Fanfare: Light and Line: The Music of Laura Elise Schwendinger

January 26, 2013

You know you have talent to burn, when you intend just to major in the flute, but instead (out of the blue) John Adams recommends you also go into composition, just on the strength of a few submitted works. Since that teenage epiphany, Laura Elise Schwendinger has forged a remarkably steady career as a composer, with a huge portfolio spanning decades that encompasses song cycles, concertos, choral writing, tributes to Beckett, even a score ( Shadings ) to accompany a lighting project at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Notable works include her chamber response to 9/11, Celestial City, her circus inspired High Wire Act, and her Chansons Innocente . Throughout, the flute seems to feature a lot, not least in works dedicated to flutist Christina Jennings (including High Wire Act and Waking Dream ). A brief survey of the other performers who have performed or commissioned her work confirms that Adams was right not to leave her potentially to languish in the woodwind section of an orchestra; Janine Jansen, Jennifer Koh, Matt Haimovitz (a cellist best known for his enterprising Deutsche Grammophon recitals), Dawn Upshaw, and Nicole Paiement have all been involved with Schwendinger’s work at some point.

Born in Mexico, to an academic father and social worker mother, her Teutonic family name reveals a fascinating lineage that takes in Austrian, Bavarian, French, Russian, and Dutch heritages ( I’m a mutt , Schwendinger joked in one interview). The musical spark seems to come primarily from her father (his grandfather was a cantor near Tarnopol), although taking the future composer in the womb to hear Stravinsky conduct The Rite of Spring hardly makes her mother a musical prude. It was, in short, an ideal upbringing for nurturing a budding musician, with lots of exposure to both folk and contemporary music (her father organized a festival based around seafaring folk music) and a piano to play with from aged four. The composing started when Laura was nine, before becoming more serious at the San Francisco Conservatory with John Adams and at UC Berkeley with Andrew Imbrie. Now herself a professor of composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching hasn’t hindered her career as a composer, with big name fellowships and awards being a constant feature of her long career, highlighted by her being the first composer to win the prestigious American Academy in Berlin Prize.

What strikes me about the works I have heard so far is not just their edge and dissonant modernism, but their essential lyricism, and extreme contrasts of color. It is resolutely not girly music, so those ludicrous types who claim to always hear a femininity in female composers’ music, would probably become unstuck if they listened unawares to her work. What I never would have sensed from the music is that she teaches. There is no academic prissiness, awkward flaunting of techniques, or indulging of the latest craze, just a sincere belief in a line, a musical structure, as well as a love of lush textures and color. She knows her Lutosławski, her Stravinsky, and, to my ears, she has an almost Ravelian ear for orchestral texture and light, but she takes her musical heritage somewhere new.

Somewhat bizarrely, despite high profile issues like the Dawn Upshaw DVD on TDK, which contains her song, In Just-spring , or the delightfully quirky choral short, Cow Music, on the album, Stimmen.Atmen , Schwendinger has had to wait until now, aged 50, for an album devoted entirely to her. A disc of her chamber works, High Wire Act and Nonet, is about to come out on Centaur, but for the moment we now have three of her recently composed concertos, for cello, violin, and flute, on the Albany label. With big names like Haimovitz and Paiement on board, this will hopefully help put her name further afield than just the contemporary concert circuits. Although an interview with a CD to plug, and crammed in between her various commitments, my conversation with Schwendinger was as direct and unpretentious as her music. “Languorousness,” music as “sorbet”; the clear visual sense in her work is also apparent in how she talks, verbally expressing what she so vividly conveys in music. But imagery was just one of many musical areas we flitted between, as we tackled multimedia, composing quickly, today’s students, film scores, and even hair color!

Q: Were you present for the sessions of the “concertos,” or did you want to leave the performers to themselves?

A: I was recording day producer for the cello and violin concertos, however I let our conductor, Nicole Paiement, organize the periods we had, and I chimed in when I felt we needed another take, and to call takes. It was a very collaborative effort between me, the soloists, and conductor.

Q: There is very little of you performing your own works, or indeed performing in public, am I right? Has teaching got in the way or is it more that you are not short of people wanting to play your music?

A: I was a very serious flutist and I think rather good in my day, and I played professionally for some years but a terrible hand injury over a decade ago now made performance difficult for me. I couldn’t make a fist with my right hand for a year. So it is very lucky I followed my compositional muse.

