December 2009: Conversation with Composer, Laura Schwendinger

As a composer, and musician, I am constantly aware of movement. The physical essence of music is palpable to me. As I write a line of music, I sing along with each note as I place it on paper. The physical qualities of music lead the makers of music, on all levels to be aware of the related corporeal properties of our world. When we feel ill, without that natural flow of adrenaline, we simply cannot perform. Although one wouldn’t know it by looking at a composer, like performers we are essentially athletes. The performance of our mind and practiced ear are at their best when we are physically well, and why health is so important to musicians. I have, like many people my age, started to feel the challenges of the physical body. The awareness of pain, at times over the last couple of years, has preempted the flow of my singing line.

This last week I listened in as our University orchestra and a wonderful local flutist rehearsed my latest work, Waking Dream, that was written for the incomparable Christina Jennings and will be premiering week after next. The work blossoms in a long and sustained dream-like span of tremolo strings with harp, celesta and vibraphone figures suspended throughout as the flute flitters and flies above and below. Like golden reflections of the setting sun on the water, Waking Dream is meant to evoke an intense and shimmering color world of sounds, and the flute a fluid singing line, that hangs like an aerialist above the fluidity of the orchestra. As I wrote the work, I imagined myself as this aerialist flying through and around the orchestral textures.

In many ways, the lithe fluidity of my flutists’ “aerialist feats” stand in contrast to the reality of my own intermittent pain, I am able to fly, albeit vicariously, through the physicality of the soloist’s part. As I continue my quest to maintain my own health, I realize that the health of my imagination is ultimately, the most important part of my compositional process, for in that world, it’s possible for me to do anything, if I can imagine it. But also, inevitably, it is the making of music that has kept my spirit alive and imaginative mind alert.

I am reminded about an article that a former colleague of my husband’s David Kaun wrote, called Why Writers Die Young, a study on the longevity of artists, in which he found that conductors and composers lived the longest. I wasn’t surprised, and in the years since listening to every new and wonderful work by Elliot Carter, I am reminded of that article.