"An Interview with composer Alex Temple"

Happy National Coming Out Day!!!

Alex Temple is one of the featured composers on our recital Queer Voices. We are performing her work Behind the Wallpaper which features amplified voice and a string quartet (along with some prerecorded sounds). We asked Alex about the work and about her thoughts on genre and on queerness in music. We hope you enjoy her answers as much as we did, and then we hope you’ll come enjoy the concert - October 12 at 7:30 PM.


SASS: How did this adventure/cycle come into being (both in a practical and creative sense)?

ALEX: It all started when Spektral commissioned a short piece from me in 2012.  Adding something new to the already enormous string quartet repertoire is a daunting prospect, so I proposed adding a vocal part, and they liked the idea.  Then, a few months later, Julia Holter was in town for a show.  I've known her since we were at the University of Michigan together over a decade ago, so we got dinner together, and I tweeted something about hanging out with her for the first time in years.  Spektral's violist, Doyle Armbrust, is a big fan of her experimental indie-pop albums, and he semi-facetiously suggested I ask her if she wanted to sing the vocal part in my piece.  So I did, and she said "sure!"

At that point Behind the Wallpaper was just four songs — the first four in the current version of the cycle.  As it turned out, Julia's touring schedule prevented her from performing them, so the premiere instead featured Connie Volk — Dal Niente flutist and also leader of a Tool cover band.  I love working with musicians who have some sort of classical training but mostly use their voices in a pop/rock context, and both Julia and Connie fit that profile.

A year or so later, I was talking with Austin Wulliman (at the time one of Spektral's violinists), and I proposed expanding the cycle into an album-length piece.  And, many long discussions later, that's what happened.  The original four songs all focused alienation and altered perception, so I kept them in a group at the beginning, and followed them with new songs about undergoing an involuntary transformation and finally finding a home in another world.  We worked things out with Julia's tour schedule and premiered it in three different cities in the winter of 2015.

SASS: In an interview, the singer Julia Holter (the singer for whom Behind the Wallpaper was originally written) mentions that you “have a kind of theatrical or operatic perspective.” What does that statement say to you, and how do you feel that comes across in Behind the Wallpaper?

ALEX: I would say theatrical more than operatic. I have a very conflicted relationship with opera as a whole, mostly because of my pretty idiosyncratic preferences when it comes to text-setting and vocal style. But while I have written explicitly theatrical pieces, I think of Behind the Wallpaper as more cinematic than anything else. The singer doesn't even represent a character; all the songs are in the second person. I think of them as little aural movies.

SASS: It’s so wonderful to hear music that pulls from so many seemingly different genres but comes together in your skilled brain/hands to create a piece that really defies classification by conventional means and stands as its own musical-dramatic entity. When you’re listening to music, what do you see as a common thread between genres that speaks to you as a person and as a composer? How did you come up with the synthesis of genres that you used to create Behind the Wallpaper?

ALEX: I naturally free-associate between genres without even having to think about it.  If you take a listen to something like my mashup O Superfood, you can find some examples:  Boulez links to Martin Denny because they have similar intsrumentation (I've always thought Le marteau sounded like alternate-universe lounge music), then the angular xylophone figures in the Denny track trigger similar figures from Messiaen and Bartók, then Messiaen's birdsongs bring in the recorded seagulls from a Mr. Bungle song, and so on.

In Behind the Wallpaper, a lot of the genre references come from the text.  "Night After Night" alludes to Elizabethan music because the song opens with the image of a masquerade ball in another century.  "Purple Stain" stars with a heightened sensual moment, so it uses the almost frenzied chromatic harmony of Strauss and Wagner. The spareness and formalism of the lyrics in "This American Life" demanded a similarly stripped-down style, so I ended up using textures that recall Steve Reich.  But actually, just as many of my stylistic choices happened intuitively and would be hard to explain.  I listen to a lot of different kinds of things, and when I sit down to write, all of those things are floating around in my head.

