Arlene Sierra: The Evolution of Process

Conducted at The Yale Club in New York City
April 2, 2013—11 a.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

The music of composer Arlene Sierra is significantly focused on creative forms of process. Whether structures from the natural world such as beehives or flocks of birds, or human-made maps of war game strategy, sturdy foundations ground the musical content of her works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, chorus, and opera. She uses these phenomena as inspirational stepping-stones, not to create a “story” for a composition, but rather as a way to harness raw musical materials and determine their eventual shape and progression. “If you look at the natural world,” Sierra explains, “You have predators, you have prey, you have plants, you have different living things all trying to find and keep their place and survive in relation to all these other things that have other goals. How does that relate to music? Well for me, it was a very interesting way of mapping relationships between different instruments.”

Sierra grew up studying piano, and later discovered how fulfilling composition was through her involvement in the Technology In Music and Related Arts program (TIMARA) at Oberlin College, where she was a student. “Electronic music was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation,” she says. ” For someone who studied piano, and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things without all the business of getting the notation right.” She very quickly got the notation right and has been composing for varied instrumental ensembles ever since, including the New York Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Upon completing her doctorate at the University of Michigan, she spent a two-year stint in Berlin, and after that moved to Britain. She now lives in London with her husband, composer Ken Hesketh, and their baby son, and serves as senior lecturer and director of the MMus program at Cardiff University School of Music in Wales.

During our hour together, Sierra spoke animatedly about a new chamber opera she is creating along with three other composers for soprano Susan Narucki, the differences in working with American and European orchestras, her approach to teaching composition, and her recent return to electronic music. She maintains a dizzyingly busy schedule of composing and teaching activities. As she put it, “Like a fish, you have to keep swimming!”

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Alexandra Gardner: You just spent the past week at the Yellow Barn Festival in Vermont, workshopping a very interesting chamber opera project. Shall we talk about that first?

Arlene Sierra: Okay. So I’m part of a collaborative project called Cuatro Corridos, which is a chamber opera inspired by the soprano Susan Narucki. She’s a distinguished contemporary music soprano, currently at UCSD, who I’ve had the privilege of working with before; she recorded some of the settings of Neruda for my first CD. She had the idea of putting together a chamber opera with four composers, each writing a scene for four different characters, all part of the same story. The story is about human trafficking on the Mexican-American border. Each character plays a part in the destruction of a crime ring where young women from Mexico were trafficked into the U.S. and used as prostitutes by the undocumented workers in strawberry fields outside San Diego.

I’m doing the character Dalia. Lei Liang is doing another character, as are the two Mexican composers, Hilda Parades and Hebert Vázquez. So among the four of us, four different points of view on this story are put across. It’s all sung by Susan Narucki. It’s an amazing vehicle for her, as well as an opportunity for us. My character Dalia is the one character who is complicit in this crime ring. She started out as victim, and then married one of the criminals, and became the madam basically—the woman who kept the girls in line and forced them to be prostitutes. She starts off making excuses for herself, saying, “I was like them. You know, I used to be an angel.” And then she says, “But I’m a devil, and I’m going to hell.” All of this is in Spanish; beautifully written by the poet and novelist from Mexico, Jorge Volpi. He really brings out the complexities of the characters. Dalia was forced to be a part of this, but like many victims, when they’re given power, they become abusers, and so she’s acting out things that happened to her. And the way that she psychologically makes peace with this, or doesn’t, is a really interesting part of the scene that I’ve written for her.

I was drawn to this character. She’s the oldest, the most complex, and the most conflicted. She’s like the main character from my grand opera, Faustine; an older woman who is obsessed with what she was when she was younger, which I think taps into so many important issues today in terms of how women see themselves, and how society sees and treats women. So this very rich, very conflicted older character is really interesting to me.

AG: So the monodramas will be presented back-to-back in an evening-length concert?

