Women Composers


MW: Welcome to the Sound Meets Sound podcast. Today, our guest is Regina Harris Baiocchi. I’m very honored to have you on here. You’re the only person I’ve interviewed so far that is already in a history book. I’m holding up ​From Spirituals to Symphonies​ by Helen Walker-Hill. Please go pick up that book and read about Regina’s life. Maybe you could introduce yourself and describe the many things that you do as an artist.

RHB: Thank you, Meg. My name is Regina Harris Baiocchi. I am a composer, an author, and a poet. I write music and words, sometimes together, sometimes separate. I really love writing poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction mostly. I’m happy to see you hold up Helen Walker-Hill’s book because you have the second edition. In case you have not seen the first edition, I’m actually on the cover. My mother loves that photograph of me—I look like I’m 12 years old. I think I was in my 30s when I took the photograph. It always reminds me of her and I’d stop using it because my webmaster told me that he thought I used the photo too much. I’m a composer who also writes words. People often ask me, why don’t I choose one? I basically liken it to choosing a part of your body to leave at home when you go someplace. You wouldn’t chop off your right arm because you’re only going to be around left handed people. So, why would I leave Regina the poet at home because I have a concert? Why would I leave Regina the composer at home because I have a poetry reading? That is who I am. That is who I’ve been most of my life. Most of the time, I enjoy doing all three.

It just dawned on me when I made the left hand comment: My dad used to be left handed and he was born in the 1930s, and left handed people were thought of as people who were possessed by the devil. In other words, you’re writing with the devil’s hand. He told me stories about how the teacher would sometimes tie his hand behind his back so he would be forced to write with his right hand. Then, they started hitting his left hand and doing all that. I brought that up because I made that connection now. Maybe that’s what prepared me not to bend to people’s whims, because a lot of teachers have said to me, “What are you doing writing poetry? You should be concentrating on your string quartet.” Or, “Why are you doing this? You should be concentrating on your piano piece or clarinet piece.” To have to keep explaining it over and over again, it gets a little tiresome. At the same time, it gives me an opportunity to speak about other projects that I’m writing on, so I try to look for the silver lining in everything.

MW: How I knew you at first was on Twitter. Your handle is @HaikuFest. I am curious how Haiku Fest became a thing and what inspired you to do it?

RHB: When I was seven years old, I wrote my mother a poem and it’s a horrible little poem that I can never forget. It’s always swimming around in my head and it’s kind of like an acre to remind me, no matter how many awards I win or no matter how great the public may think I am, I’m still who I am; I’m still me. She read in the newspaper that Gwendolyn Brooks was doing a poetry reading here in Chicago. She took me and said, “I want you to read your poem to Ms. Brooks because it’s so beautiful.” I have always been painfully shy all of my life. I know the exact day that I came out of my shell—right after undergrad. My very first professional job was teaching math and I went to write on the board and every piece of chalk that I picked up broke. The kids were laughing, of course, this is junior high school. I taught kids between the ages of 12 and 14. Now, they call it middle school. Anyway, back to this poetry thing. I went to the Museum of Science and Industry, a huge place in Chicago, and Gwendolyn Brooks was there with all of these kids, it must have been a thousand kids looking back. As I’ve gone as an adult, she generally attracts large crowds and she would listen to kids read their poetry all day long. At the end, she would give cash awards for the best poems, usually first, second and third place. She called me up to read my poem, and instead of going to the microphone, I went to her where she was sitting because I didn’t want to speak to a microphone. I whispered to her, and I had a lot of practice at this, even at seven years old, “I can’t read in the microphone, but could I just show you the poem?” She said, “Oh, darling, no, everyone wants to hear it.” I said, “I can’t, it’s not going to work.” I knew I would start crying. She said, “Would you like for me to call you up later?” I said, “Sure.” So, I waited until all 999 other kids read, while mother was looking at her watch like it’s almost dinner time. I have seven siblings, by the way. All these kids that were bored and probably sitting at home like, “It’s dinner time. Where are they?” I never did go to the microphone, but I did go up to her afterwards. I read the poem to her and I cried the entire time. I think she gave me a Mercy Award because the poem was terrible, but my mother assures me that the poem was great. It was great for a seven year old. She opened her pocketbook and took out cash money and gave it to me. I was like, “Oh, my God.” that’s such an impression on me. She was nice enough to mentor me throughout her life. As time grew on, we got closer and closer.

When I started teaching junior high school, I invited her to my school during Black History Month. That whole invitation morphed into this huge program that went on for hours and hours. She sat there from 1 p.m., which is her starting time, and she was supposed to end at 2 p.m., because at 2:30 p.m. the kids were dismissed. She was there till 10:30 that evening signing autographs, reading, listening to kids. I kept saying, “Ms. Brooks, would you like to take a water break or potty break?” She was like, “No, darling. If these kids want to get in line for this chicken scratch or if they want to hear me read, I’ll just stay here till somebody kicks me out.” That left an impression on me, obviously. By then I was in my 20s. Years later when she passed, they did a tribute to her and Haki Madhubuti, who is her cultural son, asked me to write an essay. It’s part of a book that he published called ​Gwendolyn Brooks and Working Writers​ or something to that effect. I wrote about this incident because every time I saw her, she would say, “Remember that time I came to your school and I was there till 10:30 p.m.?” She would always tell that story with such great fondness. When she passed, I thought other people would take up that mantle. I thought they would do the program that she did at the Museum of Science and Industry. I talked to her daughter about it, and I talked to Haki Madhubuti about it. No one really seemed interested in doing that, and I thought it was a very important thing to do because I know what it did for me. I am a firm believer that if my mom had not taken me to the Museum of Science and Industry that day, I probably would not be writing poetry for public consumption. I would be one of those closet poets, there are many of us—people who write poetry knowing that they’ll never, ever share with anyone—but, it’s something that they love to do or they feel they have to do. I wanted to give kids an option, so that’s how I founded Haiku Festival.

She passed away in 2000 and the Haiku Festival was born in 2004. As a matter of fact, this year, 2020 is our Sweet 16 Anniversary. We have really great things planned in a lot of workshops. We always have a culminating event, an awards program at the end of the school year, during April, which is National Poetry Month. We’re down at Harold Washington Library, and even that is a historic thing here. Harold Washington was the first black mayor of Chicago. He and Ms. Brooks were good friends and she wrote his inauguration poem each time he was inaugurated. It was nice when they invited me to come down there because initially we didn’t have a home. We went to different libraries. As we started to grow, we went to regional libraries; Chicago has three regional libraries, and they’re strategically placed. One is downtown, which is where Harold Washington is, and one is on the south side and one is on the north side. We did the North Side Regional, we did the SouthSide Regional. We went to as many libraries that we could get to do our programs, readings, and workshops. Then we outgrew everything, and I’m so happy to be able to say that because we started with 75 kids and last year we had a couple of thousand.

MW: Wow.

RHB: It’s nice to be able to grow. Not so much for quantity, but to know that because of Ms. Brooks, I’m able to celebrate children’s poetry and promote literacy at the same time.

MW: I didn’t realize that Haiku Fest was essentially extending the legacy from Gwendolyn Brooks. It sounds like you’re saying no one really wanted to pick up where she left off. That’s really amazing that it has that connection to her and to your own experience.

RHB: It’s a lot of work. Their daughter, Nora Brooks, lately has had a children’s theater company, called Chocolate Chips. She knew how much work it would be and she’s not really a poet. I know she’s written some poetry, but it seemed like a natural thing for Haki to do. He, as far as an educator is concerned, really made a name for himself in academia, in undergrad and graduate studies. He founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writer’s Center, the only Afrocentric MFA program in the country.

MW: Wow.

RHB: Not an easy feat, because you know what academic hurdles you have to jump over and what hoops you have to jump through on a daily basis to put together an accredited MFA. That is something else. I’m happy to see that the program is still going. Any kid who starts in Haiku Festival conceivably could go and get an MFA in African-American Poetry or a Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry Writing. In a way, we’re complementing each other, each doing what he or she does best.

MW: Giving children opportunities like you had. It can be really transformative, life changing for them. As little people, to be able to express themselves and have someone listen. I love that she opened up her pocketbook right there for shy little Regina.

RBH: It wasn’t a purse, it was a pocketbook. I was like, “Whoa.” I think I walked around with that, I don’t know what it was, 10 or 20 dollars. The first prize may have been 50 dollars then. By today’s standards, we give 100 dollars. She didn’t do what I did—the sky was the limit with her—you could write in any form you wanted to. I limited mine to haiku for selfish reasons. I love haiku. I love micro poetry. I love small forms. I guess a part of me thought that one day this would get so big that I would have to be able to manage it. The other thing is, I wanted to make sure if I’m going to give an award based on merit, that I’m judging apples and apples. I don’t see how I can say this sonnet won first place, but this haiku won second place. In a sonnet, you have so much more room to express yourself—you are bound by some rules—but there’s still a lot of room. We have pretty strict rules. It has to be five, seven, five. We loosen the nature reign because I’ve written books, urban haiku, blues haiku. I think it’s important for people to write about what they know, where they are or what they want to become. That doesn’t always mean you write about nature. When I look at some of the haiku masters who, by the way, some of them were taught by women, but you never hear their names. But, you could read it in my book if I ever finish it.

