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Lisa Bielawa Interview

Posted on 12 June 2007. © Copyright 2004-2021 Composition:Today

C:T talks to composer Lisa Bielawa

Tell us something about your background.

I grew up in a musical family. My father is a composer and my mother is a keyboardist and an early-music performance practice scholar, so I had very early exposure to the two kinds of music I ended up participating in as an adult. When I was nine, I sang a piece by Viadana in my mother's doctoral recital. By then I was also already singing and playing the violin with my parents and brother, in pieces that my father had composed for the family. I sang in the San Francisco Girls Chorus through my adolescence, and they gave me some of my first major performances as a composer. When I got to college it was clear that I would probably continue to do music into adulthood, so somehow or other I ended up majoring in Literature, not Music.

How did you start composing?

I always composed music, from the time I was very small, so there was never actually a decision to start. I still have all of my earliest pieces - big round notes! For a while I patterned my pieces on the beginner piano literature I was playing, but eventually I began writing musicals and theatre songs that my friends at school could perform, and choral music that I could put together with my Girls Chorus friends. Because I was so focused on vocal music and theatre music, I didn't really take myself seriously as a composer - and in fact, others didn't really take me seriously either - until my mid-twenties, when it became clear to me that I had written a lot of music already, and that I was starting to get interested in larger-scale instrumental works too.

Which composers have influenced you the most?

Stravinsky was a big influence in our household, and of course J.S. Bach. Other favorites from my childhood included Berio, Bartok, Ligeti, Poulenc, and some of the early violin repertoire I played with my brother, like Vivaldi and Corelli. In college I discovered Gubaidulina, Maxwell Davies, Lutoslawski, Weill and, at an embarrassingly late age (my early 30's!) I finally discovered the Classical and Romantic composers, who turned my world upside-down. In the last few years I've been making new discoveries, stumbling upon the Canon: Mahler, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Janacek.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

Literature - reading - is absolutely the main source of inspiration for my work, surpassing even other music in its influential power over me, emotionally and conceptually. I read voraciously, and even if I am writing music that doesn't use text or voices, I still usually find the spark, the vividness of an emotional landscape for the piece, in the course of reading. The inexhaustible wonder of human beings and their inner lives is also an influence. Sometimes just getting to know someone can influence the direction of my work, change the filter through which I see the world.

Tell us about Chance Encounter and what you are hoping to achieve with the piece.

Chance Encounter is the brainchild of soprano Susan Narucki and myself. She remembered how she stumbled upon classical music 'by chance,' as a child (she got to know Debussy's "La Mer" because she liked the picture on the cover of the LP and bought it). The words of the songs, or aria-ettes, she will be singing in the piece are actually little curated compilations of overheard conversation fragments. I've been writing things down for a year now - things I (and others too, friends and visitors to my blog) overhear in transient public spaces. When we premiere the piece on September 28 in Seward Park in lower Manhattan, Susan will sing these overheard things back into public space. I am hoping to animate and articulate many distinct private experiences of public space, thereby creating a chain of chance encounters between listeners. By listening to the piece, we are all listening to each other.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.

Chance Encounter started in a collaborative conceptual frenzy, between Susan and myself. I often get ideas for pieces that way, as the result of a "we." Violinist Colin Jacobsen and I discovered a common passion for Rilke, and so my next major piece ended up being a Rilke setting with a special solo part for him. The double violin concerto that I am working on now took as its starting point the sheer exuberance of the musical spirits for whom it is written: Colin, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and the conductor of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose. These musical relationships create specific energies, which gives rise to specific sound worlds. The method, I suppose, is openness, or a concentration on being aware of what in my thinking life is creating that kind of energy.

Do you have a routine? A place that's special

As a touring vocalist and active new music advocate, I find that my schedule doesn't often allow for an actual routine. I've learned to work in any circumstances, including in hotel rooms and on planes if necessary. But when I do manage to secure a nice long chunk of time to go into 'lock-down' and organize my days around composing, I find that I work best first thing in the morning. I naturally wake up at 5:30 or 6 am, if I am working on a piece. I work at my piano (a beautiful 1927 Steinway), taking breaks for coffee, breakfast, second breakfast, a run, lunch, and so on until I emerge from this state of concentration, usually sometime in the early afternoon. When I am getting close to finishing a piece, I find that this zone can last all day, into the evening.

What's the craziest idea for a piece you've ever had?

Chance Encounter is probably it! One of the most challenging (and most fun!) aspects of this piece is that the 12 instrumentalists are in two different groups, at a considerable remove from one another. The composition of these groups keeps changing, and there is no conductor. And, of course, they are outside in public space. I've wrangled aleatoric and spatial elements before, most notably in The Right Weather, in which the players of the American Composers Orchestra were all over Zankel Hall, including in the lobby. But this is certainly stretching me! Happily, I know I have players who can handle anything. I've seen Susan sing face-down on a raked stage with water cascading down on her head. And many of the young players of The Knights also tour with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, so they have made music with people in many countries, learning the complex methods and techniques of traditional musicians by rote.

What inspires you to write?

Reading, and people.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a bunch of wonderful projects ahead, including the double violin concerto and a large-scale symphonic piece for BMOP, plus some other collaborations with wonderful chamber musicians, visual artists, soloists. I suppose my plans for the future are to continue to court serendipity so that wonderful collaborators keep coming my way. I'm happiest in big projects, so I hope to stay healthy and strong so I can continue to summon the energy for ambitious things.

How can people find out more about you?

My website,, is probably a good place to start. There's a blog specifically about the evolution of Chance Encounter there:, plus information on upcoming performances and projects. I also have a blog about my activities as Composer-in-Residence with BMOP: I know that the websites for radio stations WNYC and WITF have archived interviews as well, and there are various articles and interviews scattered about on webmags, including and the new york foundation for the arts's webmag:

Best of all, come to Seward Park at 1:30 or 5 pm on Friday September 28 and hear Chance Encounter! And come find me - I'll be there, somewhere in the crowd.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2021

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