Q: You’ve written a lot for individual artists, like flautist Christina Jennings (who is the soloist for Waking Dream ). Are they let in on the composing stages or is it only a finished, edited score that they get to see?

A: I’ve worked with Christina many times. She’s commissioned a few works from me and this one was a gift to her, delivered as is. On other works, we had a collaborative relationship. I just knew with Waking Dream , partly because I’m a flutist, that it would be idiomatic and enjoyable to play. I also wanted to write something that would let her sing and take advantage of that amazing sound and technique of hers. She is my favorite flutist working today!

Q: You seem reluctant not to use the word “concerto” for these three works, indeed they all have very beautiful titles, Esprimere, Chiaroscuro Azzurro (blue light/dark), and Waking Dream . Do you see these “concertos” more as tone poems, then? Esprimere is an extreme workout for the cello.

A: Esprimere and Chiaroscuro Azzurro are definitely concertos. I’m just attracted to poetic titles that (I hope) inform the listener a little to the music. Esprimere (meaning to breath) has the cello—it is meant to convey the full breadth and extreme registers, literally of what a cello can do. The cello is on the highest part of the A string for much of the work, keeping its tessitura out of the way acoustically of the orchestra—but the extremes of range take in the full breadth of the cello’s ability. In the second movement, the cello breathes through the long and languorous expressive lines. It has to be said, there are only a few cellists around that could tackle such a challenge; Matt Haimovitz is incredible. I’ve worked with him many times now and I think he is simply one of the greatest musicians of our time! He played on my Six Choral Settings with the Trinity Choir at Carnegie Hall last May.

Q: Could you explain more about “Klangfarben” (literally sound colors) in the very spare, edgy third movement?

A: About the third movement; it is on the surface complex but the rhythmic interplay, use of space and duets between the soloist, harp, and first cello—Klangfarben lines—as you will, are also meant to be playful. The bongos and percussion add a little whimsy to these rhythms—almost doing their take on a “beat generation-jazz vibe,” although there are also some long singing lines in that movement as well. The “colors” i.e., pizzicato cello and strings, bowed vibe and harp, also make this movement and its Klangfarben “lines” more shaped by color, rhythm, and space than the other movements, a sort of “sorbet” or ear contrast from the drama and languorousness of the second movement, and the continual momentum of the first and fourth movements.

Q: You wrote Cow Music in a matter of hours. Is there, when you compose, a collection of ideas (written down or in your head) that you draw from for such sudden occasions or does the last minute pressure give the required inspiration?

A: The late night hours seemed a little like a dream already with the large mountains looming around us, but added to all of this was the sound of cows and their large bells, wandering the high hills surrounding us. The work you hear was the result. An almost “other worldly” combination of male voices, baroque recorder, and violin, and meant to feel ancient in a way like the hills, the cows, and the town below.

Q: I think your swift creation of Cow Music shows an impressive flexibility in your methods surely, especially when it takes months for your other larger works. I believe Shostakovich orchestrated Tea for Two in an hour and a half for a bet. Do you encourage writing quickly sometimes to your students, as an exercise?

A: Actually I do! In fact I did that this week with a student “stuck” in a section of a work and wanting to scrap the whole. I suggested putting it aside and doing a very short but complete piano work a day, each one focusing on a different aspect (intervallic construction, or monophonic lines, or color, or register, or articulations), anything, as long as that focus was clear. I’ve been doing this for many years with those composers who need to free up the process a little. John Adams suggested to me once to write out as many ideas as possible and not even use the eraser (he said “manuscript paper is cheap”). Good advice!

Q: Light seems to be a huge part of so much of your music. There is a sense of flickers and glimmers erupting out of the orchestra in, say, the Violin Concerto. Likewise, in Waking Dream, the scoring for flute and often somber accompaniment has a similar sense of light and shade. Are you conscious of a very visual sense when you write?

A: Absolutely! The concept of chiaroscuro means so much to me. High contrasts of liquid gold against darker hues and the energy of that contrast is very much part of my work, hence the name Chiaroscuro Azzurro . Extremes in timbre as well, bowed crotales, eruptive pizzicato, layers emerge laterally and vertically—so the counterpoint happens on all the various levels and parameters. But I try never to let the singing line go. That line sings through these layers, wanting always to emerge. I don’t think of Waking Dream ’s accompaniment as sounding somber though. It is meant to be luminous, although the harmonies are somewhat dark at times. I teach a course in the late Debussy sonatas and am very interested in color and luminosity. Debussy was the first spectralist really, aware always of the overtone series, and that is also something I keep in mind as I create my harmonic structures as well.

