Interview with American Composer and Vocalist Lisa Bielawa
by Melissa Wimbish
One of the first things your bio describes is the inspiration of literature upon your compositions. What literary sources from your youth have followed you throughout your career and become inspirations for your compositions? Will you name some of your favorite genres of literature as well as a few meaningful works (fiction and non-fiction)? Do you have any literary guilty pleasures? Are you secretly into Sci-Fi?
Yes, reading is one of the main sources of inspiration for me as a composer. I find that if I do not have a satisfying diet of reading, the work doesn’t go as well. It is as if reading is part of a healthy cycle of creative nourishment and production — input and output — even if what I am reading doesn’t end up explicitly in the piece I am writing (sung, spoken, etc.). This intimacy with reading did begin when I was pretty young, and although specific books from my teenage years don’t leap to mind, I do remember feeling this way about reading from the age of maybe ten. I tend to gravitate towards gravitas in my reading as an adult, I must admit. Shakespeare, Proust, George Eliot, Pushkin, Pasternak, Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Richardson, Kafka, Tolstoy — these authors have all had a profound influence on my work in the last 10-15 years, either directly or indirectly. I guess ‘heavy reading’ could be considered a guilty pleasure, depending on the context! And no, I am not really into Sci-Fi, although if I were I would not make it a secret. Seems like there is some wonderful experimental, inventive writing going on it that genre these days. Maybe I will check into it more deeply as a result of this interview! (I am passionate about some of H.G. Wells’ books, but many wouldn’t actually call that Sci-Fi at this point.)
Do you listen to opera frequently? Do you attend the opera frequently? What is one of your most memorable operatic experiences?
I love attending opera, and when I listen to opera on recording, it is almost always an opera I have seen live. Just last night I went to see the Berlin Komische Opera’s production of Handel’s Orlando, which was splendid. I also had a mind-shattering experience at Lulu at La Scala a couple of months ago. Other memories of opera or concert music theater from the last 10-15 years that leap out at me: Katya Kabanova at the Met with the Bolshoi Opera; Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake in Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra; Marin Alsop’s recent presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in New York (I was the child soloist in this piece when I was ten years old, in the San Francisco production); Jenufa at the Met; the Robert Wilson-designed, Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts at City Opera. I’m sure others will keep bubbling to the surface. Even though I am a composer, for me the score is only part of what makes a successful opera experience — these are memories of experiences that were powerful for me for some combination of reasons — individual performances, design, collaborative imagination, and of course, the aspects of the work itself, musically and dramatically.
As a singer and composer, how do you feel the two categories compliment one another? Do you feel that you are able to master both or that one inhibits you from mastering another? How do you feel your singing has evolved in the past two years and why?
In some predictable ways, these two kinds of musical activity – composing and singing – complement each other directly: I feel I know well how to write for the voice, since I am also a practitioner; when I am writing pieces, even if they are concert pieces, that involve music theater or vocal drama, I feel that my experiences as a performer can inform compositional decisions about dramatic pacing and form; being a composer and having a “composerly” understanding of musical forms and structures helps give me a deeper understanding of the music I sing; and so on. I am still interested in finding and meeting new challenges, both as a composer and as a singer. Last year I learned Berio’s Sequenza for voice, and that process really stretched me as a performer, which in turn resulted in a new dimension in my vocal composing this year. Learning and performing that piece gave me a new set of expressive, dramatic tools as a singer – an actual technical understanding of emotive vocabulary. I didn’t realize until months later that this new understanding would open up new avenues for me in composition as well!
How has your time in Italy affected your feelings about living in the United States? Do you feel that there is more respect for the field of music abroad? Do you feel that American musicians are received differently abroad by foreign colleagues and audiences? How would you describe the cultural differences (if any) in terms of the music business?
