Composer Bielawa welcomes performers’ input in her music
Composition is a lonely art. No matter how collaborative the intention of a piece might be, or how large or varied an ensemble, at some point the work of creating it becomes a solitary pursuit.
It’s at least a little ironic, then, that Lisa Bielawa, a dynamic and innovative composer, is a thoroughgoing extrovert. “I’m a very social person, which is very unfortunate in that I’m a composer, because that’s not a good match, is it?” she says in a recent conversation. “Because no matter what, [composing] means a lot of time alone at the piano.”
Bielawa’s solution to this paradox is a way of opening the writing process to the stimuli and input of others. Most composers take performers into account in one way or another, but Bielawa’s works are unusual in the extent to which the very mechanics of a piece can be influenced by the who and the how many of a composition’s intention. How else to explain “Tempelhof Broadcast,” a site-specific piece for hundreds of musicians of varying skill levels, to be performed on the site of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin?
Bielawa’s two main bases of activity are New York and San Francisco, but a pair of recent projects in new locations show the same kind of responsiveness to context and collaborators. This weekend, the Rivers School Conservatory in Weston presents five of Bielawa’s works during its annual Seminar on Contemporary Music for the Young, a three-day new-music festival. Bielawa is this year’s commissioned composer, and in many ways she’s an ideal choice, having worked with young people frequently. “I really dig teenagers,” she told the Globe in a 2012 interview. “I get them.”
“Hypermelodia,” for chamber orchestra, big band, and jazz quartet of piano, bass, and two percussionists, will have its world premiere on Sunday. It was specifically tailored to meet the school’s teenage performers on their own ground. “Kids this age are not searching within themselves as much as they’re searching in the world for stuff to think is cool,” Bielawa says. “Their brains are growing in a way that makes it much more fruitful for them to be enthusiasts, externally oriented. I wanted to give them stuff that they could feel that way about, they could hang that process on.”
She did this by structuring the piece like a hypertext novel. It alternates sections for the chamber orchestra and those for the big band, with the jazz group functioning as the glue. The bassist and one percussionist act as the “clickers,” who choose which section to go to next. There are certain basic rules, imposed so that the piece could still be harmonically interesting for Bielawa. The goal, though, was to create what she calls “a game environment,” where the players have both freedom to choose and the feeling of a safe space to experiment with shaping the piece on their own.
The other large project that’s been occupying Bielawa is “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser,” an opera created exclusively for video. It is being filmed, broadcast, and posted for viewing in episodes, the first two of which were recently made available.
The unusual venture originated with her senior undergraduate thesis at Yale on collaborative male studies of female hysteria. Though it was a serious academic study, Bielawa always felt there was a more visceral and urgent artwork hiding in her deconstruction-tinged research. It began to emerge in the form of an opera when she met playwright Erik Ehn in 1994. They plotted out a fantastical story in a lengthy libretto, and Bielawa wrote music for what she thought would be its first act. Then it went into a drawer for two decades.
Bielawa resurrected the work when she took up a residency at the Grand Central Arts Center in Santa Ana, Calif. As she always does, she immersed herself in local performers and venues, and asked herself, as she had in New York or Berlin, what kind of art is organic to this part of the world?
The answer: television. She remembered episodes of “Arrested Development” where the characters think they’re in Mexico but are actually in Santa Ana. And so many people, she found, worked in “the industry,” as it’s called there.
She started to make connections. “Vireo” is centered on a young girl, and Bielawa discovered Rowen Sabala, a 16-year-old soprano at the Orange County School of the Arts, to take on the title role. Ehn’s libretto featured all manner of wild events, like people riding into a scene on giant hypodermic needles — difficult to bring off in a traditional operatic frame but perfect for television.
Of course, an undertaking like this presents brand new challenges. A libretto has to be turned into a screenplay, with blocking and camera angles. How many takes need to be filmed to create a 12-minute episode? But Bielawa, Ehn, director Charles Otte, and Grand Central director John Spiak threw themselves in. She was particularly pleased when David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet asked that the group be part of the first episode, even before details had been finalized. “That set the standard, not just for excellence but for innovation, too,” Bielawa says. “They were game. They didn’t know exactly what they were signing up for when they showed up.”
The plan is to film a total of 12 to 14 episodes over the next two years, as schedules allow. For each new filming of two episodes, money will have to be raised. Much of the music is still unwritten.
True to form, Bielawa regards the open-endedness as a virtue. Instrumentation can be changed, new characters brought in. “Its own reception can feed back into it and determine the direction that it goes,” she explains. “What composer gets to see the beautifully produced first couple of scenes of their opera before even writing the rest of it? It changes the process. But it’s cool.
“And it brings other people in,” she continues. “Any way I can figure out to bring other people into my process, mess with me, it’s always good for me. I do my best work when I find a way for the process to be porous like this.”