Interview with Alyssa Weinberg

On January 23rd, 2016 Kaleidoscope will begin the new year with a West Coast Premiere of Alyssa Weinberg’s in somnis. Generously donating her time, I was able to sit down with Ms. Weinberg and not only talk about the inspirations she had for writing in somnis, but what initially inspired her to pursue composition as her profession. It became obvious to me that Ms. Weinberg is someone who not only unapologetically takes command of her life, being fearless in going after what she wants, but applies that same fearlessness to successfully master juxtaposing subject matter like Surrealism and the Conscious vs. the Subconscious to create beautiful and transforming music. 

Carrie Rexroat: How did you initially become involved with composition?

Alyssa Weinberg: In a weird way it was kind of an accident. I actually started as a horn major at Vanderbilt, but found my passion for composition just before I started college. There is definitely one teacher who is responsible for the fact that I am a composer, and I met him at a summer festival while there as a horn player before my senior year of high school. I didn’t get placed into the orchestra I was hoping for and wound up having a free afternoon, but when you’re in high school you’re not allowed to have free time. So, I went to register for my ensembles and classes for the session, and sat down in a random seat for my faculty signature winding up in front of David Ludwig. He noticed that I had this window of free time in my schedule and asked what courses I would be interested in taking. At the time I had a friend that was in the composition program, so I told him that sounded interesting. Amazingly, that was his composition program. He introduced himself, welcomed me to join his seminar without any pressure to write anything, and signed me up. That class literally changed my life. It exposed me to pieces that still to this day are incredibly close to me, and have really informed how I think about creating art. I was young and naïve, and probably had not even heard of Brahms at the time, but in David’s class I was being introduced to the music of Crumb, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Varese, and those pieces got me really excited, I loved it. I didn’t try to compare them to a preconceived notion of what “classical” music should sound like. 

Over the course of the summer, I begged him to let me write a piece because up until then I had just been an observer, only participating in discussions and listening in class. Initially he told me no, as the composition concert really only had room for those enrolled in the composition program, but I started to write a piece anyway, a string quartet of all things. At the start of the last session I told him about my piece and how I had “invented” a chord, and essentially begged him to let me show him what I had started. He probably said yes just to shut me up, but we went and found a piano so I could share “my” chord. We wound up talking for what felt like hours. By the end of the conversation, not only had he agreed to let me go ahead and write a piece for the concert, he said something to me that I’ll never forget: “You don’t have any idea what this means right now, but you are thinking like a composer.” Fast-forwarding to just a few years ago, I found myself lucky enough to actually be in his studio at the Curtis Institute of Music. I was always afraid to apply to Curtis, but deep down that was always what I was working towards and where I felt I needed to be. After my Masters, I decided I had to stop being afraid of what I was doing, worked up the courage to apply, and I’m currently there working on my Artist Diploma. David was actually my teacher in my first year at Curtis, so it was really amazing coming full circle. I’m still convinced that the fact that he believed in me and encouraged me to write that first piece all those years ago is the reason I became a composer, and what kept me from giving up after all these years!
CR: That’s really incredible! So, going back to what you said, you started as a horn major at Vanderbilt? When did you switch to composition?

AW: Well, I had only ever written one piece, but by the time I showed up to college I knew I had to be a composer. I had no experience, no portfolio and had no idea what I was getting into but I just kind of decided that that was what I wanted to do. During orientation when you first show up I found the head of the composition department and knocked on his door unannounced with the one piece I had ever written. I just boldly and completely naïvely walked in and introduced myself, shook his hand, and said, “hi. My name is Alyssa, I’m just starting out here as a horn player, but I’m actually going to be a composer. Can you please let me know how to go about doing that? Here’s this piece I’ve written.” I was dead serious, and he just sort of stared at me probably thinking I was crazy. But, it worked out, and after a year I had proven that I was serious and made the official switch to be a composition major. When I think about how I actually went about getting my first composition degree, it’s pretty funny. I kind of cannot believe they let me do that. 