Q: If your composing career happened almost by accident, partly thanks to John Adams, did you nevertheless have as a child a natural instinct for creating new music rather than just learning the flute, etc.? It must have been quite a portfolio of compositions that Adams stumbled upon to advise going into composition. Do you remember the actual works in question that grabbed him in particular?

A: Well, I think Adams had some influence by suggesting I could compose for my degree, but I composed all through my childhood (from the time I was eight), and really only got to work with Adams for that one year. I think I sent in a string quartet and a small trombone concerto, both I’m sure I wouldn’t want to listen to again. I really credit my growth and direction and most of my technical abilities to my wonderful teacher and Ph.D. adviser Andrew Imbrie. Do you know his music?

Q: No, I don’t know Imbrie’s music. With such an influential teacher were you conscious of a direct influence on your music or did he inspire something completely different from his work?

A: I think people who know Imbrie’s music can hear his influence. I just had a work premiered on a concert dedicated to him; there were two other of his student’s works as well, and you could hear Imbrie in all of us. I wanted to work with him because of his singing line, which very much speaks to me. That musicality of line, and its presence in music, makes even more complex textures more musical in my mind. He wrote very well-composed, lovely, yet serious music that has a beautiful sense of line, so applying to UCB for my doctorate and getting to work with Andrew was perfect for me. He wrote such wonderful music and if you don’t know it, I recommend it highly to you. He was also one of the greatest teachers of our time.

Q: There is this distinct lyricality to your music, isn’t there?

A: I am so glad you hear the lyricality in my music. I had a wonderful experience recently being a presenter at the Yale University composers’ seminar series, with the wonderful faculty composers there, Martin Bresnick, Kathryn Alexander, Chris Theofanidis, David Lang, and Aaron Jay Kernis. It was so eye opening because they got the music, and many comments were about how beautiful it was and that really touched me. My music isn’t any more dissonant than say Henri Dutilleux (one of my favorite composers!).

Q: I thought you might be a Dutilleux fan. I’m so pleased to have met him—very briefly as a fan! I notice a similar sense of line in your music, am I right?

A: I am so impressed that you got to meet him! I would love to talk with him, I’m such a fan. For so many years though, here in America, even the hint of a more complex harmonic world has been misunderstood, so for those particular composers (whose music I find so wonderful!) to appreciate my work for its attractiveness really was memorable for me.

Q: You have mentioned in previous interviews your love for The Rite of Spring , instilled almost in the womb, and you mention how it makes perfect sense (like so much “difficult” music) on repeated listens. Your ear for dissecting works must have developed very early, as you started composition study in your early teens. Was this at first just something one “did” in tandem with studying an instrument or did you always have this knack?

A: I am very lucky to have a father who played classical and 20th-century music in the house all the time. He would wake us up on Sunday mornings with Beethoven or Prokofiev. So I heard a lot of contemporary music by the time I went to college.

Q: You just said you would rather not revisit your early student works (although for the likes of Britten, formative scribblings can provide a lot of inspiration later on). As a teacher, do you see a lot of your younger self (good and bad) in new students’ work?

A: I also love Britten, what a wonderful composer. I can’t say that my students, in general remind me of my younger composer self, although I have had a few. I had one doctoral student recently who I watched go through many of the phases I went through when I was studying with Imbrie. Learning to control my materials and so on. This student’s music does remind me of my own in some ways, and that seems to bring us full circle in a way. He too has become quite an Imbrie fan. We are part of a lineage and that feels right.

Q: Talking of lineage: With today’s music students, what are the new composing influences and trends and are they significantly different from your generation?

A: Well the newer generations aren’t as interested in the technical aspects of composition as my generation was; some don’t use counterpoint and don’t feel they need to. They are interested in different influences, some are involved in bringing their popular music tastes into their “art” music world, or are influenced by electronic and multimedia (even the social media) Zeitgeist. Film music also seems to have a large influence on younger composers these days. To me that’s interesting but, having taught a film-music class for many years now, I find that students don’t always realize that the main models of the great film composers are actual art composers (Mahler, Strauss, and more contemporary models).

