An Introduction to Katherine Balch
New York-based composer Katherine Balch has an extraordinary number of things going on in her head at any given time. She has recently completed a piece for a multimedia project by Michiko Theurer, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, to be performed March 13, 2017, in Boulder, Colorado. Currently, Katie is working on two separate orchestral commissions. Over Skype, we discussed a paper she wrote about Rousseau and Montesquieu’s distinct perspectives on the role of theater in shaping social mores, which she presented as an undergraduate at the 2013 Northeastern Political Science Association Conference in Philadelphia. She then told me in animated detail about how the interior mechanics of plants inspire a surprising amount of her compositions, and how a novel by Italo Calvino provides an excellent analogy for understanding contemporary musical structures.
VAN: Back when you were an undergrad at Tufts, you co-wrote a journal article with your Political Science professor, Vickie Sullivan. It was entitled, “Spectacles and Sociability: Rousseau’s Response in his Letter to d’Alembert to Montesquieu’s Treatment of the Theater and of French and English Society.” Could you talk to me a bit about your experience addressing the degree to which theater and art generally affect societal morals?
Katherine Balch: In his Letter to d’Alembert, Rousseau was very critical of the theater because he was worried that the corrupt mores of theater would infiltrate the rest of morally salvageable societies—for example, Rousseau was fine with Parisian theater because Paris was already morally and socially corrupt, but he condemned the idea of bringing Parisian theater to a peaceful and relatively virtuous, small Genevan town. Though it’s really hard to take Rousseau’s word for anything, because his often inconsistent philosophy can be divided up into three arenas: One is his political philosophy, very much focused on his ideal picture of the public sphere, and the “social contract” between the individual and society. One is focused on his critique of current family life and ideas of child rearing, and one is focused on his personal cultivation as a philosopher. Rousseau was also a composer; he wrote operas, and was a great lover of music with very strong opinions about it.
Famously, Rousseau wrote the book (at the time) on child rearing. It had very controversial things in it, to say the least. But he abandoned all his children! He’s just this bag of contradictions.
So this particular strain branches from his political side more than his musical side?
This is super Social Contract Rousseau. Also Rousseau responding to a particular historical circumstance, namely a group of French Enlightenment thinkers—Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert—compiling the Encyclopédie, which became a really important resource for information and philosophical discourse in France and later, throughout Europe.
I guess I relate to Rousseau in that I don’t really feel like my history and political science and philosophy studies have anything to do with my music, but were interesting and fulfilling nonetheless. In that way, I understand how Rousseau can hate the theater and think it’s going to totally corrupt the mores of society, but then have this complete other side where you say, “Wait, how can you say that? You do this!”
I don’t identify with either Rousseau or Montesquieu in that article. I just found it interesting that both talk about the theater and art in similar ways, but come to different conclusions about its role in society.
You wrote a choral tribute “aeiou” to Rousseau’s essay on the Origin of Language, and I listened to it and it’s very engaging—so I see a little overlap between your academic life and your compositions there. Is that a conscious decision?
Not especially, I can be inspired by anything. The opportunity to have a liberal arts education and be exposed to all these great texts—maybe that’s a problematic term—certainly has made me a deeper and more critical thinker, and no doubt that influences my music.
With all that inspiration coming at you constantly, is there any method to the madness?
I tend to not think abundance of things to love is ever a bad thing. I try to not categorize the way I get excited. But certainly when I’m writing a piece, I focus in on my own process in a pretty rigorous way. I don’t want to say that I ever block out anything, but when I’m composing my own music I get more obsessive about the thing I like. When you compose you have to be, or else you won’t be able to communicate anything in a cohesive way.
With that in mind, I understand you’ve just finished writing a solo violin piece for violinist and visual artist Michiko Theurer. She will be curating a concert in which six composers respond to her paintings inspired by Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Could you tell me about that project?
Yeah, it was really fun. Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves is a non-linear journey through the life of this group of children with interludes that depict a scene from the ocean at different times of day. I’ll read to you Michi’s statement about her vision for the project, which I think is really beautiful.
She says, “My vision is that in the performance, the six paintings would be projected in sequence, and during each painting I would play corresponding compositional responses. The performance would unfold as a sort of musical braid of your voices.”
Later in [the email Michiko sent to her collaborators], she says, “The central concept I tried to reflect in my paintings was the cycle of change from open possibility to crystallization around a central object, and back into new possibilities.”
So, this is a beautiful way of summarizing the structure of the novel, which is that the six characters—Neville, Rhoda, Lewis, Jinny, Susan, and Bernard—they’re first introduced in the same nursery school. There’s no narration or direct dialogue, but instead, each character gives these soliloquies. As the novel progresses and they get older, their soliloquies entangle more and more until you can’t really tell who’s speaking, even though their lives start branching apart.
How would you express that through music? Is there a specific thing that comes to mind, or is it a completely separate process?
For me, I tend to think about simple human gestures or ideas. For the first movement, for example, I had two gestures in mind: a hum and a shiver. If I’m humming, which I often do when I compose, there are so many possibilities of what that might mean. Someone could be daydreaming, or someone could be remembering something they love—it’s a very ambiguous, human thing to do.
Then a shiver invokes a totally different concept. We know that a shiver is a very concrete thing that happens physically and perhaps clarifies what that hum is. That hum is maybe a distraction from coldness that one shivers at. I say “hum” but what’s happening are these harmonic trills of the violin that are super delicate and unstable, and the shiver is this kind of ricochet gesture. It’s very much responding to Sciarrino’s Sei Capricci for Solo Violin.
