developed your skills far enough. So it is important to start thinking about what it is you truly want to do when you graduate. Is it to teach? Write music for movies? Start a new music ensemble and write music for it? Investigate what skills you need to attain your goal, and work on developing those skills while still in school so you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when you get out. Play to your own personal strengths. Hopefully you’ll discover a path to a career that will make you feel excited, enriched, and rewarded.
I think a lot of schools are coming around to the fact that they need entrepreneurship programs, and Roosevelt at the moment doesn’t have one yet, but I believe they’re moving in that direction. Nonetheless, I know a lot of us have integrated ideas into our courses. For instance, in my composition seminar last year, all my students had to get into groups of three or four and create new businesses. They had to have a mission statement, a five-year plan, a ten-year plan, and then had to have a website up or something to show that this is what they do. It was really exciting for me to see just how creative they got. It really taught me that they want to be able to put this together before they leave. A part of my job is to really give them professional opportunities that hopefully bridge the gap as they’re leaving the school. They are starting these conversations with professionals. They know how to build their own website, and how to write their own CV or how to go knock on doors and hand out scores. I’m hoping that gives them an edge—that they have not just the compositional skills, but when they walk out the door, they have the business side somewhat already going. Hopefully that will increase their chances of being successful.
MS: How do you make enough room for your own music and your own career in the midst of that work?
SG: It can be a bit of a challenge. I feel like I have to choose my commissions very carefully in terms of when I write what. This past fall at the very beginning of the semester, I wrote one choir piece, and then I wrote a piece for two trumpets and piano and then two art songs. That took me up to probably mid-January. Then I started a piano trio, and that was my downfall, because I got all those short pieces done while teaching—it doesn’t take as much concentration to do a six-minute piece here, or a five-minute piece there. But to do a 25-minute piano trio while teaching, especially during audition season, I learned I’m not capable of that. So that’s one thing: Strategize your year. The other thing is I don’t go into Roosevelt all five days. I try to go in just four, and some lucky weeks, I may just get in three, depending on how many meetings we have. But I find I’d rather work longer days downtown so I have a full day to compose when I’m off. I’m not the type of person who can just turn around after a long day of teaching and somehow have energy left to start composing. I can answer emails. I can send out scores. I can do that other business work, but I can’t actually be creative.
MS: Do you need a specific time of day or routine, or do you just need an actual day where you don’t have to separate the administration from the creativity?
SG: It is better if I just have a whole day, or a week, or a month, or a year. I think that’s why the art colonies were so fantastic, because it removes you from paying bills or anything else. You just sit and you compose all day. I have an 88-key synthesizer, but it’s right next to my computer. So if my computer is turned on and dinging at me as email comes in, then of course you stop composing. I’ve learned I have to just turn everything off. Pretend nothing else exists and just get myself into the space. I mentioned earlier, I think starting pieces is always the trickiest for me and I do a whole thing where I have to straighten up the condo and all that. But once I’m into the process, it’s really quite comfortable to move in and out of it. So I can get up and answer an email, or go get the mail, or whatever, and then come back and be right back into the piece wherever I left off. And that usually lasts up until I finish the piece.
MS: You mentioned the period when you were going to a lot of those colonies. Is that something you had the freedom to do just because of where you were in school or is that something you expect you’ll do throughout your life?
SG: I think I started going to colonies because one of my teachers, Claude Baker from Indiana University, said I should take a look at them. I applied to a few, and I actually got into the ones I applied to. So that’s when I just strung them all up in a row and colony hopped for the year after I finished my coursework but before I’d actually finished the dissertation. One of these was the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada. Another one was the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, where I got to meet Aaron Jay Kernis and we worked together. Then there was the MacDowell Colony and the Millay Colony, and other ones in between.
That’s where I just finally put it all together. When you’re in school and you’re reading books, you’re writing papers, you’re certainly obtaining the knowledge, but you don’t necessarily know how to apply it yet. I felt like that was the first time I learned how to take all that information I’d been collecting and apply it in whatever facet I wanted to. So for me, it was a really great eye opener. I think it gets harder though as you get more responsibility to be able to carve out the kind of time that you really need to go to a colony. I seem to have stopped going for the moment, and that’s fine. Maybe someday I’ll feel the need to go again, but I also have a home studio situation now, which is pretty quiet and which works very well. That hadn’t always been the case in past years. That was another reason to go to these colonies—to have the space and time where I really wouldn’t be disturbed.
MS: You’ll have to go back to the Millay Colony and finish the settings; it’s the perfect application.
SG: Well, that’s just it. When I started the whole process, I had no idea I was going to compose all these sonnets. So I really want to go back and actually write the final sonnets up there. That would be really cool. I think they have a policy where they don’t want people to return, but they do have these small residencies in January, where you can just go with maybe a specific project. It’s not necessarily the actual colony stay. So what I need to do is get my act together and put in an application for that particular type. The thing I regret when I went to the colony is that you’re supposed to get a tour of Millay’s house. It’s left pretty much intact from the day she died. But the day that we were supposed to go, the caretaker’s wife went into the hospital. So part of me feels like I want to go back and get that tour, man. I want to just confront whatever ghosts might be there and just say, “I set your poetry. Don’t be mad at me.”
MS: For as interested in narrative as you are, as a listener, I’ve never felt overwhelmed or emotionally manipulated by that aspect of your work. Instead it’s like being a third-party observer. Is the audience in your mind when you’re composing and is there ultimately a reaction you’re looking for, that you’re listening for in the lobby after the performances? Or is that not a part of your process?
SG: I think there have been moments where I’ve been genuinely concerned how an audience might react. Most of the time I’m not. I think that my language tends to be more accessible than not, so I guess I’m kind of lucky that way, or I’ve made the choice to be that way. But there’s a moment in my String Quartet No. 2, the third movement called Inner Demons, where you’ve heard four themes presented in a scherzo-trio form, and then they all begin to mix together and it’s chaos for about a minute straight. I was panicking before that first performance and wondering if people were just going to tune out or get disgusted. Will anybody do the ultimate “stand up and storm out” thing? When it premiered, I did see a lot of heads turn and people look at each other at that moment. But it passed. They all got through it. The rest of the quartet finished, and it turned out to be, I think, the strongest movement of that piece. So I feel like it was a really good risk to take. Sometimes you just have to not worry about how the audience is going to react.
What is interesting, though, is a lot of times people won’t tell the composer what they really think, but they don’t know who the composer’s husband is. So, there’s been many times where my husband has been circulating in the lobby after and he’ll just hear bits of conversation, and that gets hysterical. So that’s how I really get my feedback. It’s nice when people come up who are supportive, but I would love to occasionally get someone who says, “This part was great, but this other spot didn’t do as much for me.” It’s great to get past that first level and say where’s the feedback? I really need to shape this piece into something stronger. Because I do feel like the first performance is really just a debugging session. It’s not a perfect piece by any means. I’m lucky if I get it 95, 96 percent right. And it’s the second performance where you get it to about 98, 99 percent. And finally, by the third performance, that’s where I think it should be completely settled.
MS: Do you have any reservations about doing serious editing after the first performance?
SG: I will absolutely do it if it needs it. In the case of Becoming Medusa, it was [originally] a minute and fifteen seconds longer than it now is. There’s a minute in there, and another 15 seconds elsewhere, where I just felt that this is not doing anything for the piece. It’s wasting time, and it’s taking away from the rest of the moments. So I had to butcher it, but I think it made for a stronger piece. It is hard to do; it is hard to face up. I think it can also be harder the longer you wait. There’s a piece right now in my repertoire, and it needs a revision, but it was written so long ago now that it’s hard to rip apart. I’m no longer there as a composer. I don’t know what was important to me necessarily that I want to preserve, and what things I should put in that are important to me now in the re-write.
MS: Considering that evolution, when you look back, do you feel like the career that you’ve had so far is the one that you expected to have, either when you went into undergrad, or when you left your Ph.D. program? Have things turned out the way you expected?
SG: I guess the funny thing about me is, I knew I wanted to be a composer, but I didn’t really know what that would be. I knew I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t know what that would be. The one thing I was sure of is that by the time I was 30, I would be married and have kids. I turned 30, and I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have kids. So the one thing I was so sure about did not happen. In a way that freed me up—anything’s on the table. I can go out and do anything I want. I’m not sure if I’ve really attained all the success that I thought I’d have at this point, but I’m very happy with what I have achieved so far. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have more goals, and I have plenty of projects that I want to be doing. So I’m not quite where I want to be in the future, but for as little as I knew when I was getting out of school, I think I’m doing quite well.