When I do my haiku workshops for teachers and adults, I do a whole segment on women. There’s a guy whose entire doctoral studies was taken up with haiku by women, starting from the beginning of time up until now. He’s published like 40 books on the topic. There’s a lot of material out there just from that one man. If you start from him, you could spend your entire life just reading haiku by women. I think it’s important for people to know that anyone can write anything. Again, I like haiku because it’s brief, I can read two thousand of them comfortably. I don’t think I can read two thousand free-form poems comfortably because I just don’t think I could.

MW: Yeah, that’s a lot. Like you said, comparing apples to apples. What criteria do you put on free-form poetry to compare it to another? It does seem like a lot of work to do and it’s every year, right? It’s a whole job.

RHB: Throughout the year from October through June, we’re in the schools doing work. When I say ‘we’, I’m mostly the ‘we’ whose in the schools doing these workshops. I try to limit them to Tuesday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. That’s a large chunk of time. Luckily for me, if my average is one to two a week, I can still manage that; I can still write my music, I can still prepare dinner, I can still think about cleaning up my apartment. It’s manageable.

MW: In Helen Walker-Hill, she mentions how you came to poetry and writing first, and then it wasn’t that long afterwards that you came to music. We’ve heard your origin story with poetry and writing. I’d like to hear the origins of how you’ve decided to make and create music.

RHB: She’s right in the sense that I started writing poetry when I was seven and I started writing music when I was 10. My first introduction to music was when I was four years old. I have four sisters, two of whom are older than I am. For a while we were known as ‘the three big ones’ when my mother had six kids. Then, there were the three little ones. The three big ones would go to church together. When I was a kid, I thought every woman was eternally pregnant because that’s how I saw her. Either she just had a baby or was having a baby; she was always in that state. She kept us regimented. I look back now, I think the reason she exposed us to so many things is because otherwise she would have just been a basket case. One of the things that I did with my two older sisters—my mother, who sang in the church choir, had us audition for a community chorus called The Girls Choir. The Girls Choir was probably about four or five blocks from home. I was raised in a Roman Catholic Church, but it’s the oldest black Catholic Church in Chicago so it looks very different from if you walked into a non black Catholic Church. We were in the girls choir and I auditioned when I was four years old.

When I was four years old, my voice was as deep as it is now. I was a true alto, I could growl down there. When I opened my mouth to sing, all of the girls howled. My older sister stood up, she was very tall for her age, and they stopped. The crowd just hushed. I said, “Okay, I might be able to get through it.” My second oldest sister was the baddest kid on the block, nobody ever messed with her, they just didn’t do it. Anyway, she stood up on the other side of me and they both had their hands on their hips, like, “Let her get through her audition!” The director, who was playing the piano looked at both of them and thought, “I better get busy, too.” He started playing and I did my little audition. It was one of those auditions where unless you had a tin ear, everyone got it in. I think he held the auditions just to know whether you were going to be—first, second or third soprano or first, second or third alto. That was another thing, we sang anywhere from three to six parts. He was serious. When I look back now, we did a lot of things. I remember always singing all of the parts, like if they would get off, I would start singing their part. And he would say, “Is there someone in the alto singing the second soprano part?” Well, you had us sing F-sharp but it should have been F-natural is what I wanted to say, but of course, I didn’t say anything. [laughs] So, that was my first musical experience at four years old. As a result, I use my voice to write music. I know a lot of people write at the piano. I tend to write with my voice regardless of what instrument I’m writing for. I think the only instrument family that I don’t use my voice to write for is non pitch percussion instruments. Those I tend to hear the rhythms, and they stay in that ear until I write them down. But, the other things, I work them out either humming or singing on some syllable or whatever. I think it’s because he made me feel comfortable hearing my voice.

MW: I like how you’re saying you could hear the mistakes, essentially, that others were making. Like, that should be an F.

RHB: That’s one of the things he trained us to do because he was very big on it. If you cannot hear the other parts, you’re either too loud or you’re not paying attention. Paying attention was not only being quiet while he was going over other parts, but it was also listening while you were performing. That sounds so easy, but you as a musician, know that’s a very difficult thing. I think what it did for me as a young child is that it taught me self-discipline. You know, if you can teach someone self anything. I remember this guy, and as an adult I went back and I found him, and I called him and he was probably in his 70s or 80s at the time. I talked to him and he was so happy that someone called and said, “Hey, I used to be in the girls choir.” I remember a friend of mine who was a member of a group that I founded called Six Degrees, we were talking one day and driving down the street and she said, “Oh, I remember that church.” Metropolitan was the name of the church. It was an AME church, African Methodist Episcopal Church. She said, “I used to go there when I was a kid.” I said, “Did you? I live not too far from here.” She said, “Well, this wasn’t my church. I just went there because I belong to a choir.” I said, “Was it the girls choir?” And she said, “Yes. You know the girls choir?” And I said, “I was in the girls choir.” It was so big that as a kid, we played a game when we couldn’t sleep, we would name all the kids in our classroom. I know this sounds silly, but if someone asked you to name all the kids in the girls choir, I couldn’t do it. It was so big, we sat down and thought about it, you know? Later when I talked to Mr. Webb, who was the choir director, told me that there were times when a group was as large as a thousand. He said the average was three to five hundred. My friend and I, Ann Ward, figured out that our group was probably somewhere between the three to four hundred range just judging from the size of the church. It was so weird because she didn’t belong to that church, but that’s where they had her memorial service. When I walked in there, I thought, “Oh, my God. Back here at this place.” It’s a church that’s kind of in the round. It’s a real good place for worship. It’s a real good place for singing; whoever is speaking or singing, they’re right dead center. There’s not a bad seat in the house. It was what she would have liked because she was very Afrocentric in her teaching. She did a thing every day to start her classes called Morning Circle, where the kids would sit in a circle, come together with either percussion instruments or their bodies, and open their day and center themselves before the day started. I felt that at her memorial service, and of course, they invited me to read something and I wrote a poem.

MW: I’m very curious about, as I am with all composers, how you decided ‘I’m going to make my own music now’ and how that sort of came about and what kind of pieces you were writing. Does this start as a child?

RHB: As I mentioned, my mother sang in church choirs. My father played bluegrass fiddle and harmonica. When we were kids, we hated that. We hated it, hated it, hated it.

MW: I saw that in the book.

RHB: Chicago’s a big blues town. My father was from Kentucky. He and his three brothers all played bluegrass music together, and my paternal grandmother was an organist. She played by ear. They all played by. I don’t think any of them read. When we had family gatherings, they would have these jam sessions. If you are growing up in the 60s and 70s and motown is all the rage, you don’t want your friends seeing your father playing in a band where somebody is playing a washboard or a joke. It’s like, no, no, no. My father was real cool about putting up with our idiosyncrasies. He had a 1948 dodge and we were like, “Oh, my God, where did you get this ugly car? Did you bring this as a joke?” We were so embarrassed by that car that we actually talked him into driving a block or two and we would meet them and get in the car. Sometimes we would be running late and we would say, “Okay, I’ll meet you.” And he’s like, “Get in the car.” These kids came up with this song called “Ain’t That Your Father’s Car,” and they would sing it every time. We would look out, nobody. As soon as you walk towards that car, a bunch of kids would come out of nowhere singing, “Hey, ain’t that’s your father’s car.”

