Force of Nature

by Darren W. Miller on August 17, 2010

A Conversation With Composer Alexandra du Bois,
Rendering the World’s Chaos, Beauty Into Sonic Storms

For the uninitiated, and perhaps even in the minds of some casual listeners, classical music might seem like the province of the dead and dying—music written by long-dead composers, enjoyed today by predominantly elderly listeners. I can understand, to some extent, why that misconception persists. Neither expert nor neophyte, I first fell in love with classical music a decade ago when introduced to Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites. And as my interest in and passion for classical music has grown, so too has my iTunes library (or vice versa). That collection—as is probably the case for many typical fans of the genre—consists mostly of centuries-old giants: Bach and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler and Dvorák. These are also the names, among other similarly popular composers, that seem to be performed most regularly. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy numerous concerts over the last several years, at venues ranging from Lincoln Center to a Savannah cathedral, standing out on each occasion for my lack of gray hair.

Alexandra du Bois shatters that stereotype of classical music, the notion that it’s old music for old people.

This under-30 New York City-based composer has already established a remarkably impressive résumé. A graduate of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music with a master’s degree in composition from The Juilliard School, du Bois has been commissioned by the likes of the Kronos Quartet and Menahem Pressler’s Beaux Arts Trio. She’s been praised (deservedly so) by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, Alex Ross in the New Yorker, and a couple of New York  Times critics. She was even named as one of three “Faces to Watch in 2010” in the music category by the L.A. Times. The quality of Du Bois’s music is matched only by its quantity; her output already spans many forms, from solo works and sonatas to various trios, string quartets and orchestral works. Her compositions have been performed by world-class musicians at venues around the world: Alaska, New York, Vietnam, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Australia, and many other cities across Europe and the U.S.

I discovered du Bois at the Savannah Music Festival in March of 2009—my first time attending the spectacular two-week event, which I had been looking forward to since moving here the previous summer. After purchasing tickets to more concerts than any financial advisor would have recommended, I knew I spent wisely following the first two nights: both chamber music concerts in the perfect chamber music setting (the rotunda at the Telfair Academy of Arts & Sciences in the historic district of downtown Savannah). The names on the programs those nights were fairly familiar: Beethoven, Schulhoff, Barber, Dvorák, Janácek, and Smetana. And I was hooked. So much so that upon leaving the Prazak Quartet’s performance Saturday evening, I opened my wallet and added another concert to the calendar—the next day.

Perhaps I was compelled to pull the trigger by the unfamiliar name of the composer that led the lineup for the Sunday afternoon performance, or the atypical year of birth that accompanied the composer’s name in the program, or the fact that this would be the world premier of the composer’s piece. Whatever the reason, I’m glad fate has its ways, I thought at the time, sitting a few rows from the stage as two violinists (the accomplished Daniel Hope and Lorenza Borrani, a young rising star from Italy) moved their way from opposite ends to meet in the middle, a palpable passion transmitted through their instruments. Perfectly suited to share the bill with Rachmaninoff and Schubert, the piece—titled Chanson d’orage (translated as Storm of Song) by Alexandra du Bois—was, simply put, captivating. Writing in Gramophone Magazine, critic Robert Hilferty said:

“The 10-minute folie a deux begins with the violin lines tightly intertwined. The instruments seamlessly switch roles as accompanist and melody-messenger. They frequently converge, wrestle, caress, capitulate. Entanglement is the name of the game, with moments of singing lyricism. It’s a virtue that du Bois’s music is simple without being simplistic, maintaining a buoyant intensity that doesn’t wear you out.”

Inspired by the sounds of nature and provoked by current events, du Bois’s music is perhaps best described as diverse—both sonically and emotionally. From the peace of a gentle ocean to the impassioned pleas of a peace movement, from the anticipation of an approaching storm to the discontent caused by an impending war, du Bois evokes scenes and sentiments in vivid, unexpected and provocative ways. Often allowing seeming contradictions to surface at various points in a single piece, her compositions consist of a wide range of qualities: lush but simple; soothing and haunting; raw yet delicate; heartbreaking but inspiring; frenetic and meditative; complex yet accessible. A couple of things are certain: du Bois’s music is consistently beautiful and speaks to all—regardless of age, young or old.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which du Bois is not a household name in short order. Thankfully, more of du Bois’s work will soon be available to a wider audience, as she expects two pieces (including the aforementioned Chanson d’orage) to be recorded and released in the upcoming year. And luckily for Savannahians and others in the Southeast, du Bois will be returning to the Savannah Music Festival in 2012 with another world premiere.