Warts and All

VOLTI

Last month I had the chance to work with the exceptional San Francisco chamber choir Volti as part of the choir’s choral arts laboratory for nascent choral composers. The singers in Volti are all new music specialists, and director Bob Geary and longtime composer-in-residence Mark Winges have brought countless works to life during the ensemble’s past seasons.

Volti commissions works by more experienced choral composers such as Stacy Garrop and Armando Bayolo, as well as performing contemporary classics by Aaron Kernis and David Lang, but Volti’s choral arts laboratory is all about offering younger composers a chance to learn the ropes in a supportive environment. It’s an experience that any young composer would be grateful for, and as I’ve yet to write a “real” SATB choral piece I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunity.

This year, Volti decided to try something new: the big theater in town (the American Conservatory Theatre) had just opened up a new black box theater in Central Market, and Volti worked out an arrangement to use the space for an open rehearsal of new music. There’s a sense in which showing off a work-in-progress with all its warts to a roomful of strangers isn’t something that would make all composers sit up and exclaim, “Sounds good! Sign me up!” but I found the questions and response from the assembled audience to be provocative and ultimately very helpful. I sure wish that I could rehearse every piece several months prior to having it turned in; and even more wistfully, I wish that every ensemble I worked with was as invested, thoughtful, and eager to explore new ideas as Volti.

A.C.T.'s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market

A.C.T.’s The Costume Shop, a 49-seat black box theater in Central Market
Photo by Dan Visconti

Which makes me wonder: Why don’t we do this all the time? The idea of a composition as a public work-in-progress (and composition as an act deeply integrated with the community it serves) is inherently attractive. It’s an opportunity for the composer to hone his or her craft, solving difficult problem while there’s still time. It’s an opportunity for the ensemble to connect to a new community of concertgoers, and an opportunity for the audience to follow the process by which a new work is created. And it does this in a way that deepens a sense of connection, in the same way that growing up with close friends or family members provides for a deeper knowledge that is the basis of intimacy. Why can’t workshopping a new composition be an important community event?

Finished products are great, but if we living composers have anything to offer that dead dudes like Beethoven cannot, surely it’s the creative process itself, which when it comes to the old masters can only be inferred indirectly. I hope that more arts organizations wise up to this approach to new projects, and also that presenters of music in particular will keep in mind that much of the value of engaging living composers has to do with so much more than the composition they eventually produce—those unseemly musical warts might have more value than the preened and often put-on affair of presenting painstakingly rehearsed works, cut off from the context of their own creation.