Laura Elise Schwendinger’s High Wire Act
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Written by Robert Schulslaper   
Friday, 02 August 2013

Laura Elise Schwendinger’s High Wire Act

Composer Laura Elise Schwendinger is prolific and personable, with wide-ranging enthusiasms that frequently inform her accessible, substantive music. Always striving for “lyricality” without shunning “muscularity,” she understands that expressive freedom flourishes best when supported by structural rigor. Her first interview with Barnaby Rayfield ( Fanfare 36:4) included tantalizing descriptions of three concertos— Esprimere, Chiaroscuro Azzurro , and Waking Dream (Albany Records), as well as her thoughts on multimedia, teaching, and film scores. This time around the focus is on her latest release, High Wire Acts (CENTAUR 3098), but first I had some general questions about composition.

Q: What moves you to compose?

A: It depends. Some pieces are motivated by external stimuli, like High Wire Act , which was inspired by the little wire figures of the Cirque Calder . They are so charming and lovely that I felt compelled to write a musical response to them, “joining in the fun” as it were, of creating my own “musical circus.’ At other times it may be a rhythm that sits in my ear or a melodic phrase that haunts me.

Q: How about form?

A: At times I am lucky enough to have a whole form laid before me. I liken it to lightning illuminating a valley, and seeing the whole, but only for a moment. Then the task is to get that whole written down and quickly before the memory of what one has seen dissipates. On the other hand, many times it evolves. An idea will often tell you where it wants to go, if you listen to it carefully. I find that many of my forms are written in reverse order, i.e., that I write the climaxes or major arrival points first and work backwards, composing the sections that come before these large arrivals, so I know what I am leaning towards.

Q: You’re very visual, with a heightened sensitivity to color, light, and texture. How often do “the other arts” figure in your music?

A: Not always but I do have a fair number of works based on art. High Wire Act of course, and there is a solo piano work, Van Gogh Nocturnes , based on three of his paintings (premiered by the wonderful Christopher Taylor), as well as other works: Equatorial Jungle (Henri Rousseau), Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch), and even some based on artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro . In my Violin Concerto, Chiaroscuro Azzurro (Albany Records 1390), I explore ideas of high contrast. I’m also quite interested in concepts that derive from other areas in the arts, such as my Mise En Scene for mixed ensemble, for which Elisa Birdseye wrote in her review (of the Boston Musica Viva) in The Boston Musical Intelligencer, “The title of the program derived from the world premiere centerpiece of the evening, Laura Elise Schwendinger’s Mise-en-scene (2011)…Schwendinger explained before the performance that mise-en-scene refers to all the elements (lighting, sound, props, stagecraft, etc.) which create the feel and image seen in either a theater piece or a film. Her work, in nine short, continuously played movements, described a story, and even without program notes, it would have been possible to imagine what was going on onstage. She described her music as ‘zany,’ but perhaps another term would be ‘looney’ in the sense of the fiendishly difficult and evocative music by Carl Stallings that underpinned the familiar Looney Tunes cartoons. Schwendinger’s music was clear, delightful, and descriptive, almost an opera without words.”

I loved this review because Elisa was able to capture my inspiration from her initial listening to the work, and that is rare. Just recently I had a commission for a new theater piece, based on a Beckett play, Footfalls : I was one of several composers whose music was played by the Cygnus Ensemble during an evening devoted to three of his short works. In her Time Out review, Jenna Sherer wrote, “Laura Schwendinger’s piece for Footfalls is particularly effective, featuring stretches in which the musicians play their instruments so lightly, it could just be the autumn wind blowing through their strings.” To be able to respond to an inspirational thread of such a great artist as Beckett was so rewarding.

Finally, I have worked directly with artists, such as my wonderful cousin Leni Schwendinger. We were commissioned to write a collaborative work for the American Composers Orchestra that was premiered at Carnegie Hall. Every step of the way, we discussed the relationship of her art and my music, and made a shimmering, mysterious work called Shading that the orchestra played as they were submerged in Leni’s color world while her images were shown behind them. And then there are works that are something in between, inspired by other musical works. The Nonet, with its exuberant tutti writing, shows my love of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and the rhythmic world of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks : Neither may seem obvious to the listener of course. A recent work of mine, The Violinists in My Life , consists of musical portraits of five wonderful violinists, some dear friends and others I have had the great honor of working with. Each movement is a character portrait, not of the actual player, but rather my personal response to how I hear each player’s musical gifts (Eleanor Bartsch, Wei He, Miranda Cuckson, Desiree Ruhstrat, Curtis Macomber). I haven’t even mentioned my many text settings, which are of course influenced by the words.

Q: What about abstract music, music that has no other reference but itself?

A: I do that often, for instance in my Sonata for Solo Violin I felt motivated by the pure musical development of the material. My String Quartet for the Arditti, which the JACK Quartet has played a number of times now (and will be recording soon) was a work specifically about musical ideas and construction, although each movement is (although not literally) an homage of sorts to different composers and their works for string quartet (Bartók, Debussy, and my teacher Andrew Imbrie).

