Read on for a transcript of my interview with Samantha Ege, which appeared as episode 10 of my podcast Sound Meets Sound:

MW: Welcome Samantha Ege to the Sound Meets Sound podcast. Really excited to have you here. I want to just get started, jump right in as I usually do with your musician origin story where maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you came to be a musician, did it start with the piano and once you got to the piano, how did you decide to turn it into a career.

SE: Piano has always been a part of my life ever since I was very young and it was always clear that music would be something that I would pursue. With this area of women composers that’s more of a recent development through coming across the music of people like Florence Price, Clara Schumann and beginning to question why this music isn’t part of my repertoire already and so those realizations came a few years ago and that’s when I decided to actively pursue and learn music by women composers exclusively and once I did that, it’s kind of funny actually doors began to open more than if I had just stuck to a canon and I guess there’s clearly a movement where there is a lot of interest in various women composers and I think everything sort of came together at the right time. I was invited to present at the house of the British high commissioner here in Singapore and there was an event hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce to do with women in business and my event was ‘Women in music’. Basically the idea was that I would present a different side to women’s achievement, historical and present. And it was very successful and after that I did a few recordings of the pieces that I played which included Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Zenobia Powell Perry and Cécile Chaminade and Vítězslava Kaprálová. My friend heard that recording and played those recordings to his client who was the owner of the label that I ended up recording my album with. It’s all very exciting how it happened and it’s definitely not something that I could have predicted but something that really started as a passion project has really taken over and it’s opened up a lot more doors and opportunities for me as a performer.

MW: We know there’s four women on the album. How many pieces total are you recording for it?

SE: I play Florence Price’s Sonata in E minor which has three movements and then I play a set of miniatures by Ethel Bilsland. She’s actually the grandmother of the high commissioner’s wife so through this event that I had in Singapore I learned that her grandmother was a composer and that just created such an amazing connection where we’ve been exploring her music and these pieces have never been recorded on an album before and because of that event having such an important role in this journey that i’m on. it just felt that Ethel Bilsland needed to be represented on this album. There’s also two pieces by Vítězslava Kaprálová, the Sonata Appassionata which she wrote when she was eighteen. It’s an incredible piece and then her April preludes which she wrote, I think, the year before she died at the age of twenty five which is obviously slightly more mature but also just very expressive, very beautiful set of pieces and then there’s Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Water.

MW: How did you get the scores for Bilsland?

SE: The score that I have is the only one that was published. I do have her manuscripts of string quartets and serenade for strings that I’m going through at the moment and just trying to get them on the computer so they can hopefully eventually be published. She did compose quite a lot and from what I’ve heard, from I’ve been able to access, she was incredibly knowledgeable about composition and very experienced I would say, she clearly knew what she was doing. But what I’ve learned is that, before WWII, she stopped composing completely and she became a professor of voice at the Royal Academy of Music in England. It was almost as if she saw composition as a luxury she couldn’t afford anymore and she needed to focus on providing for her family. I think that’s another reason to bring her music to the fore because she also represents the sacrifices that women make and the choices they have to make and the priorities around family that often determine those choices and sacrifices.

MW: Another aspect of your life that interests me is Singapore and how you ended up there and what it’s like to teach internationally.

SE: I’d visited Singapore on a holiday and I just got a really great feel for the place. It’s very safe, very clean, very modern, and I just had this strong feel that this is where I wanted to live. So I waited for the right job opportunity to come up and it came up and I applied and…

MW: That’s so cool! You’re just like I like Singapore and I’m going to get a job there and then you did and then it led to this amazing performance that’s now leading to this. But are you a music teacher at a school there? What is your job in Singapore?

SE: Yes, I teach at an international school, elementary and middle school music, so I teach a general music program

MW: Ok cool

SE: The program is really diverse. We cover styles outside of western music which I think is really important for students especially in an international community. One of the things that drew me to Singapore is the value of education here and the support for music and the arts. All of these things are very encouraging for a music teacher.

