On November 14 Interpretations presents the World Premiere of Anne LeBaron’s ‘Breathtails’, as well as a handful of other amazing works – including the New York premiere of Los Murmullos, and the US premiere of Creación de las Aves, both written for pianist Ana Cervantes.
We asked Anne a few questions about her career and the works presented on this concert. Enjoy!
What is the story with your new opera “Breathtails”?
Actually it’s not an opera although everyone seems to want to call it that, so maybe it is after all! We are calling it ‘a song cycle in 13 breaths.’ When Tom Buckner invited me to compose a work for him with my choice of text (living or deceased writer, or write it myself) and instrumentation, I immediately knew that I wanted the poetry to focus on the breath, and that the shakuhachi, with its haunting breath-infused sonorities, would be central to the ensemble. What a rare opportunity—a coveted chance to collaborate in a non-operatic context (and thus dispense with all the baggage that such endeavors can sometimes entail) and to tailor the composition for a singer whom I greatly admire. The choice of string quartet, to complete the ensemble, was made intuitively—a united front that would function alternatively and at times simultaneously as a foundation, a foil, and a Greek chorus.
Can you talk about working with Charles Bernstein as librettist?
My friend Marjorie Perloff, the brilliant poetry critic, suggested several poets to me for consideration. My investigations led to the evocative, innovative, and risky work of Charles Bernstein, whose writing I was already familiar with—primarily his remarkably inventive libretto for Shadowtime, an opera by Brian Ferneyhough. Charles and I explored notions of ‘breath’ together, via phone, email, and face-to-face meetings in New York, where we breathed the same air. I made some suggestions up front, such as the number of poems I’d like to have in the piece, their general trajectory, and a desire for the occasional deconstruction, facilitated by isolating syllables and phonemes. I also shared some of my research related to breath and breathing with Charles. Ultimately, I wanted to set his poems for Breathtails in ways that would reflect and enhance his uncanny ability to infuse playfulness with gravitas—or vice versa.
You’re quite distinguished as a harpist as well as for your compositional work. Does your work as an improviser influence your composing in a way that is distinct from the more traditional new music aspects of your work as a harpist?
Beginning in the early 1970’s, I’ve engaged in exploring strategies of improvisation with some exceedingly gifted musicians, as well as with solo work. Given the intensity of my involvement with improvisation during the past several decades, and that I’ve been composing music for about the same number of years, it’s inevitable that all these experiences and experiments as an improviser have affected and informed my work as a composer, at least to some extent. Just as importantly, collaborating with other musicians on a stratum of levels of consciousness and into the unconscious realms—plumbing the depths, if you will—has led me to explorations of other types of collaborative experiences, such as the mega-collaborations indicative of hyperopera and the more esoteric discoveries in musical renditions of cadaver exquis.
This concert also features a number of solo pieces. Can you talk about how you approach writing solo works?
Whenever possible, the soloist as an individual comes first, and then the music. Writing for an individual musician is one of the most intimate aspects of composing, and one of the most gratifying. That said, not all of my solo works were written for people I personally knew, at least when I embarked on writing the piece. For instance, when Ana Cervantes commissioned Los Murmullos, I had never met her. We came to know one another via emails and phone calls, and I eventually was struck with an epiphany that opened the right way into the piece for me—namely, that her throaty, expressive voice had to be written into the composition. The second work I wrote for her, Creación de las Aves, is, on the surface, less connected to Ana’s persona. Yet, during the process of composing this piece for her, I felt that it was more directly tailored to her vibrant and generous personality; it also resonated with challenges in my life at the time. So it turned out to be a merging of two personalities—actually three, when the artist who inspired the piece, Remedios Varo, is factored in.
Your work spans a wide range of references from gender to ecology and elsewhere. Are there any over-arching themes that connect these disparate interests?
Most of my operas are concerned with mythological or stereotypical female characters. The E. & O. Line, my first opera, investigates the Orpheus legend but with the tables turned, from Eurydice’s point of view. I call this an electronic blues opera, and it reflects how deeply the great Southern bluesmen of the 60’s affected me as a young composer. My second opera, Croak – The Last Frog, addresses the tragedy of the now extinct golden toad of Costa Rica, and the environmental changes that are leading to the disappearance of so many frog species. This opera emerged from my lifelong love of frog and toad vocalizations, which are put to good use in several pieces I’ve written. Pope Joan, a dance opera, celebrates the life and death of the controversial cross-dressing Papessa Joanna. Wet tells the story of a town that, due to its reliance on water bottling as its main industry and the deleterious effects on the environment, suffers a devastating flood. The American Housewife of Sucktion, a monodrama with cyborgean overtones, becomes so enamored of her vacuum cleaner that she physically merges with it. (There are no baby vacuum cleaners that result.) This one was translated into German and performed in Vienna last year. Crescent City follows the emergence of the great voodoo queen Marie Laveau from her tomb, desperate to save her beloved city from the looming Hurricane Charity, threatening to destroy the city forever. Some Things Should Not Move, a paranormal autobiographical monodrama, relates a string of exceptionally strange experiences I endured while living in an ancient building in Vienna, a former monastery. If there is a common thread among these seven operas, or an over-arching theme, perhaps it would be mortality (of humans and other life forms).
You have been teaching at CalArts for quite some time now – do you have any particular philosophies on how one develops their work as a composer?
There are an infinite number of paths to take in developing as a composer, especially today, when so many walls have been broken down and can can thrive in a more accepting atmosphere. For a few of my students who suffer from creative blocks, the challenge is finding ways to help them access their creative ideas, and then to discover the means to express what they’re imagining. Other students are stunningly prolific. I always encourage my students to study a diverse selection of scores, in order to learn about structure and form as well as notation strategies and techniques. Ultimately the goal is to foster self-discovery, so that students understand, recognize, cherish, and trust their core sensibilities as an artist.