Lisa Bielawa2009 Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize winner Lisa Bielawa has returned to her hometown of San Francisco to take part in the 2010 Other Minds festival. Her piece, Kafka Songs, will close the first night of the festival on Thursday, March 4th.  Violinist, vocalist and rock star Carla Kihlstedt, for whom Kafka Songs was written, will perform.  OM 15 takes place at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and tickets can be purchased online here.

Despite her whirlwind schedule leading up to the festival, Lisa was able to take time out to answer a few of my questions.

S21:  During your student years, did you ever feel pressure to become exclusively a composer, or exclusively a performer?

LB:  Since I received musical training at home as a child (my parents are both musicians as well), in college I decided to major in French literature, not music. I didn’t think of myself as either a performer or a composer really until later, when I was trying to figure out how to make a living.

S21:  What parameters have you set up for yourself for allotting time and energy to composing, versus performing?

LB:  Decisions about which projects to do, whether composing or performing, have to be made very carefully. Above all, I want every musical experience I have, no matter what form my participation takes, to expand my own awareness, make me grow in some way. It is also wonderful if it can provide a focused inquiry for me around some particular musical issue I am fascinated by or grappling with at the moment in my compositional work. I suppose this is the ultimate test for me: if involvement in some project will result in making me better able to accomplish/address the things I want to accomplish/address in my composing (thereby making my work communicate better and clearer), then I will make the time to do this. Many performing experiences have done this for me, so I do not begrudge the time I invest in them, even though in the short term they may “take me away” from composing.

S21:  Having grown up steeped in the San Francisco arts community, did you experience culture shock when you moved to New York in 1990?

LB:  I had 4 years at Yale in between, which were really important ones for me. Although I wasn’t majoring in music, I was involved in vocal music and jazz through various student-run groups, and these experiences were an important transition time for me. Many of the musical friends I made at Yale came to New York as well, so the transition was rather smooth, under the circumstances. Of course there was the shock of being an adult and needing to figure out how to earn money and live a real life.  These things were much more challenging than any cultural differences.

S21:  The Time Out New York review praised your “organic experimentation”.  Can the organic aspect of your work be identified, and how does it manifest?

LB:  I suppose (I hope!) this writer could have been responding to my practice of making work about and on people. I am not so interested in experimentation as an abstract value, as much as I am interested in how one might use “experimental” or creative, unexpected ways to celebrate and heighten awareness of a particular performance experience, involving specific people in a specific place and time. This means that if I am writing for one unique performer who sings and plays the violin at the same time (that’s Carla), I will experiment with ways to celebrate and heighten the awesome strangeness and wonder of this act, whereas if I am writing for a 70-member volunteer orchestra of community music lovers (as I happen to be doing at the moment, for the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra), I will experiment with ways to heighten their experience of music-making in a community with intense musical passion and a broad range of abilities.

S21:  What do you look for in a collaborator?  Is there a type of creative partner that especially suits you?

LB:  It’s like any intimate relationship – there needs to be a spark, enough in common, trust, mutual admiration, the ability to follow through. I proceed quite confidently in the time-honored “artistic crush” model.

S21:  Has Kafka Songs changed over the course of years, through its many performances?

LB:  Carla has taken these songs with her through so many twists and turns of life, they really do just keep growing and deepening. It is truly amazing. I think this is the only piece of mine that has had such a luxurious process of evolution.

S21:  Can you give our readers a sense of life and work at the American Academy in Rome?  How is your Brooklyn Rider String Quartet piece progressing?

LB:  The Brooklyn Rider piece is designed to keep growing, adding modular sections that can be performed in various combinations and orders, but the world premiere of its first version (c. 18 minutes) was last week in Harrisburg, PA at Market Square Concerts (one of the commissioners of the piece). It was a very special night! I love singing with these guys – I’ve written around six other pieces that have involved one or several of these magnificent players, in the last 7 years or so. They were the ones who asked me to put myself, my own voice, in the piece. It’s been nine years since I wrote any music for myself to sing!

The community at the Academy is an unusual mix of rome-specialist scholars and artists from various media (visual artists, architects, writers, plus Don Byron and myself). I am really enjoying learning about the Eternal City from these new friends who know so much about it already! A private tour around the Olympic Park with an expert on fascist architecture, or an exploration of the multi-layered churches of the Caelian Hill with a bona fide classical art historian – these are the kinds of people experiences I am having, that go way beyond the social.

Because of the Brooklyn Rider piece, and because I was invited to perform an important work by Luigi Nono last month at the Villa Medici, I have been doing a lot of singing there too. I have rediscovered the pleasure of singing for people in informal settings, and I’ve done a couple of little pre-dinner mini-recitals of Monteverdi and other music from the library there, with accompaniment by arts director/composer colleague Martin Brody and some surprise guest performers – a medieval art historian fellow who just happens to be a violinist, for example!

It is a rare and wonderful way to live, for a necessarily limited time. I know that many of my colleagues have come back to their lives here recharged, reinvigorated and rested. I think this year is doing the same for me – the food program is spectacular, the city itself is endlessly inspiring, the ready, intelligent social company is both comforting and intellectually provocative.

By Polly Moller

Polly Moller is a composer, performer, improviser, performance artist, and curator based in Oakland, California, USA. She practices a lot, writes many grant proposals, drinks a lot of mochas, and serves on the Board of Directors of Outsound Presents.