Q: Talking of multimedia, there is a very interesting YouTube clip with your cousin, Leni, which is very honest about each artist’s different “lexicons,” as she started out as a rock and roll lighting artist. Was it a journey for her to understand your contemporary music?

A: It was. Funny this comes up at artists colonies all the time. Artists who make very current, and “contemporary art” don’t always listen to contemporary art music. It was great fun to learn about her work, and to learn to communicate, and in many ways we connected because, as you have already said, my music is very much guided by “color.” As a “lighting artist” Leni has a very keen and sophisticated understanding about color, I learned a lot about art from her in our collaboration and of course she is a wonderful person. I love her!

Q: Essentially Shadings was a score for a visual montage; has this led you to want to write for film or TV? I notice no soundtracks in your otherwise eclectic range of music?

A: As I teach “film music” at the University every other year or so, I adore it. I’m a cinephile to be sure. I adore the music of Bernhard Herrmann and Max Steiner, but that area is a different thing these days. You must get into it through the industry and I’m afraid that’s not where my career has gone. A very dear friend Paul Chihara was one of the first concert composers (besides Copland and Prokofiev) to do both. And at first the “art music” world wasn’t happy about it, but now the so-called “serious music” groups and presenters are very interested in film music. There doesn’t seem to be that issue anymore. Paul’s “art music” career is stronger than ever.

Q: An obvious question, but where do you see contemporary music going? Is there a strained attempt to incorporate new media and technology or is there a return to old fashioned craft in composition?

A: I think there will always be interest in the craft of composition, we have these pendulum shifts every so often, which can open our field to interesting and new directions. I just hope that some of these techniques aren’t forgotten before the next few generations emerge—or that they rediscover the love of craft. Realizing that technique is your friend gives you the tools to help give voice to all your ideas. That’s an important component of the equation.

Q: Now one of those faintly irritating but still sadly relevant questions; as a woman (blonde too!) in a very male profession, have you had to work harder to be recognized and treated seriously?

A: (My hair has been many colors over the years, red, light brown. I’ve always been a little adventurous…maybe the Berkeley, California, in me!) I’d like to think that it hasn’t been an issue, but I’m sure it has been at one time or another. It’s changing a bit now, but it has been a male dominated field for many years. There are so many great women composers: Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, Kathryn Alexander, Sheila Silver; the list is so long, that somehow, although chamber musicians seem to be working towards fairness and realizing how much great music by women is out there, I do think more major orchestras should be commissioning more from women. There’s no reason for a season not to have 10 percent or more of the programming reflecting the music of women composers out there. But often seasons don’t include a single work by a woman. That is a bit disheartening. There is also an emphasis on younger composers, which leaves those of us over 40 out of the equation a bit. There’s always this desire for the young, “hot” (almost as a commodity) in classical music these days.

Q: Do you also find there is a tendency, even now, to pigeonhole you as a Woman Composer? Or are things getting better, like for instance the rise of female conductors including Emmanuelle Haim or indeed your disc’s Nicole Paiement?

A: Sure. One old man at the Kennedy Center, when I had one of my first important commissions, with Leon Fleischer and Dina Koston’s group The Theater Chamber Players, (it was the first concert where Leon played with both hands after all those years of not being able to use his right hand; he played Brahms but it was the same concert!), asked me at the post concert meet and great; “What’s a nice girl like you writing music like that for?” which is a way of saying that women should be writing tonal, “pretty” music. I think if you hear my music, you wouldn’t really know if it was a man or a woman. Stockhausen, Kurtág, Carter Takemitsu, Lachenmann, whoever the guy is, they wrote modern, sinewy music and there isn’t that expectation that they should write a certain kind of music. I write lyrical music but it can also be very muscular and dramatic in a way that might seem “masculine.” This is also true of Shulamit Ran or Gusty Thomas’s voices as well. We as women need to be able to express ourselves in a way that’s true to our ears.

Q: So finally with High Wire Act imminent on CD, what is your next recording project?

