As composition competitions have come under closer scrutiny for their age biases and even exploitative business practices, organizations like National Sawdust are rethinking what kinds of resources are best suited to support the growth and development of early-career composers. National Sawdust’s Hildegard Commission, named for medieval abbess and musician Hildegard of Bingen, seeks to extend hands-on time beyond the premiere of a new composition and offer capital beyond an honorarium. Winners of the Hildegard Commission, which is now in its sixth year, will receive mentorship from composers Du Yun, Miya Masaoka, Angélica Negrón, Lena Platonos, and Paola Prestini — and from cellist Jeffrey Zeigler — toward the production of a new piece for Pierrot-plus ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano). The 2022 cohort, comprising Andrea Guterres, Hannah Ishizaki, Yaz Lancaster, DM R, and Kelley Sheehan, will integrate sound and art, working in dialogue with the poetry of 20th-century Greek writer C. P. Cavafy.
How is the mentorship you’re receiving beginning to manifest in your Hildegard Commission?
The Hildegard Commission provides a space for creative collaboration along with a generous fee, but what I didn’t expect was the amount of support that’s been offered to me since the start of the composition process. Through regular contact with Eve O’Donnell and my mentor, Angélica Negrón, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a composers collective like National Sawdust, which offers both practical and creative guidance to composers during the process, at times sticky, of composing new music. From advice on performing media, to technical support and monthly mentorship sessions, the Hildegard Commission is unique in what it offers composers in the early stages of their career.
My sessions with Angélica have been both inspiring and encouraging. Even when I didn’t have much material to present, our discussions on music, philosophy, and our different (and at times similar) creative processes have no doubt influenced the development of my piece. Angélica and I quickly found common ground in our mutual love of electroacoustic music, and she’s provided me with substantial advice in this field when it comes to practical matters. She’s also opened up my ears to different musical influences and guided me through my dabbling in less conventional notation and score-writing. In general, receiving an outsider’s perspective on your music during the composition process is hugely helpful in ‘getting out of your own head’ — essential to any creative activity — and my mentorship sessions with Angélica have undoubtedly guided me through the creative process of this exciting project.
I am so grateful to be paired with my mentor, Paola Prestini. Our mentoring sessions have centered around both the commissioned piece itself, as well as my career in general. The mentorship with Paola has helped me deepen and broaden how I have been generating ideas for the piece. My piece is based on Cavafy’s poem “The Sculptor of Tyana,” and will be for mezzo-soprano, cello, percussion, and electronics. I was initially drawn to the theatricality of Cavafy’s poetry, and I wanted to incorporate theater and movement into the piece itself. In our conversations, Paola suggested ways for the audience to participate using lighting; in the ritual of the concert hall, the audience becomes still, almost as the statues described in the poetry.
Additionally, because I am curious about the sounds of the original Greek words and how translation may have shifted meaning in the poem, Paola has introduced me to experts from the Onassis archive on Cavafy’s poetry. We have set a time to meet, and I’m looking forward to discussing the poem in its original Greek as well as archival findings from around the time of its completion. An important part of our mentorship has also been discussing my career development as I transition from school into the professional world. We have discussed how to write project proposals, adapt certain pieces for additional instrumentations, and create performances and programs. I am so excited to have this opportunity to work with Paola and National Sawdust!
Since finishing school in spring of 2020, I’ve been eager to find educational opportunities outside of traditional academic institutions. Most of this has been in the form of self-directed studies and skill-sharing exchanges with peers; and has ranged from learning Ableton and recording techniques, to anti-capitalist theory. I’m appreciative that National Sawdust is providing mentorship through this project — my sessions with Miya Masaoka have been really insightful. It’s been extremely isolating and, honestly, hard to stay motivated as an artist with “underlying health issues” during the pandemic, so it’s been a long time since people other than my close friends and collaborators have looked at my work and provided outside feedback and guidance — and that’s been a huge push for me.
I feel compelled to go beyond my areas of familiarity in terms of notation and process. I always attempt to do something new in each of my works, but I was feeling stuck with how to communicate a fundamental idea in this piece — Miya was able to give me several suggestions off the bat. I’ve also been reading a lot of philosophy, as well as experimenting with multiple presentations of the score. I’m overall feeling a renewed sense of creativity while writing; and also excited about thinking through my first sound installation piece!
The mentorship has been eye-opening. My initial sense was to do my usual: synths, custom Live drum pads, and Arduino devices or sonic objects that alter the instruments’ timbre. But, after Jeff Zeigler mentioned National Sawdust’s Constellation system, my approach to the commission had to change. Working with the 104-speaker system in mind, in which I can map the sound source around the room, has been a great challenge. Each word of Cavafy’s poem could be placed at different points in the hall. By doing that, the intention of the text shifts, and its meaning becomes recontextualized.
Jeff gave me great suggestions on score formatting and technicalities about the electronics. It helped me free myself and my writing from technical riders and provide full autonomy to the instrumentalists so they could sound their best. It’s refreshing to tackle a piece from a new perspective. Now I get to play with the words’ essence. It’s wildly exciting to think of the many possibilities of a single sound. One item contains so many layers while interacting with other vibrations. It’s a small unrestricted onion in a garden of beats.
My mentor for this commission is the renowned composer Du Yun. The mentorship has begun to manifest in important yet often overlooked ways, such as meeting for coffee to discuss my work and getting to know each other to build a rapport.
What I have really appreciated so far is Du Yun’s openness and her straightforward feedback to all my conceptual ideas. Getting this kind of immediate temperature check at the beginning stage of a composition has been very affirming throughout this entire process. There is definitely a “my door is always open” style to this mentorship, which has resonated well with me. Overall, this experience has been very encouraging and really helped me feel comfortable in composing a piece that feels very personal to me.
Another aspect to this mentorship is that I’ve been able to talk to Du Yun about things beyond just this piece, and about her experiences with and knowledge of composition at large. This is something that I think a lot of composition mentors and mentees never have the chance to discuss but is still very beneficial to composers at any stage.
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