Du Bois gracefully took time from her busy schedule to discuss numerous topics: her musical roots, sources of inspiration, her creative process, the future of classical music, the importance of arts and music education, some past highlights and future endeavors as a composer, and much more, sharing a few excerpts of her music* and a spectacular playlist of recommended listening with The Madness of Art.

MOA: You began playing violin when you were just 2 years old and have been composing since about age 15. What prompted you to make that transition from playing to writing music? Do you have any affinity toward composing for the violin?

ALEXANDRA: Neither of my parents was professionally trained in music, but they got me involved when I was really young. My father has always played classical guitar, and my mother has always followed all kinds of music. I was taught the violin using the Suzuki Method at first. I knew the violin before I knew the complete alphabet; it was not necessarily forced upon me, but it was always there.

When I was 14, my parents and I moved from Virginia Beach to rural Virginia, and we got a piano. That’s when I began seeing music and was inspired to write things down. The piano—unlike the violin, which has no frets or keys—is a very visual instrument. You see the keys in front of you. I was partially home-schooled my entire life, and with the combination of having unlimited time to devote to music and a more visual instrument available, I started writing music. Soon, I began practicing violin less and composing all the time.

It’s actually more difficult for me to write for my own instrument, the violin, because I’m much harder on myself; as a composer on your own instrument, there are tracks in your brain that you don’t possess on other instruments. But I believe my greatest expression will come in that medium, the violin, in the form of a new kind of violin concerto.

MOA: What do you love most about music?

The single note…
In one note exists
a whole world.

ALEXANDRA: The single note is what I love about music. In one note exists a whole world, depending, of course, on how that note is played. Notes are dead and dry and completely unarticulated on the page. But when played, they contain worlds of history, interpretation, the soul. The potential in every single note, and the ways in which it can be played, is one of the things that thrills me most about music. As either a composer, musician or listener, I cannot escape this.

MOA: You seem to draw on current events (perhaps, more accurately, your interpretation of and reaction to the news of the day, the world around you) to inform some of your work—like your 2001 string quintet A Requiem for the Living, two years later with the string quartet Oculus pro oculo totum orbem terrae caecat (An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind), and most recently Fanfare for Change (premiered by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra days before President Obama’s inauguration) and Within Earth, Wood Grows for chamber orchestra and Vietnamese Dan Bau (premiered at the Hanoi Opera House in Hanoi, Vietnam, during the 15th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations). Please talk about the impetus for these pieces and how current events influence, directly or indirectly, the music you create.

ALEXANDRA: Sept. 11 was when I found myself musically, inextricably inseparable to what’s going on in the world. I was a sophomore in college and in the middle of writing a string quintet about the ocean—an impending storm approaching; one lone person on a dark gray ocean; music taking the shape of seagulls, foghorns, kinetic electricity pulsing off waves, deep reservoirs of sound with the asset of two basses with their low-C extensions in the form of a deep and personal monologue. The piece had a dark quality, but after Sept. 11—aware we would be invading other countries—it became a strain of inescapable sorrow.

I often composed with NPR on in the background (and still do). During my years in Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, and New York, respectively, I always liked to hear that radio in the distance. Someone on NPR said, around that time, “Our country has lost its innocence.” “Lost,” I thought, “just now?” I didn’t feel that way. Soon after, Kronos Quartet commissioned my first string quartet, and I was moved by Gandhi’s quote: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I never planned for my first string quartet to be so greatly influenced by current world events; I was 20 and wanted to write a kick-ass piece of music for Kronos Quartet, who I had loved since I was a kid! But I was writing Oculus during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq during late 2002 and early 2003. I couldn’t ignore certain things. The piece happened to be premiered on a day in April 2003 that the Red Cross could no longer tally dead civilian bodies in Baghdad—too many to be counted.

Not terribly much has improved since then, but I still write music. My music is not always directly related to these kinds of undercurrents, but those currents are always present. In 2009, Los Angeles’ Southwest Chamber Music commissioned me to write a piece to be premiered in Vietnam the following year in honor of the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the city of Hanoi (during the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam). I felt honored by the opportunity, a sense of the gravity that comes with writing a piece—within the setting of the largest cultural exchange between the two countries to date—under those circumstances, and I became drawn to the poetry of Thich Nhat Hanh, a peace activist, teacher, Buddhist monk, and author. I will be going back to Vietnam soon. I feel very connected to this place—not just because of our shared history.

