Getting to know composer Elizabeth Ogonek
We are delighted that a new piece, 'Falling Up', by young American composer and RPS prize-winner Elizabeth Ogonek, receives its world-premiere performance from Ensemble 360 during the 2015 May Festival. Having just been appointed one of the composers-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, and contuning her doctoral studies at the Guildhall in London, Elizabeth is a busy person, but she kindly took the time to answer our questions.
Hello Elizabeth. What is your earliest musical memory?
I don’t really remember my first musical memory but I do have a favorite memory from around the time that I was 5 or 6. My mom took me to see a semi-staged production of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The seating for this particular performance was configured in such a way that some members of the audience were actually seated behind the performers on the stage. My mom and I were in the front row of these seats. Every time the chorale ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ or ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’ would return, I sang along as loudly as I could. I annoyed everyone in the audience and even some of the performers! My mom was so embarrassed!
Did you always want to compose? If not, when did that desire come to life?
I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a composer. At age 5 I began studying piano in the Preparatory Division at Manhattan School of Music. At first it was a sort of hobby and a way for my mother, who, at the time, was a graduate student at Columbia, to keep me busy and engaged. As I got older, I realized that I was, in fact, interested in pursuing a career as a concert pianist and so I decided to apply to Walnut Hill, an arts boarding high school just outside of Boston. Unfortunately, as soon as I started attending school there, I stopped practicing! I truly hated it! I suddenly found myself aware of the fact that my plan to be a performer was in jeopardy. My theory teacher was the one person who hadn’t lost hope! From the very beginning of my freshman year he insisted that I try composing. He thought that I had the most unusual ways of realizing figured bass progressions and that if I applied those problem-solving skills to my own music, it could turn out to be something quite special. It took me three years to take him up on his advice, but as soon as I wrote my first piece, I knew instantly that I would spend the rest of my life composing.
You grew up in NYC, moved to the west coast to further your studies and you’re currently a doctoral student at The Guildhall. Has travel ever inspired your compositions?
Absolutely. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the FLUX Quartet called Running at Still Life. The piece, which draws its inspiration from a road trip that I took from Los Angeles to New York shortly before I moved to London in 2012, examines the rapid geographical transformations that one experiences while driving across the US. I remember being struck by how dramatically different landscapes changed when time was compressed. It was as if the Mojave Desert suddenly morphed into the Rockies and the Grand Canyon into the Great Plains. The piece deals with these elements in a somewhat episodic way in the sense that it is made up of lots of little sections. The idea behind it is that just when the music is about to develop into something more substantial, it changes, exposing a new landscape.
Could you tell us about what your studies focus on at The Guildhall?
The work that I am doing for my doctorate centers around the different effects that text can have on compositional decisions. I’m really interested in the transference of linguistic properties, particularly the sonic and semantic aspects of language, to a musical setting and how that affects the meaning of a piece. My portfolio of compositions explores issues of meaning and narrative based on the proximity of a text to the musical surface – or simply, whether or not the listener hears the text or if the text serves a purely conceptual purpose. Poetry has always played a big part in the way that I think about my own music so this topic is a natural outcome of much of my pre-doctoral work.
How does it feel to be the winner of the RPS Composition Prize?
It feels wonderful! I’m incredibly grateful for such immense support of my work and I feel very lucky to be following in the footsteps of some truly great composers including my own teacher, Julian Anderson.
We think you are one of only 8 women to have won this prize since 1948. Do you feel being a woman in the world of composition has made this journey tougher for you?
As a woman composer, I get this question a lot. Perhaps I’m being socially irresponsible in saying this, but honestly, gender and compositional success is not something that I think about very often. I’d like to think that I am part of a generation of composers that regards gender as less of a polarizing factor than it has been in the past. I feel that the difficulties I have come up against so far are difficulties that anyone, regardless of gender, would face. I don’t know whether or not my experience as a woman composer has been any tougher than anyone else’s because all I have to go on is my own experience. What I have learned as just a regular composer, though, is to develop a tremendous work ethic, to be incredibly tenacious and to build up impenetrable will power. I think these lessons are true for anyone male, female or in between.
Who are the contemporary composers you are most drawn to? And which composers from the past inspire you the most?
It’s hard for me to pick my favorite contemporary composers because it constantly changes based on what I’m working on, but the living composers that I always have on my ipod/am listening to right now include Oliver Knussen, Julian Anderson, Stephen Hartke, Klaas de Vries, Per Norgard, Hans Abrahamsen, Agata Zubel, Kate Soper, Clara Iannotta Ted Hearne, and Tristan Perich.
Past composers include: the three Bs – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Dutilleux, Berg, Stravinsky, Ives, Castiglioni, Lutoslawski, Ligeti.
What advice would you give to a budding composer?
Be yourself, be open to what other people do and what they have to say and work as hard as you can!
We’re very excited about your world premiere, titled 'Falling Up'. Tell us why you chose Rimbaud as your starting point and how this piece reflects the festival’s theme of Youth & Experience?
I chose Rimbaud because most of my doctoral work incorporates texts by contemporary poets who work mostly in English. Though I’m not actually setting Rimbaud’s text in this piece, I wanted an opportunity to work with a poem that poses translational and therefore, interpretive challenges. The piece deals with Youth & Experience by looking backwards at childhood memories and realizing that they are often not as rose-colored as nostalgia might tempt us to believe. Yes, I know, quite pessimistic!
How did you settle on the instrumentation you have chosen (flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet, violin and cello)?
I’ve never written for this type of ensemble before and this particular combination of instruments seemed interesting to me!
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