Interview with Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch’s Responding to the Waves will be given its west coast premiere on April 28th and 29th. I spoke with Katie about feeling like a loner, joyful shivers, and Virginia Woolf. There’s a bonus cocktail recipe at the end of the interview for mixology fans!

Irene Kim: Hi Katie! Thanks so much for getting out of your yoga class early to do this interview!

Katie Balch: No problem.

IK: Let’s begin with how you got started in music.

KB: I was always an artsy kid. I took piano lessons and first started doing a lot of singer-songwriter kind of stuff, writing down little tunes. Then I started getting more serious about classical and jazz piano around the beginning of high school, partly because my high school sweetheart was a really excellent jazz pianist, so that got me really excited about being more serious about piano. That’s probably the easiest way to get excited about anything.

IK: What about composing? Did it come naturally to you?

KB: A creative exploration of sound was pretty natural for me. I wrote a lot of things for my high school theatre, like incidental music for plays and later, a musical, but much of that music was improvised or in a lead-sheet format. I didn’t really know that composing in the way we’re using the word was a thing until my senior year in high school when I was looking at conservatory applications. I wasn’t really good enough at piano to get into a conservatory piano program—it would have been a stretch—and so a teacher said, well you could apply for composition! So I scrabbled together a portfolio of scores and that’s how I started composing in the genre referred to as concert music.

IK: I know you were in San Diego throughout high school. Did you do other programs before going to college?

KB: I went to high school summer programs at Interlochen [Center for the Arts] for jazz piano, and BUTI [Boston University Tanglewood Institute] for composition. It was during these summer programs that I heard an orchestra play for the first time, was surrounded by other people who were also practicing four hours a day, and wanted to get more serious about this stuff.

IK: It matters so much to have a community who is doing the same things as you!

KB: Yeah, because you don’t feel like such a loner! My friends in high school were always asking, “Why are you practicing so much?” No one understood. But at Interlochen, there were all these people that were like me!

IK: I totally sympathize. Let’s talk about what you are up to now!

KB: For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of orchestral music. I just finished a piece as part of my residency with the California Symphony in the Bay Area. I’m presently writing a piece for the Oregon Symphony in Portland. For my next project with the California Symphony, I’ll be writing a violin concerto for my close friend, Robyn Bollinger, which is kind of a dream piece.

IK: And you’re also part of Concert Artists Guild’s Commissioning Program—how is that?

KB: I’ve been commissioned to write a piece for the Argus Quartet, so I’m super excited about that!  That’ll be premiered next May as part of their Alice Tully debut in NYC.

IK: Wow, congratulations! I want to ask about your piece that’ll be on the KCO concert. What should the audience listen for in Responding to the Waves?

KB: Each movement is about delicate human gestures. The first is about a hum and a shiver; there’s a really slow harmonic tremolo line that is like a humming, and that’s interrupted by these hiccups that I think of as shivers. In the second movement, there’s a buzzing activity, like a person who is agitated or excited on the inside but trying not to show it on the outside. The last movement I think of as joyful chirping. I guess humans don’t really chirp, but it’s like a joyful dance where you can go “Eeeeeeeee!” I think that a lot of these physical gestures and human physicality are metaphors in my music, images that guide me in my composition process.

IK: How did you come up with the titles? [The piece itself is called Responding to the Waves, and the three individual movement titles are called “Chrysalis,” “Nets of Wings,” and “Fractures.”]

KB: The piece originated as part of a project by violinist and visual artist Michiko Theurer, who’s currently doing a PhD in musicology at Stanford. She made a stunning series of paintings that are visual responses to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. The book is about these characters whose lives Woolf traces from being in daycare together to adulthood. As they become more separated, and their narratives become more intertwined. The paintings are responses to the breakdown of narrative in Woolf’s writing and some of the images that come up throughout the novel, and the movements from my piece are named from and based on these paintings. I don’t think it’s necessary to have all of this background in order to listen to the piece, since the music will stand on its own, hopefully.

[Katie also did an interview with VAN Magazine where she talks more thoroughly about this piece and quotes Michi as well: https://van-us.atavist.com/xylem]

IK: In the score of the last movement, you wrote “after Sciarrino” under the title. Is there a link between Salvatore Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci for solo violin and this movement?

KB: Yes! Sciarrino’s Capricci are based on the Paganini capricci, and I like in my own music to add on to these chains of intergenerational and inter-stylistic responses between artists. I feel like Sciarrino took photographs of Paganini’s caprices and then made a negative, like wispy remnants and inverted lights and darks of the Paganini. The first Sciarrino caprice has these harmonic glissandi, where harmonics peek through whispery non-pitched sounds. I like the breathy quality of it, and how the gesture is so fluid and easy to play, but the resulting sound is unpredictable and complex. I think there’s something playful about that. Anyways, most of the music I write is some response to the music I love, even if it’s not explicitly named as such.

IK: And what do you love most about Sciarrino?

KB: He’s able to make out of any instrument these delicate, shimmery sounds. It’s effervescent, like if you tried to grab it, it wouldn’t be there but is so tempting to reach out and bring closer to you. And on top of that, the way he paces materials and the discovery of sounds, zooming in and out of these delicate, ephemeral worlds over time is very satisfying. I feel he is always listening to what listeners would hear. To me, it’s magic.

IK: In your bio, your tagline is that you “write music that aims to capture the intimacy of existence through sound.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

KB: I want my music to be both about and create a sense of intimacy through the sounds I use and through the physical gestures invited by what’s on the page. For me, there’s a kind of empathetic kinesthesia that goes on when watching the physicality of a performer and listening to them make certain sounds. When I go to a concert or listen to a piece, I imagine figuring out how in my own body how would I make those sounds, with or without an instrument in hand. I think that music can create both a psychological and physiological closeness between the humans involved in its realization—the composer, the performer, the audience—which I value in my own listening experience.

IK: I feel that’s captured in Responding to the Waves! I also read in your bio that you enjoy cooking.

KB: I love, love, love cooking. And baking. And I love mixology—I love making cocktails. I have a pretty intense bar collection; I keep it well-stocked.

IK: What’s your favorite thing to make?

KB: Lately I’ve been using elderflower as a cordial a lot (it’s hard to go wrong with), and I make my own herb infusions. You can use agave instead of sugar to make a syrup infusion that’s not as sweet. A favorite is what I call a gin-lavender smash (served on the rocks with a splash of club soda or straight up):

2 oz. gin

1 oz. elderflower liquor

.5 oz lavender infused simple syrup (basil-infused simple syrup also works great)

.5 oz lemon juice (or more to taste)

garnish with lemon twist

I’m pretty sure a ‘smash’ just refers to a cocktail that has some type of herb in it, so you could use anything! Rosemary would also probably be good…

IK: That sounds absolutely delicious. I know you won’t have your full bar in your suitcase when you come, but I’m looking forward to having a cocktail with you!

KB: Looking forward to it! Thanks so much, Irene!

IK: Thank you, Katie! I’ll see you soon!

Irene Kim