MW: I saw in your site you are pursuing a PHD at the University of York

SE: Yes. That’s the University of York in the UK because there’s also a York University in Canada. Some people have confused the two and obviously, because I’ve studied in Canada, it wouldn’t be so far- fetched to think that that’s where I’m doing my PHD. My supervisor, the wonderful thing, well many wonderful things about him, but one of them is that he’s based in York, he’s also based in Illinois in Chicago which is where my archival research ends up taking me. It was great because when I was in Chicago earlier this month, my supervisor was there and he was able to come to my lecture recital which was fantastic. I manage to balance my PHD with my work because I don’t have to be on campus all through the year and so, I quite like having the two components in my life.

MW: So your PHD is on Florence Price, right? And as you said that takes you to Chicago a lot. What exactly are you studying around that, like what around you doing in the archives? How’s this PHD going to manifest itself?

SE: My focus is on looking at her compositional voice and how American identity, how nationalism factors into that. The fact that she’s a black woman which is sort of the antithesis of what we think of an American school of music, there’s a sense of dissonance there, so what I’m exploring is how she dissolves that dissonance in her music. I believe that comes through her engaging with African American folk music and bringing it into this classical arena and dignifying slave music within her compositions. But my research has led me off on all sorts of tangents, around other women composers. My lecture recital at the Chicago symphony center last week talked about how contemporaries Margaret Bonds, Irene Britton Smith, Nora Holt, and this just such a fascinating community that she’s a part of, so that isn’t central to my PHD but is something that I’m very interested in and I feel like that’s something that I can explore more in performance. So I’m currently working on a program around her and her contemporaries.

MW: When you’re listening to the music, how do you isolate where that influence is? Did she have a collection of notated, folk music, slave music however you want to call it, these tunes, that’s incorporated into her piece, how do you know where that’s coming from?

SE: It’s a really good question. In some cases, she’s very explicit about where the influences come from. You take for example Fantaisie Nègre which is based on “Please Don’t Let this Harvest Pass”. Those connections are very direct. But there are also times where she’s evoking the sound world. Well, I’m remembering something I can’t remember the details of. But basically, in the late 1900s, there were a whole bunch of studies by early ethnomusicologists, white ethnomusicologists as well as black ethnomusicologists, transcribing each folk song and, you have people like The Fisk Jubilee Singers who were traveling and presenting these songs in concert halls. And she’s also influenced by people like Harry T Burleigh. So, there is a history before her and so even if Florence Price didn’t ever really have to engage with that level of plantation life, there are enough influences that she would’ve absorbed, the sound world and, I think as she matured as a composer, that’s something that she very deliberately embraced.

MW: I kind of wanted to get a little bit more into your early life as a musician, I just find it really interesting, as a child, your interaction with music.

SE: I’m not aware about making the decision to play the piano, it’s just something that’s always been with me. I do remember having quite strong opinions about my choices of repertoire. I liked a lot of Scott Joplin pieces, and I remember my piano teacher saying that we needed to play proper music.

MW: He’s in all the collections! That’s proper music!

SE: Right! And I always enjoyed classical music that was a fusion of different styles and as I got older, that led me to explore Nikolai Kapustin’s works, don’t know if you’re familiar with him. I would say it’s a blend almost of jazz and very Russian influences as well and it’s incredibly jazzy and I absolutely loved it. But then I was sort of brought back on track again. But I have always enjoyed playing obscure repertoire and I think part of that comes from being able to present something that people haven’t heard, being able to take more ownership over the music and as well, something that I talk about is just thinking growing up that I was an anomaly because of being a black girl playing classical music and so that’s something that has definitely affected me, affected my sense of ownership over white male composers, feeling that, there are a whole bunch of white male musicians that can probably play this much better than me so…you know just about a bit of a complex around that and, as I said, I’ve always had the piano in my life, I focused on performance at university, I had a wonderful teacher, Dr. Luba Zuk at McGill University who really taught me how to play and feel music and internalize and it was just very transformative.

MW: You’re talking about repertoire and in that YouTube video that I keep bringing up, which everyone should go watch, you do talk about this act of historiography where we go back to the history of music and to the history of repertoire and we start reinterpreting it, you know and changing perspectives, you know, on what the history was, because history obviously is a constructed thing, there’s a lens through which we have been shown the past and then you were saying that that’s part of your sort of project now and just in general is looking back on history and saying: what did we miss, a genuine perspective on that, I don’t know why I’m talking for you, you can say it… I think that’s part of your thing right, like going back?