Q: Do you have perfect pitch?

A: No but I have excellent relative pitch. I can name certain pitches I sing, and that I hear on certain instruments, a sort of physical memory of temporal density left over from my years of singing and playing the flute.

Q: I ask because I’ve always been tremendously impressed with composers who can compose straight to manuscript without recourse to an instrument. On the other hand, lack of perfect pitch didn’t seem to inconvenience Stravinsky.

A: I work at a piano, but I may compose a considerable amount before I test my materials at the piano. I do sometimes experiment on the instrument with registration and voicings, especially when writing for the piano. And I sing or play each line on my flute to get the sense of it and whether or not it works individually.

Q: One more question about “mechanics”: Do you use music notation software?

A: I use Finale but like all composers using music manuscript software, I have moments of wanting to go back to pen and paper! Actually, I rely on it mainly for score preparation. Not having to make separate parts starting from zero is helpful. That is when I don’t have a copyist to make them for me, which I much prefer.

Q: Working with a copyist must be so much less complicated than having to deal with even the most supposedly user-friendly software. But enough tech talk! Your harmonic language seems to alternate between two poles (at least on the CD): On the one hand you write persuasively in a tonally familiar idiom— High Wire Acts and the Nonet—but your violin sonata, for example, is more gritty.

A: The Sonata for Solo Violin is an earlier work, from 1992. I have eased some of my early feelings about approach in the last 15 years. I want to write what I hear, even if that means something very open harmonically. However, I still move between these worlds and each work, I think, still sounds like my own style. There is always a lyricism that comes through, I believe from my years singing and playing the flute, and is nearly always there, even in more abstract settings. The original lullaby-like oscillating motive used in the sonata for instance is very sweet, and comes back, even after the ferocity and bravura of the last movement, in a grand new stately manner. I think we live in a time when all these approaches are accepted but I know that many composers work in only one or the other. Another element of my style is that I use extremes of register; there is often very high pitch material in my music, and having premiered piccolo works for many years, my ear loves the brightness of that register. I also move between the registers quickly in order to create a sort of “balance” between these extremes. I feel life is too short not to explore the possibilities.

Q: When you’re commissioned to write a piece, do you interact with the musicians once it’s “underway”?

A: I do and thoroughly enjoy collaboration. Several of the violinists premiering The Violinists in My Life have worked with me on their movements. If we have the time, I much prefer consulting the performers and running ideas and techniques past them. I’m always learning and the finest performers I’ve worked with—Dawn Upshaw, Matt Haimovitz, Christina Jennings, Christopher Taylor, and Curtis Macomber, amongst many others—are also the loveliest of people and offer ideas and responses that are invaluable for a composer.

Q: Which of your pieces would you say is the most popular with audiences?

A: I joke that High Wire Act is my Bolero , having been played by dozens of groups around the country. The audience in Oklahoma City, where BrightMusic, the commissioning group premiered it, gave the music a standing ovation, which was lovely. The responses to this work are often just what I want, giggles of understanding during the performance and then people approach me to talk about how the music reflects the scenes they’ve imagined or that were triggered by the Calder Circus figures. I’ve also been lucky to have many fine reviews even for my more challenging works, but each person is different and for every work there are always a myriad of responses, that’s one of the exciting aspects of the work we do. I find it interesting that what seems challenging to one audience will be loved by another and vice versa: Each audience is so different.

Q: Some of the flute effects in High Wire Act reminded me of shakuhachi music—was this intentional or merely coincidental?

A: The shakuhachi is definitely in my ear. I love Takemitsu’s music and having been a very serious flutist for much of my life, experimenting with the sounds and possible colors of the flute is always there in my works. If you listen to Waking Dream , from my Albany CD (1390), also written for the extraordinary Christina Jennings, you might hear a shakuhachi influence there, as well. Finally High Wire Act does feature the flute in many guises. She jumps onto an apparatus in movement 1, flies above the nets on her trapeze in movement 3, and is a trapped bird in movement 4.

Q: Is it fair to assume that your love for Takemitsu and the sound of the shakuhachi reflects an interest in Asian music and aesthetics in general?

A: I actually get asked that question quite a bit. I do love many kinds of Asian music, and had been exposed to them growing up in the Bay area. My father is a scholar of sea shanties and wrote a book based on his discovery that American ships at the turn of the century were manned by Chinese sailors. He was on the board of the Chinese Historical Society for a time and researched Chinese sea shanties, as well. I also played in a gamelan ensemble when I was young. Exposure to what my father coined “the music of the Pacific Rim” (he was one of the first to champion it in the Bay area), I’m sure had an influence. And strangely enough, I just happened to marry a wonderful Chinese-American man, so perhaps the Bay area had that effect on me. It certainly gave me an appreciation of diversity. Lastly, being Jewish and having heard that beautiful liturgical music also influenced me. A sort of wailing, or sobbing finds its way into my lyricism.

