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15 Questions to Lisa Bielawa

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m doing great, sitting on my sofa enjoying the fact that all of my belongings and I are in one apartment, for the moment.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I’m getting ready to go to LA to sing with the Philip Glass Ensemble and the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, then I jet back east to join the faculty of the Bennington Chamber Music Conference for a week. After that I pack and leave for Rome.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
New York is like its own country in a way, since it’s a city that people move to from all over, expressly to join a lab-like arts community. Much of the audience here is also practitioners, which has wonderful benefits, keeps things/ideas percolating. But I really love taking the work out, as I have been doing this summer, to other places in the US – Seattle, Ojai, Bennington – to see how it responds and how people respond to it, in the greatly varied cultural climate of the greater US. I guess I need both kinds of experiences to keep me buoyant and conceptually ambitious. The breadth of tastes of audiences here (the US) makes it a great place to work. I couldn't really “rate the scene,” though – I’m much too inclined to find silver linings everywhere.

How hard (or easy) has it been for you finding performance opportunities and audiences for your music?
Opportunities and audiences are always right in front of our noses, if we just concentrate on understanding what our role is/can be in our communities.

What do you usually start with when composing?
If I have a text, that really gets me going. In fact, sometimes I will use a text to get me going even if the piece ends up not using text at all. Reading is my chief inspiration, with people-watching as a close second. That inspiration usually takes form as a kind of emotional state or tone that I endeavor to find a musical language for – harmonically, texturally, etc.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

Composition involves not only sounds but people, situations, and – usually, in my case, since I love the ephemeral nature of live acoustic performance – bodies (performing and listening). Sound is one of the key components – these others are just as important.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

I don’t really improvise, and because my composition process generally doesn’t really unfold from left to right, from beginning to end, it isn’t very much like improvising either. So for me they are pretty separate, but of course I admire the work of many colleagues who bring these different modes of creative thinking closer together.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your work?

Everything we hear filters through us, and some of it ends up in the work. I’ve found that I can never predict what influences will end up getting integrated into my thinking – and it usually is only after the fact that I can think to myself, “wow I must have been listening to so-and-so when I wrote this.” I come from the same eclectic, multi-cultural “melting pot” American culture that my peers do, but our musics sound different because each person’s pattern of exposure and absorption is unique. Letting that pattern manifest itself in the work is the definition of authenticity – the combination of certain cultural stimuli and a unique consciousness that takes them all in.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?
I think that it creates a kind of split identity whenever composers try to adopt or follow or claim innovation as a force in their work. It is probably best for composers to leave the discussions about what is innovative to fellow musicians who are primarily analytical/critical in their thinking (as opposed to creative), and just follow their most authentic fascinations. My fascinations include both “intonational” and formal/dramaturgical concerns.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
I greatly prefer to work closely with the performers/”interpreters” of my music, because I am actually social and community-oriented at heart. In fact, I am most inspired when I feel I am in the presence of a performing artist whose interpretive skills/gifts I really admire – then I am compelled to write scores that leave room for their own interpretive decision-making to blossom. I learn the most that way, and I feel the greatest satisfaction when performers feel that their creative participation as interpreters is valued and celebrated.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
Yes a lack of early childhood education. In addition to drawing and making poems in kindergarten, we should be making up songs too. Also, there seems to be a need in many communities to demystify music-making, so that listeners feel more confidence in what they hear, and what they think/feel about what they hear. I always try to empower listeners to share their responses to my music unapologetically, without prefacing their thoughts with statements like, “I don’t know what I’m talking about at all, but…”

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?

Each creative artist finds his/her own audience. Not every artist’s audience needs to be wide. In my view, creating work with authenticity – supported by a faithfully workmanlike technique to make the articulation of the work as clear as possible – is the only way to offer work to a listener. Some of my pieces (like ‘Chance Encounter,’ which is designed to be performed in transient public spaces) have greater social aspirations than others. But as long as there is reception of the work – by 10 or by 1,000 people, doesn’t matter – that is truly fulfilling to some who listen, I feel I am doing my job.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
Maybe so, but there has never been a time in history when there is more Great Art – there are only times when there is more Art. When there’s more Great Art there is also more Mediocre Art. So we, as advocates, should be committed to More Art. So – there is nothing wrong with stimulating greater artistic activity in general, and finding that mediocre work is also on the rise. This just means that work in general is on the rise.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I have been AD of a festival, for ten years: the MATA Festival in NYC, which I co-founded in 1997. We celebrate the work of young composers from all over the world, in a broad range of styles and traditions. I still feel very close to this mission, even though I have handed directorship of the festival to the next generation (I still serve on the Board, and plan to in perpetuity).

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Every new thing I start feels like my “magnum opus.” I guess I need to be short-sighted in this way in order to feel that I am giving each new piece its own pride of place in my life. Every piece gets everything I have, every time.

Image by Liz Linder.

Music of Lisa Bielawa features on:
First Takes (New Albany) 2007
A Handful of World (Tzadik) 2007
Electric Ordo Virtutum (Innova) 2009

Lisa Bielawa

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