AS: Yeah, it’s an evening—about an hour-plus of music. And each scene is presented separately, but they are going to be knitted together with video and projection of the text, so it will be fully staged. The ensemble is really interesting. The instruments are piano, guitar, and percussion, plus the soprano. So it’s sort of a mini-percussive orchestra. It makes me think of Boulez’s Marteau Sans Maître, because it’s kind of that alto range with the guitar and the mallet-oriented percussion instruments; it was decided that marimba would be a part of it specifically. It also helps that Steven Schick is the percussionist, so we’re all sort of invited to write as much as we want. Though it’s a limited number of instruments, it’s pretty unlimited in terms of virtuosity. So that’s exciting. Aleck Karis is a Professor of Piano at UCSD and a distinguished contemporary music specialist, . And the guitarist, from Mexico, is Pablo Gomez, an excellent player as well. It’s a very unusual instrumentation, but I think it gives the project a sense of place and a very particular color. To hear what the other three composers have done as well as me, of course, with these instruments is really interesting too, because it’s a very challenging group to write for. I think we all dealt with the challenges in our very own individual ways. Also, we all have a very international point of view on issues of borders, where one’s place is, how one deals with oppression, views of different countries, and things like that. But the power of the story, because it deals with current events and with crimes that nobody really knows what to do about, and something so emotive and so horrific really… it’s just a very powerful piece. I’m really, really excited to be a part of it. We presented a workshop performance at Yellow Barn just this week, and we had a chance—the four composers, the four performers, and our writer—to work together very closely and really try out a lot of things. The premiere will be in San Diego in May.

AG: Did you find any big surprises when you were working out the material? Maybe things that worked better than you thought, or less well than expected?

AS: Oh, yes. Well, it’s a new thing for me; I’m trying to figure out how to make this absolutely gorgeous soprano voice become terrifying and nasty. So, I talked with Susan about different ways that she can alter her voice so that she can translate herself from Dalia’s angel of the past—her remembered self—to her current self who’s this ugly old demon, basically. Of course, Susan will never be those things, but to make her voice have something of that quality, especially when she starts to reveal the awful things that she’s done to keep this crime ring going. It’s poetic language, so it’s not too explicit, thankfully. I don’t think it needs to be, but she just says, “I brought these girls to heel. I discipline them.” And you know, it’s a really shocking thing to hear, especially from a character who says, “They’re so beautiful, and I used to be like them. I was innocent. I had no malice.” It’s the perfect opera aria, because you get a real transformation of character. You get a moment to really look into the soul of a very disturbed person. It says something about the composer, maybe! [Laughs] But you have to admit, writing opera, you want these kinds of characters. You want this kind of drama. And as a composer, it is the richest challenge to what we can do musically to make these layers come out of a character.

AG: So how does the soprano feel about having to alter her voice in that way?

AS: Working with a soprano like Susan—I mean, she can do anything. I thought that being low in her voice would be harsher, but we’re going to think of more mid-range ways to get a kind of nasal, witchy voice. Because the thing is, it’s not just what the voice can do. It’s also what is comfortable and workable over the arc of a big piece, which has a lot of virtuosic stuff in it. So you want to get a sound that is different, but isn’t going to irritate the voice. It’s a learning curve.

AG: Does this piece employ any of the process-oriented things that have inspired you in other works, such as concepts of game theory and natural selection?

AS: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing to consider because when you’re writing a dramatic piece or a vocal piece, something to do with poetry, obviously that’s what the piece is about. And that’s what you’re engaging with. But you also want it to connect with your other work. I think for any composer, once you’ve written a few pieces, you have your technique. You have the way that you write. And as much as you want to change it and make it more versatile—and hopefully you do—that’s a challenge in the interest of keeping writing. You want things to be consistent from piece to piece and to be part of the same language. So what I’d done with the character Dalia in this piece is to focus on a part of the text that has a kind of physical connection. Dalia talks about these young women as flacas potrancas. Potranca wasn’t a word I knew before, because it’s specific to a region I’m not so familiar with. But what the phrase means is “skinny fillies,” which is kind of interesting because she’s this trafficker. She’s seeing young women as animals, you know, she’s trading them. It’s a funny phrase, but it’s also a very harsh phrase. And then also these women, these fillies, are trying to run away. They’ve escaped, and that’s the point of the story. So I thought of this kind of nervous, sort of galloping music that had a physical sense of what that phrase is, and of what these women are. They live in this harsh, horrible, physical world, which is about their bodies, and about trying to escape the abuse of their bodies. So the sense of running, of nervousness, of escape, is a big part of the piece.

