Monday, November 1, 2021

Composer Profile: Laura Schwartz in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On November 6th 2021, I will conduct the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento in a program that includes the world première of Laura Schwartz' work "Figment". Below is a brief interview with this very talented young composer. 

Christian Baldini: Laura, it will be a pleasure to conduct the world premiere of your new piece "Figment", which you wrote for the Camellia Symphony Orchestra. Tell me, how did you approach writing this piece? In your program notes you affirm that "During this piece you hear the bones of an acoustic x-ray." Could you develop further on this very intriguing idea? 

Laura Schwartz: In my process of writing Figment, I chose a few string techniques that already have a tendency towards “noisiness”. I write music that enhances the noise elements of sounds. Examples of compositional techniques I used in Figment that have noise as an integral part of their structure are the sound of the bow hairs striking the stings, the sound a very high note that gently wavers as the player changes their bow position, and the sound of a bow bouncing in a controlled an uncontrolled manner against the strings of an instrument. I consider noise to be the bones of a sound. Noise gives a listener an awareness of space and place, as the noisiness of the piece intermingles with the noisiness (mechanical hums, fans, or wind) of a performance venue. 

CB: What are some of the things you care about the most when it comes to music (both new and old)? 

 LS: In my music composition, form is a primary way I think about my taste in music. As a composer, I care about creating a piece that teaches the audience its internal logic and boundaries. It creates a sonic environment that becomes apparent through listening. For me, it is okay if the technical nuances or musical references are lost in the first or second listen. If the form is communicated, such that a sense of expectation and subversion of expectation is generated, then it is something I find musically attractive. For instance, Haydn’s String Quartet in Eb “the Joke” and Kate Soper’s “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say” are examples that capture this characteristic for me. 

CB: You studied at UC Davis (that's how we met, when you were still an undergraduate student), and you've developed a remarkable career already. Can you tell us about some of the most important or inspiring experiences and/or people that you've had so far? What has helped you or inspired you to continue growing and excelling as an artist? 

LS: At UC Davis, the support I had from my friends Cindy, Liz, and Kristina inspired me to continue in music. All three of them, who were not music majors, would go with me to experience the Empyrean Ensemble concerts (the new music ensemble at Davis). It became known as going to see the “weird music” with Laura. It helped me understand how a general audiences can view contemporary music, what could be picked up easily in a piece, and what would be lost. For me, learning how they listened shaped the “who” in the audience I write my music for. I strive to write music that captivates non-music specialists. In my music career, the support from my family has been immense. My mother is probably the person next to myself that has heard most of my pieces live. She is not a trained musician. She is a lover of music. Having one person who is always on my team and who is willing to take notes during a performance so that she can try to understand the conceptual nature of the piece better is a wonderful blessing. I excel because I am part of a network of support. 

CB: What would you recommend to someone who doesn't know your music yet. How should they approach it? Is there anything in particular that they should listen for? 

LS: For someone who does not know my music yet, I would recommend a short exercise. You will need your favorite piece of music, speakers, and an electric fan. Play the music while the electric fan is running. The interplay between the fan noise, the wind, and your music is what I write as my music. In approaching my music, I think of it like a logic puzzle or a mystery novel. An intriguing concept is introduced at the beginning of a piece. It is both deadly serious and mischievously lighthearted. The mystery is explored and elaborated on as clues during instrument dialogues are hinted at. How do the parts fit, blend, or contrast? Are all questions that I answer throughout the piece. I would recommend listening to the instrumental dialogues and how silence is shaded through noise. 

CB: To end this brief interview, I'd like to ask you to dream of a music festival for which you'd be the artistic director. What would you program? Which guests would you invite? Which orchestras and/or ensembles would be featured? (to make it even more difficult: you'd have unlimited funds!) 

 LS: The experience that I enjoy the most from creating music festivals is creating an immersive experience for an audience. At my dream festival, I would create a 8-week site specific event in collaboration with a local marching band, a video projection studio, and an octet that was a combined saxophone quartet and percussion quartet. I would commission four composers and four video artists to create music for this open air project. Bi-monthly would be a new premiere in the same space. As an artistic director, I strive to create scenarios that pose compositional conundrums that bridge artistic disciplines. 

CB: Thank you for your time, we look forward to performing your music! 

LS: Thank you to Christian Baldini and the musicians of the Camellia Symphony for the opportunity to write a new work for your ensemble. I look forward to listening to it.

Laura Schwartz (Photo by Natalia Banaszczy)

Laura Schwartz is composer and video projectionist. Her music explores written notation as a
facilitator of a performer’s own creativity and self-formation. She blends elements of
traditionally notation scores, verbally notated scores, and illuminated manuscripts situating the
participant in a space of their own curiosity and creativity. Schwartz uses cellphones, combs, and
cut flowers to highlight everyday technologies as shapers of our lived sound environments. She
performs guided improvisations on amplified electric fans and graphing calculators.

For more information visit