A: I have several projects brewing now. The wonderful pianist, and my colleague at UW Madison, Kit Taylor, recorded my complete piano music recently; we’ll be editing that soon. The next project will probably be with the amazing JACK Quartet. They have performed my Harvard Musical Association commission several times (The Arditti Quartet premiered it) and I’m writing JACK a second quartet now. Patricia Green, the wonderful Canadian mezzo soprano is planning a recording of my vocal chamber music, as she has premiered several works of mine, one of which was that Theater Chamber Players work at the Kennedy Center in 1997, Songs of Heaven and Earth for large ensemble and mezzo, which is a setting of four poems by the ancient Chinese poet T’sai Yen

SCHWENDINGER Esprimere for Cello and Orchestra. 1,2 Chiaroscuro Azzurro for Violin and Chamber Orchestra. 1,3 Walking Dream for Flute and Chamber Orchestra 4 1 Nicole Paiement, cond; 4 James Smith, cond; 2 Matt Haimovitz (vc); 3 Curtis Macomber (vn); 4 Christina Jennings (fl); 1 Madison Snf; 4 University of Wisconsin C O • ALBANY 1390 (74:05)

Yet another fine American composing talent, that I have only just encountered. Despite a long, award-strewn career and commissions from some pretty hefty names, Laura Elise Schwendinger is only now starting to get discs devoted entirely to her music. With a forthcoming album of her chamber works, High Wire Act and Nonet, on the way, this current album is a neat program of three concertos for different instruments, and it makes a fine first encounter to her purposeful but accessible style. Written between 2007 and 2009, these pieces share a very virtuosic, albeit pleasingly lyrical and expressive solo part, set to an often very harmonically complex orchestral score, although each work is very different in feel.

A rather Brittenesque set of chords opens Esprimere , a big, brooding four-movement cello concerto, and the brilliant way it is developed creates a taut underpinning to the restless, anguished cello line, which acts at times as disjointed commentator to the dark, icy string writing, or elsewhere echoes precisely what is going around it. The third, almost jazzy, movement sees Schwendinger strip everything down, before bringing back the full power of the orchestra again for an urgent finale that leaves us hanging over the abyss. It is great to encounter Matt Haimovitz again (known for his solo recitals on Deutsche Grammophon) and he delivers an intense performance that feels spontaneous and unclinical. Superbly responsive conducting too from Nicole Paiement.

Although it is a shame that Chiaroscuro Azzuro’s dedicatee, Jennifer Koh, doesn’t feature here, Curtis Macomber grants us a thrilling performance of this fiendishly difficult sounding violin concerto. There is an element of Ravel’s Tzigane about the work; both open with busy unaccompanied violin writing, before the harp creeps in and unleashes a very exciting, jagged accompaniment, although Schwendinger’s big, brutal orchestral writing takes this conventionally structured three-movement concerto in a very different direction from Ravel’s showpiece. Brutal stomps from the orchestra contrast with some very rhapsodic woodwind writing (especially in the second movement), giving a mercurial underpinning to the very sly, almost gypsyish solo part. All of this is built convincingly into quite a terrifying finale and, just as in Esprimere , the ending is a jolt out of nowhere. It really works.

Waking dream , a single movement tone poem, is predictably a more unified and slightly gentler affair. Opening from a hushed, magical ether, Schwendinger (herself an accomplished flutist) writes gloriously for the flute, relishing not just the instrument’s soft grained, ‘flowery’ tone but exploring its more astringent sounds as well. It is very sensual writing, set against a vast array of shimmering orchestral colors, by turns, glittering and somber, and unlike the jarring endings of the first two concertos, Waking Dream ebbs quietly away into the ether, marking a full circle to its mysterious opening. Exquisitely played by Christina Jennings (the work’s dedicatee), this is the highlight of the disc.

What I find compelling about Schwendinger’s writing is its unashamed lyricism, amidst the dissonance. Despite her evident love of lush textures and swelling chords to support the often restless solo writing, there is a forward momentum, a journey or line, that any good composition has to have in my view. Despite her professorship there is nothing stiflingly academic about any of the concertos here. Only Waking Dream was recorded live, but the performances of all three works feel tight, impassioned and, well, lived in, although I have no score to verify technical accuracy. Sound is clear and forward, with the soloists given quite an intense, closely recorded ambiance, which fits the vivid textures of the pieces well. Although reviewing from a download the PDF booklet points towards a typically thorough Albany release. This is ballsy, confident music-making in both writing and execution and proves that serious contemporary music does not have to dumb down to be immediately accessible and emotional. Highly recommended.

read at: Fanfare


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