Also, the aria that I’ve written is for this criminal woman who’s been caught. So she’s in the situation of extreme nervousness where she’s confessing. She’s making excuses. She’s reflecting. So the music has this very nervous sort of dotted-rhythm kind of energy about it. In that way, it relates to some other music that I’ve written which has been about combat, which has been about the natural world, which has been about physical creatures in environmental space. That had something to do with the way that I was able to construct the instrumental music of this piece. But the vocal music is really all about the text and about the characterization. I think that’s what keeps composition interesting—that we can switch from instrument to vocal, from objective to dramatic, and try to make it part of an individual voice.

AG: So in the case of Cuatro Corridos, the story is obviously the primary point of inspiration. Could you give an example of how the other ideas you’ve focused on in the past—about combat, the natural world, etc.— manifest in a piece?

AS: A big part of how I work is applying extra-musical ideas to musical structures. The extra-musical ideas that I’ve been most interested in in the last few years have been connected to two disparate, but actually quite related things. One is game theory, and the other is natural selection and evolution. Connected to game theory is also military strategy. Basically, what they have in common is the idea of agency—different points of view: different characters potentially, but not necessarily, having different interests and different goals, and having to interact. If you look at the natural world, of course, it’s full of that, too. You have predators, you have prey, you have plants, you have different living things all trying to find and keep their place and survive in relation to all these other things that have other goals. How does that relate to music? Well for me, it was a very interesting way of mapping relationships between different instruments. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a book of inspiration for me for different pieces. For my piece Surrounded Ground, I read a part of Sun Tzu which describes a situation where a large army is being attacked by guerilla fighters. The idea of Surrounded Ground is where this army is: They are on the ground, and they’re surrounded by agencies that know the ground better than they do.

I was commissioned to write Surrounded Ground for sextet—for piano, clarinet, and string quartet. And interestingly, as a companion to the Aaron Copland Sextet from 1933, which is an interesting piece in terms of mixing his kind of more approachable style with more cerebral aspects of his work. So when reading Sun Tzu, I thought about the string quartet in this ensemble as the large army, and the piano and the clarinet as the guerilla fighters. Not because I needed a story, but because in thinking about instruments and about the way that they relate, obviously you have a mass of four instruments that are homogenous, that sound perfectly together, that we associate as something completely free-standing. And then we have these two outliers. Thinking about how they relate got the piece going for me.

It was a really useful way of tackling this mixed ensemble. It was also a way of adding a layer of drama that wouldn’t exist otherwise. If I had written a piece that was like Copland’s—just a pure sextet—it would be about motifs, rhythms, and colors. But there’s a dramatic edge to thinking about a piece as being about agencies in conflict, about being surrounded and escaping. It gave a sense of urgency, a sense of drama, to the music that I wrote. I wouldn’t say that the piece is about anyone winning or losing, and it doesn’t have a story in the way that Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique has a story.

Mind you, I think you can listen to that piece and enjoy it without knowing the story, and I know a lot of composers from his time up to now have private programs that they don’t reveal. I guess I’m more candid about the process and the inspiration for my pieces, but I have to tell you very honestly, it’s not a program. There isn’t a set ending. There’s no hero. It’s something that helps me write, because I set up a process of different relationships, of conflict with or without resolution and the types of motion that go with those sorts of musical ideas. For me, it is a way of organizing, of mapping, of writing types of music that interact.

AG: I think it’s a really interesting way of dealing with your raw musical materials. It’s a good example of one way to approach composition, and of course it demonstrates that there’s more that can be done to generate material than to just think about pure melody, harmony, and rhythm. I have visions when you talk about this approach to composing that are like, for instance—imagine a comic book scene—the tuba taking down the flute in performance! Ka-POW!