Every year we get the same thing for Christmas, a book, a toy and a bag of food. I didn’t realize how that was like a pauper’s Christmas. I thought it was kind of cool, actually. One year I got this guitar and my sister got a zither. It didn’t dawn on me until later that he was putting together his own little jam session, because zither is a very folk instrument, something you would hear in bluegrass music. I got this guitar and they have a little book and you learn how to play. I was done with the book, I started making up little songs and I would sing them for my mother or my father. Of course they would clap, I mean, what else are they going to do? They’re not going to boo me. My grandmother came over. I would play for her and sometimes she would join me on the piano. She was a great pianist, she was a much better B3 player, at least I appreciated her more as a B3 player. I wrote this one song. I fell in love with dominant seventh chords at 10/11-years-old. I thought that was the coolest sound. I didn’t know until later it was because of the tritone, which has always been my favorite interval in the entire spectrum of music. I wrote this song called “Listen,” and my mother had company one day, one of her church friends, and she said, “You know what? We need some music for our tea. Would you like to play?” I said, “I don’t know.” She said, “We can pay you.” I thought, ‘they’re going to pay me.’ It never dawned on me until I got there that I was going to be on stage playing in front of people. That part went right over my head. All I saw was the money and I could play a dominant seventh chord. I went to a place that is still standing, called The Tiki Room. That’s where the tea was. If you can imagine all these ladies with white gloves on. It was a Lady Sodality from the church and they all had hats and this and that. My mother dressed me in a pink lace dress. To this day, I hate pink with a passion. I used to always tease her that I was going to go on the Oprah Winfrey Show and say that I’m a basket case because she dressed me in so much pink. I had a pair of pink cat-eye glasses and I had on pink gloves. I was trying to tell her I can’t play guitar with the gloves. I was so embarrassed. I walk out and I play this ‘Listen’ piece. No, before that, I started tuning up and my G string broke, and I burst into tears. My teacher had always told us to carry an extra set of strings and I didn’t have my extra set of strings. And so the lady who hired me, she came up to me and said, “We’re paying you to play. You’re going to have to stop crying and get busy because the event will be over and you’ll still be up here crying.” I said, “Okay.” It was embarrassing enough that I had on this stupid pink, ruffled dress, and when I sat down, it was ruffles everywhere. I just wanted to snatch it off and, I got these stupid little ankle socks on with ruffles. Oh, it was horrible. So, I started playing and I was trying to explain to her that I needed that string in order to play my tritone. [laughs] She was like, “Just play all the other strings.” I thought, “Oh, God.” What it did is it made me learn alternate fingerings for chords. At the time, I only knew certain chords. I played it and I actually sang the whole thing. Then when I finished, I said, “Okay, we’re going to finish off the afternoon—” They said, “Finish off the afternoon? You’ve only played one piece!” I didn’t do any more singing after that. I just played instrumental and guitar is one of those instruments that you can do that. You can play something really hard and fast or you can do something easy, and that was an easy listening crowd anyway. I got through that and they gave me my money. From that point on, I always carried an extra set of guitar strings. It was my first gig and it was the first time that I realized I think I want to do this.

I was a composer before I knew what a composer was, but I knew that I wanted to do that, not just play the guitar, not just sing. I want to be able to make that music. I want to be able to sit there with an idea. To me, it seemed like listening was always the lesson that teachers are trying to tell. Make sure you’re listening to yourself, listening to other people. I think that’s why that was the name of the first tune that I wrote called ‘Listen.’ It clicked with me. I never realized until I was in high school or high school going into college, I might not be able to eat doing this. I might not have a place to stay. This is not like other kids dreams of being an accountant or a firefighter, they can get a job. But, I didn’t really care. I just thought, you know what? I’ll do the music, everything else will come. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I’ve been really fortunate that

I’ve found things to do where I can sustain myself physically, make a living, and still keep the music going. I have a lot of friends who’ve made some really tough decisions and the music lost and so did they. I think it’s sad that the world requires that we make those choices. I know it’s not just musicians, it’s all of the arts. There’s not, and I’m preaching to the choir, one thing that’s important in people’s lives that they don’t consciously think of music. When people are born, there’s always music. When they’re baptized, there’s music. When they get married, there’s music. When they have a party, there’s music.When you have a funeral, there’s music. Yet, people don’t really appreciate the music. They don’t really appreciate it. I have had people say so many silly and insane things. My teacher, Hale Smith, was telling me he was playing a gig once, and he said to the club owner, “You really have to get the piano tuned, man. I can’t come in here night after night and play that. It’s really bothering me.” And he said, “Bothering you how?” He said, “Well, sounds horrible. It’s not in tune.” “That’s what I’m paying you for, to make it sound good,” the owner replied. When someone says that to you, you cannot really converse with that person. That shows you how people have such disregard for music. That’s why music appreciation classes are so important, and I can’t stand it when faculty members fight not to teach music appreciation. You have a golden opportunity to reach the non musicians because they’re the ones who are going to buy the tickets. When I look in the audience, most of the people in my concerts, they’re not musicians. All the musicians are either onstage or they’re doing their own thing. It’s the non musicians that you have to reach so they can realize how integral music is to their lives and why it’s so important to support it. I think if more people had a good music appreciation foundation, music wouldn’t end up on the cutting room floor so much. You could probably count the people on one hand with fingers left over who are not walking around with headphones on. If people were that plugged in, pun intended, when it comes to funding music or supporting music or even in academia, fighting to teach music appreciation, that’s where the real change is going to take place. There has to be a paradigm shift because we have to reinvent ourselves, especially singers. I don’t know what their future is going to look like. Choral singers, ensemble singers, because singing is at the top of the list for spreading COVID-19. We’ve got to do something. That puts a composer in a position too. I have a commission to write an opera, and I’m so grateful that I had the wherewithal to say to the guy, “I’m not interested in writing a two-hour opera, I’m not interested in writing a three-act opera. I will write a micro opera for you.” He goes, “A micro opera? What is that?” He knew what it was, he’s a singer. I think it’s the Aaron Copland Foundation that has a fund called Second Performances, and they give money to people just for second performances because composers write music that usually only gets one performance. I’m not interested in investing that kind of time. I have too many things on my plate. I have so many things that I want to do before I die. If I die tomorrow, then that’s cool. But, if I have a long and fruitful life, I’d like to think that I didn’t spend time writing 10 operas that will never see the light of day.

MW: Opera, especially, is a good case study how composers adjust to modern tastes. But also, like you say, just the capability of groups to put on pieces. There aren’t that many opera companies out there that can make—like the independent ones that will do non canon opera. They don’t have the funding to do huge productions, and the ones who have the funding to do huge productions, are stuck in the 1950s in terms of programming.

RHB: Unless you’re John Adams or someone. I was happy to see that Anthony Davis won a Pulitzer Prize because he’s written several operas. People probably don’t even know him yet, but I’m sure even he fights for performances.

MW: I did want to talk a little bit about the music itself. First, I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed learning and playing your organ piece that I performed a couple years ago. I’m so glad that Twitter exists because that was how I met you and you let me know about your piece. It was the most challenging piece on that program for me to play. It’s written very idiomatically for the instrument. When I got it and I was looking at it, I was like, “Okay, I can do this.” Unfortunately, a lot of 21st century pieces, especially written for organ, the person maybe has been near an organ like once or twice. They don’t really understand the mechanics of it. It’s not an easy instrument to write for, and I do want to ask you about how you wrote that. It was challenging in a way that was really fun for me because it was written so well for the instrument. There’s a really contrapuntal section where I’m moving my feet in fourths and fifths. As I was playing it, I’m like, “How am I even doing this?” I was proud of myself for doing it. I really enjoyed the piece. I am curious about your experience with the pipe organ specifically because that is a totally different beast from the B3 and I would love to learn B3, I’ve never really had the opportunity to do it. I know you wrote it for a specific organist, so I was curious about that process.

RHB: It’s interesting because I had some technical difficulty. I wanted to print out a list of my words, a bio, and other things to have in front of me, because when I’m talking, I usually forget who I am and what I’ve written. I happen to have some paper on my desk because it needs to be clean, and one of them is the program notes for Doxology, my organ piece. I’m glad that that’s there because there were a few organists that I sat with. First of all, the guy who commissioned me to write the piece, I cannot even remember his name, and that doesn’t bother me as much as it should. The reason it doesn’t bother me is because after I wrote the piece, he looked at it and he said, “That’s not good enough for me to play.” I was crushed, I was crushed, I was crushed. Thank God we were on the phone so he couldn’t see my face melting. Oh my God, I was so hurt. And I said, “Okay.” It was a specific project, he commissioned several composers for a recording that he was doing in a publication. He was so excited when he found my name because he was looking for a black female composer. I guess I made an assumption that I was in. Now, I remember his name. Oh, my God, his initials, now I can’t get it out of my head. I’m glad it happened, it was a very humbling experience. What it made me do was to revisit all of the organists that I talked to and sit down with them at the organ. One of my best friends, which I wrote all of my clarinet music for, is a call conductor, Richard Nunley, who also plays organ. He’s one of those people that people love to hate. He’s got a beautiful baritone voice. He’s left handed, so he’s a left handed conductor. He’s also right handed as a conductor. He plays piano, organ, he plays the entire clarinet family, he plays bassoon. It’s like, what doesn’t he do? [Richard] said the same thing that Hale Smith has always said to me, “Regina, don’t ever doubt yourself. This guy’s a jerk. He probably bit off more than he can chew, and this is his way of eliminating you. He could have found a kinder way to say, ‘I’m sorry, but the project ran over and I had to cut a piece and yours was it,’ but to say this doesn’t measure up kind of thing. Richard Nunely, who doesn’t play organ that much because with all his talents, he has to choose and he is primarily a choral conductor. He sat down with the piece when it was finished, he saw the piece in one of its many drafts. At the time, I was working as a children’s choir director at a church here in Chicago. The organist there, I didn’t really know him that well, Zvonimir Nagy is his name. The reason I didn’t know Zvonimir that well was because I was working at the morning mass with the children and he worked in the afternoon mass, so we never would never cross paths. I just knew who he was. Occasionally if something happened, they would ask me to sub for him. But, I never played organ. Subbing for him meant providing worship music. They never asked him to sub for me because he wouldn’t have done it. He was one of those very proper Russian organists.

