What originally led you to being a musician, and more specifically what made you choose composition as an artistic outlet?
My parents listened to both classical and non-classical music a lot when I was a kid. We sang a lot at home and my mom occasionally played the piano, so music felt like a normal part of our lives. When I was around seven, two things happened that impelled me to participate in music more intensively. The first was a school demo of the instruments available for private lessons; I came home demanding to play the cello. The second was watching the Ingmar Bergman film version of The Magic Flute, which became an obsession. I didn’t know what composing was, but I knew I wanted to somehow participate in this kind of storytelling. Composing started soon after cello lessons, just as a thing I did alongside practicing the cello. My mother attributes this to my having absorbed an elementary school mantra that encouraged students to view themselves as authors: “if you read, you write.” So naturally, if you play, you compose.
In your bio you write that your music is “often intertextual, opening dialogues with existing pieces of music, historical styles, and other cultural artifacts.” What are some ways in which you engage with the past? Does it come in the form of musical quotation, deformation of long-standing forms, or does it manifest in a more personal way that might not be audible on the musical surface?
I have done all of the above - it really depends on the piece. But there are some recurring techniques that I use when dealing with historical material. I usually start with an artifact - sometimes a quotation, or sometimes a harmonic progression, or melody, or other clichéd object that doesn’t come from any one composer or piece. Then I time-stretch the artifact. It might become so slow that it will never be recognized, or I might turn an imaginary time-stretching fader up and down, pulling the artifact between the extremes of too-slow-to-hear and its original tempo. I’ll then use this time-stretched artifact to generate other musical information. There are a lot of different ways I’ve used deformed artifacts as generators, but one relatively consistent thing is that I’ll expand upon their pitch information using spectral techniques. In addition, when the original object is made maximally slow, every new event is a big deal because events happen relatively infrequently. So each new event in the slowed-down original acts as a trigger for big changes on the surface of the music, or for chain reactions that continue triggering other things.
I’m always interested in the idea of engaging with and/or grappling with music of the past. While this is an important element in your work, I find that your music always sounds very fresh and new. How do you balance your interest in engaging with history in a way that is clear and meaningful while also creating artwork that speaks to 21st century ears?
Well, first of all, thank you! I can’t say I have a simple-to-articulate, actionable philosophy for achieving this balance successfully, but my engagement with historical material does take this problem as its starting point. When I hear or play historical music that I love, I always wish I had made it, but there’s no way I could have made, say, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo because I’m not a man living in northern Italy around the turn of the 17th century. In fact, if I had been living in northern Italy at that time, I probably would have been actively discouraged from composing because I’m female. So if I want to engage with these historical objects as a composer, I have to acknowledge the vast gulf, the incongruity, between their contexts and my context. My pieces that deal with historical material are usually some attempt to bridge this gulf, but the bridges are inevitably rickety and fragile, because the gulf is vast and one can’t actually put oneself back in 1607. I think that these uncertain attempts at connection are actually a very modern theme. It’s not about nostalgia and it’s not about alienation; it’s about the difficulty and vulnerability and messiness (but not impossibility) of building meaningful relationships and communicating in a mind-bogglingly complex world where everyone’s reality is shaped by their own micro-context.
You have done some great research on the topic of musical narrative, specifically your doctoral research on narrative in Chaya Czernowin’s opera Pnima…ins Innere, an opera without words. How has your research in musical narrative informed your work as a composer? Do you plan on continuing your research on the concept of narrative?
My study of Chaya’s opera and musical narrative has been incredibly influential. I worked on it slowly for several years, so at this point it’s hard to tease out everything I gained from it, because it is so infused into my thinking and hearing and creating. When I first heard Pnima I found it both devastating and magnetic, and I think this research began as a way of trying to figure out why the opera made so much sense to me despite it being wordless and, at some level, intentionally and inherently indecipherable.
One thing that I find incredibly important about narratological analysis is that it ideally is a hermeneutic process that takes into account the context of the work and that of the analyst in constructing a reading of the piece’s story (in the most abstract sense of the word “story”). I also appreciate that in narratology, musical ideas can be heard as agents or protagonists that interact and have agency without needing an extra-musical program to explain them. A narratological analysis of a piece is thus the story of interactions among musical ideas. Writing my dissertation helped me articulate these and other concepts that had previously been an intuitive part of my composing and my approach to analysis. Now that I’ve articulated those ideas, I have more freedom to decide where else to take them.
At the moment I’m most excited to think about narrative as a composer and work more consciously with narratological concepts in my music, but there are also some analytical papers I’d like to write in the future.
