Natalie Draper (Photo courtesy of the composer)
Natalie Draper (Photo courtesy of the composer)

For Intro, we speak with the musicians who don’t show up in press releases. We hope to portray a diversity of background and experience in classical music. This is the third interview in an ongoing series.When I thought of who I would Intro, Natalie Draper immediately came to mind. I spent the summer of 2015 in the mountains of Western Massachusetts as the Publications Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center, and Natalie was a Composition Fellow. The majority of my memories of Natalie are underlaid by an engine’s rumble; the girls’ school where the Fellows were housed was miles from Tanglewood itself, and I spent many sleepy-eyed mornings riding there in what was affectionately dubbed the “Natmobile,” chatting about teaching, feminism, how to make a living in unforgiving fields of work, and all sorts of other things. We rode south together when the Center closed for the summer, and listened to Meredith Monk and Fiona Apple with the sun glaring off the side mirrors.

When I first heard Natalie’s music, it was as fascinating as her personality; textures seamlessly changing color, complexity coalescing from simplicity. Recently, from a bus going from Boston to New York, I called Natalie’s new apartment near Washington, D.C., and caught up with her as she was finishing up a piece.

VAN: Where did you grow up?

Natalie Draper: I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the suburbs of D.C. I lived there almost my entire life before I went to college.

And where was that?

I went to Carleton College in Minnesota, a small liberal arts college in a very small rural town.

Did you know you were going there for music already? Was there something about the music department at Carleton that attracted you?

I grew up playing piano, and it was in high school that I started to take a more serious interest in composition. My piano teacher at the time was guiding me through that process, and I knew I wanted to do music in college but I wasn’t as interested in going to conservatory at that point. Carleton had a composer on faculty named Phillip Rhodes. He grew up in Appalachia, and a lot of his music was classical but very infused with Appalachian and folk traditions. When I listened to his music, it felt very well done, very complex, but also with a lot of heart to it. I liked the idea of going somewhere with a composer on faculty, and then when I visited I fell in love with it.

YouTube video

Philip Rhodes, “Love Song,” from “Two Appalachian Settings”; Members of the National Symphony Orchestra

That heart in Phillip Rhodes’s music: do you try and channel any of that same spirit when you write? Not necessarily Appalachian but…

Philip Rhodes’s interest in harmony and melody really gave it a lot of emotional depth. Harmony is very important to me. When I write, I often think about singing, I think about line, I think of harmonic support a lot. I get a little bit tired of how many pieces I hear that are harmonically static; I really find harmonic change to be fascinating, and that’s something I gravitate toward.

How do you think your experience would have been different if you had gone to a conservatory?

I still think about that sometimes. When I started my Masters, there were definitely moments where I felt a little wistful, wondering what would have happened if I had spent those four years fully immersed in music. But I don’t regret anything at this point; I think it was good to have a holistic background and then focus on music for these past seven years—I missed two, taking time off.

What did you do with your time off?

I worked odd jobs ranging from the 2010 Census to retail to transcribing interviews. I knew I needed a break from school and some time to figure out whether or not I wanted to do a doctorate. The second year away from school, I worked as a TA for Frances (Sis) McKay, who is the Chair of the Composition department at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C. In exchange for composition lessons, I helped her with their AP Music Theory course and got a crash course in teaching. Sis could see that I was lacking in confidence about my own teaching abilities, despite my training, and she took the opportunity to really push me to be in front of the classroom. It was scary at first, but I quickly realized that I loved working with the kids and that I could really help them.

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So what have you been working on lately?

Actually, right when you called, I was working on a piece for a new group in Baltimore called Symphony Number One. It’s an orchestra of Peabody students and alums, and Baltimore locals. Their mission is to encourage emerging composers to write long pieces for large forces, which I think is really good because we don’t have many opportunities as young composers to write substantial pieces. We get lots of small commissions for pieces under 10 minutes. But they wanted me to write 25 minutes for chamber orchestra. It’s a very different and challenging endeavor. So much of what I’ve done prior to this has been shorter. I have worked on a song cycle, about 20 minutes, but it had different movements. For this I’m trying to push myself and write one giant movement. I’m in the end stages at this point.

Do you have a title?

It’s called “Timelapse Variations.” I was interested in different ways that pulse can affect a piece of music. I was thinking a lot about that after Tanglewood, because lots of my stuff there was pulse-driven, and I wanted to do that on a large canvas. It made me think about time lapse films; I find time lapse films really bizarre, because on the one hand things seem to be moving much faster than in real life, but on the other it feels glacial. You’re removed from the realistic process of change and seeing this process unfold in front of your eyes. While I was working, I’d actually watch time lapse videos on YouTube and see what effect that had. It’s my hope at some point that I can match the piece with some of these films.

What kind of time lapses were you watching as you worked?

Mostly nature films. Things where you see the slow growth, sprouting, and decay of a flower or a plant. I also looked at city streets from morning till night—you see the gradual change of light, and the day passing before your eyes.

Natalie Draper, “Strains in the Signal”; Sam Rothstein (Clarinets), Samantha Bennett (Violin), Jesse Christeson (Cello), Andrew Hsu (Piano)

When you read, what do you like to read?