Zvonimir was cool because he worked at three different churches and he sat with me at three different organs. That was really helpful to me because when I think of organ, for me, organ is the first synthesizer. I love that fact that you have this orchestra at your fingertips and that like drums, drum set, drum kit, it requires all four limbs. I really like that about it. One of my earliest memories of my paternal grandmother is that we would go to Catholic mass in the morning. When I was a kid, the masses were still in Latin. Masses were said in Latin and then they switched to the vernacular, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The Latin masses were very rigid. The priest had his back to the congregation throughout the entire mass unless he was passing out communion and even then you never looked at him, he never looked at you. In the afternoon, my sisters and I, the three big ones, we would walk my grandmother, a member of the Church of God in Christ, to church. We used to call it ‘the swept back your hair’ church, because you would go in there and the ladies were all dolled up and the men were in button downs. By the time they finished shouting and doing their holy dance, everybody was sweating. My sisters and I would make fun of them to sing any nonsense syllables because that’s how it sounded to us. The most engaging thing for me—I would sit down at my grandmother’s feet. I was just so enamored with the fact that her feet could move that fast playing a bass line. Then, when I think about it, she was crossing feet and doing all kinds of stuff. My grandmother was in her 60s/70s when she was doing this, and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s able to do this?’ She was in her 80s when she died. Sometimes, my grandmother would be playing the organ and she would be shouting. Her upper body was doing one thing, the foot board she’s doing something else. I just thought, ‘what a cool instrument’; and she was playing B3. In the Catholic Church that I went to, they had B3 and pipe organs. They also had electric organs. That foot pedaling, I just love it. I loved the fact that the pedals were so big. It looks like a piano, but it’s not. At the same time, it was very daunting to try to write for an organ.

Carl Chaddock was another organist who sat with me. Carl was so interested in this piece because he was a member of AGO, American Guild of Organists. And the same year that the person who commissioned this piece rejected it, Carl said—oh, I called him, because I asked a friend of mine, a non musician, he asked me for some music for one of his films. He’s a filmmaker. And nothing panned out but he said, “I have a friend you might be interested in meeting, Carl, who’s an organist.” Carl said, “You know what? We have an AGO meeting coming up. It’s a big anniversary and we’re looking to do more music by black composers. Would you think you might have this piece ready?” I said, “It’s ready now!” So, he’s like, “Meet me at my church.” He looked through and he’s like, “This is beautiful. It’s fabulous.” I said, “Okay. Are you going to play it?” He said, “Oh, no. I could never play it.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “I’m not an organist, I’m a pianist.” I said, “But you just played through it.” He was like, “I was just sight reading; I play organ at my church but I don’t play organ in public, as an organist.” I’ve done things where organists didn’t show up but I was a choir director and I had to start the mass. You sit down, and in my case, you play five one and the foot pedal and that’s it. That’s all you’re getting out of me. If I felt really fancy or there was a plagal cadence, then I got to go four one. Other than that—I wasn’t doing the stuff my grandmother was doing. Carl said, “I want to take this to an AGO meeting and see what they say.” Well, they voted unanimously to premiere this piece.

My mom was taking organ lessons and by then she was retired. She was maybe in her 60s or 70s. One of the guys at the church where she worked, which I also used to work there, Tom Weisflog, was his name. He was an organist at St. Thomas Apostle Church and also at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel. She said, “Tom, my daughter’s writing an organ piece, you think you can take a look at it?” He said, “Uh, sure. Is it a modern twentieth century organ piece?” She said, “Well, she does write modern, but her music is nice.” And he said, “Well, of course, you’re the mother.” Tom and I had known each other. Anyway, he looked at the piece and he was like, “Oh, my God, I got to play this.” I said, “AGO is going to premiere it.” The University of Chicago is not to be outdone. They called me and said, “We want to premiere the piece.” I called AGO and I said, “Would you mind if you could say that you are premiering the piece at your meeting? Would it be OK? Or do you just want to do the world premiere? They said, “Oh, no, that’s cool.” I was like, “Oh, good, because I have a chance to make some money and do a concert.” They did half a dozen performances in Rockefeller Chapel and the organ had just been redone and they made this big deal out of it. We’re so grateful to invite a woman composer here. This is the first concert we’ve done in our refurbished organ. I thought I had died and gone to organ heaven. It was fabulous. I’ve got a couple other people, Campbell McNeil. Campbell McNeil worked for a UCC church in Chicago, and he loved French organ music. He was a very formal man and he was also black. For this music to come from a black person, oh, my God, the skies have parted and the sun is shining down on me. I was so happy when you called me because I’ve said, “All these men are playing this piece.” One person told me, “Oh, my God, I like to wear dresses when I play the organ. That’s not a dress wearing organ piece.” I thought, that’s kind of silly.

MW: She’s not playing Bach either then!

RHB: That was an easy way of saying I don’t want to spend the time to work it up. So, when you offered to play this, I was thrilled to death. Now you’re famous in the program notes.

MW: I wanted to ask about something you did recently, which you so generously sent me your variations in black music collection. I’m curious about how that came about and the inspiration behind it. Like Helen Walker mentions and like you mentioned, here you draw from many different black music traditions and that is reflected in these variations in black music. If you could talk about that a little bit.

RHB: I belong to an organization, the National Association of African-American Musicians, and they celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2019. They were founded in 1919. I have probably been a member now for maybe ten years and they have always asked me to join. I didn’t feel like I wanted to belong to a group like that. I mean, it’s not just them, it’s other people too. I’ve been asked to join the ACM. I always felt like groups like that are hard to be in because it’s hard being around musicians and associations on a regular basis. With Six Degrees, the group that I founded, I always feel like I’m herding cats, but I know when to take off the kid gloves. I know how to say to them, “You have five minutes and five minutes only on the program.” We are not going to hold the audience hostage. I’ve been to concerts by both of those previous groups, and they know that I love them, I support them. I’ve been to concerts where my husband has a thing when we go to a concert. If he says, “I’ll be right back,” that means, I’d better have a ride home or way home because he’s had his fill. He’s not coming back. “I’ll be right back” is all he says. I live down the street from Orchestra Hall so he knows I could walk home or I can take a bus. By the time I sit down, it’s time for me to get off the bus. But, if we’re out in the middle of nowhere, that’s my cue that we are leaving. Usually he’s pretty tolerant, but when he gets into a third or fourth hour, he’s done. He will not last four hours. I can tell you that. Even at my friend’s funeral that was in Metropolitan Church, she was an AACM member. The funeral in the church was about four and a half hours long and they left there and they went to the school where she taught. A school that was founded by Haki Madhubuti, he and his wife founded four or five different Afrocentric schools. She was the music department at one school, not a music teacher, but the music department. They went back to the school where she taught and had a 13-hour jam session. I talked to people afterwards and I said, “Hey, how was the jam session at Betty Shabazz?” One girl told me, “I didn’t get home till 1:30 a.m.” I thought, “Oh, my God, Greg would have never made that, 1:30 a.m.?” It was raining cats and dogs that day, but I had the wherewithal to tell them ahead of time that I would not be there because I knew the funeral would be long. It’s one of those things where every musician in the house had to play. I think for me, because one of my lifetimes or one of my livelihoods, I was the Director of Public Relations and I’m always very conscious of people’s time. I would like to respect people. I’m not stupid. I know that one hour of new music is about all that the average late person can take.

I have composer friends. One person, Gary Powell Nash. I name his name, hoping to shame him into never saying this again. He said to me once when he came to one of my concerts—I said, “What did you think?” Because he was avoiding me. He says, “I’m just going to come out with it. I think any concert that is shorter than two hours is not respectable.” And I said, “You know, Gary, that’s why you always play to empty houses and why I have a full house.” Because people know that I’m not going to hold them hostage. The women at Six Degrees or Gary Powell Nash ever hear this interview, they’ll know that I fight them tooth and nail. 60 minutes, that is from downbeat to cut off, not 60 minutes worth of music where you’ve got to change and do this and that. In other words, we’re talking about 40 to 50 minutes worth of music. I like brevity. My opera was two hours long when I first wrote it. The second performance was underwritten by the Reader’s Digest Lyla Wallace Foundation. Lyla Wallace came to me and said, “We would like a one hour version of your opera.” I was like, “What are you talking about? One hour version of my opera? It’s two hours long.” They said, “Yeah, can you do it without sacrificing the integrity of the piece?” Someone writes you a blank check—

MW: You make it happen.

RHB: That’s what I did. When I looked at that one hour performance, the two hour performance has never seen the light of day since, because if you can say it in an hour, why would you say it in two hours?

MW: For me, that’s always been my ethos. If I’m putting on a concert, you’re not going to hold the audience hostage, you’re not going to force them past their limit. You always want to leave them wanting more.

