Proms 2021: pre-première questions with Elizabeth Ogonek

by 5:4

Tomorrow evening’s Prom concert features the first performance of Cloudline, a new orchestral work by US composer Elizabeth Ogonek. In anticipation of that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Elizabeth for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

Oh wow, this is a hard question and on that I don’t know I can answer accurately. I think my music is usually anchored by a lyrical sensibility, an interest in narrative, subtle distortion and disorientation, playful (and sometimes not playful) moodiness, as well as juxtapositions of colour and timbre.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I was raised by a single mom who is a musician and who, for much of my early life, worked as a church organist. I grew up literally at the organ bench where my mom would give me a few notes on a specific organ manual and let me noodle around while she practiced. It must have been so annoying but clearly not annoying enough to discourage me from pursuing a life of noodling around. When I was 5, she enrolled me in piano lessons. I studied piano for many years but had an immense fear of performing and a strong penchant for doing anything but practicing my instrument, which is, obviously, an atrocious combination for an aspiring musician. When I got to high school, I had a theory teacher who, intrigued by my kooky figured bass realizations, encouraged me to try my hand at composing. I ignored him and then one day when I was 15, I sat down to write a piano trio which I never finished. I haven’t stopped composing since then.

Composing itself has never really felt like a choice. I think it’s probably as innate a part of me as my hair colour or my sense of humour. That said, I am learning to be very deliberate about the projects I take on as well as the kind of space I need between them. I’m not a particularly prolific composer, but I’m pretty much always thinking about music in one way or another.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I received my undergraduate degree from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, my master’s degree from the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California and my doctorate from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I studied with Julian Anderson on a Marshall Scholarship.

My teachers have certainly been enormously influential to me, particularly Julian, Stephen Hartke, Donald Crockett and Oliver Knussen who I worked with sporadically while living in the UK. Early music, French music, the natural world (particularly water, rock formations and the desert), various literary works by Wisława Szymborska and Willa Cather, ritual, light and resonance are all things I come back to again and again.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

It really depends on the piece. Sometimes, I have unused bits of material hanging around from other projects that become fruitful seeds for new pieces. Other times, I improvise at my piano until I come up with something that grabs my attention or that I find interesting. There are yet other times, where a structural idea or a concept ignites the compositional process, as was the case with Cloudline. From there, I tend to explore musical constraints that feel porous enough to still allow me to shape the outcome. I like having the freedom to make spontaneous decisions.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

I think Cloudline is very much a relative of its predecessor, where are we now, which is a work for solo piano, percussion quartet and male vocal sextet that I wrote for my close friend, pianist Xak Bjerken. It sets a text by Paul Griffiths, whom I admire immeasurably. The two pieces deal with what I think of as exuberant melancholy in a similar way.

Cloudline is a piece that shifts as the wind blows. It seems to me, in retrospect, to be very much a result of having written it while we were all at home for 15 months, unaware, or maybe too aware, of how time was passing.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

For an orchestral fix, I’d recommend the second movement of All These Lighted Things.

For music inspired by the natural world, I’d recommend The Water Cantos.

For music inspired by older styles, forms and techniques, I’d suggest my chamber violin concerto, In Silence or my solo piano piece Orpheus Suite, which was recently recorded by a fantastic young pianist named Liam Kaplan.

For the immediate predecessor to Cloudline, I would point listeners to where are we now, available in September on all streaming platforms.

7. What’s next?

Next, I’ll be writing a septet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, violin, viola and cello, which is the same instrumentation as Stravinsky’s whacky Septet from 1953. This is a work for the 75th anniversary of the Chamber Music Conference of the East.

After that, I have a pair of orchestra pieces and a concerto, none of which I’m quite able to talk about yet.

—Elizabeth Ogonek

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