SE: Definitely! I think it’s so helpful for me to do this in order to reclaim that confidence and that belief in being very much entitled to participate in this field and through women composers that’s just been such an empowering thing for me to engage with because I just feel very much connected and, yeah, in performing their work I get the opportunity to assert myself as well. I guess perhaps that’s what was missing in this other repertoire, I can’t assert myself, I was always in the shadow of whatever I was

MW: It’s like the classical world, we spend so much time recycling the same things over and over again, it kind of loses its humanity that way. You’re really engaging with these pieces because they’re teaching you a different way to look at yourself

SE: That’s exactly it.

MW: Luba Zuk, was she one of the first people to introduce women composers to you? I had a teacher like that, all of a sudden I was starting getting all this repertoire from women because she was a woman and knew a lot of women composers for the organ. Was that when that started or was she still sort of teaching you the standard rep?

SE: She stuck to the standard repertoire but as I said, she helped me learn how to internalize music and to really connect and the value of playing from memory as well, which is something I could do but no one had ever told me to do it so I just always had the music in front of me. I feel like that was the moment where I really became a pianist. But it was actually a musicology professor Lisa Barg who introduced me to Florence Price. It was a part of a course in twentieth century music and we had looked at Nadia and Lilly Boulanger on one week and Florence Price and Margaret Bonds the next week and I couldn’t believe that Florence Price and Margaret Bonds were black classical women composers. That was huge and I was just so fascinated with their work. I just always knew that it was something that I would come back to. McGill was such an important time for me. A lot of the things that I’m doing now have stemmed from McGill. And also that was my first experience living abroad and it was an amazing experience, so my tendency to travel, you can see where that comes from.

I’m going back to Florence Price again. Basically, she started out as a passion project for me because I remembered how life changing that experience at McGill had been just learning that she existed. Whilst in Singapore, I decided to come back to her music and I decided ok I’m going to learn it and just sort of see where that takes me. I found that actually I wanted that to be more than just a passion project so I started applying for masters in different universities in the UK. I initially was very excited but that excitement soon disappeared when I got responses from respected supervisors saying: “Sorry, I don’t understand blues music, I don’t understand jazz, sorry, I can’t support you with your work” I just felt very upset actually about the situation because I knew I wanted to do justice to this work and I had such a strong sense of how I wanted my dissertation and my research to unfold and it needed to be in the right hands. So I sent one more application to my current supervisor and I decided: “You know what? This probably isn’t going to work out.” And then I heard from him and I could just feel the enthusiasm and support radiating off his e-mail, it was incredible and so sincere and he really believed in what I was doing. He was just so supportive right from the beginning. I’m so glad obviously that it turned out this way. But Florence Price is just so important to me that I couldn’t sort of compromise on how I wanted to go about my research.

MW: That’s so smart and really a lesson for anyone thinking about graduate work. If you can’t find that person that’s going to help you usher in this work, that advisor, it’s really just almost not worth it. I don’t know how they do it in England. Is it going to be an ethnomusicology degree or musicology? Is it just sort above graduate music degree?

SE: Music via research and I will likely combine performance and dissertation.

MW: You said you were doing archival work in Chicago. Is there a Florence Price archive in Chicago or is it scattered throughout libraries there?

SE: The archives are at the University of Arkansas. I was there last April and that was a great experience because they have so much. Chicago is great for accessing the works of the early academics writing about Florence Price, so Dominique-René de Lerma and Eileen Southern, they just have a worth of resources that document this history and so, I feel that, if you’re working on Florence Price you need to go to both places because they complement each other so well.

MW: And now you’re joining that lineage of researchers in Chicago in a way.

SE: Thank you!

MW: Was this your first recording project, this album?

SE: This experience has been so new to me. An also it’s a new experience for Wave Theory Records as well because, Dan Jones, who owns the company, he’s a composer and he writes music for film, he’s won BAFTA awards and he’s a very celebrated composer. This has definitely been a new experience for us, and obviously I went from having my recordings on YouTube to recording this album. I didn’t plan this far ahead in terms of big tour or anything like that.

MW: I’ve been privy and been on a couple of pop recordings but what is it like recording a classical piano album? Was it really stressful? Did you have to do a lot of takes? What was that experience like for you?