SASS: There’s talk here and there about the narrative in Behind the Wallpaper which is fascinating to consider, but we would actually be interested in hearing what the piece (as a whole) means to you (Not necessarily just the narrative, but what the work means to you).

ALEX: There's a fair amount of autobiographical imagery in the piece, although of course it's heightened and exaggerated. I really did take a bus through an endless series of suburban malls once, although it wasn't at midnight. I really did go to a masquerade party at an art gallery, although there was no stranger staring at me. I really did look down on an empty parking lot at night from a university science park with an observatory and a nuclear lab, although there was no impossibly tall figure illuminated by headlights.

In a broader sense, though, the cycle is about feeling lost and alienated and different and then, finally, finding your people. I'm a lot less lonely than I was when I wrote it. I've found my people.

SASS: We love your blog entry from July 26, 2013 “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Do you mind summarizing this for our readers and then perhaps letting us know if any part of what you said has changed for you since then? Could you talk a bit specifically about the concept of genderqueer (and how it relates to music) as it might be a new term to some of our readers?

ALEX: A lot has changed since 2013. When I wrote that post, I was still fairly early in the transition process, and while I was using "she" pronouns and had shifted toward a more consistently femme presentation, I also had a lingering sense that gender as a whole was a bizarre artifice. That's what I meant by "genderqueer" — a term that, in a broad sense, means "not identifying with the categories of 'man' and 'woman," or, more radically, "subverting the categories of 'man' and 'woman.'" The way I put it at the time was that I felt like an anthropologist from Neptune, but one who would rather be disguised as a human woman than a human man.

I don't identify as genderqueer anymore. As I've settled into my post-transition life, I no longer feel so alien (or at least, not for reasons of gender). Being a woman is just part of the background of my life. But my philosophical view of gender hasn't changed much. I see gender categories not as describing a particular set of behaviors or personality traits, but as cultural lenses through which those behaviors and personality traits are given social meaning. Someone with short hair, a vest and a bowtie, for instance, is going to strike you differently depending on whether you see them through the "man" lens, the "woman" lens or the "nonbinary" lens.

Artistic genres work the same way. The same painting of monstrous creatures tormenting a lone man will strike you very differently depending on whether I tell you it's a 16th-century Flemish rendition of the temptation of St. Anthony, or a Freudian-influenced Spanish Surrealist painting from the 1930s. More to the point, a sudden dissonance in the middle of a Baroque-style concerto means something different in Schnittke than it does in Zelenka. I don't explicitly frame my music as "genderqueer" these days, but I do think of myself as taking a subversive approach to musical genre and its categories.

SASS: Queer Voices takes place on October 12th, which is the day after National Coming Out Day. Could you share a bit about your views on “coming out” and what (if any) importance your queer identity plays in your work as a composer?

ALEX: The only thing that will lead to greater societal acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is more people coming out. I know not everyone agrees with me about that, and I certainly recognize that many people are not in a situation where it's safe for them to do so. But I am in a relatively safe position, and I believe that being open and outspoken about who I am can make things easier for others like me.

Since I wrote the blog post you mentioned, I've addressed queer and trans topics much more explicitly in my work. The original four songs of Behind the Wallpaper did touch on the idea of gender as social signifier ("Unnatural"), but the expanded version includes metaphors for coming out ("Fishmouth"), external and internalized transphobia ("Purple Stain"), and finding community ("Spires"). One song was even inspired by my Twitter friend Andi McClure's heartbreaking reinterpretation of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" as a straight woman singing to a partner who's transitioning.

Switch: A Science-Fiction Micro-Opera, which I wrote for Cadillac Moon Ensemble, is about a society in which left- and right-handedness is a primary axis of structural oppression, and it begins as follows: "I have a confession to make: I was born right-handed. Does that shock you? I realize that my telling you this is dangerous, given the current political situation, but I've always been inclined to take risks." Other pieces are about queer relationships: Second Moon, a song I wrote for Kayleigh Butcher and Chris Narloch, was inspired by a date I went on one summer night; Three Principles of Noir, a monodrama that I recently finished for Meaghan Burke and the American Composers Orchestra, unexpectly climaxes in a moment of sapphic discovery; and I'm currently working on a song for loadbang called Diadem, whose text, by poet R.A. Briggs, is about the blooming of gay desire in Medieval Europe.

