Interview with Alyssa Weinberg

Kaleidoscope will be performing the world premiere of Alyssa Weinberg’s Rings and Roots on February 10th, with a repeat performance the following day. Alyssa’s previous interview with Carrie Rextroat published on January 2016 can be found here:

There you can find more about Alyssa, her path to becoming a composer, and some of her obsessions. I caught her in-between her travels (from France, to New York City, to Princeton, to Philadelphia) and we jumped right into her piece, Rings and Roots.

Irene Kim: How did this commission come about?

Alyssa Weinberg: Benjamin Mitchell asked me if I wanted to write a piece for Kaleidoscope! We had always talked about future potential projects when we first started working together on my violin concerto a few years back. This year, Ben had the opportunity to start commissioning, and it was really great that he thought of me among the first people to commission for the group. It’s been great; it’ll be the third season in a row with you guys! Totally loving the LA routine!

IK: Though Kaleidoscope has performed two of your pieces already, this is the first time the piece Kaleidoscope will be performing (world-premiering!) will have been specifically written for the group. Was there anything that changed your process or ideas while composing this piece for us?

AW: I think I’ll find out a lot more about that as the piece takes shape on the ensemble. But in terms of the instrumentation, I chose to write for sinfonietta, so everyone is one to a part, making it a smaller ensemble. Ben had suggested going for anything, maybe a work for full orchestra or a concerto, but I wound up choosing this specific instrumentation. I wanted to think of it like chamber music on steroids, to really feature the ensemble. It felt like the right thing to do, even though it definitely made it harder on myself. Once I decided on this instrumentation, I immediately liked the idea of pairing it with one of my favorite pieces: Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. I had never written for this sized ensemble (15 instruments for Rings and Roots); all of my experience was either in chamber music, up to 6 or so performers, or for an entire orchestra. To write for an ensemble that is decidedly “in-between” is definitely a challenge. So when I sat down to write the score for this chamber orchestra, I had to remind myself that “No, I can’t do divisi, I only have one viola, not ten!” It forced me to think of each instrument soloistically, like blown up chamber music. I’m looking forward to the first rehearsals, because, in a way, I don’t quite know what it will sound like. I imagine a lot will change and grow, and it will be interesting to see how the piece evolves into its final actual form for the premiere.

IK: And was the fact that Kaleidoscope is conductorless in the back of your mind as you wrote the piece?

AW: Actually, I tried to not let it inform my process too much. I try not to let factors like that, while important to take into consideration of course, change the way I write music, at least initially. We’ll see if it works!

IK: Yeah, it’s really exciting, I mean this is what it’s about, figuring out what we’re both capable of doing on both ends!

AW: I think it’s kind of a good sign when there’s a bit of uncertainty going into a first rehearsal, because if you know exactly how it’s going to sound, and it’s that predictable, then maybe you’re not pushing yourself. At least for me, there are always surprises, both good and bad, going into a first rehearsal of a brand new piece, because everything has unexpected challenges, or you try out a crazy new texture and you’re not totally sure it’s going to be balanced in the same way you heard it in your mind. I’m a little bit more nervous for this piece, because I am not that familiar with the territory of this ensemble size. I haven’t written for anything larger than a sextet for chamber music, or smaller than a full orchestra. I’m used to doing tons of string divisi and big texture-driven things in my orchestral music, so my two halves of my brain were battling each other, one side thinking about the soloistic writing while the other put forth my orchestral instincts.

IK: It’s really amazing that you’re pushing your boundaries forcing yourself to not only use the tools that you’re used to and seeing what you can work with. You mentioned that the piece is ideally to be paired with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, and indeed we are pairing it together. What is the connection there, if any?

AW: To think of it super directly, I just love Schoenberg’s piece so much, and when I thought of writing a reduced orchestra piece, I immediately thought of the Chamber Symphony and I got really excited by the idea of a companion piece for that. But when it came to the actual writing, I didn’t spend too much time being directly influenced by that music. There might’ve been subconscious things that wound up in Rings and Roots, but nothing really except the similar instrumentation.

IK: What do you love so much about Schoenberg?

AW: He had a very personal impact on me as a student, and I love the way he thought about color, and the expressivity of his language connected with me on a deeply personal level. I don’t think I ever try to sound like him, but his music always spoke very directly to me. The Chamber Symphony is a very early piece of his, and one that I love, but Pierrot Lunaire is probably the piece that is most important to me and has been very influential. The way Schoenberg considered texture and color in such a heightened way, as a real compositional priority, is what has stuck with me the most.

IK: The Chamber Symphony and Pierrot Lunaire are drastically different from each other, and they come from different periods of Schoenberg’s compositional life. Other composers also have different periods: Beethoven, Prokofiev, Scriabin, etc. Are you aware of yourself going through any compositional periods?