Q: I enjoyed the high harmonics in High Wire Act. Are you “partial” (pardon the pun) to this sort of texture, or is it simply a matter of using the right technique at the right time? You also use a similarly high range in “Tightrope-Walker,” which I hear as an attempt to evoke the intense but danger-fraught concentration and effort required of the acrobat.

A: Absolutely. I LOVE harmonics but they were perfect for this effect of fragility and tenuousness. As we watch the people standing on that tiny rope, we feel at any moment they could fall, and the same holds true for the very high pitches and harmonics heard in both High Wire Act and Tightrope-Walker . Played on strings no less (pun intended!). Strangely enough, an actual tightrope walker approached me after one of the performances of this work in New York and said that she knew people saw them that way but in actuality they felt quite comfortable up there. It’s the illusion of that fragility, the harmonics and moving lines that try to connect but never quite do until the finale that is alluring to me.

Q: Moving on to the Nonet, when I first heard it I wondered if it was performed without a leader in the fashion of Orpheus, the well-known chamber ensemble, as conductor Michael Mulcahy wasn’t mentioned in the liner notes (as it turns out, he’s also a wonderful trombonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra): I eventually found him listed in the credits.

A: The Nonet has been conducted each time it’s been played. It’s very difficult music, even though the first movement has an outward cheeriness. Even the second movement, with its “singing line” (I’m especially partial to this movement), is connected from one instrument to another like a chain of delicate pearls. The last movement is extremely challenging to play, full of momentum throughout. Every player, though, gets a chance to shine at one point or another!

I think a group like Orpheus, who are very used to performing works like this without conductor would do well performing the work conductorless. The Chicago Chamber Musicians (heard in this recording, thanks to the Fromm Foundation) are an extraordinary group of musicians—many from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—but I think it’s not part of their mission, necessarily, to work without conductor. Each approach has its advantages.

Q: As “an established composer” you have the confidence to go your own way, but how do you think the pressure to be original affects the “up and comers”?

A: Many young composers have this concern: There’s the feeling that they have to make a splash and certainly some artists are influenced by what they see as being “hot.” And I think more than ever we are living in a time with economic pressures which push some venues and groups to respond by programming what they believe an audience will react well to. The problem with this approach is that one never knows how audiences will respond. Even when a new performer or composer comes along who is young and whose work seems exciting, with some time having elapsed, we realize the shelf life can be very short for such a career, unless there is something deeper offered. Composers such as Mozart or in our time Augusta Read Thomas came to prominence when they were quite young, but both proved that that early talent was strong enough to last and create works of great depth and importance. There are always composers who are said to be doing something new but it is not always very interesting work, inevitably. But I feel if you are writing music you believe in and hear, and are being true to your own muse, what you write will have something to offer that’s new, as each of us is individual. Hopefully it will say something deep, beautiful, challenging, exciting, and possibly infuriating, astonishing, and even fun at times…and if we are lucky, all these things can be there in our art.

Art does not always need to be lovely, or easy, think of Picasso’s Guernica.

I believe art needs the contrast of beauty and grittiness, so that each event has a space of clarity. I can listen to Bach everyday, but I can also listen to Carter. Each offers me new things to discover every time I listen, even if I didn’t completely understand it at the first listening. Some composers push the boundary of what’s possible in different ways. I’ve gone back and forth in my thinking about my own work, first writing music I felt was more complex, then realizing the “zeitgeist” of our time could allow for an openness to include many different approaches, sometimes within the same work, but doing it in a way that feels right.

I am proud of my musical connections to the past, and my knowledge of it, as well as my love of all music, from my teachers Imbrie, Wilson, Ung, and Chihara to divergent composers, such as Bach, Britten, Duttilleux, Kurtág, Takemitsu, and Carter. As I’ve said, all have something to say and teach us, and ignoring their diversity seems to miss the point. I sometimes wonder when young composers try “different” approaches and audiences believe that these are new, whether or not they realize similar leaps have been made by other composers in earlier generations. I’m thinking of Colin McPhee’s experiments with music of different cultures (born in 1900) or Cage’s experimentation with sound and silence or Mozart, Gershwin, Bernstein, Berio, Bolcolm, and Milhaud’s brilliance in folding in the popular music of their time. It could be the human condition to reimagine or “rediscover” approaches in a cyclical manner, and there is nothing wrong in that reimagining. But, there is also a strength in following your own muse, no matter where that takes you, even if it might not be obviously “of our time.” Only years after can we see the bigger picture.

SCHWENDINGER High Wire Act. 1 Nonet. 2 Rumor. 3 Sonata for Solo Violin. 4 Two Little Whos 5 1 BrightMusic; 2 Chicago Chamber Musicians; 3 Christina Jennings (fl); 3 Greg Sauer (vc); 4 Katie Wolfe (vn); 5 Duo46 CENTAUR 3098 (59:04)

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )