Interview with Scott Ordway

On February 18th, Kaleidoscope will continue its season with the highly-awaited West Coast premiere of Scott Ordway’s Tonight We Tell The Secrets of the World. Generously donating his time, I was not only able to sit down with Mr. Ordway to discuss the inspirations and influences that went into writing this piece, but discover how brilliantly he connects performer & audience member to the physical space in which they reside through the utilization of sound, light, and thematic material drawn from historical texts of the ancient world.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Scott Ordway: I grew up playing rock music and was involved in the punk scene in the 1990s. In college, I discovered classical music and shifted my focus from creating music with bands to composing in that tradition. I also started conducting and playing the piano, and for several years I was the director of a large contemporary chamber orchestra in Oregon. But, composing has always been at the center of my work, and performing is something I’ve done to support that. At least in my case, the two feed off of one another, and there’s no better way to learn how to write for orchestra than to play in one, or conduct one.

CR: Very true. What do you enjoy most about composition?

SO: Creating music has always been a non-negotiable part of my life; I never considered any other career. It’s always been a part of me, so the question is difficult to consider because composition is as much a part of me as being tall or having brown hair *laughter*. But, there are many things I love about the career and the life I get to have as a composer. One of the best parts is having the opportunity to travel. I really love to travel all over the United States, and in recent years, I’ve done more site-specific work creating pieces either in response to places or designed to be performed in a specific location. I’ve done work in Mexico City, Detroit, Berlin, Hong Kong, Beijing, and I’m working now on an opera with an Algerian writer, which has allowed me to spend some time in North Africa. Additionally, I also love that as a composer I take on different roles, such as a performer, engineer, graphic designer, concert producer, etc. Being a composer taps into so many different fields these days and I love that.

CR: Yes, it’s very interdisciplinary across so many fields.  

SO: Definitely. Depending on circumstances, that can be a good or bad thing, but overall I just get to meet and work with so many great people. There aren’t many fields in which I’d stay connected to so many different parts of the country; collaborating in different cities keeps each place feeling current, and that’s very special to me.  

CR: Absolutely. Specific to collaborating with Kaleidoscope, what motivated you to submit a piece for the Call for Scores?

SO: The orchestra has done a fabulous job documenting its work so far, so it was easy to get to know the group digitally and see that it’s performing at a very high level. I like that you all share a common goal and, with that goal in mind, got a whole bunch of people together to play music. You’re not waiting around for someone to ask you to do it, you just do it, which is laudable and attracted me. Specific to the Call for Scores, the call requested works that draw on unusual performance situations, and my piece definitely falls under that category so it seemed like it would be a good fit.

CR: So what’s the story behind Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World? What are some of the musical or non-musical influences of the piece?

SO: I was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology & Anthropology in Philadelphia to create a site-specific work that would be performed in a cavernous marble rotunda in the museum. The ceilings are 90 feet tall and the room is strikingly beautiful. The museum wanted a work that would connect to the physical space, to their mission, and to the collections, most of which come from the ancient world and date back as far as 3,000 B.C. When I was in the space for the first time, I was there alone after the museum had closed and noticed that the reverb in the rotunda was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I felt moved to whisper—just to see what that would sound like—and my voice bounced off the walls, taking on a special sound that in a regular room it just doesn’t have. I then imagined the sound of hundreds of people whispering, blending together in that incredible environment, and I wondered if the sound of a hundred people whispering could be used to create a musical effect. So, I worked with curators in the museum to select small fragments of text from the museum’s collections, and I found texts that related to three themes that have been common throughout history: love, death, and God. These became the texts that the audience would whisper.

CR: That sounds incredible! How does the piece function?

SO: I split the audience up into three sections, each section corresponding to one of those three themes. I then needed a way to cue the audience, because they needed to know when to whisper their texts, but I wanted this cuing to be a beautiful part of the piece and not just a practical thing. I worked with a lighting designer to build an array of lights behind the ensemble so that the stage could be illuminated with one of three different colors, or all three at the same time. I assigned each section of the audience a color, and as the piece proceeds, the color of the stage behind the ensemble changes at different times. This signals the audience to begin whispering, and the whispering can therefore move throughout the space, moving from right to left, left to right, etc. It takes on some very interesting sonic dimensions, while at the same time inviting the audience to participate in a really meaningful way in the creation of the piece.

CR: I’m actually speechless right now, I would absolutely LOVE to be a part of this performance! If this piece was something that was designed or composed specific to a certain location, how will it change when Kaleidoscope performs your work?

SO: We’re going to have to do some problem solving to make sure that the dramatic aspect works correctly in each space. There are so many tiny details that are critical to the performance: how the audience is divided up; how to provide the texts to the audience members; how to dramatically incorporate the soprano soloist and the offstage saxophone solo that ends the piece; and of course the lighting design and how to make it both beautiful and clear. All of these production aspects are critical, so I’m looking forward to working with Ben and the rest of the group to maximize the potential of both performances venues. But, I have every confidence in the orchestra based on what I’ve seen, so I have no concerns. It will also be different as this will be the first time the piece has been performed with section strings—rather than as a chamber piece—but I don’t think that will fundamentally change the character of the work. It’s a piece I believe strongly in and feel good about, and love that I get to share it with my home state!

CR: Definitely! So, Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

SO: All the activities that you just mentioned are vitally important, and I completely support that type of work. I think the best way that any musical group can make an impact is by making music at the highest possible level and sharing that music with the widest number of people they can. It seems that KCO has all of those ingredients and I applaud their commitment to exquisite music-making and their broad community outreach energy. In my own creative work, I often design pieces that incorporate large numbers of non-musicians, and this allows me to connect to different communities by bringing the public into the process of creating new work.

CR: That’s great!. Speaking more to yourself, what are some of your hobbies?

SO: My wife, Claire, and I travel as much as possible. I am also really into food and cooking, and I love to host and entertain. I’m a runner and snowboarder as well.

CR: Would you like to leave our readers with final statement about your piece?

SO: I’m so excited to bring this piece to LA, and continue to explore the idea of crowd-interactive performance. And, of course, I’m excited to work with the incredible musicians of Kaleidoscope!

CR: Thanks so much, Scott!

SO: Thank you!

For audio, video, and more information about Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World, including a recent feature on NPR’s NewsWorks Tonight, please visit


Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, but is also the Founder of storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.

Saturday, February 18 @ 8 pm
The Huntington - Rothenberg Hall
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, CA 91108
For reservations, please click HERE

Sunday, February 19 @ 6 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401
For reservations, please click HERE


Carrie Rexroat