And of course I have a lot of pieces that aren't about those topics too!

Emerald Lessley, soprano; Renee Zhang, violin 1; Teresa Sandys, violin 2; Maria Ritzenthaler, viola; Andrew Kim, cello - Rehearsing Behind the Wallpaper

  Alex Temple, composer of  Behind the Wallpaper

Alex Temple, composer of Behind the Wallpaper

A sound can evoke a time, a place, or a way of looking at the world. Alex Temple (b. 1983) writes music that distorts and combines iconic sounds to create new meanings, often in service of surreal, cryptic or fantastical stories. In addition to performing her own works for voice and electronics, she has collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Mellissa Hughes, Timothy Andres, the American Composers Orchestra, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet. She recently completed a DMA at Northwestern University, and is now working on a time-travel neo-noir monodrama.

"Because Love Is Love" by Eliza Woodyard

Being asked to sing on this recital was both very exciting and very scary. I’ve been bisexual my whole life but had never found a way to tell people without feeling like I was making some sort of awkward, grandiose announcement. Because I’m married to a man it’s generally assumed I’m heterosexual, and it’s easy to let people draw their own conclusions. Easy, but ultimately unsatisfying and depressing.

Before I was with my husband, my lack of identification with heterosexual femininity was often chalked up to me being ambitious, repressed, frank, from somewhere else...the list goes on. Until very recently I’ve moved through the world having a lot of myself seen by others, but never my sexuality. It was made clear to me when I first tried to open discussion with my family as a tween that being anything but straight where I grew up put my safety at risk. Safety was more important than authenticity, especially in my Catholic community. It was easier to to shelve my feelings or chalk them up to having not tried hard enough to change. I did that for about fifteen years, to my own detriment. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want women to feel unsafe around me, like I was preying on them or oversexed, and I didn’t want my male friends to project any fantasies onto me. I didn’t want my sexuality to put me in the spotlight in any way. It seemed easier to move through the world ignoring my sexuality, so I tied it up into a neat little box and put it away in my psyche.

This recital has played a huge role in helping me open that box.

It never occurred to me that I would be able to sing from the character perspective of a bisexual person, but “On The Road” by Ethel Smyth allows me to do just that. And the princess in Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess is not singing about men or women, she’s speaking as someone who has experienced falling in love. For the first time in a love song, I can make the focus my character’s love, not the object of that love. Because love is love.

I am proud to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I am proud to be a woman. I can think of no better way of celebrating who I am than through creating beautiful music with wonderful musicians with whom I can finally feel at home.

  Eliza Wooyard, soprano

Eliza Wooyard, soprano

Soprano Eliza Woodyard has been an active soloist in the Pacific Northwest since 2014. Recent performances include Hansel and Gretel (Gretel) and The Tales of Hoffmann: The Doll Act (Olympia) with Northwest Opera In Schools, Etc, La rondine  (Yvette)with Puget Sound Concert Opera, Die Zauberflöte (Erste Knabe) with Opera Classica Europa, The Ballad of Baby Doe (Silver Dollar) with Opera Fort Collins, and the world premieres of Michel Edward's War Symphony and André van Haren's Spirit Painting with Octava Chamber Orchestra. Additionally she is a member of the Seattle Opera Chorus and has appeared in their productions of Nabucco, The Pearl Fishers, The Flying Dutchman, and Aïda. She received her Master of Music from University of Northern Colorado and her Bachelor of Music from New Mexico State University.

