The Boston Globe
Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff
March 23, 2008

That’s the title of Lisa Bielawa’s impressive debut CD. Long known as a singer in Philip Glass’s ensemble, she is now making her mark as a composer, one expansive collaboration at a time.

One warm late-summer afternoon last year on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a cellist sat down on a bench in front of a public library and began to play. No one paid much attention, but about two minutes later, a violinist walked up and joined him. Then suddenly, with surgical precision, musicians began appearing out of nowhere, instruments at the ready. Some arrived on foot. Some stepped out of taxis. A soprano walked out of the library and promptly started to sing. It was a moving song on the subject of nostalgia, full of everyday phrases that seemed curiously tinged with meaning. “I used to live on this street,” she intoned. “What kind of place are you looking for?”

The music rang out in bright primary colors, mingling with the sounds of the city, and even jaded New Yorkers could be seen stopping in their tracks with jaws slack. A mounted policeman pulled up his horse to listen. After about half an hour, the players began to leave one by one, as mysteriously as they had arrived. The soprano repeated a gentle phrase from a song about aimlessness, and a French horn boldly underlined the thought. Then both musicians wandered off into the city streets, leaving the crowd that had gathered to stare at a cluster of deserted music stands. One onlooker expressed a kind of charmed bewilderment. “Where’d the musicians go?” she asked. “I went to look for them and couldn’t find them anywhere. I even looked in the trees.”

The scene is a small window onto the freshly enchanting music of the young composer Lisa Bielawa. The crowd had just witnessed the premiere of Chance Encounter, an open-air tone poem with Cagean flourishes, meticulously choreographed using synchronized watches and walkie-talkies. Bielawa, together with the soprano Susan Narucki, conceived the work to be performed in public spaces. Each song featured texts culled from conversations that had been overheard through months of eavesdropping in places where strangers gathered, from the airport in Anchorage to the subway in Taipei. (Portions of the premiere can be seen in a video on Bielawa’s website.)

Chance Encounter is Bielawa’s only work of this kind, but it shares with her other music a certain delight in surprises and a love of combining familiar elements in very imaginative, even quirky ways. Her pieces often have a plaintive purity of timbre that evokes ancient music but also a distinctively modern and personal voice that speaks with surprising directness, invoking music’s past while steering clear of its over-traveled highways.

These days, when Bielawa, 39, is not staging guerilla public art or performing as a sought-after singer of both new music and early music, she can typically be found within a few blocks of Harvard Square. She’s a fellow this year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and has been serving as composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a group that will present the premiere of her new Double Violin Concerto on Saturday night in Jordan Hall. Bielawa also recently released her impressive first album on Tzadik Records. A second disc is due out in the fall.

It all adds up to some exciting momentum for a young composer, but Bielawa carries it lightly. A native Californian, she projects a classically West Coast openness and calm coupled with an East Coast intensity of focus. When it comes to her composing career, she still describes it as a work very much in progress.

“The commissions are getting bigger and the projects are planned further in advance, but I just don’t ever know what I’m going to be doing five years from now,” she recently confessed while sipping mint tea in a Cambridge cafe and not sounding worried in the least. “That’s cool. I admit that I’m starting to perk up when I think of larger and more ambitious things. But I’m really more focused on what’s happening at the end of this month.”

She means the new concerto, a piece that, at least on paper, seems like typical Bielawa, both in its approach, which is custom-tailored to her collaborators, and in its overall freshness of conception. Commissioned by BMOP and the Radcliffe Institute, it was written for the violinists Colin Jacobsen and Carla Kihlstedt, two musicians with whom Bielawa has worked extremely closely.

Like most of her music, it has a connection to literature, or in this case, to a brief excerpt of Goethe’s Faust that speaks of fashioning “little worlds within the bigger one.” Kihlstedt actually sings the text in the second movement while playing a violin that, in a novel touch, has been re-strung entirely with E strings, creating what the composer describes as a “tinny, organ-grindery sound.” Bielawa has also devised a special “ornament library” for the concerto that’s meant to provide a common vocabulary with which the two soloists can improvise. The piece’s final movement reinvents an ancient Gregorian chant melody that Bielawa typically sings every year in Church on Good Friday.

For Bielawa, it’s essential to work with players she knows well, like Kihlstedt, whom she met in 1997. The violinist soon began developing her signature technique of singing and playing complex independent lines of music at the same time, and Bielawa spent several years writing a series of short pieces for Kihlstedt that would utilize her unique set of skills. The resulting seven Kafka Songs are stunners, full of imaginative, ruggedly muscular string writing that rustles and churns beneath the vaulting vocal lines. The short lapidary texts from Kafka’s Parables and Meditation are themselves eerily resonant, and include the phrase that Bielawa chose for the CD’s title, A Handful of World, hinting at a quiet watchfulness that informs her artistic approach. Kihlstedt gives the piece a beautiful and white-hot reading on Bielawa’s new album, but the music itself is basically unperformable by almost any other violinist.