AS: Funnily, I have a piece like that! It’s the horn and the trumpet beating out the woodwinds and the strings. Game of Attrition is my “Darwin” piece. It was written for the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth in 2009. What Darwin describes in The Origins of Species is not just the things that most of us learn in school, about how natural selection means that the best adapted creatures will survive where maladapted ones perhaps won’t. It’s also about different kinds of strength evolving that allow different species to survive. What he makes very clear is that there’s a competition for each tiny strata within every environment. So if you eat only seeds, you have to compete with everything else that eats only seeds. It’s very specific in terms of the levels of competition that go on in the natural world.

I was commissioned to write the piece for chamber orchestra, and I thought, well, you can map that onto instruments by thinking about tessitura. So if you had a viola versus a clarinet, versus a horn, versus a marimba, they all live in that same strata of “alto-ness,” where their strongest ranges are. So who would win? And what does winning mean? Who’s louder versus who’s more agile? Those are interesting things to consider. The piece is a succession of competitive duos where instruments of the same tessitura are kind of battling each other. Finally, the last battle is the strings versus the brass. And of course, you’d think the brass would be the loudest, but they run out of air. The strings don’t run out of air. So it’s a kind of counter-intuitive ending, that the strings get the last word. Setting up these conditions, this way of thinking, got me the structure of the piece. It wasn’t that I decided that the strings had to win because I love the string instruments, or that I really had to finish the piece with a particular chord on the strings. It was something that emerged from my process; by setting up patterned music where there are different gestures with instruments vying against each other, the brass are just not going to last as long as the strings. So that was the ending that evolved from my Darwin piece.

AG: I like the idea of questioning the meaning of “best adapted.” It’s not always the biggest, or the most colorful, or even the strongest. It might be that tiny little brown bird over there…

AS: Right! And what we were from? A little mammal that survived in the undergrowth when the dinosaurs were disappearing… not the most promising start.

AG: Exactly. So okay, this is clearly a very personal approach that you bring to your work, and that has shaped your musical identity. We were chatting before this interview about creative authenticity, and I’d love to know more about what the notion of “authenticity” means to you personally.

AS: It’s interesting how identity is important for a lot of artists. I think there are a lot of different ways to interpret that. For some colleagues, it’s about maybe music that they heard as children. Or about music from a country that they feel connected to, or were born in and then have moved away from. Or feeling that their music needs to fit into a cultural or national idea of identity. For me these issues have always been pretty complicated. Like a lot of Americans, my background is very mixed. I have a Latin American surname. Spanish is my second language, not my first language. I think having a voice as a composer, having a point of view as an artist, is deeper even than that. That thinking of one’s roots, one’s identity in terms of geography or nationality, is perhaps a little stereotyped, or potentially can be. So if I say I’m half Puerto Rican, you know, am I obliged to be using Puerto Rican music, or writing music that is like composers who are from Puerto Rico?

I don’t think so, because my experience is very different from theirs. My connection is to New York, really, not to Puerto Rico. I have really affectionate ties to New York and to Ellis Island even—I know which of my ancestors went through there. And I’ve actually never been to Puerto Rico (though of course I’d love to visit)! As an artist, there are so many other things I’m interested in. I love Latin American culture. I love the Spanish language. I’ve set it a lot of times, including in my most recent project. But I’m also interested in visual art; I’m interested in science; I’m interested in dance; I’m interested in the natural world. I would be interested in these things no matter what country I grew up in, no matter what my first language or second language happened to be. I think what makes us individual is that combination of interests and how that filters through us as individual artists, rather than some external pigeonholing of what it means because you’re from this country or that country, or this state, or that city. I think I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on this, too, because I’ve been living outside the United States for a long time now. I moved to Berlin in ’97, and to London in ’99, so I’ve basically lived my whole professional life as an ex-patriot. That makes me more affectionate toward things from home. Thanks to travel and technology and professional opportunities, I’m really engaged with music in the U.S., and I feel that I’m an American composer. I was born in America. But that’s not the limit of what I am as a composer. And I think it helps my work to stay open and to not think of my identity as being limited to one country.

AG: Since you’ve been living in the U.K. for a long time now, are there differences between the musical worlds of the U.K. and the U.S. that you’ve found surprising? Obviously, the U.K. is a smaller, more condensed scene. Everybody really does know each other, I imagine.

AS: Yeah. And they’ve all known each other since they were twelve, that’s the other thing, because they have music schools for children.