MOA: Your Chanson d’orage for two violins had its world premiere at the Savannah Music Festival on March 22, 2009, performed by Daniel Hope and Lorenza Borrani. What is it like to sit in the audience and hear your piece performed live for the first time? Any nerves for the composer before a premiere? What was your reaction to the performance? Any plans to record Chanson d’orage—or any other pieces?

ALEXANDRA: The premiere is actually my favorite part of the writing, perhaps because it is when I can finally become truly detached for the first time.  That is when it becomes real. As for nerves, I don’t get too nervous anymore, but this is the time when the piece is no longer in your control, so it’s always possible for me to be nervous. Unlike when you’re the performer (something I had been more used to), the composer is often judged by what is played, not necessarily by simply what was written. If the performance does not come off well enough, the composer is heard in a less than positive light. Writing pieces on paper is like having children: you have to be able to let go.

Daniel and Lorenza were of course fantastic—better than I had hoped, with an incalculable technical and emotional mastery. Their first performance was an absolutely perfect blend of two great violinists with the perfect fires inside. The piece had come home. Yes, Chanson d’orage and also my first string quartet, An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, will be recorded and released in the coming year.

MOA: Nature and weather, often as a metaphor for deep human emotion, seem to play a prominent thematic (and even acoustic) role in much of your work. How does nature inspire you?

ALEXANDRA: I’m definitely inspired by nature. I feel and create best when there is nature at my window or, even better, at my doorstep. But I live in New York City right now. I especially love thunderstorms and all the different levels of rain. For some reason, I really connect with those—perhaps it has something to do with those times back when I was a kid growing up at the beach, or a little later, in rural Virginia, with nature everywhere, which is when I began writing music down. Nature opens a big door—a vastness or a canvas—through which my thoughts are free. Nature brings me outside myself. I believe art comes through us, and nature helps me stay in touch with this—more than most other things. Nature is more universal than music. String instruments, especially, are influenced by weather.

MOA: Chanson d’orage was commissioned by the 2009 Savannah Music Festival, and you wrote it specifically for Mr. Hope and Ms. Borrani. Do you often compose with specific musicians in mind? How much of your work is the result of commissions, and how often do you compose new works without having been commissioned? Is there a difference in your approach?

ALEXANDRA: All of my pieces since 2001 have been commissioned works and were written for a specific musician or musicians in mind. With Chanson d’orage, I had already heard many of Hope’s recordings (iTunes, Amazon), including a few of his performances with the Beaux Arts Trio. Composing for a specific musician or ensemble is an intangible but important part of my writing. I have specific sounds and ideas in mind while writing, but a lot changes occur throughout the composition of any work. With composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Glass, or Reich—and many other composers living and long passed—musicians already now know their language. I am blessed to have many musicians who know my language too, but any living composer, for the most part, is a clean slate (or “tabula rasa”) for the performer. On the page, I do everything possible for the musician to know how to attack every aspect of interpretation. But at the very end of a commissioning and rehearsal schedule, the piece is in their hands and I love this.

MOA: Speaking of process, how do you work? Do you write on a schedule, or whenever the muse answers your call? Do you have instruments around when you are composing? How much time does it typically take to complete a composition?

ALEXANDRA: This is a difficult question to answer for me. The process varies every year, every week, every piece. I remember when I was in high school I had a clipping from Vanity Fair of Philip Glass saying that through meditation he was able to compose up to 12 hours a day—something like that. He was a historical figure to me then, an icon perhaps; he’s now more of a comrade. I don’t mind that I’m not that type of writer. Some days I compose for four hours straight; some days it is a strain to write for 20 minutes. The ultimate task is to forgive myself when I don’t write for, say, a couple of days.

I usually need a full keyboard near me when I write for long stretches. I sometimes do a bit on violin, guitar and percussion instruments, but I always come back to the piano. I consider big pages of sketching paper with either charcoal or acrylic paints my instrument too; sometimes I get more ideas and creative ease from this than from my musical instruments.

I’d like to have three years to work on a piece, but you just don’t get that kind of time—at least I haven’t, yet. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, other times many months. I do like deadlines a lot even though I often wish they weren’t there. But I don’t release a piece until I am a 102-percent behind it; that’s my real deadline.

MOA: Writers and composers seem similar in many ways—in some sense, the means of expression (words versus music) being the only difference. That said, do you ever encounter that unkind beast known as Writer’s Block? If so, how do you deal with such struggles?

