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Joanne de Mars: Interview
At our upcoming concert on Friday, October 16 at the Berkeley Arts Festival, we will be premiering “For the Sea” by our very own Joanne de Mars. Joanne will also be performing this work for solo cello. Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer interviewed de Mars about her piece, the contrast between composing and performing, and her history of working with Wild Rumpus. Join us on Friday to hear this and other amazing works!
What inspired you to compose For the Sea for unaccompanied cello?
I was commissioned to write this piece by a family friend of my mom’s. His daughter is graduating from college, and he wanted to giver her something that was a little unusual as a graduation gift, and that is how the commission came about. Musically, it’s a piece for unaccompanied cello and the theme that he wanted was something about ocean or relating to science and life as his daughter was an ocean science major. So, the topic was pre-chosen for me, but I have a deep connection to the ocean of my own, being from the West Cost not only on the Pacific Ocean but the Puget Sound. I’m fascinated by the way that the water has a certain rhythm but it is totally random in its movements on a smaller scale. Using a lot of those influences is where my music came from.
How does that oceanic randomness tie into musical ideas for you in this work?
I used a series of randomly repeating groups of two’s and three’s that I generated with a random generator online to create the middle section of the piece. From there I extended it into an overall wave form that I worked outward from the middle into a larger palindrome.
What are the challenges and advantages of writing for unaccompanied cello?
The advantage is I can play the piece myself. I don’t have to depend on anybody else to recreate my idea of how it should sound musically. Harmonic structure is an important element of music for me personally, and definitely in writing for any kind of solo instrument, there is an element of harmony that has to be there. To create a sense of harmony other than melody and rhythm with a solo instrument can be challenging. But at least with the cello you have multiple strings so that you can create chords and play off of that, so you can have an implicit harmony.
As you know, Jenny Johnson’s piece Reflect Reflect Respond Respond makes reference to Bach’s “Jesu meine Freude”. Do Bach’s unaccompanied suites influence you at all when you think about unaccompanied cello?
Either consciously or subconsciously I am influenced by them. They are the greatest works for unaccompanied cello to date and most iconic. So I cannot say that they did not influence me. The harmonic aspect definitely influenced me in how he incorporates that element into a work for a solo instrument, having bass notes and voice leading was a key element in my head. That being said, I came at it from a different angle. For the Sea is a very stand-alone piece whereas the Suites are a collection full of those now famous dance rhythms.
Has the piece evolved since you performed it in the workshop at the Center for New Music back last fall?
No, you know I finished it. I feel like it’s done. I haven’t changed anything. Maybe it sounds weird to say but the more I practice it, the more I’m discovering about my own writing and the piece. Kind of like finding the places in which I can lead more, bring out more of the melodic structure. I wrote it very thoughtfully but pretty quickly and even now having the chance to perform it gives me more insight into the piece as a musical endeavor rather than just a compositional idea.
What is it like performing your own piece versus someone else’s composition?
It’s different in that I have no one to blame for how hard it is but myself. I’m trying to come at it like this is someone else’s music and trying to make the music out of it from what I see on the page, rather than feel like I have the freedom to change what it is because I wrote it. So I’m really trying to stick to what is on the page and what I can do with the notes that are given.
Does it help you to disassociate somehow? What does it help you to do?
Absolutely! I think I can create more music from it. Especially having had the break from when I originally wrote it in 2014 til today, I feel a bit of a fresh eye and a fresh ear to the piece having a little distance, not feeling so married to it as a piece of mine. It’s just a piece for cello now.
Has this process helped you feel inspired to continue composing?
I would really love to continue writing music. I don’t know if it will be for cello. Obviously, it’s a convenient medium. I would like to perform this piece some more and I’m really excited to have this premiered for this concert.
How long have you played with Wild Rumpus, and how did you discover you were interested in new music and even in composing?
I’ve played with Wild Rumpus since 2012. As far as new music goes, I first discovered new music when I was fifteen years old. I played in the Seattle Youth Symphony, and we played Aaron Jay Kernis’ Symphony No. 2 and I was obsessed from that point on. Its funny; everybody else did not get the idiom. They couldn’t stand it, what is this crap, whereas I felt o my gosh this is amazing! So I knew there was something to it, which led me into discovering new works. In my undergraduate training at University of Washington I was active in the new music ensemble performing new works and performed in a contemporary improv quartet. I’m really happy to continue my passion for it with Wild Rumpus. It’s exciting to work with composers at this close a level.
How do you want the audience to approach this piece on a first listen?
Even though the piece is based on a random repeating motif, it is very repetitive in a classical composition sense in that I have a mode and I modulate with the mode and play different transpositions of such mode. So if you listen with a classically informed ear it will be pretty self-explanatory. The sonority is a little different than you would experience in say a piece by Brahms or Bach or anything classical.
What role does the audience play for you in this context?
Well since I’ve been a performer, I feel like such an intermediary between the theoretical composition of music and what it actually is – I believe to communicate and grow some sense of deeper connection with other people. I believe it’s a very connective force that we have as humans to be able to transform sound waves and affect us on a very emotional level. I think it’s my job usually as a performer to effect that change in people. Usually since I am performing other people’s compositions it’s my job to interpret what perhaps their intended emotional construct or communicative construct would be and be able to communicate that using my voice with the cello and as a performer. To communicate that to an audience and effect some change in them or some sort of connection for them with the music. As a composer, I feel that, it’s interesting but it makes you take that one extra step back from that sort of level of connection. I connect to the ocean and this piece is about the sea. Using that sort of connection is how I feel I came up with the tone of the piece. However, I did not have the audience so much in mind. Its more about my connection to the sea.
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