RHB. Exactly. That’s what I was taught in music schools. Start with something that they will remember, the motifs, and always leave them wanting more. Now, that practical side of composition, in no way does it force me to compromise the integrity of the music. Getting back to variations in black. So, that’s how that book came together. I wanted to put together something for this National Association of African-American Musicians Convention to sell at the convention. They’d always asked me to come to the convention. I never went because of this. They always go to different cities, it’s around my birthday, my anniversary, I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t want to drag my husband for our anniversary to a stupid music convention, although I’ve been to enough engineering conventions. So, this one was in Chicago, down the street from my house. I didn’t have an excuse. It was the best thing I ever did. I got to meet so many musicians that you would never dream; like, “oh my God, this was written by that person.” I got to meet people like Joseph Joubert, whose work I have always admired but had never gotten a chance to meet him. I got to meet a woman called Linda Twine, who I did not know. She’s a composer who was in most of the orchestral pits on Broadway—Bubbling Brown Sugar, just all the Broadway plays that had predominantly black casts. A classically trained music director was going on sabbatical and said, “Hey, I want you to sub for me.” She said, “Oh, okay, you need a pianist?” They said, “Yeah, pianist music director/arranger.” It was a jazz show, but she didn’t know that until she got there. She’s like, “I’ve never played jazz,” and he said, “It’s the same as classical, you just got to know how to swing.” He got her started and he made a tape for her. She imitated the tape, did the gig, and was bitten by the bug 40 years later. She had all this stuff under her belt because someone wanted to take a break. Thank God that he called her because in those days, Linda, who was probably 10 or 15 years older than I am, was one of the only women in that pit at the helm. They had female flute players, a female violinist, but even if you were a female tuba player, no one’s going to call you. That’s not your instrument, that’s a man’s instrument. And, why is she at the podium? She said, “I didn’t even own a baton when I got that gig.” It didn’t dawn on her that she would need a baton until she went to the dress rehearsal and they were like, ‘I can’t see your hands.’ Well, of course not. She said, “Maybe I should wear some white gloves.” Then the director said, “Maybe you should get a baton.” She was like “Oh, okay.” Those are the people that I met at this convention. I had known about NAAM, National Association of African-Americans Musicians as a child, but it didn’t seem like my cup of tea. I’m glad I went. It led to a lot of relationships that I’m still cultivating. I sold some copies of variations in black music. Again, it’s a compilation. I think I start with Azuretta, which is a solo piano piece that I dedicate to Hale Smith, my mentor, master composer, and great friend. I ended with a piece called Dreamweaver, which is a jazz piece. I think it’s important for a composer if that is what he or she hears or wants to do, to write different types of music.

When I was in the academy, I was told by one of my composition teachers, I wrote a gospel piece and I took it to my lesson, and the protocols that you put your music on the stand. He was a fabulous piano player and he would play through, go and tell you where you could improve. He looked at my piece, the title, the directions, and he balled the paper up and threw it in the basket. “This is cop shit. We are a conservatory. You are to write classical music. Don’t ever waste my time again.” He stood up as if to dismiss me. Again, I was a ball of tears and I was a freshman, and I had come from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. With a name like that, you know what the high school and study body was about. I was used to writing jazz band charts for a jazz band. I was used to writing pieces for string ensembles. I was used to writing classical pieces, marching band pieces. My band director and my music teachers at Dunbar were so sweet. They actually took my music and put it in the folder with Bach, Sousa and Beethoven. I knew this was going to be a continuation of high school, so to have someone ball up a piece of paper and throw it in the basket and it popped right in the basket. Even though I’m sure if he tried that a hundred times, he wouldn’t have made that basket. I went home crying and I mentioned to my father what happened. I told this story on the radio once with my teacher, the guy who did it, his name is Robert Lombardo. We actually became friends when I was an adult. But as a young undergrad, I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m not going to make it.” That had been my dream to go and get a degree in Composition and Theory of Music. My father, a wise man, said, “You have to learn how to write your music for yourself. Leave that at home. Write your music for your grade and take that to school. Whatever instructions he gives you, you follow those instructions. But, if you’ve got a piece that in your heart of hearts you know you must write, then you write that piece as fervently as you wrote the assignment, using all the tools that he gave you.” In my mind, I heard that as you have to write head music and you have to write heart music, just like a singer has a head voice and a chest voice. I learned how to do that. One of the reasons I told the story on the radio was that he actually taught me something. If someone called me and said, ‘We’re commissioning you to write a piece of music’ and I can’t get into it, I know how to turn that head on. He taught me that. I know how to take those tools. Start with an opening gesture that really catches people’s attention or grabs them by the throat or whatever your goal is. I can take a one measure motif and blow it up into a three hour piece. He taught me how to do that. He didn’t know that he was doing that. The best thing about this story is not so much the hidden heart music, but Robert Lombardo—I later found out at Detroit Symphony Orchestra and they were performing a piece of mine, and it was a big deal for me. There was another guy on the program, he was from Oberlin, and he said, “I have a friend in Chicago named Bob Lombardo, do you know him?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. I study with him.” He said, “What a fine man.” He was talking, and of course, if you can’t think of anything good to say, keep your mouth closed. I have one of those faces where I can’t hide things. And he said, “You’ve got to tell me about this guy.” And I said, “What do you mean? You said you know him.” He said, “I know him as a student. He studied gospel and jazz with me for 10 summers.” I said, “Really?” When I told him my story, he said, “My wife told me when she first met him, ‘I don’t like that guy’” He said, “You don’t even know him, you just met him.” It was so weird because when I found out that he was studying gospel and jazz, I asked him about it. Why did you react to my music that way? Or why were you studying jazz, if that’s the way you felt about it? He didn’t really have an answer per se, but it was one of those things where [he said], “this is what I was taught, this is how I taught you. I only study jazz and blues because I loved it, and I wanted to know how to write it. A part of me was a little jealous that here is this 17-year-old kid coming in here, smashing it in my face that she can write gospel music or jazz, and I can’t.” Well, I mean, if you grow up in an environment that I grew up in—it’s like Ulysses Kay. He was a classical composer, but his uncle was [King Oliver]. Now, he made the conscious choice. He did not want to write blues, he was a classical composer. That’s what his heart was. That’s where he resonated with that music. When I met Ulysses Kay and I asked him about the story that I read where his family said, ‘If you can’t write music of our culture, then I don’t want you writing music.’ I think his parents told him that and his uncle stood up for him and said he has to write what his heart tells them to write, because if you force him into something, it’s not going to work. That’s why I’m so adamant about variations in black music or variations in music. I look at Rachel Barton Pine, a classically trained violinist. She loves heavy metal, jazz, blues. I think, if that’s your calling, if that’s what you want to do, it’s important for aspiring musicians to see that it’s possible.

MW: Thank you, Regina Harris Baiocchi, for being on Sound Meets Sound podcast. It’s been a huge honor and so cool to hear from your own lips about these experiences that I read, some of which I read about in ​From Spirituals to Symphonies.

RHB: Thank you, Meg. It’s been my pleasure. I’m grateful that people are interested in hearing about music and the composition process.

MW: Now let’s listen to a selection of live performances of Regina’s work, starting with the fourth movement from Sketches for Piano Trio, performed by the Lincoln Trio; this is followed by the third movement from Hummingbird written for piano duo and performed by Winston Choi and Kuang-Hao Huang; Dreamweaver performed by Susan Worthington, Matana Roberts, and Ester Hana; and Ask Him, performed by Roberta Thomas, Ester Hana, Ben Willis, and Michael Adams.

Transcript by Woedan Paljor.

Read on for a transcript of my interview with Sakari Dixon (now Sakari Dixon Vanderveer), which appeared as episode 7 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: Welcome Sakari Dixon to the Sound Meets Sound Podcast thank you very much for joining me and can you just give me a short description of who you are and what it is you do?

SD: Yeah, my name is Sakari Dixon and I am a violist and composer out in Redlands California. Like many musicians I have my time split between teaching, performing and composing. I do a lot of each throughout the week. I am currently working on a couple pieces, one for viola and piano and another for orchestra. I’m performing in different orchestras around here such as the Redlands Community Orchestra and the Redlands Symphony as well. And then I also teach independently and out in San Jacinto with an El Sistema group, so, it’s pretty fun.

MW: That’s cool, that sounds like every musician I’ve talked to on this podcast. They’re doing a million things. So, it’s just the life of the musician. I was reading online your bio and it says you started composing in middle school, is that right?

SD: That is correct. I think the very first time I was introduced into composition was in fifth grade — you know just a little assignment — put a whole note here a half note there, really random. But when it really started to take off was in middle school, we had this project where we would team up with the visual art students and we got into little groups of I think three or four. What we did was we came up with a theme of some sort and then we worked on a painting together and wrote a piece to go with it. After realizing that there was music software in our library at school, I started continuing to play around with it in an after school program when I had free time. And so I was writing duets for friends and things like that.

MW: Oh cool, do you remember what the software was?

SD: It was Finale Allegro.

MW: Alright. So that’s really cool. Is your process a lot different — obviously it probably is — than when you were in middle school. I’m just trying to get to the question of what is your compositional process? How does it start? Do you work directly into a program or do you make notes first?