Asked about the practicality of writing for a single performer in this way, Bielawa pointed out that composers of the past often wrote to their collaborators’ strengths, and that gradually the level of performance rose to meet the demands of the music. But she acknowledged there was also something more basic at work. “I am essentially social, so I can’t think of musical ideas that are not attached to people and to my experiences with people,” she said. “It’s partly because I made music as a child with my family, and I can’t turn my back on that. I will never be able to stop thinking of music-making as familial.”

In the genes
Bielawa grew up in San Francisco, and her adult musical sensibility does map with striking neatness onto the experiences of her childhood. Her father was a maverick California composer who wrote modernist music but was also obsessed with Bach, to the point of writing original works designed to be performed on top of existing Bach compositions. Her mother was a scholar of early-music performance practice. Her brother was also a composer with whom she played, naturally, double violin concertos. She grew up singing both her father’s ultra-modern compositions and her mother’s early music, meanwhile writing her own pieces to perform with friends in her chorus. As an undergraduate at Yale, she majored in French literature, writing a senior thesis that later inspired her still-unfinished opera. The subject is a girl visionary whose adolescence spans many centuries.

Bielawa graduated feeling destined for a life in music but completely unsure as to what it might look like. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not really a composer, and I’m not really a singer, but I know I have these skills that have got to be useful to somebody,’ “ she said. So she went to New York to figure it out. It was not a gentle landing.
“I had like 11 apartments in two years. I had no idea what I was going to do. I got there and I was starving, really starving,” she said. “I still remember that Kraft macaroni and cheese was $1.29 a box, but White Rose was $1.19 a box. So I would buy White Rose every day and eat half of the box for lunch, and half of the box for dinner.”

She took odd musical jobs wherever she could find them, arranging fight songs for the Caltech women’s glee club and working as a singing cocktail waitress on Martha’s Vineyard. Her big break came when she was asked to work as a substitute in the Philip Glass Ensemble. Suddenly she was on the road for months at a time performing scores now regarded as landmarks in Glass’s oeuvre: Music in 12 Parts and Einstein on the Beach. It turned out that her singing voice, while unconventional, was extremely well-suited to Glass’s music, which required the stamina of a marathon runner, a purity of intonation, and a clear, vibrato-less timbre. She earned a permanent position in the ensemble, which she has held for 16 years.

“She’s been with me the longest of all of my singers,” said Glass, reached in Australia. “The sound of her voice has become part of the signature of the ensemble.”

Musical wanderlust

The work with Glass became a gateway to performance opportunities across New York’s thriving downtown scene, a scene she helped shape in 1997 by cofounding the Music at the Anthology festival, better known as MATA, to showcase the work of young composers. Over the years Bielawa has remained at least as active performing as she has writing music. Even since moving to a leafy street in Cambridge for her prestigious composing residency, she delights in zipping back down to New York and performing what she refers to as “gritty gigs” with the leading lights of the downtown scene such as John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed. It’s clear that she thrives on inhabiting multiple worlds.

“She’s got wanderlust in her soul, and musically too,” said Gil Rose, founder and music director of BMOP. “Of all the composers I know, Lisa is the one who is constantly changing the most. I think she’s most happy when she’s journeying and not as happy when she’s putting down roots.” He added, “A lot of composers get wrapped up in the vestments, in the form, the rhythm, the orchestration. I think the freshness in Lisa’s music comes from the fact that her musical expression is primal, or personal, and there’s not a whole lot of hiding that. She’s very direct about it, and that takes a lot of guts.”

Bielawa’s other upcoming projects include a BMOP-commissioned Concerto for Orchestra, slated for May 2009, which will draw from the extended series of short Synopsis pieces she’s been writing for individual members of the orchestra over the last year and a half. (As these works come into being, they’ve been performed at BMOP’s Club Concerts, which Bielawa hosts and runs as a kind of free-spirited new-music cabaret. The next one takes place Wednesday night at Club Cafe.) For Fall 2009, she has also been commissioned by a quartet of adventurous musicians (violinist Colin Jacobsen and his brother, cellist Eric Jacobsen, pianist Benjamin Hochman, and clarinetist Anthony McGill) to write a companion chamber piece to be performed alongside Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Such projects would be the envy of most young composers, but don’t expect Bielawa to turn away from her singing any time soon. Nor would that necessarily be a good thing. Her double identity may be part of what equips her to write music that speaks with such sincerity and openness. She’s spent too much time taking risks in front of audiences to hide from them when she picks up the composer’s pen.

“I love building stuff, the architectural aspect of composition, but I would never try to bore anybody with the idea that that’s actually what a piece is about,” said Bielawa. “The reason for me [to write] seems to be that I find sounds that address my yearning and make me feel present and alive and vital. And it’s my best guess that if it makes me feel that way, then by sharing it with other people, somebody else may find that. It’s impossible to say that everybody will. I have to hope that I have enough shared humanity that it will translate, at least some of the time.”

She paused, then summed up with typical modesty: “It’s the best shot I have.”

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

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