Composers at Home: Elizabeth Brown

Momenta’s series of interviews continues with NY-based composer and performer Elizabeth Brown. In addition to composing, Brown performs on the flute, shakuhachi, and theremin. Her work Babel, for string quartet, soundscape, and video was premiered in 2019 and supported by New Music USA and the Sparkplug Foundation.

Elizabeth Brown practicing shakuhachi in her studio

What is an early musical experience that has stayed with you throughout your career?

The very small library in my hometown had two classical records that I checked out over and over: Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and the Rite of Spring. This was the first classical music I ever heard.

How did you meet Momenta and how have we collaborated over the years?

I met Stephanie pre-Momenta in 1999, at the very first concert of her series at Galapagos in Brooklyn. We met again on a freelance gig afterwards, and found lots of common ground: we both love food and cooking, I’m enamored of the viola, and she was already playing with shakuhachi and theremin friends of mine. With a Guggenheim Fellowship In 2007, I enlisted Momenta to play two new pieces with me: Mirage for shakuhachi and quartet, and Piranesi for theremin, quartet and video. In 2013, you premiered Just Visible in the Distance, a quartet written especially for you; the same year, I sent you the extremely short Nanotudes. When I was Composer-in-Residence at Montclair State University’s Cali School of Music, we performed Mirage, Piranesi, Just Visible in the Distance, and Lost Waltz (flute and quartet) on my portrait concert there. Recently, you premiered Babel, for quartet, soundscape, and video on the Interpretations series at Roulette, then at Bard College – just before everything stopped. I’ve also performed other people’s music with you: Frances White’s The Book of Evening for shakuhachi and quartet, Schoenberg’s Entrückung (Rapture, the last movement of the 2nd quartet, with me on theremin instead of soprano), and flute in Strauss’s Emperor Waltz. Over the years, I’ve especially enjoyed it when we rehearsed at my place in Brooklyn, and I cooked for you while you rehearsed other people’s quartets. When jealous composers ask me how I get the fabulous Momenta Quartet to play my music, I tell them I pay you and cook for you! I’m so happy the quartet is omnivorous.

Elizabeth Brown performs with Momenta

Have any aspects of composing changed for you during the coronavirus pandemic?

If anything has changed, it’s the uncertainty of writing for performances that may not happen for a very long time, if at all. But I can’t imagine not writing; I’d be miserable. Many years ago, at the MacDowell Colony, I developed the habit of composing in the morning before talking to anybody or checking the news or anything. This is the way I go deepest.

Do you have a performance of your work that you’d like to share?

Just Visible in the Distance, inspired by the stream-of-consciousness writing of W.G. Sebald; many small movements flow into each other. This might be my favorite thing I’ve ever written.

Momenta performs Just Visible in the Distance (excerpt)

What music have you been listening to recently?

Honkyoku (solo shakuhachi music) played by Yamaguchi Goro; Richter playing the Brahms C Major Intermezzo;  and Brittany Howard

Is there a particular favorite book/movie/TV show you’ve recently read/watched that you’d recommend?

Mary Russell mystery series by Laurie E. King; Blanche White mystery series by Barbara Neely; Mark Morris’s memoir, ‘Out Loud’.

The website “Whitman, Alabama”, with videos of everyday people all over Alabama reading verses from Song of Myself; I don’t want to live in Alabama again (I grew up there) but boy do I miss it sometimes.

What are you doing for fun while socially isolating?

Gardening, birdwatching, reading, cooking, and playing lots of shakuhachi, including my group’s “Cosmic Net”; every Saturday at 4 pm, we all play the same pieces, alone, wherever we are.

Elizabeth Brown demonstrates proper social distancing with local cows

If you could have dinner with any figure from any time period, who would it be?

Michelle Obama!

What do you enjoy cooking or eating at home?

I basically enjoy cooking and eating EVERYTHING. I attached my guacamole recipe.

Eli’s Guacamole

minced shallot (or onion)
lime juice
chopped cilantro
chopped tomatoes
minced hot pepper – jalapeno, serrano, etc.

Stephanie models Elizabeth’s guacamole and preferred brand of chips

The main thing for good guacamole is avocado selection; you need the California Haas kind that are darkest green to black, not the bigger, smoother, lighter- colored Florida ones. They should give just slightly, but have no soft spots.

One little part that’s turned bad will ruin the whole batch. You can use your nose once you cut them open, and prune out any bad-smelling parts (which you will hopefully not encounter). You can buy them hard, then let them ripen (putting them in a paper bag will help them ripen faster). If they ripen too soon, put them in the refrigerator.

With a sharp knife, cut all the way around the avocado from end to end, to the pit. Pull it apart, then remove the pit, and use whatever method you like to get the avocado out of the skin and mush or chop it up. I like it a little chunky.

I add roughly juice of half a lime per avocado, a little minced shallot (onion is ok too), chopped cilantro (the more the better, but substitute cumin if you can’t find fresh cilantro), and salt and minced jalapeno (or, cayenne) to taste. I put in some chopped tomato, 7 or 8 little grape tomatoes or about half a plum tomato per avocado. All this will depend on the size of the avocados. I use an avocado per person for a meal, and an avocado per 2 or 3 people as an appetizer.

I think the best and best value corn chips are Santitas. In general, I use salted, regular corn chips, not the baked ones, which seem wimpy next to good guacamole.