SD: Interestingly enough I do still attach my composition either to an image in my mind or at least to a vague narrative. I wouldn’t say a lot of my music is programmatic in the sense that oh, this happens here or there but I do tend to have somewhat of a picture in my mind. Which is funny because I haven’t really done much drawing or painting since I was little. I would be embarrassed to draw anything now. A lot of it does kind of have something visual attached to it or a feeling or things like that. I normally start writing on paper actually. I find that it’s less distracting and I also tend to do a lot of scribbling and here’s a little bit of this section and a little bit of that. So it’s actually a real nuisance to start putting things in right away. I also find that especially working on a laptop you also have this small screen, it does kind of skew your perceptions of phrase length and things like that so I try to stay away from it early on. I also tend to do a little bit of improvising, maybe find a melody, put this in somewhere and work off of that. I guess what I think is pretty odd — I don’t know, maybe it’s really normal — A lot of times I’ll come up with a melody, a little idea, and then especially if that piece isn’t for a deadline it just kind of sits there. And then I’ll get distracted with something else, and then when I actually need it, it’s like oh year I wrote this one violin melody a while back maybe let’s see, I’ll go dig it up and then work from there. I guess it’s a little less daunting than dealing with a purely blank page.

MW: Right, it’s like little gifts you’re giving to your future self.

SD: That’s a good way to put it yeah.

MW: Blank page or the blank score is really intimidating and sometimes all you have in a moment is that little germ, you know that little melody or seed or whatever. Sometimes you don’t want to force it into anything, you want to let it sit for a while. So then, once you have the ideas that you’re doing and you’ve sort of done a sketch, how do you go about really flushing that out into a final piece? What are you thinking about in terms of structure? Cause for me I write little electronic pieces and the hardest part for me is structuring it. Is it something that happens organically or do you really think about, okay this will happen here and this will happen here?

SD: I would say it’s about fifty-fifty, I definitely struggle with structure as well. If you see a lot of my paper sketches, this is going to go somewhere in the middle of the piece and that maybe towards the end. I often don’t have an idea until things start to get filled out a little bit more. Then it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, oh, this makes more sense here. It’s funny I was working on something the other day — my viola and piano piece — and I thought it would be closer to the beginning and once I started developing it out, no this, it’s not really developing, it’s more calmed down, it needs to go towards the end. It’s definitely all over the place.

MW: How is it that you think about development? Is it that one line happens and then the way the next instrument or line layers with that determines the next thing or is it more all at once? A texture at once? — Is that making any sense?

SD: Yeah, it’s making sense. I do tend to think in a linear or layered fashion. I have a piece feRal for saxophone and string trio and that was definitely a lot of the — when I was writing it a lot of the saxophone came first and then strings were commenting on everything in a way. And then there were some parts where the viola has a melody, it’s taking over, then I wrote the context around that. So it’s more a linear fashion in that sense.

MW: Yeah, that’s what I was noticing when I was relistening through the pieces and especially feRal — and it’s easy because you have a YouTube with the score — so you can see how the lines are going together. I want to ask you about these two pieces you mentioned, for orchestra and viola and piano. So with the viola and piano, viola I can see that’s your primary instrument, and I assume it’s probably relatively natural to write for you — or maybe it’s not, correct me if I’m wrong — but I’m also curious about how you write for piano, as a single line instrumentalist. How do you accomplish writing for piano?

SD: It’s funny that you said that viola would come naturally, cause it does. In my lessons Rina — the lady that I study with — pointed out that I often start writing melodies in alto clef. Which is also interesting because I actually started on violin so it’s not like I can’t read treble or bass it’s just that I often tend to think of melodies from that mid voice range, that kind of speaking voice register. Piano has definitely been more of a challenge for me because I haven’t as much for piano. I’m finding that it’s forcing me to think more texturally, of course you can do melody with piano but that’s not really, you’re missing out on so much if you just approach it from that standpoint.

MW: You kind of answered one of the questions I was going to ask, which was how does being a violist influence the way that you compose? You were saying that the mid voice range, the viola also has to my ear, a very unique timbre. Even separate from the other string instruments, the viola has this very unique timbre that’s kind of like a speaking voice. It’s a little — I can’t think of the—Megan Lavengood just wrote a dissertation on timbre and I really need to read it, I don’t have the words for this. I have it to read but I just haven’t read it yet. It’s kind of a rich but grainy texture to me. You had mentioned texture in the piano so, how do you think about texture? How do you think about it and how do you get it onto the page?

SD: Yeah I definitely, I like to kind of play with — It’s funny because you start talking about timbre and all the words, it’s like you’re describing the thing but you’re not really describing the thing. I actually, what I’ll do sometimes is I’ll just simply — along with the sketches of the piece I’ll have a melody and just some notes I’ll start writing things in like glassy or sparkly and things like that and then find techniques or registers to fit with it. So I guess I work backwards from — I was going to say plain English but that’s not really plain — I’ll find more poetic terms and then find something to communicate that if that makes sense.

MW: It makes total sense. It’s funny, if you say glassy sound you can kind of hear that. It’s enough to say that I want sparkly or glassy or roughy or whatever. So then the orchestra piece, talk about timbre. How are you approaching — again there’s the question of structure — but then the instrumentation are you writing for a full orchestra here or is it more of a chamber orchestra or modified orchestra?

SD: This one’s for a full orchestra, including harp. There’s a lot of that in there, which is fun. It’s another one of those pieces that’s starting out — I think it was originally for violin — I wrote a melody and then just left it in a notebook somewhere and then decided I wanted to work on this piece. That melody is actually — I’m trying to think of one time that it’s played plainly in the violin at this point — because it’s like, I want to move it around to this instrument, or split it up between a bunch of different ones. Working with an orchestra, it’s interesting because there’s so much available in that palette. You can’t just start everything in there. So I’m having to think a little bit more about, not just what’s practical because I want it to be at a level that a good community orchestra could play it. I’m not only thinking about what’s practical but what are the strengths of different instruments, what combinations of instruments playing the same line, can create new colors, it’s been a fun experiment.

MW: Are you pretty good hearing these things in your head or do you use a notation program or a digital workstation to plug these things in and test?

SD: Yeah for the most part I do my best to try to hear it in my head. I find that especially in a piece like this where timbre is so central I have a lot of it in Sibelius right now but when I’m creating material I try to stay away from it because you start to hear squeaky sounding entrances, it skews your perception of what it’s actually going to sound like and so it’s hard to trust it. I find especially because I still perform pretty actively and probably the majority of the performance stuff that I do is in orchestra. I try to do my best even when I’m in rehearsal — if there’s a moment that I like — how is this being put together here? A similar thing even when I just go watch other concerts I try to really lean in and see, they have this going at the same time as that.

MW: I always wish I had learned a string instrument because you’re in the orchestra, you kind of have a leg up as a composer. As a violist in orchestras do you play mostly canon repertoire? Or are the groups you play in playing contemporary music as well?

SD: I do play a lot of repertoire in the canon but one of the reasons that I joined the Redlands Community Orchestra — besides the face that it’s super local and convenient — is the fact that I initially heard that they were having a call for scores. They’ve been doing this every other year or so. They started it even before I joined. They draw from pieces from local composers, so people going to universities or living in the area. So it’s nice to get to meet people who are — composers who are here. There are a good handful of composers who are in the group, which is nice. The conductor is also good about choosing programs that are — yeah there’s something canonical, like Beethoven five or something, everybody knows that. But he’ll also choose something that’s slightly off the beaten path that is probably a great piece for the audience to know and also for the musicians to learn, so it’s great to have that mix as well. I find that it gives a lot of variety.

MW: I didn’t know where Redlands was until I looked it up for this interview.

SD: That’s okay, that’s most people.

MW: I was going to ask about what kind of community you have around you, in Redlands? If you feel like you’re hooked into an artistic scene or community or do you spend a lot of time hooking into other cities’ scenes — like Chicago, New York, Baltimore? I think every podcast I’ve done so far talked a lot about community because it’s really hard to exist alone as a musician.

SD: That is true.

MW: Do you feel like you’re part of a community in Redlands?

SD: I do. It’s a relatively small town. I guess to say compared to San Bernardino and Riverside and other places nearby it’s a town where there’s a lot of tradition and people who have been here for generations so there’s a lot of that small town spirit in a way. Which is interesting because driving through it’s not that small but it feels small. You go to Trader Joe’s and run into three people. I would say the music community here is pretty strong. There’s the Redlands Community Orchestra and a lot of people there are pretty tight knit as friends. There’s also another small chamber orchestra that I perform with called Musica Viva, it’s a small chamber orchestra and actually a chamber choir as well. So we get together and do concerts, there’s also the Spinet Club which I’m part of and — it’s over a hundred years old this organization. Basically, once a month we’ll meet, someone will host maybe at their house or a church or if they have access to some other facility they’ll host these little recitals. It’s nice because there’s this built in audience and we’ll usually have a reception or potluck. I feel that the music community is a little more hidden compared to say, going to LA where you see performances everywhere. It’s there and everyone kind of knows everyone, it’s really fun.

MW: When you finish the viola and piano piece, do you have performers in mind? Is that something that will come later?

