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Leaha Maria Villareal: Interview

leahaWild Rumpus will be performing Never Not, a new work commissioned from Leaha Maria Villareal on February 22, 2014 at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley. Wild Rumpus’s Vanessa Langer recently spoke to Leaha about the piece, her influences, and the advantages of working with text. More about Leaha and samples of her work can be found on her website:

Vanessa Langer: Hi Leaha! Congratulations on being a Wild Rumpus Commission Project Winner.  I’m really enjoying delving into the sound world of Never Not you have written for Wild Rumpus!

Can you tell our Bay Area audience about yourself?  What got you started as a composer?

Leaha Maria Villarreal: Thank you.  I’ve been super stoked about this for a long time!  I’m a composer here in New York and started out at the University of California at San Diego. It was a very wonderful place to learn about music and unbeknownst to me when I entered the program, it was a great place for experimental music.  One of the best in the nation and one of the best on the West Coast certainly: it really gave me my language to work with.  I hadn’t experienced this before in my more traditional piano studies and singing. So it was something completely different for me and really spoke to me, and that’s when I started to write and learn. I loved it so much that when I got out I knew I wanted to come to New York because that’s where it is all happening — a big pocket of it anyway. I’ve been out here since 2005.

I started playing piano when I was 8.  That was the early formal training that I had as well as singing in choirs around that time in my church.  I knew I wasn’t going to be a performer and so I was casting around for the right thing when I got to college. I studied extensively during that whole period and I found composition as an elective. It spoke to me and that’s been my course ever since.

V: How has living and working in one of the most vibrant cultural capitals of the world- New York City- influenced your composing and music making today?

L: I really gravitated toward the Bang on a Can folk and that tradition.  I’ve been really lucky to study with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe at NYU where I was pursuing my Master’s and I’m just so lucky to be here with a whole bunch of incredibly talented people.  I’m excited that I’ve been able to get a little bit of a dialogue now with things like Wild Rumpus and having some friends back home, bringing that East Coast and West Coast vibe together.

V: Can you tell us a little bit about Never Not and any inspirations you drew upon in creating this work?

L: I knew I wanted to take advantage of the fact that Wild Rumpus had a voice and such a nice large ensemble to also complement the voice.  That’s a really special thing.  At the time I was working with Hotel Elefant, getting a commission off the ground for our composer and performer Kirsten Volness. She did a song cycle for us with playwright Adara Meyers writing some text for her. Having heard her work with Kirsten, I knew I loved her words.  So I asked her what else she had. And she was very kind and sent me some materials to work on to catch my inspiration and the piece really evolved from there.

V: Could you also tell us about the text you use from the play Birds by Adara Meyers and what it means to you?

L: Adara and I spent a lot of time talking about our mutual love of Samuel Beckett.  This very romantic very absurdist language, things that are very terse and delicate and kind of packed with meaning but brief!  Her play Birds is full of dialogue like that between the Bird and the main character Neil, going back and forth; this idea of kind of not being in time.  You know, the idea of the double negative: “never not” and things being ahead of you and behind you and opportunities and things that have passed and things that are yet to be.  Just that whole idea of not knowing who you really are.  [I wanted to explore those feelings when] you stop and you start; you are going forward and back.  That feeling of suspense after a while…  Where does that leave you?  It’s a theme I’ve seen in Adara’s works and I’ve definitely experienced in mine so that was a nice meeting point to get the piece off the ground.

V: You have a history of work with vocal composition.  What is your relationship to text in general vs. purely instrumental compositions?

L: The thing I love about text and poetry is that it gives you a character in a way that a purely instrumental piece can’t.  You can have sarcasm; you can have implied things.  It’s a little bit more atmospheric when you are just doing instrumental work. If it’s about something very specific or political or personal you really have to make sure people read the program notes and understand that going into the work in order to describe what you are trying to say.  With voice you can just say it directly to people.  You can speak and it can be a conversation.  That’s why I really love writing for the voice.  I really love this interplay between orchestrating and interludes and having the voice: who gets the final say and where is that dialogue as well– not just between the performer and the players to the audience but also within. How do they navigate that space?  Who has the main line or the main gesture, the leitmotiv or whatever you want to call it?  How do you navigate that ground?  That’s always the most exciting part to me whenever I write for voice.

Certain times in fact, in the middle section the voice is not the solo line. It’s really an instrument in the truest sense of the word and blending the colors very constantly with the orchestra or ensemble.

V: You recently debuted at Carnegie Hall with your New York based ensemble Hotel Elefant.  What was that experience like as an emerging composer?

L: It was incredible.  We had the very good fortune of participating with the co-founder of Hotel Elefant and composer Mary Kouyoumdjian to premier her new piece This Should Feel Like Home.  It was a week of working with wonderful musicians from all around the country, even a composer from Mexico.  So it was just a great cross-section of vibrant new voices, new groups coming together to learn, a big sense of community.  Probably the greatest thing I took away from that is how lucky we are to be in this community.  And it’s not just about being New York-centric or L.A.-centric or San Francisco-centric or Europe vs. the States.  It was just about music. New music. And it was a great feeling to be part of that.

V: Who are some of your musical influences?

L: For this piece I was rocking out to a lot of Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, and Sarah Kirkland Snider who did the Penelope song cycle and that kind of lives in this world that I wanted to get into for Never Not.  Definitely Lang, Gordon and Wolfe…but then I also love my Crumb and my Berio, things that are out there, push the envelope, a lot of Kaija Saariaho.

V: What do you enjoy doing when you are not making music and administering the arts?  What are some of your hobbies and obsessions?

L: I love swing dancing actually.  Old school 1940’s style Lindy Hop.  Movies, concerts, hanging out with my friends.

V: What do you hope the audience takes away after hearing Never Not for the first time?

L: Gosh!  Well I mean I hope they like it.  A sense of mystery, of beauty would be the main thing I hope they can take away.

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