SE: I was incredibly nervous about this because I’m putting myself out there and putting my work and my passion out there for everyone to listen to and everyone to have an opinion of. We recorded at Real World Studios which is owned by Peter Gabriel. It’s his studio in Bath. The studio is incredibly beautiful and it’s a very warm and homely environment, so all the factors were there to relax me but that didn’t have any effect as soon as I started playing my heart was racing and I was sweating and I was hot and cold. I started with Kaprálová and I played through and it was very stressful and I think it was Dan or my friend Simon said: “That was great!” and I relaxed so much after that because I thought “Ok! I can do this!”

MW: Sometimes just getting someone outside of you to affirm what you’re doing, it’s like: “Ok, I’m not insane, I enjoy doing this, this is why I’m doing it”

SE: In the lead up, I didn’t have any idea of how to practice for this because we had a twelve hours slot, so I wasn’t going to do a twelve hour practice session at home. Maybe I should have done that…

MW: Oh wow! Your entire recording session was twelve hours?

SE: Twelve hours. And around that time when we were recording, I’d been falling asleep at about 8PM because of the jet lag, so that’s one of the reasons why we started with the Kaprálová, just because we put Florence Price towards the end because I’ve been playing that for much longer and I just felt a lot more confident with Florence Price. After that, I just played and played and played and played and played…and, I think we started at about 10 in the morning and we were done by 10 at night. It was exhausting but I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was until right at the end. It was such a positive experience, I absolutely loved it, and what was great is that Dan and Simon just had such a strong understanding of what I was trying to say with the music and we were just all on the same page. Such a great experience! I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved regardless of how others may interpret it, whether or not they enjoy it. I’m so proud of this.

MW: That’s the important thing as the creator, you need to feel like “this was what I set out to do”. That’s really great and it helps when you have people on the outside of you who know what you want and can tell you “this is how it sounds from the outside.” You’re going back to Chicago next year, right?

SE: I know a hundred per cent that I’ll be performing in Chicago next year. My research on Florence Price has connected me to so many wonderful people and through my research, I’ve learned the value of community in her life but through doing this research, I feel as though I have become part of a community of people who are interested in her life, interested in championing women composers. That’s just been a really wonderful thing and to connect with others that are doing similar things or doing different things or others that have done it all and can give advice to me. I’m just really grateful for that. Growing up as a young black pianist, I never had those connections. That has just been such an encouraging thing and the things like Skype and Facebook, I can reach out any time, I obviously need to be mindful of the time differences but it’s nice that those communities don’t end just because I’m back here in Singapore, those conversations continue. It’s just been really heartwarming. I just remembered another concert I’m doing. The International Women’s Day recital will be next March. I did one this year.

MW: In that concert, do you have a concept of what you’ll play or be kind of what you’ve been doing with the “Four Women” project?

SE: I’ll also be learning new repertoire for Chicago, so I think it’s going to be a mix of “Four Women” and new pieces. I’ll definitely play the Kaprálová though because, every time I’ve played it, people have been so moved by it. Are you familiar with these works?

MW: I’ve listened to you. You have a video of Kaprálová. I’ve heard of her right before I saw you on twitter. I’d just heard of her, I’d never heard her music and I saw your project, you had a performance up there of one of her pieces. But she’s super new to me, I don’t know her music that well.

SE: When people hear the sonata, they’re just blown away, which is how I felt as soon as I heard. I didn’t know she’d written it when she was eighteen, that was just like the icing on top. It was already amazing and then I found that out. I’ll definitely play that because it allows me to just throw everything into it. It’s like a good icebreaker. We were talking about almost not being able to identify with white male composers, she’s someone I identified with so much. Also when I came across her, I think I was maybe the same age that she was when she died, so I just felt so connected to her. With my life experiences, I feel like I’ve been given a chance to really achieve the things I want to with my life. Her life was cut short and so playing her music reminds me of why I need to just pursue what I’m passionate about, because life is just too short and that can sound really cheesy but whenever I hear her music, it’s just a reminder that I need to keep doing this.

MW: You really have a connection with all these composers, that’s really cool, like a deep psychological, emotional connection.