Your music is very rich in timbral color and gestural language regardless of the size of the ensemble you’re working with or variation in instrumentation. Even in solo/duo works such as This Time Finer (Bb clarinet) and Shaked Graces (violin and cello) you get so much mileage out of the instruments in terms of instrumental color and gesture. Can you talk about this a little more in terms of where this interest comes from and how it relates to your other interests as a composer and artist.
I’ve always loved sound and the details of sound, but when I was a very young composer I didn’t really connect my experience of loving sound in the world with the practice of writing music on paper. Then I discovered Scelsi, Grisey, and Xenakis all around the same time in undergrad, and it felt like I had found elements of music I’d been needing for years. Worlds of color, texture, and microtonality exploded for me at that point, though it took a few years to figure out how to inhabit those worlds in ways that felt right. Sonic detail tends to correspond to physical and emotional metaphors for me - different sounds are closer or farther, heavier or lighter, more vulnerable or more confident, etc. So incorporating a richness of sonic detail is a way to construct multi-dimensional spaces or environments in sound.
I think my gestural language comes from the fact that I experience emotions and thoughts as things that have materiality and motion - different weights, colors, densities, and qualities of motion. Similarly, I associate musical gestures with literal bodily gestures, facial expressions, etc. When I’m reading through my drafts-in-progress sometimes I’m also performing those faces and motions; it’s probably pretty funny to watch. So the gestural language in my music is a translation of different kinds of inner monologue into sound, passing through the filter of physical gesture along the way.
You have written a lot for voice and have also written a number of opera and theater works. What do you like about working with the voice whether in a theatrical or chamber setting?
Well, if my music as a whole has this aspect of externalizing an inner monologue, then the voice is the most direct, literal manifestation of that phenomenon. So maybe my music is always trying to be a kind of expanded voice, that can express internality both with and without words. I think the voice in my pieces acts as a kind of tour guide that leads the listener, like Dante’s Virgil, through a mysterious underworld of inward thought, emotion, and sensation. There is a tension between mystery and plain-spokenness in my music, and it is centralized in the voice. On the one hand, there is a clarity of expression in the voice because you can see emotions depicted on a singer’s face, or hear the semantic content of a text, or hear vocal qualities that humans use in everyday communication; these things seem clear. On the other hand, singing can also be a sound event that has no clear, communicated content, and that lack of clarity is all the more mysterious from a voice because I think we have an expectation that voices, of all things, will communicate; we’re uncomfortable when they don’t. So voices, and the bodies and faces and minds of the singers who shape those voices, take on this huge responsibility of centralizing all the questions about meaning and communication in a piece. I love working with singers because they are constantly thinking about and working on these questions which are essential aspects of my music.
What are some current projects you’re working on?
I’m in the middle of a big piece for soprano Jessica Aszodi and Ensemble 20+, the new music ensemble at DePaul University which is conducted by Michael Lewanski. The piece is called A Soundwalk With Resi and it will be premiered at the Ear Taxi Festival in the fall. It weaves together an instrumental transcription of a soundwalk I took at Lincoln Park Conservatory with two heavily time-stretched excerpts from the opera Der Rosenkavalier. “Resi” is the childhood nickname of the Marschallin, one of the opera’s central characters. I’ve adapted some of her text from the opera’s libretto where she talks about the strangeness of time, how unreliably we perceive the passage of time, and how odd it is to watch one’s body change over time.
Once that piece is done I’ll write a string trio for Network for New Music, who are based in my hometown of Philadelphia. They’re doing a project where several composers write chamber pieces in response to the same poem by Susan Stewart. The poetry has a lot of great sounds and images to work with and writing string chamber music always feels like coming home, so I think that piece will feel really good to write.
And the inevitable desert island list. What are the top 5 pieces (from any genre and in any order) that you would say have had the greatest impact on you as an artist and composer?
I don’t think the things that have had the greatest impact on me are also the things I would want on a desert island, so this list answers the impact question (or tries to - choosing just five is really hard!) If I were on a desert island, assuming it was more of a vacation than a life-or-death situation, I’d just want people to sing campfire songs with.
- Complicite, Mnemonic (Complicite is a devised theater company)
- Lee Hyla, We Speak Etruscan
- Chaya Czernowin, Pnima
- Hans Thomalla, Albumblatt
- J.M. Gletle, Ave Maria (This one’s very difficult to find...so: https://youtu.be/_ueTPUESMRg?t=3m14s)
To listen to some of Eliza's music check out the embedded pieces below. You can also check out her website at http://www.elizabrown.net/