“The LGBTQ World Is My World, Is My Family” by Jay Rozendaal

As I finished rehearsing with one of our singers last week, we began talking about the experience of preparing for this performance. I realized then what perhaps should have been obvious (at least to myself) - I’ve never before done a performance where the mere fact of my being on the stage announced to the public that I’m gay.

Since I have been using the words “my husband” relentlessly since the day I married him after 24 years together, this isn’t news to pretty much anyone who knows me even slightly.

All the same, for Coming Out Day this year, this is the single largest scale coming out action of my life. It’s a bit daunting, and yet exhilarating. It also seems simply right and obvious… and timely.

It’s daunting because it’s a whole audience of… presumably a lot of people I’ve never met (audiences usually are) - and because of the nature of the performance there is simply no hiding, no “passing.” I’m going to be on that stage because I belong on that stage - because the LGBTQ world is my world, is my family.

In part, that in itself is also what makes it exhilarating - performing the work of other LGBTQ artists with other LGBTQ artists doesn’t happen all that often. Yes, there are a lot of us in the arts, and it is a blessedly comfortable and mostly supportive world to move in - we happy few who can actually make a living at this are very fortunate indeed. Nonetheless, we are still a minority presence at most times and places, and we pretty much never have an opportunity such as this to celebrate each other as artists and to celebrate the work of great LGBTQ composers.

So, as a working musician, it is simply right and obvious that the biggest single coming out event of my life should be on stage, doing what I love the most - performing great song literature with a brilliant team of singers. I can hardly imagine anything better or more fitting for all the elements of who I am.

And yes - it’s timely. Two years ago, on November 11, as many of us still felt shocked at the outcome of the presidential election, I was on stage for another song recital - determined that our passion for beauty, our passion to lift up, expand, and transform the hearts of others through music and poetry would not be dimmed or silenced. It seemed that week that it was more important than ever to get up and make something beautiful happen in the world.

This week - after another highly contentious two weeks in our nation - it seems once again more important than ever to get up and make something beautiful happen in the world, and to say we will not be silenced, and to say who we are. I am a gay American artist - none of those parts of me are going to go away, or hide, or be silent. I have something beautiful to bring into the world, and I am - all of me - going to get up on stage and do that, and keep on doing that.

  Jay Rozendaal, pianist for Queer Voices

Jay Rozendaal, pianist for Queer Voices

Jay Rozendaal is Coach-Accompanist on the staff of Seattle Opera having served on numerous productions since 1991, including three Ring cycles, and the world premiere of Daron Hagen’s Amelia. He has also worked on the staffs of San Francisco Opera, Dallas Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Portland Opera, and Central City Opera.

Mr. Rozendaal is a member of the voice faculty at Western Washington University, having served as music director for Western’s Opera Studio from 2006 to 2016. He has appeared regularly around the Pacific Northwest in recital, chamber and concert engagements. Recent recital performances include programs with bass-baritone Eric Owens for the Portland Friends of Chamber Music, with countertenor Brian Asawa on the St. Martin’s Abbey Concerts & Lectures series, and the complete Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf with faculty of Western Washington University.

"Nature versus Nurture" | An exploration of the cycle "Define Me" by Brian Armbrust

I’ve always known. I haven’t always had a name for it, or known what it meant, but I’ve always known. It’s funny how I can look back and see all the clues in old photos, in the way I wanted to spend my time – lost in some world of imagination that didn’t involve sports, or whatever it is I was supposed to be interested in as a young boy.

I’ve always known. Growing up in the south I was never allowed to forget. A happy kid playing and minding my own business when someone runs by and yells “Sissy!” and then goes about playing kickball or whatever they were doing. Leaving me to sit there and wonder what I had done to make them so mad at me.

I’ve always known. “God Hates Fags!” Wait…that’s me, right? I mean, that’s what all the kids at school would yell out at me. It’s hard not to be scared of religion when all you hear about is how there’s a special place in some eternal land of judgment waiting just for you.

I’ve always known. I’ve always known that you’re wrong. I’m one of the lucky ones that frankly doesn’t care how you want to define me. That isn’t your right. I’m not giving you that power. But guess what – we aren’t all lucky. I hope that my music helps at least one person out there know that they aren’t alone.