SD: So that piece, I’m going to perform it with a pianist in the Spinet Club in January. So It’s coming soon.

MW: It’s always nice when you have a built in performance. In January, oh my gosh that’s so soon. And you’ll perform the viola part. Do you have plans for recording or are you more in the writing phase and you’ll think about recording later?

SD: I’m a little more in the writing phase right now. I definitely want to record it, it’s just nice to have good recordings of everything.

MW: I guess I’m a little curious about your teaching. Is the teaching a big part of your musical life or is that just something you’re doing to — not necessarily just for the money — but something you’re doing because you need to have these other activities going on? Or is teaching something you’re really passionate about, how do you approach that?

SD: It does help that teaching is relatively really consistent financially but I actually really do like teaching. I don’t remember if I mentioned that I teach both viola and violin and I have a handful of individual students and some students in the after school El Sistema program. I find that it’s really enlightening and refreshing to see really young people especially approach learning an instrument with new eyes and ears. It’s almost easy to forget — even though I didn’t start that young I started around nine or so — it’s easy to forget being in that season of your life. Where, why don’t I hold the bow this way, this feels more comfortable?

MW: I’ve always heard and in my experience too, as a teacher you learn from your students. That’s what I was forgetting, I wanted to ask you what is your experience with El Sistema? What is it — I don’t really know what it’s about? Do you mind talking about that?

SD: Yeah I can talk a little bit. I’m actually fairly new to working at it so I’ll do my best. I started working with the program over the summer. They have a one month summer strings academy that was held in a local arts center in Hemet. At least in this program the kids come to class two or three times a week, depending on their level. Before they can even get their instruments they’ll make cardboard instruments and they learn a little bit about music theory as well, which is nice because I’m really into having that well rounded kind of learning and not just here’s how to put your finger there. There’s a strong communal aspect as well because they involve the parents really early and the parents are volunteering and helping out with things. I think that’s what I find most notable about the program is that strong communal aspect. There’s someone to support them all the way through.

MW: I don’t know if you had this but from ages ten until college I always felt kind of less than — “I didn’t start early enough”, when I got to college I really started to feel like the people around me had been playing when they were in the womb. It seems very daunting. Did you feel like you were behind or was your experience different especially when you got to college?

SD: I would say it’s probably very similar actually. I started learning in public schools and at that point I wasn’t very self conscious of it because everyone I knew that was playing violin or cello was in the same kind of program. It started to occur to me that I was a little behind the pack so to speak when I was doing honor orchestras or other local competitions and realizing that these kids have had private lessons since they were two.

MW: Your degree is in composition or is it in viola?

SD: Yes, it’s in composition.

MW: Did you start college thinking “I’m going to be a composer” or did you start as a violist and then decide to move to composition?

SD: When I auditioned it was for composition. At the University of Redlands they are pretty adamant about having their composers still be performers. Which I wanted to do anyway. I still auditioned on viola and I was still in orchestra and all the other things. I did a recital on viola as well. Originally I wasn’t sure if I was just going to do composition or if I was going to do a double major. I decided that would be too overwhelming because I was also doing a Spanish minor. You can only juggle so much. I did composition and made sure I took lessons and did a lot of the performance stuff along the way.

MW: Did you do a lot of that in college, working with a specific flair and developing a piece with an instrumentalist or have you done much of that?

SD: Probably most of my pieces were like that in college. For example the piece feRal for alto saxophone and string trio, I think I started writing it at the beginning of my senior year. I literally put up a poster in August in the music department hallway, “Who wants a piece and is willing to perform it?”. It was a silly little wanted poster.

MW: I like that.

SD: My friend Kelsey approached me and she wanted a piece. We originally were thinking of doing a saxophone concerto but it wasn’t going to be done in time for the — there was a concerto competition but it was in November. Pretty soon we realized, that’s really really soon so let’s do it for the spring and we can do a chamber ensemble. At that point I realized I still kind of want that saxophone and strings sound so I just reduced it to — it was originally for string quartet and then I decided I didn’t need two violins so I even reduced it from there. So it was fun writing little sketches and taking it to her to see what it would sound like or having her play a melody and growl along with it. I also have another piece for bass, flute and percussion and that one was commissioned by another student — the bassist. He came to me and wanted a chamber piece so I got to work with him on that.

MW: Is that Oak or — I’m trying to remember which one.

SD: Bailando en la sombra de locura — Dancing in the Shadows of Madness.

MW: I know a little Spanish, I know it’s dancing. That’s right, I listened to that piece. It’s interesting you said that about feRal because when I was listening to it — it’s interesting that it started as a concerto because I was like “this is a really good show piece for an alto saxophonist”. It really shows the range of the player, obviously she was really good. It had that concerto vibe and even kind of a mini cadenza. Bailando, I liked the textures in that piece, when you’re writing for bass it’s also kind of writing for classical guitar because they’re not very loud instruments. That sets a lot of — not necessarily in a negative way but — it sets limitations on what you can do if you’re trying to showcase the bass.

SD: It’s not as boomy as people expect and that’s a problem.

MW: Because in an orchestra there’s five, six, seven of them. That’s why they sound that strong. Those are interesting challenges to take on as a composer — from my perspective anyways — writing for alto sax and bass because those aren’t really standard solo instruments.

SD: That’s true — now that I think about it — that is true.

MW: Those are interesting challenges to take on. I forget the details now — you did something about, in reaction to a NewMusicBox article about ageism in the classical world. There was something about writing for composers over forty?

SD: Oh yeah. There was a call for scores for composers over forty. The article, I think it was simply titled “Agism in New Music” and I read it and I — I had kind of heard of the topic before but I hadn’t really thought about it that deeply I guess. So I was kind of, really impulsive and I was like, I’m just going to put up a blog post and say “Hey, let’s do this”.

MW: That’s great!

SD: It was pretty impulsive.

MW: Those impulsive things, you have the impulse for a reason. As a developed musician you have instincts so why not use them? So it was a call for scores for you as a violist to play music for composers over forty. You got a lot of submissions and you chose three of them?

SD: I only opened the call for about three weeks because I actually wanted to take the time to go through what I would get. It was mainly — I also did a short call because I really wanted to perform stuff that people had already written. Some things were written really recently or — I guess some wrote them in that time but — a lot of them were pieces that were completed previously and I got, I think it was over ninety pieces. Which really shocked me and I did listen through them. So I picked three pieces from there and I’m actually still in the process of working to put that on as a recital or something. At the time that I did that call for scores I was working full time in an office job and still teaching lessons and whatnot. Honestly most of my practicing was “okay there’s this orchestra concert coming up”, a lot more short sighted stuff. So my work schedule didn’t change up until around this spring or so. I’m finally starting to get back into composing more and working on side projects and trying to start some chamber music things, that’ll be nice. It’s still on my music stand.

MW: If you’re all listening it’s still there.

SD: I haven’t forgotten.

MW: Yeah that time management thing has come up a lot too in the podcast, about balancing things teaching and the need to pay bills but also really nourishing — giving the time to the things you actually want to do with your life. What are your long term goals — as a musician, composer, violist — what is on the distant horizon or what would you like to be on the distant horizon?

SD: I definitely see myself doing music full time at some point. Whether that’s teaching, performing I’m very comfortable with the idea of it being a mixture of multiple things. It’s actually gotten to the point even if I could find one job that paid all the bills, even if it wasn’t music, just one thing I think I’d get really bored — that’s kind of scary to me.

MW: I know what you mean.

SD: I definitely see myself doing that full time. I really like chamber music and new music and I hope to be able to work with ensembles and collectives to get that going on a more regular basis. It’s kind of my dream at some point to have maybe a teaching program for kids not only learn to perform and learn to read music but also were very active in composition because kids are so open minded. They’re not afraid to make weird sounds. Even some of the kids that I’ve taught in private lessons, sometimes they’ll bring me music for an audition or something — it’s a middle school piece but maybe it has a random five-four bar — I’ve seen adults that say “why is this here?” and the kids are like “how do I play this? Oh that sounds cool.” They’re just so flexible. I think getting really on people to compose is really underestimated. I hope to be able to give that back.

MW: Thank you Sakari Dixon for being on Sound Meets Sound. I’m really looking forward to what comes next with you.

SD: Thank you for having me on the show.

Excerpt from feRal by Sakari Dixon

Transcript by Melissa Goodchild https://goodchildgradyduo.squarespace.com/

I proposed the following paper to the Society for Music Theory’s 2018 national conference but it wasn’t accepted. Because I did do quite a bit of reading and creating/staring at spectrograms for it, I thought I’d share it here for anyone else who’s interested in studying timbre. It’s a very nascent analysis, so feedback and thoughts are welcome!

A formal analysis of Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal achieved through the spectral identification of timbral structures

Taking the recorded object as the basis for analysis, I capture and analyze spectrograms from Kaija Saariaho’s Du Cristal in order to characterize its spectral profile, develop a method for functional interpretation based on this profile, and elucidate the piece’s formal structure. This undertaking will provide answers to some of the questions that Saariaho herself poses in her writings about the ability of timbre to carry formal structure. I use Megan Lavengood’s methodology as the basis for my timbral analysis of Du Cristal. Lavengood’s use of contextual oppositions (as opposed to a priori oppositions) to define markedness and unmarkedness particularly suits my purpose.