I love Margaret Atwood—her poetry and her novels. I like reading short stories sometimes, and I like reading nonfiction. I liked Field Notes From a Catastrophe, a great science book documenting experiments around the world that show the effects of climate change. I like reading things like John Krakauer too.

I remember one time in the back seat of your car, we were talking about The Rest is Noise, and you had a point about it that I’d never heard before…

For my DMA research, I’ve been studying Meredith Monk. I really admire her work. She has a huge output, and I think she’s affected and influenced a ton of composers who are currently working. “Dolmen Music” was a really important work, and she’s done a lot of stunning installation projects, like “Songs of Ascension.” And I think she gets overlooked. There are a variety of reasons why that could be—people label her work as performance art, and there’s a slight remove from the stodgy concept of what a composer is. Sometimes I think it might be gender related—I think there are a variety of reasons for why she’s sometimes left out of the conversation.

And when I was reading The Rest is Noise I had recently fallen in love with a lot of her work. There was just one brief sort of throwaway sentence in the book about her, which was disappointing to me. I think she’s a bigger figure of the 20th century than people sometimes give her credit for. We have a problem of women needing to be mentioned in the canon—in order for the canon to change and really include people who are making a substantial contribution to the field, we have to be writing about them. It’s very easy to write about the names that are already big, but if we want to push this forward, and not ignore voices, then it’s important for substantial texts to include people like Meredith Monk. So that was my disappointment.

YouTube video

Meredith Monk, “Songs of Ascension”; Vocal Ensemble. From a performance at Ann Hamilton’s Tower, Oliver Ranch, in Geyserville, California, from 2008.

I really enjoyed it when I read it, and it is the book that people recommend to people who are curious about 20th century music that might not be trained musicians, or might be completely unfamiliar with the repertoire…

Yeah, absolutely.

So when that’s the introduction that they get, they’re going to remember the people who were mentioned most frequently, unless they’re a very curious type of reader.

Yeah. And it’s really hard. I don’t want to harp on the book, because it’s a fantastic book. It’s hard to make decisions about who gets included or left out, and invariably you will leave people out. Alex Ross eloquently acknowledges that. She was just such an important influence to me that I was surprised.

I’ve also been surprised in my research of her in general. There aren’t many analytical pieces looking at the theory behind her work, or how her work is constructed. I read something where she said that one of the most disappointing things to her is that she hasn’t been analyzed. If your music isn’t getting a theoretical analysis, or anything beyond a “let’s make a list of female composers,” or “let’s make a list of performance artists,” you’re still not getting taken seriously. I think that if more people can write about her and all these other wonderful voices, and write things beyond just profile pieces—write things that are substantially about the music—that will make a huge difference.

How has she influenced you?

One thing that I admire is that she is not afraid to repeat things, and another thing is that her repetitions are always slightly different. There’s always a lot of change happening—but it’s subtle. She’s also not afraid of simplicity, and she’s not afraid of melody. Simplicity, repetition, and melody are three things that, depending on which circles you’re talking to, are sometimes considered not to be serious music. I admire that she embraces them and creates really complex textures. It really gratifies me when someone just does what she wants to do and doesn’t worry about what people might say. It’s also refreshing in a world where people are trying really hard to write super-complex music—I don’t want in any way to bash complexity, because I do love a lot of complex composers—but I think it’s refreshing to have both types in existence and not to underestimate simplicity. On the surface it might seem simple, but the net effect is really quite complex, especially when you get into the vocalizations and layering that she does.

You’ve been posting about what you’re listening to on social media lately, and I definitely need to go through that and update my list of pieces to listen to. You’re kind of being the anti-Messiaen there, because you’re very visibly listening to a lot of different things. Is there a particular reason why you post them?

I think Facebook can be tiring sometimes. There are a lot of political posts, especially this year. Everyone’s upset about the election. I’m definitely guilty of putting those things up too. But I like sharing different things. When I see people posting things they’re excited about, that’s really positive to me. I enjoy seeing what people listen to, so that’s part of why I started posting these. I have a lot of friends who aren’t musicians, and that was a way to give them a little intro to my world without having to go to the concert hall. I posted a video of “Songs of Ascension,” and my aunt liked it! I don’t know if she would have come across Meredith Monk in another context. So it’s my little mission to expose people to more music.

Natalie Draper, “Deflected Harmlessly into the Ceiling”; Yoon Jung Huh (Flute)

Your Twitter describes you as a “jolly crank.” What does that mean?

I do have a bit of a dark outlook on life (hence the crank part of things). There is a lot of garbage in the world and I think it would be dishonest to ignore it or to try to always put a positive spin on things. I’m also a bit resistant to change and fads (perhaps I’m an old person at heart!) That said, it’s also important to laugh about this stuff and to be hopeful about life. It may sound oxymoronic, but for me a realistic outlook on life needs to have both the criticism and the humor and hope.

How do you procrastinate?

The Internet is evil. I spend lots of time looking things up. I am fascinated by weather and climate change, so I’m addicted to the Capital Weather Gang blog. They do great articles talking about climate events in the country and other parts of the world, and they have graphs that explain things very thoroughly to the layperson. So I nerd out, reading that. ¶

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