When I began thinking about how I could express what my queerness means to me, my mind jumped to this idea of being “defined” by others and to this old point of debate of Nature versus Nurture. I came up with the answer to that debate many moons ago; Who cares?

The thinker in me is fascinated by the science behind it all – hormones this and DNA that – but the queer punk in me knows that when it is all said and done it doesn’t matter one bit. It doesn’t matter if I was “made this way” from patterns of proteins or from some childhood experience. The only thing that matters is that I AM. Period. Full Stop. It isn’t up to anyone else to accept me for my queerness; I’m the only one that can do that.

So, when I set about determining what a song cycle would look like that shared my experience with the world I landed on a few things:

1.       It would be called Define Me

2.       The three songs that immediately existed in my head were “Nature”, “Nurture”, and “Small Town Queen”

3.       It would be the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to create

I had no clue how true #3 would end up being. I had to go back and revisit the 15 year old kid inside me that still recalls the pain of coming out to his mother. Our relationship is great now, and I couldn’t ask for a closer or more loving connection with her; but, that day was one of the most emotionally painful days of my life. It’s only now that I can look back and understand that she wasn’t the person sitting on the couch with me that day – it was some idea that had been created by influences from outside of her nature as a loving mother and human being. This idea of how we, as a society, should react to the queerness in others. Religion was speaking (but only from the darkest most twisted parts that have the fingerprints of humans all over them), and the hateful words from the mouths of bigots (which are often allowed to ring out and loud because we are scared to shout back), and the lies in the guise of science from old dusty texts (because we think we know so much about so many things) were speaking. This one moment in my life shaped this entire cycle and upon retrospect shaped me into who I am.

The cycle is called Define Me because you can’t. Only I can. I’ve structured the piece into 6 songs with three of them focused on the societal influences I mentioned earlier; each of which is entitled “Define Me” with the subtitles “How are the mighty fallen!” (religion), “Slurred” (bigotry), and “Homosexuality” (lies in the guise of science). The three other songs, “Nature”, “Small Town Queen”, and “Nurture”, are direct responses to the “Define Me” songs.

The songs map my journey from a scared 15 year old boy baring his soul to the world to a 40 year old man that knows who he is and embraces the journey that made him. I have defined me. I’ve always known…it just took me a while to figure out the best way to let the rest of you know.

“Nurture”

This is me.
This is love.

I am rooted here.
This is my core.

My wounds are there, and there, and there.
They have made me strong, and weak, and strong.

This is me.
This is love.

-Brian Armbrust

 Brian is the founder and General & Artistic Director of Seattle Art Song Society.

Brian is the founder and General & Artistic Director of Seattle Art Song Society.

"An exercise in vulnerability" by Darrell J. Jordan (Queer Voices)

I just finished rehearsing two pieces with pianist, Jay Rozendaal, for the upcoming recital “Queer Voices” for Seattle Art Song Society. While neither piece is particularly difficult regarding rhythmic notation or pitches, the subject matter is incredibly challenging for me. Singing about the experiences of gay men is, believe it or not, a new experience for me. As someone who identifies as queer, I’ve rarely had the opportunity to sing about LGBTQIA+ issues. The irony is not lost on me that in a way this is almost like another coming out experience.

 There is currently little representation of queer people portraying queer roles in opera and art song. As a baritone, I usually find myself stepping into the role of a hetero man chock-full of toxic masculinity, or the comic relief. Sometimes, the same character might embody both of the aforementioned character traits. Yay? So, when Brian approached me about this recital, I jumped at the honor. Well, initially I thought, “Am I worthy to sing this incredible music, about such important subjects?” After all, I want to do justice for both the music community and the LGBTQIA+ community.