ALEXANDRA: Writers are composers and vice-versa. Writer’s Block—I don’t really believe in that phrase, purposefully. My key is balance, allowing myself the space physically, emotionally and mentally—and creating the time—in which to work. I envy Bach and Mahler: They didn’t have the Internet or cell phones. Avoiding self-doubt is important, too. An empty page is just a beautiful empty canvas on which to invest your thoughts or processes. It’s a matter of perspective: Come to a blank page as a child would come to a blank page—pure creativity and excitement. Within every one thing exists its opposite, thus wholeness: blank page/completed page. Also, to compose simply means to put together, as one of my earliest and dearest composition teachers, Osvaldo Golijov, once reminded me. I remind myself of this and keep that obvious truth with me.

MOA: I think a lot of artists question, at some point, whether his or her work is any good. How critical are you of your own work, and do you have an immediate sense of the quality of the piece you’re writing?

ALEXANDRA: As I said before, I don’t release a piece until I’m happy with it. At times when I’m in the editing phase, I’m the worst critic. But I have to compartmentalize the different phases of the process. I’m hard on myself because I just have really high standards; when I completely live up to them I won’t have anything left to do. There is no room for mediocrity right now. But you do have to make concessions along the way—by setting priorities, by making critical decisions.

MOA: You’ve written everything from symphonic works to solo works, from sonatas to trios, quartets and quintets. Is there a particular form you love most? Any you would like to explore in the future?

ALEXANDRA: I haven’t yet written a concerto, in any capacity, and that is a form in which I feel I can say something new. It’s definitely on my horizon. Perhaps this is because I grew up playing concertos—enjoyed them more than playing orchestral and chamber music. It is a monologue with tremendous backing and support; a soliloquy with a heavy soundtrack. The inward world meets the outer, or vice-versa. And, as I approach this medium as a composer instead of a performer, I might truly meet myself. That’s exciting.

MOA: It seems to me that, by all accounts, many young people—at least in the United States—do not count themselves as fans or lovers of classical music, perhaps jeopardizing its future. Do you view this as a troubling trend? Are there ways to attract more young people to classical music?

A recent article I read by the executive editor of The Atlantic Wire, titled “The Secret to Classical Music: It’s Just Music,” sums up some of what I would like to say. Another article in the Washington Post, headlined “White House could help classical music by having fun with it,” stated something similar.

A pivotal moment for classical music.

We’re in a pivotal moment for classical music, but we have to help diminish the stigma associated with classical music with a capital C, which has really alienated classical music from a diverse group of persons. One of the only things that really defines or distinguishes classical music is that a lot of the musical notes, tempi and dynamics are written down on paper. Simple. I am a “classical music” composer, in some ways, only because this is how some record companies, ensembles, conservatories of music, and universities have projected music to the masses for decades. I am definitely not trying to put blame anywhere—not at all. In fact, as a result, there are more performers and composers and educators coming out of these institutions than ever before. But there are fewer places than ever for these artists to make a living and continue to pursue their passions and talents.

In many parts of the world, communication is speeding up—and luckily this includes music. But, as a result, record companies (in the traditional sense) are dying, and something new is starting.

The merging of “classical” music with music that is not considered to be classical means something to me. What’s often categorized as classical music was once a type of popular music of the time. We have to get away from categorizing things, from labeling genres, labeling period. I am not a purist, but I do care about the history of notated music and music being written down and want to reach out to more people through this medium.

The Kronos Quartet has been important in this regard, as have bands or ensembles or grouping of musicians that feature string or other acoustic instruments in their productions. These cross-pollinations are little jumping-off points, ways of being exposed, a doorway in for everyone. I have a lot of hope for lowering the stigma related to “classical” music. But it is very important for classical musicians and composers to continue as much outreach as possible, approached with freshness. It’s happening but must continue full-force.

MOA: How important in your view is music and arts education in schools, which has over the last decade received the slash-and-burn treatment?

ALEXANDRA: Nothing could be more important than keeping music and arts education in schools! Music funding has been cut first in too many instances, and awareness of and experience in music for young children is less than ever before as a result. Some form of music or arts education from an early age is an essential element in dealing with the issues we just discussed, but music education also grows indescribable confidence in each individual child and empathy and innate understanding in all children (thus adults). Not to mention, education grows future audiences for art forms that sustain each of us. This country has so much potential, and other countries—such as Venezuela, in the form of “El Sistema”—have much to teach or share with us.  We should continue to be open to and aware of other countries’ successes.

