What do you mean when you refer to this as a prequel?
What I’m hoping is that, with this song cycle, I can perhaps interest someone in moving forward and commissioning an opera. One of the questions that people have faced with my work is that, well, it’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s legendary, but how is she going to do it for other singers? What this work demonstrates is certainly that I can write for traditional singers and that I can also orchestrate.
That would be such a great possibility… especially considering all of the issues that have come up recently, with the Met Opera finally programming an opera by a woman.
I think that the Met thing is really outrageous. And they also haven’t had a woman conductor. They had a kind of two-for-one, where they got a woman conductor, Susanna Mälkki, to conduct Kaija Saariaho’s opera, almost like they were trying to make amends. And the opera already had a great track record, so there were no real chances taken with that.
I think the other thing that’s egregious about the Met is that they decided to nurture a group of young composers — all of them young males.
I’m wondering about your compositional process, which you have described as a “list-making process.”
When I begin work on a new piece, whether I have a concept or a title — whatever it may be — I just start writing stream-of-conscious, and let the words tumble out. Then when I feel like I’ve done a total brain dump, I go back and find where the music is. And invariably ideas will start coming from the words.
When I was in college I was dually enrolled in the music department and the English department, because I did a lot of poetry and creative writing. So, words are very much a part of my background and part of the way I think.
Even when you’re composing something that doesn’t use language in the traditional sense, i.e. asemantic vocal sounds?
I use words in very much the same way that I use visual art. I’m also very inspired by paintings. I’ve written works that are inspired by paintings by Klee and Rothko. So I’m not exactly translating, but it’s a way of saying “here’s what these paintings sound like to me, inside my mind.” So when I go from the lists, I’ll come across a word or a collection of words and they will inspire sound in the same way that the paintings inspire sound.
And as I said earlier, the voice is an incredibly expressive instrument without words. If you just emit sound, it speaks very directly to other human beings. In some ways, to use wordless sound communicates beyond language, and you don’t have to have things translated. If you’re working with sound, it is what it is. We can all have interpretations of what that sound is to us. A lot of people have visual images, or emotional images, or stories that come out. That’s really fascinating to me.
If this song cycle were to transform into an opera, how do you envision the visual and gestural communication playing out?
The way that Monique and I are connecting Joseph Cornell and Virginia Woolf (who never met) is in the reflection of each of their lives. Each of them lost a parent at the age of 13. (Joseph lost his father; Virginia’s mother died.) And each of them went through traumatic feelings about that loss.
What we’ve created is an imaginary water wall between the two lives. When we first see Virginia, she’s lurching out of the water and then tosses the rocks [that she had used to commit suicide] back into it. So essentially what we have is her mind — her afterlife, her spirit. Another thing that Monique and I have talked about is having the scenes somehow folding themselves into a Cornell box.