 For this recital, two of the pieces I am singing are “Walt Whitman in 1989” by Chris DeBlasio, and “Matthew Shepard” by David Del Tredici. DeBlasio’s piece is from The AIDS Quilt Songbook, a collection of songs about the stigma and response to HIV/AIDS and is a direct response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Poet Perry Brass wrote the text for DeBlasio’s music. Walt Whitman’s name is a reference to his penchant for writing eloquent, if not equally depressing poetry about war. Brass even said that this text is “for a generation taken by our war,” referring to the crisis in the 80s.

 Del Tredici’s piece is the hardest song (from a character point of view) that I’ve ever attempted. I was in seventh grade when Matthew Shepard was murdered. Between his murder and the self-hate I had for being a (closeted) queer (not to mention the tragedy that would follow at Columbine the following spring that shoved an entire generation into paranoia), I was certain that this would happen to me, that I would be killed because I was queer. In fact, I had resigned myself to Shepard’s fate, and in a way, didn’t come out of this mind space until college. This doesn’t make me special or unique, as I am sure every young queer person experienced something similar.

 In a way, this program for me is an exercise in vulnerability. In allowing myself to be vulnerable, both in my art and my queerness, I hope I am able to continue to grow as a musician and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. And through that growth, I can join the other fabulous musicians on this program to help breathe life into these stories. 

- by Darrell J. Jordan, baritone

Darrell+Jordan+headshot+2018.jpg

Seattle-based lyric baritone Darrell J. Jordan has been praised for his “shining, beautiful voice” (Broadway World), his comedic stage presence has been hailed as a "classic farce" (Seattle Weekly), and he's been called “the star of the show” (Columbia Heart Beat). He is currently pursuing his D.M.A. in Voice Performance at the University of Washington under the tutelage of Dr. Kari Ragan. In demand as a recitalist and concert soloist, his recent solo engagements have been with Amherst Early Music Festival, the Odyssey Chamber Music Series, Rolla Choral Arts Society, Choral Arts Alliance of Missouri, the Missouri Symphony, the Southside Philharmonic Orchestra, the Toledo Symphony, and the Seattle Art Song Society. Opera credits include St. Louis Opera Collective, Haymarket Opera Company, Gateway Opera, the Institute for 17th Century Music, the Show-Me Opera, Lawrence Opera Theatre, Puget Sound Concert Opera, Operamuse, PNW Opera, and the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Seattle. Additionally, Mr. Jordan is on the Teaching Artist roster for Seattle Opera. He can be heard as the baritone soloist on the album St. Lawrence Psalter. He is a member and co-founder of the nationally recognized professional vocal chamber ensemble, Vox Nova.

Welcome to our new Blog!

Today we will celebrate our upcoming birthday by opening this new blog space we are calling "Share Your Voice". Here you'll be able to see news about SASS, interviews with artists, articles about social justice and our community, discussions about the pieces on recitals, and so much more.

This is day 3 of our lead up to the celebration of SASS's 3rd birthday! Beyond creating this blog space, we will also share a piece with you that will be a binding element in our 18-19 season. As I was thinking on the season and deciding on the themes, I realized that we needed a way to unify the recitals and bring the whole season together to show that we are all one community. The inspiration for that came from former president Barack Obama. During his campaign for his second term as president, he delivered a speech that included the text, "One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room it can change a city, and if it can change a city it can change a state, and if it can change a state it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation it can change the world."

I took that speech and set it as a canon for 5 voices called "One Voice". It will be performed at each of the recitals in the season and at each performance we will include one performer from a previous recital so that by the end we have one voice representing each of the 5 recitals singing the canon together and showing how we are bound by the message in the speech and by the power of music and song.

I'd encourage you to have a look at the song and make a video of you singing it as a solo! Submit it to us at artistic@seattleartsongsociety.org or post it on our Facebook page, and help us celebrate this upcoming season and our upcoming birthday! Don't be shy - we will all end up singing this at least once this season (or 5 times if you come to all of the performances which I'm sure you will!).

-Brian Armbrust, General & Artistic Director, Seattle Art Song Society

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