I’ve traveled and performed a lot in Europe and elsewhere before this year, and I think it is impossible to generalize about how much respect there is for music “abroad” — the answer is different, and differently nuanced, in each country and even in each city. Rome is a particularly rich visual and historical center and in many ways the cultural life there is focused on these unarguably supreme sites rather than on contemporary arts culture. This is starting to change however, and the desire of the city to be active in contemporary arts culture was nowhere more evident in the dramatic opening of the MAXXI museum, designed by Zaha Hadid. My piece, Chance Encounter for soprano Susan Narucki and twelve instruments (designed to be performed in transient public spaces), was part of the opening festivities of this amazing new building on May 30th and it was received with wonderful enthusiasm both at the MAXXI and the next day on the banks of the Tiber river in the middle of the city. I collaborated on this project with Robert Hammond, co-founder of the High Line in New York and a celebrated urban placemaker, who was a fellow with me at the Academy. The musicians came from both the US and Rome, and there was great excitement around this cross-cultural collaboration, both among the musicians and in the audience. You can find a bunch of pictures of these events at www.chance-encounter.org.
I also got a chance to sing Luigi Nono’s La Fabbrica Illuminata for soprano and quadraphonic tape – a seminal work of Italian modernist music both artistically and politically. Here, too I felt that the reception of my performance was warm and genuinely engaged. All in all, I think most of my cross-cultural musical experiences have been positive, precisely because of the excitement that comes from engaging in cultural exchange at a high level. I find it incredibly gratifying and I plan to continue to find ways to make new work in diverse geographical and cultural contexts, because I believe it has inherent value even when there are failures of cultural (or actual) translation.
Will you set Gone With the Wind as an opera? If not, will you at least describe how you would approach the cast of Gone With the Wind in terms of Fach. Is it even a good idea?
In writing opera or music theater works, I like to work with collaborators who are interested in striking new ground conceptually and as narrators. I don’t think I would be interested in making an opera from an existing, finished work of fiction or film.
What magazines do you read frequently and why? Are there any particular columnists that you follow?
I try to keep up with the New York Review of Books, and I enjoy devouring The New Yorker. But the lion’s share of my reading time is spent immersed in literary journeys through larger works (see above, my first answer!).
When you get back to the U.S., what restaurant are you looking forward to visiting?
I’ll be hankering for good Indian food, I think!
How do you feel about hip-hop? Are you an underground rapper in France? If not, what would your stage name be if you were an underground rapper?
I love dancing. Hip-hop holds a special place in my heart. But I couldn’t rap my way around anyone’s little finger.
Born in San Francisco into a musical family, Lisa Bielawa played the violin and piano, sang, and wrote music from early childhood. After receiving her B.A. in Literature in 1990 from Yale University, she moved to New York and participated actively in the New York music scene. Ms Bielawa began touring with the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1992, and in 1997 co-founded the MATA Festival, which celebrates the work of young composers. The New York Times describes her music as, “ruminative, pointillistic and harmonically slightly tart,” and Time Out New York praised her “prodigious gift for mingling persuasive melodicism with organic experimentation.” She is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition.
Recent highlights include performances of Ms. Bielawa’s chamber music in New York at Judson Memorial Church, The Brooklyn Museum, and Symphony Space. Her work, Chance Encounter, a piece comprising songs and arias constructed of speech overheard in transient public spaces, has been performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, on the banks of the Tiber River and as part of the opening of the celebrated new MAXXI Museum in Rome. World premieres for Portrait-Elegy, The Project of Collecting Clouds, and In medias res, a concerto for orchestra commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), the culmination of Ms. Bielawa’s three-year residency with that orchestra, have been performed in cities across the United States.
Ms. Bielawa’s discography includes A Handful of World (Tzadik 8039) featuring Kafka Songs; Lamentations for a City, performed by the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble; and In medias res (BMOP/sound), a double-disc set of Ms. Bielawa’s solo and orchestral works. In 2010, the world premiere recording of Lisa Bielawa’s Chance Encounter will be released on Orange Mountain Music, and another album The Lay of the Love will be released as the inaugural disc of Premiere Commission Recordings, a new label based in New York.
For more information, please visit www.lisabielawa.net.
Check out her blog at http://www.wqxr.org/people/lisa-bielawa/.