I pair Lavengood’s methodology with Saariaho’s theory of spectral form, which posits that timbre meets the criteria for “form-bearing elements in music” (ICMC 1985) and that there exists the possibility for directional musical tension along a “sound/noise axis” (CRM 1987). In her writings from the 1980s Saariaho seems concerned with creating a hierarchy of timbre; this is where she and I part ways. My study focuses not on attempting to discern hierarchical classifications of Du Cristal’s timbral structures but rather on oppositions (a concept used by both Lavengood and Saariaho) and interpreting the piece’s unmarked and marked structures within its own sound world.

Within the sound world of 1980s pop music Lavengood posits the timbral profile of a clean electric guitar as being unmarked. For Du Cristal’s sound world I define unmarkedness by the overall timbral profile of the piece: “noise” (per Sarraiaho, diffuse and rough) is unmarked and “sound” is marked (pure and smooth). I refine these terms by layering onto them the specificity of Lavengood’s definitions for the noisy/pure sustain opposition, and add into my analysis her soft/percussive attack opposition and rich/sparse pitch opposition. Each of the terms to the left of the slash represent the unmarked sound of Du Cristal.

Example 1 is an annotated spectrogram of 8:25-10:30 of Du Cristal, in which I label the spectral characteristics present. This section, while containing for the most part the unmarked qualities of noisy and rich, is marked by a series of percussive attacks, whose rate of occurrence increases into a period of extreme richness and amplitude. The opening transition is characterized by the amplitude of the frequencies moving downward, while the closing transition is characterized by the reverse.

saariaho_smt2018_ex1.jpg

Example 2 is an annotated spectrogram of 11:30-12:50 of Du Cristal. It is unmarked by its noisy sustain and soft attacks, but contains several marked moments of sparseness. Similar to Example 1, the rate of occurrence of the unmarked quality increases into a loud and rich apex. The opening transition is characterized by relatively pure sustain ending abruptly in relative sparseness, while the closing transition is an extended moment of stasis, characterized by the disappearance of the sparse moments.

saariaho_smt2018_ex2-1-e1551296478653.jpg

I analyze the entire piece in this manner, i.e., by locating patterns in marked timbral events and extrapolating small and large-scale patterns therefrom. This enables me to perform an interpretation of the overall form of Du Cristal.

Works cited

Stephen McAdams and Kaija Saariaho (1985) “Qualities and Functions of Musical Timbre,” Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, 367­­-374

Kaija Saariaho (1987) “Timbre and harmony: Interpolations of timbral structures,”

Contemporary Music Review, 2:1, 93-133

Megan Lavengood (2017) A New Approach to the Analysis of Timbre, diss., The City University of New York

 

Music composed for a deep listening that fixes you in the present has fascinated me for well over a decade now. As someone who is constantly thinking of the past or the future, I find it incredibly challenging to stay with the present. When I do manage to rise to the challenge I always find it transformative, and I’ve never risen to that challenge without the help of present-focused music.

We Who Walk Again by Ghost Ensemble—released on May 18th—is full of such music. Indeed, the ensemble “takes as a common touchstone the Deep Listening practice of Pauline Oliveros,” whose work Angels and Demons is featured. Beautifully performed and recorded, these unique pieces get their full due on this album.

60 Degree Mirrors by Sky Macklay (also the oboist on this recording)

After an abrupt full-ensemble pulsation, shards of high, biting clusters cut through sparser moments and the occasional swooping scalar motion, evoking the kaleidoscope implied by the title. Towards the middle of the piece these high clusters take over the texture, the piercing sounds demanding your attention without ever moving you forward in time; that is, keeping you in the present. This section transforms into a texture that incorporates lower sounds and a rhythmic lick that recurs unpredictably. The piece ends again in the high register, with slow-moving clusters.

Angels and Demons by Pauline Oliveros

Dyads and intricate, denser chords float in and out of the air against a backdrop of quiet cymbal scraping. Suddenly a growling contrabass line interjects into the gossamer texture, which then begins to swell in volume, growing into a body-felt sound mass. Skittering blocks and a tumbling rhythm give way to breathy grunting and accented harp chords. The sound mass returns, enveloping, pulsing, and eventually dissipating. A frenetic wind line cuts through a low-resonance foundation just before the piece fades to silence.

Wind People by Ben Richter (also the accordionist on this recording and the ensemble’s founder)

The piece emerges out of a hushed stasis, the contrabass lines repeating two notes in unpredictable rhythmic patterns amid an almost drone-like sustaining texture. Subtle, deep moaning gestures appear after about 4 minutes, effecting an eventual transformation of the drone-like texture into something more unsettled. The descending gestures persist, seemingly pulling ever-deeper even as the volume subtly increases. Winds and accordion pierce through this around minute 8, but the pull into the deep continues. Three minutes later the piercing sounds return, raising the volume considerably. Deeper and more resonant the piece continues, in a multifaceted texture that evokes the primeval. As the end approaches, the entire ensemble focuses in on one note, swelling loud and soft, before diminishing by nano-decibels over several minutes into silence.

Throwback Thursday to electronic composer Glynis Jones. Here’s her haunting “Veils and Mirrors”:

I’m listening to: composer Rosephanye Powell. Here’s her “Non nobis, Domine”:

Throwback Thursday to composer Elinor Remick Warren. Here’s her “Crystal Lake”:

I’m listening to: film composer Tamar-kali. Here’s a gorgeous track from her score for the movie Mudbound:

Throwback Thursday to composer Ruth Gipps. Here’s her Symphony No. 2:

When I first began to focus my blogging more specifically on composers who are women I knew a handful of earlier works (i.e., not-contemporary) and quite a lot of contemporary works; I counted several women composers among my friends and acquaintances, after all. I was expecting to find a lot more contemporary composers, and maybe a couple dozen (at most) women in the past who were composers. What I was not expecting was for my conception of music’s past to be completely reworked, nor was I expecting how angry this endeavor would make me.

Women have been writing music all along, and not just one composer writing a few pieces here and there throughout history; as I walk backward in time I can find several women writing prolifically in any giving historical “moment.” I had never heard of them in my nearly three decades of studying music because even those who were successful during their lifetimes were studiously written out of history (and, later, concert programs) after their passing. Many of them wrote dozens (sometimes hundreds) of pieces that were stored away and are only now being performed and recorded. That past (and current) historians and programmers have deprived us of such an enormous wealth of art makes my blood boil. That there are wonderful performers/groups and record labels righting this wrong prevents me from completely Hulk-ing out.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a recent release from Wave Theory Records, pianist Samantha Ege’s Four Women, which contains a mix of composers who gained at minimum some notoriety during their lifetimes and whose music is occasionally programmed and recorded (Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Vítězslava Kaprálová) and one composer—Ethel Bilsland—whose music is almost impossible to find in published form and therefore to perform and record; it is indeed through Ege’s efforts that we now have access to one of Bilsland’s pieces.

Today I’m reviewing Navona Record’s release Piano Works by Sara Feigin, performed by Benjamin Goodman, which consists almost entire of previously unperformed and unrecorded works. Produced by the composer’s daughter Carmela O’Flaherty, the album contains a full 22 tracks (5 multi-movement pieces), providing a comprehensive record of Feigin’s highly developed and coherent compositional style. Feigin, born in Latvia and known both as an educator and as a composer, wrote dozens of pieces throughout her adult life, and her music was frequently performed on the radio in her chosen home of Israel.

Here are some of my favorite tracks from the album:

“Storm” from Two Pieces: One of the many showpieces on this album, “Storm” is a captivating piece of programmatic music with is perpetual motion accompaniment and dramatic melodic gestures.

Toccata: As pianist Benjamin Goodman states in the liners notes, Feigin’s pieces often require a virtuosic level of playing, not only in terms of technical difficulty but also in its wide emotional range. Toccata traverses several textural landscapes, each with its own frenetic gesture, and Goodman navigates them with seeming ease.

“Memories” from Four Scenes: Featuring a gorgeously angular recurring melody in a dancelike setting, Goodman stretches and compresses the time to maximize the yearning affect of this short piece.

Variation III from Variations: One of the few gentle pieces on the album, this variation has folklike, pastoral feeling.

Movement III from Sonata: Inspired by Joseph Kuzkovsky’s painting, “Led to the Slaughter –  Babi Yar” and dedicated to the victims of Urkaine’s Babi Yar concentration camp, this movement begins and ends with a ponderous ground bass that rises gradually before a steep octave drop. Though one might expect such a piece to feature a lament bass line, the rising bass with its final drop is much more unsettling. The ground bass is interrupted by a visceral and violent middle section with spiky textures that climaxes with high, accented repeated chords. The ground bass then returns and the music slowly dies away. Goodman portrays deeply the emotional force of this harrowing journey.

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