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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Listening at the Keyhole, Pt 1

Our first singer to participate in the conversation was Stephanie Ann Ball. Stephanie will sing "What is Paradise" from Paradise by Juliana Hall on our Women's Voices Concert on March 9 at 6 p.m. at Syntax Physic Opera

Here is the response from Juliana:

Thanks so, so much for singing my songs, Stephanie, I'm so happy; you're both so kind to share my songs with your DASP audience!!!

If you'd like to send more questions about other songs, please feel free, and I promise to write back quickly.  :-)

1. What composers inspired you to begin writing?

The two composers who probably had the greatest influence in me writing music - not beginning to write, but in actually becoming a composer - are Darrell Handel and Martin Bresnick.  While I was an undergraduate piano major at CCM in Cincinnati, I took a "composing for performers" class, in which I wrote a couple of works.  After hearing performances of those works, Darrell Handel (a faculty composer) told me I really ought to become a composer.  That seed was planted; while I continued to study piano, I slowly began to write more.  Later, when I entered the Yale School of Music as a graduate piano major, I signed up to take private composition lessons as an elective (pretty nice to be able to study composition with someone like Frederic Rzewski as an elective!).  So, as I had done earlier, I wrote some songs and when they were performed, another faculty composer - Martin Bresnick, this time - encouraged me to switch my focus from playing to writing.  With Martin's assistance, I was able to change majors in mid-stream and work as a "real" composer.  I think I would have eventually become a composer on my own (it feels like the "real" me), but the strong encouragement from these two outstanding teachers directed me in a powerful, and gently supportive, way to my "new" life.

2. Many of your songs are set to the words of Emily Dickinson. What about her poetry makes it a good fit for your songs?

I have composed more songs on poems and letters of Emily Dickinson, than on any other writer.  She writes in such a naturally musical way, there is an ebb and flow to her thoughts, a type of rhythm that is very nearly music itself.  Her thoughts are not grounded in the Victorian age, but are modern...and they seem modern to me continually, they seem timeless.  Her imagery is so vibrant, her insights so direct and pure, her depth of understanding so bottomless.  AND...very important for me...she has a wonderful sense of humor, of playfulness...a sense that I think many readers do not necessarily appreciate to the fullest.  We have a sense that the "great" poets are "serious" - but Emily was a regular person, with daily life full of observation, interactions with family friends and relatives...and she put a lot of humor in those daily observations, alongside her profound insights.

3. What is Paradise has lots of rhythmic sections mixed with lyric phrases, what effect are you hoping the singer will acheive with this piece?

As with all my songs, my main intent is to let the words share the thoughts and truths set down by the poets, and to illuminate the magic they shine upon even the most ordinary of experiences.  "What is Paradise?" is a perfect example of Emily's sense of whimsical playfulness while entertaining serious ideas - in this case, the lyric phrases present the many questions and the many concerns going through her mind, as she compares the life she knows here on Earth with what that afterlife might be like.

4. Is there a specific story you are telling with this cycle, and if so, how does this song fit into that arc?

The song cycle "Paradise" has a loose narrative arc going from waiting for Heaven ("I Sing to Use the Waiting"), to a mid-cycle sense of drama when Emily realizes she may not get into Heaven ("Why - do they shut Me out of Heaven?" and "At least - to pray - is left") to, finally, a sense of faith that Heaven awaits her ("Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord").  This song - "What is Paradise?" - is the sixth of seven songs, and is reached after she has waited, experienced doubt about her reaching Heaven, and hoped for someone to consider her for Heaven - in this songs she seems to face the actual reality of a place known as Heaven and she is questioning what it will actually be like.  The seventh and final song of the cycle ends with Emily proclaiming that she is "ready to go" so this sixth song allows her to consider what she may be in for, and to be at peace with the idea of the place she hopes to reach.

Hope you enjoyed this letter and please come to our upcoming show, "Women's Voices" live at Syntax Physic Opera on March 9, 2017 at 6 p.m.

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