AG: If everybody else has known each other since they were small, how did it feel to enter into that scene as an adult?

AS: Starting off in a new country—and I found this in Germany, as well as in the U.K.—is very interesting. The first thing people identify with is nationality. So as a composer, if you say, “I’m an American composer,” well, that has very clear preconceptions to our European colleagues. So, do you write like Copland, or do you write like Phil Glass, or like Elliott Carter? You know, it’s that limited and that divergent. But then you dig a little bit, and you find that actually a lot of colleagues on the other side of the pond have a very nuanced view of American music. Certain American composers are done a lot in Germany, and others are done a lot in the U.K., and maybe they aren’t done so much here. So it gives you a very open point of view of what American music is. Outside of the U.S., you don’t have the divisions. People don’t really understand that this composer is the exact opposite of that composer. They’re all seen as just more American composers. In a way, it’s easier to forget about the polemics when you’re abroad. You’re not arguing the same issues. But if you want to work abroad as an American composer, I think what you have to convince people of is that you’re going to stick around. There are so many American students who come for a semester and then go back home, or come for a year on a Fulbright or something, and then go back home. It was even articulated in Britain—it was, “Are you sure you’re going to stay?” Yes. I am staying. It’s showing that you have a role to play, that you are engaged with the music and with the community where you live. That’s important for any composer anywhere. For me starting out in London, I went to every new music concert; I got to know people. If I thought a piece was terrific, I introduced myself to the composer—especially as a young composer, getting to know senior composers and seeing if they’re teaching at a festival. If I thought their piece was terrific, well, I’d try to go to that festival. Just getting to know people in a very sincere, simple way. If you like someone’s music, well, talk to them. See what they’re about. If you don’t like someone’s music, no problem. You know, next.

It was a really nice way to get started in London, because I had finished all my studies. I was starting to develop my own voice and have my first opportunities, and I was in a place where I could do so away from the arguments of the places where I studied, and around a lot of other people who were from other places. I think London is maybe even more like that than New York, but it’s certainly similar to New York in that everybody there is from somewhere else. I met a lot of Russian composers, French composers, Polish composers, Czech composers, as well as British composers. We all mixed, and we were all at the same festivals and doing the same master classes and things. Being American was just another point of view. And it was an advantage to have that to talk about and maybe disabuse some people of their preconceptions of American music, too.

AG: Since you are quite focused on large musical forms, what has your experience been like dealing with orchestras and opera companies and big institutions in the U.K. Is there, for instance, more rehearsal time for orchestras? Are they structured very differently, or not so much?

AS: As a composer—as a younger composer, particularly—dealing with big institutions, I think we have a lot to do, treading carefully, to make sure that our work is well represented without losing sight of the fact that institutions are full of people who are working very hard on a billion things. So when I work with orchestral players, anywhere, I’m very respectful of the amount of time they have, and what they have to do to get, you know, nine concerts on in five days—the sorts of things that professional orchestral players do. I think my experience working with large institutions helps me to be as efficient in getting my ideas across as I possibly can be; to be as clear with my notation, articulate in my way of describing what I want, as I can be. Because they don’t have time to learn all the nuances that I may be dreaming of, and they certainly don’t have time to know all the really neat ideas I was thinking about when I came up with that phrase. They might want to know if we have a few drinks afterwards, in a post-concert talk, or whatever, but the players’ business is to execute something as well as possible in the shortest amount of time, because that’s what they’re given. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way that things are scheduled. So, our job as composers, in my experience, is just to get our ideas across in a way that people say, “Oh, I get it.” Play it. And talk about it afterwards. Talk about the nuances and the ideas with the conductor, and with the audience, and put things in your program notes. There’s a big difference between what a big institution can do with their schedule, and what a small chamber group can do with their schedule. You have to be respectful of the circumstances, and tailor what you want and what you can expect of people accordingly.