So, for those interested in but perhaps intimidated by classical music, can you offer any listening suggestions? What are you listening to these days? Any favorite pieces of music? How much music from genres other than classical do you listen to?

ALEXANDRA: Definitely more than half of what I love and listen to comes from outside the “classical” genre. But yes, I can give you a broad overview of what’s in my stereo or head right now and other music I thought your readers/listeners might also enjoy:

  • Virtually all of the albums on the Ethiopiques label, especially Volume 10: Tezeta (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • violinist Gidon Kremer’s recording of Fratres and Tabula Rasa (iTunes, AmazonMP3), kantele player Ritva Koistinen’s recording of Pari Intervallo, and Daniel Hope’s recording of spiegel Im Spiegel (iTunes, AmazonMP3)—all composed by Arvo Pärt (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • JACK Quartet‘s performances of In iij Noct. (In the Dark) by Georg Friedrich Haas (a living Austrian composer of spectral music), especially their performance at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena presented by Monday Evening Concerts, which took place completely in the dark—not even the faintest crack of light;
  • Sardinian folk music;
  • British composer Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (iTunes, AmazonMP3)—a huge but personal non-liturgical setting of the Requiem Mass—and his four Sea Interludes (iTunes, AmazonMP3), which are from his opera Peter Grimes but often performed as an orchestral suite;
  • numerous pieces by Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström (iTunes, Amazon). His setting of the High Mass is quirky, earthshaking and lusciously beautiful. His operas are crazy. But who opens a liturgical mass with the loudest possible chord? He did, with lots of percussion. But also check out his piece Drumming released by the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble or his choral setting of William Blake’s The Tyger;
  • the Warsaw Village Band (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Bill Frisell (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • James Brown (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Duke Ellington, especially New Orleans Suite (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Django Reinhardt (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Pur ti mio from L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) by Claudio Monteverdi, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Aboriginal Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Silent Songs—Silvestrov, the composer, plays piano on this album for baritone and piano on the ECM label’s recording. The text is by poets Baratynsky, Keats, Pushkin, and Shevchenk (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Nigerian artist Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • virtually every one of Ali Farka Touré’s (iTunes, AmazonMP3) and Toumani Diabaté’s albums (iTunes, AmazonMP3)—either together and separate, and a lot of other music from Mali, especially Rokia Traoré (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Balama from Food for the Bearded, by Gyan Riley and Terry Riley (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Carlo Gesualdo’s Madrigals and other works (iTunes, Amazon);
  • Kelly Joe Phelps’ Shine Eyed Mister Zen (iTunes, Shine Eyed Mister Zen);
  • Dimitri Shostakovich—I never seem to escape the last movement of his fifth symphony when I’m painting (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Keith Jarrett’s live Bregenz concerts on ECM label (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • early Leonard Cohen (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Sigur Rós (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Mimi and Richard Farina’s The Falcon (iTunes, AmazonMP3) along with Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind performed by Peter, Paul and Mary (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Vietnamese Dan Bau player Bui Le Chi’s album titled: Cung Thuong Hoa Dieu and a lot of other Vietnamese folk music that is unfortunately hard to find;
  • Mahalia Jackson—her recording of We Shall Overcome is one of my favorites (iTunes, AmazonMP3);
  • Berlin’s Stahl Quartet (stahlquartett)—they’ve designed and perform upon the most incredible instruments. Otherworldly and inspiring; I will be writing for them soon;
  • French composer Marin Marais—especially the album performed by the ensemble Spectre de la Rose on Naxos label (iTunes, AmazonMP3).

MOA: Do you turn to other art forms for inspiration? Any favorite writers/books, painters/paintings or filmmakers/movies?

ALEXANDRA: So many. But right now? I am thinking a lot about the work of George Gittoes, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Cage, Sister Chan Khong, Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Werner Herzog, Carlo Gesualdo, David Barsamian, Hiroshige, Etty Hillesum, Joyce, Peter Sellars, and Darren Aronofsky.

MOA: So what lies ahead for an accomplished 29-year-old composer?

ALEXANDRA: A lot of music to write. A lot of music to experience.

*Check back in the next week or two for several audio excerpts of pieces composed by Alexandra du Bois.

Official Site
MySpace Music
Commentary on NPR’s Morning Edition in 2003
Video of Interview with Martin Perlich

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