CR: That’s so badass and bold though, just walking in there and saying “let me know how I can do this because this is what I’m going to do”. 

AW: Yeah, it’s sort of my version of a fairytale. I was just really stubborn, and I think I was fueled most by the teachers that told me I couldn’t do something; I was fueled by the excitement of trying to prove them wrong. I try to be like that when I’m creating too, as incredibly hard as it can be most of the time, to try not to care about what people are thinking of me. If everyone had the same musical upbringing, or the same musical training and same path to where they are now, we would all be writing the same thing and that would be boring. We all have to stop comparing ourselves to others. I have more than one favorite composer, I’m sure that you have more than one favorite player, and for good reason. They are different, they are unique, and everyone comes about things in different ways. So I just try to embrace it all, how I perceive music, how I create, how I hear things. I finally am in a place where I can accept that there is nothing wrong with that and believe in myself enough to just keep going.

CR: Rock on. I respect that highly, I think that’s very cool and I’m glad that, for you personally, that you’re embracing it instead of pushing it away. As a composer, what sorts of musical and/or non-musical things do you try and incorporate into your creative process? We talked about what fuels you, but are there other things that you try and incorporate into your music?

AW: Yes, definitely. Well, without coffee, there would be no music. I always joke about my writing habits in how I reach deadlines is that everything I do and accomplish in life is just figuring out that perfect balance of when to switch from coffee to whiskey. Find that balance and you will find the key to success. I’m usually drinking something and it is one of the two. But, more seriously, a concept that is hugely influential in how I thought about writing in somnis is Surrealism. I am a bit obsessed with that movement: the writings and artworks, the concepts, the manifestos. Another big influence is the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire is a french poet who was a contemporary of Wagner. Like I said, I came into music in a backwards way and I feel like my perspective in the way that I hear things is a little different, and Baudelaire has this way of taking these mundane and often times rather grotesque and disturbing, uncomfortable content and subject matter, and transforming them into this gorgeous and exquisitely, beautifully written prose and poetry. His most famous volume of work is called “The Flowers of Evil”, and that collection is sort of my bible. I’ve been referencing Baudelaire in pieces for years and years. I tend to write rather dark music, which is not intentional, but those harsh, intense sounds I feel are some of the deepest expressions of the inner soul. They grab you, and you can’t not be immersed in them, and that is a wonderful and enlightening experience. But, Baudelaire seems to have the ability to take anything in the world, no matter the subject matter, and transform it into something truly beautiful, which inspires me. I hope that if I work hard enough by the time I reach the end of my life, I can do for music what he did for literature. 

CR: So was in somnis inspired by one of Baudelaire’s poems?

AW: in somnis is based on a Picasso painting, actually. It’s based on the Picasso painting, ‘The Dream,’ and while it’s not from the surrealist school of art, it is centered on an element central to surrealism-the dream state, the idea of exploring the subconscious. Surrealism often references the work of Sigmund Freud, explores dreams and different states of being and consciousness, and one recurring motive you can find a lot, in Dali’s paintings in particular for example, is the presence of a beach or a window-something that represents a border, something that you can cross over from one side to another. I like to think that it represents consciousness vs. subconsciousness, and that is what in somnis is really about. When I was writing and thinking about the form of this piece I saw all of the transitions, the big gestures with abrupt cutoffs, as a way of symbolically crossing a line and entering a different world each time, although I intentionally don’t know which side is which. It’s not a concretely programmatic work, but when I was thinking about the different elements of the piece and the sounds I was creating, I was just imagining different ways of experiencing different states of consciousness and having fun with what that might sound like.

CR: So how exactly did Picasso’s “The Dream” inspire all of that?