One of the things I’ve learned about working in Britain is that there’s a kind of national pride in sight reading ability over there. The British are famous for being incredible sight-readers. What this gets you is a fantastic first reading of a piece. Then things can dip a little, and then they get better again. But the thing about working with people who can read like that is you’ve got to make sure your material is absolutely clear, because it really makes them very angry to be tripped up by something silly that you’ve done. So that efficiency, that sense of professionalism, is sort of a sense of pride; this player can look at any number of nested tuplets, any number of quarter tones, special effects, and all sorts of things you can think of, and play it. It’s wonderfully liberating in some ways because a lot of new music techniques are expected there that were not so expected when I was a student working in the U.S.

So there’s a kind of level of expectation that yes, oh, you’re a composer. You write new music. You can do these things. I found that very liberating. At the same time, there’s the expectation from players that if you’re going to ask me to do this, you better get your point across perfectly. If I’m going to read it perfectly, you have to give me something to read perfectly. That gave me a sense of a new level of professional standards. Also, I was very impressed when I first moved to Britain, because students start working professionally much earlier. So while composition students in their early 20s in the U.S. were writing student pieces for student groups, in Britain they’re already expected to write for professional groups. And they are already expected to have that level of technical ability and professionalism. It’s quite intimidating at first, and it really gave me a sense of the reality of professional life. Because I had just finished my last graduate degree, and I was meeting people a few years younger than me who didn’t have as many degrees as I did who were producing absolutely polished new pieces. And they were thoroughly professional.

I think in the U.S. we’ve been catching up the last few years. There’s a sense now that you really want to know who you are and make your way as a composer as soon as you really can, and there are more institutions and competitions and things in place to help you do that. But when I first moved to Britain, I was really amazed at how much those things are a part of the infrastructure there. I think it has some disadvantages, too, because you don’t maybe know as much about your point of view at age 22 as you do at age 32. I do think a composer’s voice needs time to develop. But that level of professionalism in terms of creating legible parts, knowing your notation, understanding the instruments, getting across to players clearly and respectfully what you want them to do, and knowing that they can do the things that you want them to do—those are all things that any composer needs at any age.

AG: I think it’s worth mentioning that a British composer was one of the forces that brought you to the U.K.—your husband, Ken Hesketh. Those of us who are coupled up with people who work in different fields are always curious to know what it’s like being married to another composer. Do you discuss your pieces with one another while you’re working on them? Do you listen to music together?

AS: Sometimes, yeah. We’re almost exact contemporaries. I think our partnership has been helpful in that we grew up in different countries, in different education systems, and in different musical education systems. It’s been very interesting to compare notes and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of things that we were exposed to as we were growing up in music. The British have this incredible choral tradition, for example. But I also learned a lot about jazz and a lot about Latin music, as well as the words to old standards and things like that, which is a kind of American music education that Europeans don’t really have. So, it’s been nice to get a perspective on what is different and what is valuable about what you have compared to a contemporary in another country.

Living with another composer who’s just as busy as I am is very, very helpful because we spur each other on. It’s really about having that implicit encouragement that creative work is serious, and it’s time to do it. It’s been really helpful actually, especially when I was finishing my degrees; I was engaged to somebody who was already getting his first commissions and working on the highest level. It just made me think, you know, I got those degrees for a reason, so I could be as serious, as professional, as this colleague is. It helped me to make a strong start professionally, where I might otherwise have been tempted to slack off for a few years and think, oh, I’m done with all that coursework and it’s time to relax. So as a result, I’ve written a lot of music, and not done a lot of relaxing! It’s also helpful in discussing professional issues, professional problems, but I think this is a larger point—that if you’re writing your first commissions, or in your first teaching job, or talking for the first time with publishers and agents, you really need to talk to colleagues and compare notes on these things, because they’re hard and you want to get things right. You want to develop the good relationships and stay away from the less helpful ones. If you have colleagues that you confide in, who you can be really honest with, that is an immeasurable help.

So if you can’t fall in love with and marry a composer-colleague, I would say stay close to your favorite classmates, the composer-colleagues that you knew coming up. Do that anyway. I mean, I do very much like to stay in touch with people I was in school with, in festivals with, people I got to know through the first steps of professional life. Even if we were only in the same place for one month one summer, and that summer was ten years ago, hey, there’s a lot to reflect on and talk about. Those connections are personally rewarding. Whether or not they lead to more work or whatever, you’ll see, but that’s not the point. The point is the connection and having that common ground, and having that professional advice and encouragement.

