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April 16, 2024

Upon Reflection

An interview of John Thiessen with Frances White, Lisa Terry, and Larry Lipnik

PARTHENIA credit Wendy Steiner Frances WhiteJOHN: In late February, I spoke with Wendy Steiner, the co-creator and director of Upon Reflection: An Opera in Ten Images which will be performed at The DiMenna Center in New York, May 4 and 5. Our discussion focused on the conceptual side of the piece and the relationship between imagery and reflection which drives the narrative. What became evident during that discussion was the need to follow up with composer Frances White, as well as Lisa Terry and Larry Lipnik, members of Parthenia, the ensemble which will join acclaimed soprano Sherezade Panthaki for Upon Reflection’s May première. I began by asking Frances, Lisa, and Larry about their previous collaborations.

Frances, I was so taken by your earlier composition for Parthenia, A flower on the farther side after a line from Hildegard von Bingen to which Wendy Steiner added digital imagery, with the resultant multimedia piece titled Traces on the farther side. A sense of beauty pervades the piece with Parthenia’s period instruments effortlessly carrying the lyricism. I have the sense that historical bow techniques are different from that which you would naturally expect from a modern string quartet. Is this something you enjoy or intend when writing for period instruments?

FRANCES: It’s something that I love about those instruments, and in fact it’s something that informs my writing for modern strings because the more aggressive approach isn’t me.

JOHN: When you are composing for modern strings, do you include markings like cantabile or other information in the score which leads them to play less aggressively?

FRANCES: Sometimes. In my opening notes, I might say that the style is expressive, and I tend to mark dynamics very carefully, coming from niente (“nothing”) and going to niente. I find that the nature of the writing is obvious to the many sensitive modern musicians with whom I’ve worked. If there’s any confusion, we clear it up at the first rehearsal. Parthenia, however, always gets the content of the music immediately, as does Sherezade.

JOHN: Now, Larry and Lisa, talk about your experience as instrumentalists.

LARRY: The thing about working with Frances is that her approach is very “painterly”. I feel like I’m playing colors, that there is a palette of visual textures. We don’t have the same aggressive articulations that you would associate with a modern string quartet, but I do feel that Frances writes in a way that enhances the characteristics of the viol. Period composers for the instrument were also enthralled by the sound and sonority that it could create. That’s the reason our collaboration over the years with Frances has been so successful. And well before Upon Reflection, the musical textures and colors of Frances’ music inspired Wendy Steiner's visual imagery in Traces on the farther side. Frances’ sensory lushness has made performing her music unique in our experience.

JOHN: You say when you are playing Frances’ music, you are playing colors. Do you experiment with the intensity of those colors, or do you just enjoy them?

LARRY: Absolutely. I think it’s the way you might blend colors, and how you transition from one note to another. There’s so much of that in Frances’ writing. It’s abstract but with a tactile element. There are textures — whether it is crosshatching or smooth.

LISA: The first piece I ever played by Frances was a duo for double bass and viola that we arranged for two bass viols. It was performed with tape, so we had to follow the time precisely. Frances’ music is emotional and lyrical and so easy to play on modern strings or viols. Viol players are humans too, and we just play beautiful music. It’s not anything to be fussy about — we deliver Frances’ beautiful writing.

LARRY: It’s about beauty. It’s so rare in contemporary music that you encounter something beautiful. And it’s what has brought us to work together with Wendy Steiner. She studies modern art and its hostility to the notion of beauty. I think we are beginning to come back into an appreciation of beauty. The tide hopefully is turning. With Frances’ music, we can explore aspects of this as opposed to raw emotions of anger. It’s a very different experience.

JOHN: And very timely, too, given what’s happening in the world. We live in a period where there is seemingly a breakdown of anything that is good and beautiful, and almost intentionally so.

LISA: Frances’ music has gorgeous, lyrical lines that make me want to play more. In recent rehearsals and recording sessions, I often would want to be almost “too big” for what the ensemble needed. The sounds Frances writes make me want to play really full, but she would say “No, I want that to be a little more subtle.” So I write in dynamics to make my lines blend more with the ensemble and the voice.

JOHN: Larry, talk about anything particular to the recorder, which you exclusively play for Upon Reflection.

LARRY: I’ve been playing the recorder longer than I have been playing the viol. They are different ways that I can express myself. There are different voices that I possess, so that singing, playing the viol, playing the recorder, are all aspects of my personal expression. On this piece, I just play recorder. It’s an instrument you breathe through, similar to drawing a bow, but it puts me in an interesting position of providing music together with the viols and Sherezade’s voice, also a breath instrument.

Sherezade Panthaki 2022JOHN: How do you interact with Sherezade and the viols, musically or otherwise?

LARRY: I feel that I provide colors. A lot of what I play are haunting long tones in keeping with Frances’ love of traditional Japanese music and the technique of bending notes. I am also interacting with the electronics — recordings of ourselves — which form an integral part of Upon Reflection.

FRANCES: The electronics are echoes of you, in keeping with the reflection idea as well. In the aria Red Pompeii, we end up with three Sherezades — a pre-recorded Sherezade interacting with a pre-recorded Sherezade, and a live Sherezade interacting with two pre-recorded Sherezades.

LARRY: It’s like a hall of mirrors.

LISA: Which is a lyric from the opera!

LARRY: It’s like a Picasso portrait, a distortion, not in a pejorative sense, but in a very personal way. And back to the recorder, I feel it provides a kind of commentary, a reflection.