SE: Exactly and that’s why I’ve managed to get to a point where I’m not too concerned about reviews, negativity and all that kind of stuff. I mean that was part of my panic attack in the lead up to like “Oh I’m not good enough and people are going to rip me apart because I did not study at a Russian conservatory” and all that stuff. But because of that connection I have to the composers, no one can fault that or doubt that and then the other side to it is “you know, if you think I’m not playing it well or you learn it and play
it better and get this music out there.”

MW: Right! It’s like it’s still a win for you.

SE: But like I said, I’m proud of what I’ve done. Actually, the first time I’ve listened to it, I just had tears streaming because I was just like “I did this! I did this despite everything that was going on” and I just felt really proud of it. That said, if anyone says anything mean, I’ll probably be really upset. For the moment, I feel very proud and just trying to always remember that I am proud of what I’ve achieved regardless.

MW: Thank you Samantha Ege for being on Sound Meets Sound. It’s been really awesome talking to you and I’ve really enjoyed learning about you and Florence Price who has been like the second guest on this podcast so thanks very much!

SE: Thank you Meg for inviting me to talk about my work and I really hope you enjoy Four Women.

Transcript by Stehpanie Merchak:

Released in May by Wave Theory Records, today I’m going to write about pianist Samantha Ege’s beautiful album Four Women. When I interviewed Ege for my podcast last month, it was abundantly clear that this recording project was the outgrowth of deeply meaningful interactions both with the compositions and the histories of the composers themselves. Ege understands these pieces on a fundamental level, and her rapport with the music comes shining through in her playing.

Florence Price, Sonata in E Minor

A gorgeous, emotive piece that seamlessly incorporates the melodies (or the flavor thereof) of the early African American diaspora (slave songs and spirituals), it is a crime that Price’s Sonata in E minor is not a standard in “music appreciation” classes and piano studios alike—which is my way of nudging any educators who are reading this review.

The first movement (Andante — Allegro) is expansive and symphonic, hinting at Price’s facility in writing for orchestra, while the second movement (Andante) is a lovely setting of an African American folk melody. In both movements Ege displays an exquisite ability to shape the music, both in terms of phrasing and the larger formal sections, always guiding the listener as if through a cherished home.

The third and final movement (Scherzo) is my favorite, partial as I am to big and stormy gestures. The main theme dances like large, splashy raindrops in a downpour and alternates with calmer moments. Ege makes the alternations between the dance and the calm with grace, the two affects self-contained and juxtaposed without any jarring transitions. The peak moment toward the end is satisfyingly dramatic, Ege skillfully stretching the time as she pushes up the volume.

Ethel Bilsland, The Birthday Party Suite

This is the première recording of Bilsland’s Suite, and the story of how Ege came to be the performer to bring this music to the world is one of fruitful happenstance. Playful and adventurous and exceedingly gentle, you can hear in these pieces the foreshadowing of later English film music, such as that of film composer Rachel Portman. I am very much looking forward to see what’s next for Ege’s Ethel Bilsland Project.

Vítězslava Kaprálová, April Preludes

The April Preludes flow organically from Bilsland’s Suite, as they are also little self-contained character pieces, though more elaborate than the Suite. Kaprálová’s Preludes are wonderfully angular and spiky, and you can hear the pathos in Ege’s playing: This is music that draws you in while simultaneously asserting itself against the listener with its chromaticism and changeable textural landscape.

Vítězslava Kaprálová, Sonata Appassionata

Listening to the expansive and complex construction of the first movement of this two-movement sonata it is hard to believe Kaprálová was just 18 years old when she wrote it; even more so when, in the second movement, she inserts a wonderfully written fugue into the theme and variations form (more than once!). It is perhaps this piece in which Ege’s sophistication as a performer shines most clearly, encompassing as it does so many moods and variety of style within its 20 minute duration, all of which Ege executes with stirring confidence.

Margaret Bonds, “Troubled Water”

With rhythmic motives evocative of choppy waters, Bonds’ setting of “Wade in the Water” alternates between turbid and ebullient, capturing the dual essence of the spiritual (waters parting for the Israelite’s escape from Egypt and a pool of healing water). Ege expertly creates these moods while making the melody sing, to the point that I begin to sing along with it in my head.

I must note here also the high quality of the recording; the production is clean and intimate and perfectly suited to Ege’s nuanced performances.

Be sure to check out this album of wonderful and too-often-neglected pieces: they’re in good hands.