AG: Speaking of school, you both hold teaching positions, but at different institutions. You mentioned earlier that a composer’s voice needs time to develop. How do you see your role in guiding that process through teaching composition?

AS: Teaching can be such an important part of how we start to compose. I don’t know how many composers feel like they were taught to compose. I’m not sure it’s something that you can teach—at least in the most important context, which is the creative impetus. You can’t give that to somebody else. But then I find with lots of students, everybody’s got ideas, but it’s how you execute them. If you can’t bring them to fruition, then you’re nowhere. So, I’ve been teaching for about eight years now, and I think teaching has become more interesting to me as I’ve done it longer because I’m trying to help students to make their ideas into pieces and that’s a really hard thing to do the first few hundred times! I mean, it’s so hard for all of us starting pieces, even if we have a lot of experience. But I do feel that teaching is important to me in terms of helping students to realize their ideas—giving them ideas to work with that can become their own. Giving them the space to figure that out, and giving them encouragement without telling them how to do something. I like to give a rather light touch with my advice when I’m teaching. To give a sense of direction, rather than to say, this is the way it must go. Because I feel that my music belongs to me, and students’ music has to belong to them. What is this for if it doesn’t feel owned by the person who creates it?

AG: You say you have a light touch when giving advice. What is that like?

AS: It’s really tricky. I ask a lot of questions about what they want to have happen next. Or at least what sort of affect they’re after overall. Or what they see the piece doing—whether it’s to do with how the instruments are being used, or what the architecture is over time. I like to give options, because when I look at a musical idea, I can always see several different ways that it can go. A student may not see that. That gets easier with experience. I really enjoy giving students a lot of options that they can then manipulate and make their own in a certain way. So I love to say, “Okay, you have this idea, well, if you take it this way, then you can do this. If you take it that way, it will be more like this. Come back next week and show me what you’ve chosen!” Because they’re not my pieces. They’re their pieces. I’m just excited to see what they come up with and, hopefully, how individual it is. I really try to give them technical help to write like themselves—really objective advice on how to use musical materials and how to make them work.

AG: I know that it was the study of electronic music that first started you on the path to composing, but once you got involved in writing for acoustic instruments, the electronic music dropped off.

AS: After a childhood of playing the piano, I actually started composing through electronic music. It was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation. And for someone who studied piano and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things without all the business of getting the notation right. So my first pieces were musique concrète pieces, as well as pieces for analog synths and digital synths. I was part of a wonderful major at Oberlin called Technology In Music and Related Arts (TIMARA), where basically we were shown a Moog one week and digital programming software the next week. Each week we were shown something new and told to figure out how it worked, or helped to figure out how it worked. Then the assignment would be to make a piece with that thing, whatever it was. It was a fantastic training ground, not just in terms of technical matters, but also as a composer, because this is essentially what we do all the time.

If I’m commissioned to write a piece for an ensemble including a cimbalom, or a piece for two string instruments, or for a singer and guitar and percussion, basically I’m taking those machines, figuring out what to do with them, and making a piece. It’s just a way of being really flexible, using your resources, and making something new with them. So the creative side of how the TIMARA program worked was really useful, basically every week figuring out how to make a new little piece. The one thing that made it stop working for me was when the concerts came around, because the concerts were sitting in the dark and somebody pressing play. While it was interesting to sit around and listen, I had played piano from the age of five, and played in competitions and all sorts of different kinds of ensemble things, and I just missed the excitement and suspense of performance. I realized that the classical music love that I had for all the instruments and orchestral music—that I had to marry these two things. I had to use the manipulation of sound and get that energy of live performance together somehow.

It just meant I had to learn a lot of stuff super fast in order to learn how to notate my ideas: how to deal with sophisticated rhythmic notation, how to orchestrate, and how to handle harmony. I took lots and lots of (hugely useful) counterpoint, which was like getting my teeth drilled, but I did it. These are all the tools that a composer needs if you want to write for classical instruments. And that’s what I’ve basically done for my whole professional life—writing for everything from solo pieces to full orchestral pieces, to grand opera scenes. I’ve written about half an hour now of a grand opera (grand opera just meaning singers plus orchestra), as well as works choral, large chamber, small chamber, including all sorts of instruments that I had never played, that I’d never had any contact with before, just learning what they could do for specific projects as they came along.