AW: “The Dream” is the one with the woman in the chair with her head off to the side, and I just stared at it and made my own abstract narrative out of that. I thought about what the piece sounded like to me, what do I think she’s doing, what’s her story. I make up stories about other art and use that as a template when I write, it’s a process that I use pretty regularly. I was thinking about her, what she might be dreaming about and how ironic it was that on the surface everything appears to be so calm. She looks peaceful, taking a nap in a comfy chair, but there’s no way that it’s that peaceful inside her head in this dream state. Is she really sleeping? Is she just dozing off and on that border where you get all these awesome, delirious sort of hallucinations? The whole piece is just me imagining the things that could be going on in her head vs. in stark contrast to what the painting just looks like on the surface. It always walks that line. I dive really deeply into those kinds of ideas and exploit the surrealistic elements that I think are inherent to music, but exploit them in a conscious way. No one really talks about music in surrealism, they talk about it as a school of painting, and some poetry but not about surrealist music, which is interesting. I think that all music is surrealist, at least inherently by the definition of what surrealism is. 

CR: That sounds brilliant! In relation to Kaleidoscope, what interested you in submitting this piece to their Call for Scores?

AW: Well, I try to submit to everything. I forget the vast majority of the ones I submit to, but, this one I did apply to specifically because it is the only Call for Scores competition that I have come across that does not have an instrumentation restriction. As my piece has a solo violinist, it is ineligible for every major orchestral reading submission, so I was really excited because normally these competitions don’t allow you to have soloists for orchestra competitions. So, it was just a really great opportunity and special, and I hope that Kaleidoscope keeps that going because the fact that it’s not restrictive in that way is going to allow for a lot of pieces to be performed that otherwise won’t have an opportunity to be heard. I had not heard of Kaleidoscope beforehand though, but after I submitted my piece I started looking it up and thought ‘oh my god, this group is awesome!’

CR: What about Kaleidoscope made you feel that way? What sorts of things stood out to you, what was different about it?

AW: I was just really impressed by how ambitious, and not just ambitious but successful in the insane amount of ambition that the group has had in just a year and a half. I mean, they are only into the second season of it, and they have done such diverse repertoire, played in so many different places, and done so many concerts. They’re doing so much outreach, during my week there bringing the orchestra to a homeless shelter, which is amazing. One of the coolest things for me was that Ben and I talked about what we wanted the program my piece is being premiered on to be. I mean, usually the interaction ends at someone playing my piece and bugging me about where the score is and where the parts are. But, Ben and I talked very frequently about ideas to make it an interesting concert, and he included me. He wanted it to be meaningful for me, wanted me to like the pairing for the program I’m on and I just couldn’t believe that anyone would ever ask a composer those questions. I was being asked what pieces I wanted my piece programed with, and that is unheard of. I couldn’t believe that I was immediately being welcomed into that process and, as a result, I feel so connected to the whole project and the group. I’m always talking about Kaleidoscope, I’m always talking about it because the group is just doing really amazing and impressive things at such a high level. For a second season for a group of this size I’m just impressed as all hell, you know? I am so excited and thrilled to be working with Kaleidoscope, and they are introducing a new type of concert going experience for this concert that I cannot wait for people to experience. 

CR: What experience is that?

AW: Thematically they are putting together a concert based on this night theme. The Saturday night concert is starting at 10pm in downtown LA, it is a one hour concert and then immediately following there is an afterparty with a DJ, food trucks, full bar, and they have painter Robert Vargas coming to do a live paint during the concert. It’s just turning into the coolest thing I’ve ever gone to, let alone having a piece of mine played. I thought it was hilarious because Ben asked me if I minded that my piece was going to be paired with all of this stuff, and I thought, ‘are you kidding? Every concert should be like that, everything in life should be that cool!’

CR: Sounds like a party not to be missed! Kaleidoscope definitely works hard to generate a sense of community within Los Angeles, literally inserting themselves into places where people would never imagine classical music going. They hope to bring it to people who otherwise would never have thought that they could ever experience something like that. 