LISA: There are passages where the viols play duplicates, triplicates, and stacked up rhythms.

LARRY: And the recorder floats above it all. I join the electronics in an almost mystical reflection of what’s happening.

FRANCES: When these passages occur of viols playing stacked rhythms, it almost gives the impression that you are playing viols with the [sustain] pedal down. It softens everything. And Larry and Sherezade tend to float above this.

LARRY: When the viols play intricate rhythms in different meters, it is like the rippling of water. And they occasionally crop. There is a ripple going one way and another that creates different patterns in the water, and you take it all in. You process it as subdivisions, but it is internalized — something you experience. You hear the whole, not deconstructed individual parts.

JOHN: Talk a little bit about how you will stage the piece, balancing what comes out of the instruments with the electronics.

FRANCES: Now, that’s always a challenge! Unfortunately, we can’t do anything until we get into the space [Cary Hall at the DiMenna Center]. Anything we do in rehearsal using my two little studio speakers won’t be the same as the concerts. Once we are at DiMenna, we will have to have time for technical rehearsal. Any performance with electronics requires the right staging and the careful balancing with the acoustic instruments and the voice.

JOHN: Does having pre-recorded music allow the performers occasional space to relax?

LISA: The idea was to alternate movements with live and pre-recorded voice. Otherwise, the piece is too long and too intense to perform live. We thought it was wise also for practical reasons in rehearsal.

LARRY: Wendy Steiner conceived of this as though we are in an art gallery. The images will be animated and visually arresting, so there will be staging plus animated images which come alive with the music. There’s a lot to take in for the audience.

JOHN: Who will be behind the controls for the electronic parts?

FRANCES: Wendy is working with lutenist and video artist Ryan Closs to create the videos. It’s something I know nothing about, but they are doing very beautiful things visually. Ryan will be running the video during the performances, while I will be doing the audio electronic parts. In some arias, I have a lot of direct interactions with the musicians, essentially performing with them.

JOHN: When you get into the space on May 1st for the first rehearsal, what will happen?

LISA: We will have five hours. Parthenia and Sherezade can rehearse the music as Frances, Wendy and Ryan are working out technical things and experimenting with staging.

FRANCES: Prior to that, I will work with Ryan so that hopefully when we walk in on May 1st, we’ll know exactly what we’re doing.

LARRY: Everything that is pre-recorded is done, and we have had extensive rehearsals. At DiMenna, we will be doing brush up and staging to make things as refined and polished as can be.

JOHN: What is the running time of the performance?

FRANCES: About an hour and ten minutes. There will be some variation, but that’s approximately it.

JOHN: What do you think the cumulative effect will be from beginning to end?

FRANCES: It’s about the journey of the character, at the beginning shy, gradually revealing her emotional connection to her work, and finally in the last aria, making herself quite vulnerable and inviting her audience to see what she sees. It’s what all artists do — sharing with others. As a composer, working with any piece that has a text with a dramatic narrative, you want to follow and support the drama with your music. It’s different in a way from writing non-text music.

JOHN: The artist moves gradually to an openness with her audience and without giving too much away, Schubert’s Winterreise is integral to the piece. In your composing, how do you navigate this?

FRANCES: In the first aria, the character is referencing her strong emotional connection to hearing a performance of Winterreise. If you listen to the song cycle, it’s such a powerful thing and relentless.

JOHN: Do you quote it musically in the opera?

FRANCES: Oh, yes. I’m very lucky to have an in-house pianist, my husband, writer James Pritchett, who played sections of the piece for me. I do use sections of “turbulence” from the piano part in the first aria.

JOHN: How do you work as a composer?

FRANCES: It’s a combination of things. When I start a piece, I think, I have no idea how to do this. Something comes to me, and I play around with it, and I keep playing around with it. When composing, I start in the morning and around 11:00, I typically go out for a run. That’s valuable because it empties my head. And then things can come in that I didn’t expect. It’s more that I am finding something rather than constructing.

JOHN: Lisa, what’s it like to put this project together logistically?

LISA: Talking with the members of Parthenia, we develop our season with a year and a half rehearsal schedule set in advance. In December 2022, we figured out what we would need to put on Upon Reflection in May 2024, subject to Sherezade’s availability and ours.

JOHN: How did you determine the time needed?

LISA: We set aside an initial full week of evenings and weekend daytimes. Then we found a slot in January 2024, and booked additional two-day events during the spring. We later adjusted to narrow the scope of what was required, and then found we didn’t quite need all the days we had set aside.

JOHN: In other words, the project is in control.

LISA: We try to look ahead and think things through clearly. We make sure the dates are all in our calendars. Our members are very serious about the obligation, and they show up ready to play.

LARRY: I think that’s true about why Parthenia has stayed together, because we take our commitments seriously.

FRANCES: That’s one of the reasons why composers love working with Parthenia.

JOHN: I have the strong sense that Upon Reflection would make an interesting film. Are you thinking that way? If so, what would you need to do to make that happen?

LARRY: We have talked for a couple of years about creating music videos. Upon Reflection is comprised of many self-contained closed form movements, which would lend themselves to produced films or animation. We could create a series of video projects where we could collaborate with other artists to get their take on the work.

JOHN: GEMS wishes you great success with Upon Reflection at DiMenna, and we will look forward to enjoying the film version soon!

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GEMS is a non-profit corporation that supports and promotes the artists and organizations in New York devoted to early music — playing repertoire from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and early Classical periods.