So in thinking about a return, I’ve been asked many times, would I consider writing for electronics, but I just couldn’t figure out how. I think I was afraid of the dark room, and pressing play, and sitting there again, and just having that kind of anti-climactic sense of the performance. But now I have a new project coming up which is for three pianos: two pianos plus a digital piano—a Disklavier—and those instruments will be combined with digital processing, samples, and percussion, and so I’ll have three incredible pianists will be also using percussion and electronics to create other sounds that I will have set up for them. Two pianos is already like an orchestra, as far as I’m concerned. Plenty of notes for sure. And with the Diskavier, basically you get three pianos plus, because the Disklavier is basically a player piano that you can also play at the same time. Urban Birds is a piece I’ll be composing to tour in the U.K. and U.S. next year, with Kathleen Supove, Sarah Nicholls and Xenia Pestova—it’s a really great way to bring these international soloists together, and we’re all really excited about the project. For me it’s an ideal way of getting back into electronic music, following on from having written a lot of big acoustic pieces over the last few years. It looks like this will be my orchestral-electronic piece – more news soon!

AG: I’m so glad to hear that.

AS: Thanks. Me, too. It’s all about performance, and about pianos, so it’s kind of a return to my roots in that way, too, you know. And it will be fun to watch. That’s what I’m excited about.

AG: Well, I think that over the years it has become so much easier to integrate electronics into performance, and we don’t really need to worry so much about the dark room, or staring at two (or sixteen) speakers, with no performers in sight.

AS: They’ve become more and more interactive over time. It’s really true.

AG: Do you have very specific long-range goals for yourself as a composer, particular projects that you aspire to? For instance, I assume that you are interested in creating a full-length opera.

AS: I wouldn’t be a composer if I didn’t love all the old forms, you know? I never wanted to be Beethoven or Mozart, but I love the old genres; those collections of instruments, those sounds. But it’s also the appeal of creating really big, monumental works. I think about genres like opera, and large-scale orchestral pieces, as climbing Everest. Why do you want to work in those forms? Because they’re there. Because other composers have done them, and when you find your own voice, you think, yeah, what would my voice and my style look like in this huge wonderful form?

So yeah, it’s a kind of creative ambition, of course, to make larger and larger statements. I’m working on Faustine now—that’s a long-term grand opera project. I’ve had some wonderful support along the way, most recently with New York City Opera. But how that’s going to end up in terms of where it’s produced and by whom is something that has yet to be seen. You need the patience of Job for this stuff. That’s okay. I’ll look forward to writing Faustine and having that staged in the next few years. That’s a big one. The concerto form is something else I really love. I’ve written a piano concerto. I’d like to write a cello concerto as well as a violin concerto.

But this new large-scale electronic project is really something I’m excited about. I would do more with electronics if I could keep doing it on that kind of scale, so maybe ensembles with electronics. I like doing more with the keyboard, with the piano, because that’s where I come from. That’s what I’ve done since the age of five, so writing for amazing pianists is just a thrill. They can do all sorts of stuff I could never do. I love that. I’ve worked a decent amount with choreographers So I’d like to do more of that. And I have a series of new scores for two films by Maya Deren that I’m planning. I made a score for one of her films called Meditation on Violence, which was premiered by Lontano in London last year. It was a beautiful film of a kung fu master doing exercises that turned from something very peaceful that looks like tai chi, to something really combative. It fits very well with my work, obviously. She worked in the ‘40s and ‘50s principally, and is one of the first important American women directors of avant-garde film. She created these beautiful quasi-feminist surrealist films in black and white. What I hope to do is create new scores for a few of her films, using chamber music genres. So a string quartet, a woodwind quintet, various mixed ensembles, all playing live with each film. That’s something I’m planning over the next few years.

AG: It all sounds great.

AS: Thanks! Yeah it’s lots of stuff. Like a fish, you have to keep swimming!

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