By Tim Munro
This season’s St. Louis Symphony: Live at the Pulitzer series is inspired by a quote from artist Susan Phillipsz: “Sound can really act as a trigger for memory, can bring you back to a particular place and time.” The composers in these four programs reach to bygone times, to far-away places, to unsung voices. I spoke with two composers whose music is featured on the series. Christopher Stark’s 2nd Nature is given its world premiere performance by SLSO violinist Shawn Weil on March 24, 2020. Annika Socolofsky’s Don’t say a word is featured on May 12, 2020.
Life as a composer can be lonely. “If you write for a professional ensemble,” composer Christopher Stark says, “chances are they don’t know you as a person. You sit alone at home and write this piece, then email it away. There’s nothing physical about it.”
Christopher, a St. Louis-based composer whose music is in demand across the country, wanted to combat this sense of isolation. He teamed up with a friend, SLSO violinist Shawn Weil, on a unique project. Instead of sitting alone at his computer, the two used a grant from Utah’s Barlow Endowment to travel across Asia together.
Christopher and Shawn wanted to learn about one another. “It helped me understand how a piece could feel over the course of twenty minutes,” says Christopher. “Shawn is one of the most energetic people I’ve met in my life.” This energy fed the piece: “I know he can maintain a thread for a really long time. There will be no down-point in the piece.”
Christopher also took the voyage as an opportunity to listen. “To hear what a place sounds like. Insect sounds caught my attention—it is almost deafening in some places. I recorded insects in the mountains of Northern Thailand, where they are high and piercing. And I recorded cicadas in Tokyo parks, where they sound like violins sliding in and out of tune.”
The resulting piece, 2nd Nature, takes these sounds and transforms them into what Christopher calls an “immersive environment.”
“When someone thinks of a solo violin piece,” he says, “they might think of something very focused and very intimate. I wanted to do the opposite, to think that this one person is the genesis of sounds projected in a large space.”
He was inspired by the work of teamLab, a Tokyo-based art collective. “They have taken this giant building with thousands of video projectors. It’s a weird theme park of digital imagery. When you walk in, you are completely immersed…”
The magic of modern technology means that almost anything is possible. “So why not try to create something that has a little bit of wonder in it,” says Christopher.
Singing the unsung
Annika Socolofsky is a musical force. The American composer, avant-folk vocalist, and fiddler is blazing a trail through the musical world. Her brand-new song cycle, Don't say a word, nails her colors firmly to the mast.
The germ: Annika was asked to create a piece of music in response to a photograph. “It was a photo of a boy and a girl, positioned as if they were looking into each other’s eyes, but staring at each other with their eyes closed.”
Annika thought that this image, of two children “poised to connect, but not connecting,” spoke to our time. “It fit into an idea of enabling women, of listening to each other. That was where the feminist-rager-lullaby idea came from.”
She began by searching through old lullaby texts. “There are a lot of dark, screwed up, sexist, homophobic lullabies. I thought, how great would it be to retell these with messages I wished I received as a young child.”
“In some ways,” says Annika, “adulthood is the perfect time to take in these texts. They are these subconscious, unchallenged lessons. We are now challenging a lot of these things that were just accepted.”
Some of the original lullaby texts struck Annika as particularly problematic. The English lullaby “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” “teaches young girls to fantasize about who their husbands are going to be.” Which, she says, teaches them that their life is only worth the husband they have.
“Women deserve to be defined by so much more,” she says.
Annika wrote the song cycle for her own unique singing voice. “All of my musical loves are reflected in my voice,” she says. “I went through a huge Yiddish song and ballad phase, where I was playing klezmer and studying Yiddish. And I’ve been working on my classical chops.”
But perhaps her strongest influence is Dolly Parton. “She has this deep tool-belt of sounds and inflections that she uses to paint texts in emotional ways. She could be singing a string of clichés, and I’m still moved because of her delivery, her performance.”
Despite misgivings, Annika feels a kinship with the lullaby form. “Lullabies are the only truly safe performing space that we have. Every other space has some kind of audience, so you can’t be truly candid. If you’re singing to your child, and the child doesn’t yet understand the words, you can truly say what you need to say.”
She quotes UCLA ethnomusicologist Andrew Pettit: “Lullabies are the place to say the unsayable, and sing the unsung.”
This article appears in the November 2019 Playbill.