Over the course of this piece, the shivering gesture infiltrates the humming and starts to reshape the meaning of that humming. But of course in that process, the humming becomes something else ambiguous.
That’s probably the most technical description I could give.
You’re doing a piece for the Tokyo Symphony. What is your concept for that at the moment?
That came about because my teacher, Georg Friedrich Haas, is writing a new violin concerto and having that piece premiered then. He was asked to pick the program for it and he asked if I would write a piece. From what I understand, he’s trying to curate a program about people in his life—past teachers, students.
That piece stems—hah, “stems”—off of my last piece “Leaf Catalogue” in terms of its conceptual origins. When I was at Yale I discovered the botanical gardens and greenhouse there and loved that part of campus. In my last semester at Yale I took this botany class—it was super rudimentary, physics for poets—but it was so much fun.
For my final project I did a paper and musical study and analysis on plant acoustics. The xylem, which is the vascular mechanism through which water flows up a stem, makes a bunch of different sounds. One of them is a sort of popping and clicking sound whenever there’s a malfunction in the vascular system, namely when an air embolism forms. That happens when hydrogen atoms get separated and there’s an oxygen hole. That’s really bad for the plant; it means that entire vascular strand is shut down. But the sound has been useful to study, because it teaches scientists about drought-stressed plants and how they react to change.
Plants also have this amazing mechanism that reroutes water around that strand. Once that embolism is there, it’s not going away. It turns out that studying plants sonically is just as enlightening as looking at them under a microscope.
I ended up getting recordings of these sounds from a researcher in Switzerland who was collaborating with an artist to make a rendering of them, bring them into the audible world. I filtered out everything but the very longest frequencies and then used those frequencies to make an orchestration of these plant sounds.
That sound world, which is a very delicate, artificial rendering of the world of plants, is the jumping off point for this piece, and has kind of been the jumping off point for every piece I’ve written since then.
I just started this piece and made a little transcription by ear of the sounds and of course, it’s super fallible. The sounds are really high and microtonal so you can’t really hear them, and they’re also transposed down a trillion octaves, then further removed from the transcription by ear because human ears make mistakes.
You took this botany class, a subject you didn’t really have a background in. Was it the excitement of learning something new that created this other project for you?
I get really excited about learning something when I have an idea of how to make it personal. That’s why I think a lot about teaching. I have really valued my teachers over the years and really want to teach. Giving someone that personal connection is the first step in great pedagogy.
I’m currently a faculty member at the Walden School in Dublin, New Hampshire, which has a super amazing summer [music] program for middle and high schoolers. Teaching music is a way to get people in touch with the things they care about. Music sparks self-reflection and excitement about the world around you in its best form.
Have you ever had experiences of people coming up to you with interpretations of your music that surprised you, who may or may not have been interested in your authorial intent?
Yeah, that happens all the time. There’s a whole academic subfield committed to this called music theory. That’s exactly what people do, and should! When I listen to certain songs by Schubert I feel like, “You wrote that for me! How did you know!” And that’s the way I should feel about it.
Most of the time it’s really awesome, especially when it’s strangers coming up to you and saying they felt like they were in an ocean or something.
My dad recently said something that really made me upset! He said, “Your piece [“Una Corda”] was clearly the most complicated on the program.” I said, “Noooo! Don’t say that!” I think he meant it as a compliment, but nothing happens in this piece! It’s really quiet and still. So the fact that he said it was complicated made me really confused, because I thought I’d written something incredibly simple and transparent! I’m so curious to get inside his ears and hear what he heard.
Did you have any surprising responses to “Leaf Catalogue”?
One of the most surprising things anyone said about [“Leaf Catalogue”] came from one of my teachers. The piece is four minutes of pretty fast, energized material, and then four minutes of really slow material. And he said, “The ending is really long.” It was funny that he thought it was the ending, because I saw it as the second half of the piece.
And if you sit there thinking that it’s the ending…
Yeah, you’re not gonna have much fun. That’s the thing I love about contemporary music. You have the opportunity to go into a listening experience expectation-free. There’s no sonata form. There’s no A-B-A. There’s no binary. There’s no fugue with episodes—maybe there is, but you don’t know that. You’re not given that information. It’s such a fun way to listen.
As humans we like stories—beginnings, middles, endings—we’re just naturally drawn to that. Is there a way that you could telegraph that in a situation like what you were describing, where there are no expectations and you could do whatever you want?
There’s this really great novel by Italo Calvino called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which is this story that starts out at the beginning of a novel, and then the novel gets cut off by a printing error. The person reading the novel goes on this giant quest to find the rest of the novel because it ended right at a really exciting point. In the course of trying to find this complete novel, he finds a bunch of other beginnings of novels. The book is a series of beginnings. Each beginning-of-novel, which is five to 10 pages, ends on this moment where you’re like, “No! What happens next!?”
That’s probably the most fun reading experience I’ve ever had. It simultaneously has this clear, beautiful structure [in the search for an ending while it remains completely unpredictable.] There is a sense of progression. But you can’t read the novel with any expectation of what’s going to happen in the plot. The narrative is that it’s not about finding out the end, the narrative is about experiencing these beautiful moments. That’s a novel I would liken to the contemporary music listening experience. ¶