AW: Hm, yes, and no. I don’t think I’ve gone through enough yet to have compositional periods, although maybe we always think that way in a given moment? There are some things I might not be aware of, musical elements that have perhaps become a part of my default language without realizing it. I feel lucky that I have great friends and close collaborators to occasionally call me out on these things. To have great relationships with musicians who have gotten to know my work over time is so valuable, and they’re able to see the patterns evolve in my music and basically call me out on my shit. They’ll say, “Alyssa, I’ve seen this pattern before—I know what you’re doing here. Why don’t you use a different scale this time??” They won’t say it in a mean way, but in an encouraging way to push me past my comfort zone, beyond the tools that I’m used to using. It helps me to be more objective, because when you’re writing a piece, it’s so easy to be inside your own head, that you don’t always have a clear view of what’s actually on the piece of paper. Once in a while, you need a good friend to snap you out of it and make you take a step back to realize you might be able to find more effective ways execute a gesture, or that perhaps it’s time to step away from that gesture entirely and try something new.  

IK: But wouldn’t you say that there’s a fine line between developing your own identifiable language and rejecting or denying things that seem to be repetitive styles in your work, the things that your friends are supposedly calling you out on?

AW: It is a really fine line. Half the time, I’m saying, “Who cares if I’ve already done this?? It’s me, it’s my voice! If this thing keeps coming out over and over, it must be part of me!” At the same time, however, you don’t want to be writing the same piece a hundred times for the rest of your life. So when my friends do point out things to me, it’s more about bringing awareness to these repetitive gestures and devices that have perhaps become the most comfortable, fluent language for me, things that feel like a wired default. Even if I don’t change a note of it, it’s good for me to be aware of those patterns over a period of time so I can be better when I write my next piece. I ask myself at the end of writing a piece, “Did I successfully achieve what I originally set out to do? Is this piece effectively communicating what I wanted from the beginning? How did my ideas change from the first note I wrote to the last?” There’s a sort of initial birthing period after the piece is completed that’s very uncomfortable, when you’re not even sure how to feel about it, whether it’s good or bad.

IK: Rings and Roots. How did you come up with the title?

AW: It’s mostly in reference to tree rings and tree roots. I know some people want a very explicit explanation, but I like to leave room for people to make their own understanding of the piece, their own experience. I was thinking a lot about the life cycle of trees when different ideas and narratives sort of abstracted themselves in my head. The idea for the piece started on a short hike I was taking, not too far from where I live in Princeton. A couple hours away, there’s a passage of the Appalachian Trail, an area called the Delaware Water Gap. I went with another composer friend of mine, and we went to hike for a day. I noticed all of these massive trees that had fallen over. I wanted to just stop and stare at all of these overturned trees instead of climbing up the mountain. I started taking pictures of them, and noticing more and more of them along the hike. Now I have a little collection of photos of these overturned trees and as I was looking at them along the hike, I started to compare them all: whether they were completely uprooted or if they had snapped in half somewhere on the trunk, if the trunk obstructed the hiking path or not, and if so, how they had fallen and what new angles or obstacles resulted, and also if there was any new life growing out of or around it. One of the first ones I found, for example, was completely uprooted—you could see all the roots and dirt up in the air, sort of freshly dangling. There was this sense of decay, but there were tiny, tiny plants that were growing right under that tree. And so that juxtaposition in an abstract way became the two main things I was writing about in the piece. Those trees became a metaphor, and the narratives for the piece came out of that. It was interesting mapping out these stories, which actually weren’t so much stories as they were shapes of a journey. I wanted to play with the idea of time and memory a lot, which is similar to what I do with my other works. If you read my first interview, I probably talked a lot about Surrealism! I was thinking a lot about the subconscious and unconscious mind, and how time can pass but can be perceived in so many ways. Some of those trees—broken trees, dead trees—they represented the passage of time. The tree rings, which are how you measure an age of a tree, and the tree roots, which hold it down to the ground, both of those things can take on a lot of other different meanings. For example the rings that represent the longevity of a tree can make you think about everything it would have witnessed during its lifetime, or even just thinking about the circular nature of a ring itself, and the circular nature of memory and memory loss over time. So basically a million things came out of looking at a dead tree.

IK: Is there anything you want the listeners to hear in your piece?

AW: There is a simultaneous paradox of movement and stasis that I was going for. Music can have a lot of movement without being fast, so I was trying to convey this idea in different ways. A lot of this piece is about gradual texture and color changes and ambiguity in pulse, playing with time and memory, unwinding and unraveling. If people want to know what to listen for, I would tell them to sit back and not have any expectations and hopefully just enjoy the experience.

IK: I know you drink coffee or whiskey, depending on the time of day [see previous interview]. Is that whiskey in your glass?

AW: It’s actually cider! Actually a great Breton style cider that Trader Joe’s carries. I’m definitely a liquid dependent musician. I guess when I’m composing, I’m either drinking coffee or whiskey, and when I’m talking to someone in an interview, it’s cider!

IK: Trader Joe’s is still open. I think I’m going to go grab one. Well, Alyssa, it was so great talking to you! I’ll see you when you get here and I can’t wait to hear your piece!

AW: Thanks, Irene!!

Irene Kim