AW: Exactly, and that’s why I thought it was so funny when Ben asked if we could do this late night, party, food truck idea as if I wouldn’t be into it. I am definitely not of the stuck up, everything must be in a proper concert hall type thing. I’m not trying to advocate for the demise of the concert hall experience either, because I love that, but that is a specific thing and I feel really strongly that that is not the only way that our music can or should be experienced. I love that tradition, it is beautiful and exists for a reason. It transports me back to the time of when those pieces were written and it’s ritualistic. But, I just really strongly believe that art music isn’t foreign or off-putting, it just matters how it is presented and in what context. The more we can bring it to as many people in different contexts, the more they’ll realize that it’s not that scary and they can enjoy it. In turn, we can get a lot more people to be interested in our weird, scary ritual of being a concert hall if we can bring it to them first in this other way, too. Classical music can and should be fun!

CR: I couldn’t agree more. So what sorts of things are you expecting working with Kaleidoscope, being that this will be the context in which your piece is played.

AW: I’m not sure, honestly. I’m really excited, but I’m also nervous because I don’t know what to expect in relation to the performance aspect of the piece. Only one orchestra and only one soloist has played this piece before. I’ve been talking to Ambroise a lot, and he just asked me a question this week about the recording vs. the interpretation and wanting to experiment with note lengths and stuff, and whether or not that was okay. Of course I want him to interpret the piece in the way he wants, but I’m anxious to hear what it sounds like and what that means to him, how much will that change the character. Will it just be different, or will it be better, and how exciting that would be. It’s a fun process, but it is a really terrifying thing to give your baby away. But, in my opinion a composer is doing the right thing as a composer when he or she has both kinds of surprises in the first rehearsal of a piece. 

CR: What surprises are those? 

AW: There is the surprise where you maybe took a big risk somewhere and it doesn’t sound how you thought it would in your head, but then being able to figure out what didn’t work and then fix it. That is the number one way to learn as a composer, learning from your “failures”. It’s amazing when you have that level of trust with players where if something’s going wrong you know it’s your fault and not theirs, that it’s something that you need to fix. That’s really important and you grow in that. The other is hearing what you know you took a big risk on in writing, kind of hoping it would work, but you show up and it’s better than you imagined and sounds like everything you’d ever dreamed. When you hear that for the first time it is the most exciting thing in the world to experience. That’s what I get addicted to, that rush, that’s why I know that I can’t ever stop writing music. Nothing can compare to those moments. But, I always expect and hope for both surprises when I go to the first rehearsal. I’m not sure if the orchestra has started working on my piece yet. I actually had to make a slightly different version of the piece for them. The orchestra is obviously conductorless, and I really wasn’t sure how that would work out, especially because there’s a lot of aleatoric passages where parts are just sort of doing their own thing and you would usually wait for the conductor to stop you and tell you it’s time to move on to the next section. So, I had to come up with an alternative way to make it work. It was all very time consuming, but I think it was very worth it. It’s going to be a really exciting experience to see how they work. I’ve watched that Mahler 4 video and I was amazed! I mean, they do it and I just can’t wait to see what it’s like, being that I’ve never worked with a conductorless orchestra before.

CR: Well I am very excited for you! Just to round off the interview, do you have any hobbies outside of music, outside of drinking coffee and whiskey?

AW: *laughter* I do really love cooking. It’s like art you can eat. It’s a therapeutic outlet for me, and then you get to eat it at the end. It’s nice because your mind is in a totally different place so it’s a nice break from composing. It’s a bummer that I can’t eat my music *laughter*. 

CR: Although that would be cool, like these live dancers and artists who dance and paint to your music, inviting chefs to cook something while they hear your music.

AW: That’ll be the next thing! But, yeah, I love cooking. I like dogs, maybe more than humans. I’m a big fan of rescuing animals in general. Pitbulls in particular, because they have a really bad reputation. They’re just really really smart and really loyal, so in the wrong hands of course they’re that much more dangerous but they’re the sweetest dogs ever. So, rescuing pitbulls is a big passion. So, dogs, food and music. 

CR: The perfect life combination. Well I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me! Have a great time in LA and enjoy the experience!

AW: Thank you! This has been really fun!

Carrie Rexroat