Featured Composer: Elizabeth Brown

Featured Composer Elizabeth Brown: In Conversation with Stephanie Griffin

In preparation for the premiere of Elizabeth Brown‘s string quartet “Just Visible in the Distance” (2013) on February 20th at Brooklyn’s Firehouse Space, Momenta’s violist Stephanie Griffin sat down with Elizabeth for an interview. Tickets for the event can be purchased here, and Elizabeth’s famous guacamole recipe can be found at the end of the interview!

SG: Elizabeth, I want to ask you first a little bit about your musical background. I see you as a musical maverick of the best possible kind. Not only are you a composer but you play the flute, theremin, shakuhachi and the Vietnamese dan bau, all four at a very high level. And you are one of the few composer/performers I know that is regularly hired by other people to perform their music. So, for me you are a very unusual and defining composer/performer and musician. I just wanted to know more about how you came to do what you do, what kind of musical background you have and what brought you to composition in particular.

EB: I played piano when I was young – we didn’t have a piano at first, but I did take lessons. And I started playing flute at age 16 and just decided I really wanted to do it. All my training is as a classical flutist. I ended up at Juilliard as a flutist and came out of Juilliard at a time when there was a lot of funding for the arts and was able to make a living right away as a freelance flutist. How I started composing was that I had a boyfriend who was a dancer when I was in my late 20s and he asked me to write a piece for some of his choreography. He was a modern dancer, and they all choreograph, so he thought – she’s a musician so she can write something. And I really wanted to! I’ve always had music in my head. But until this point it had never occurred to me that I could be a composer, that I was allowed to. Really, it never crossed my mind. And I thought everybody would make fun of me…but I wrote a piece for flute and clarinet and then I wrote a piece for flute and marimba, and people were supportive. My colleagues played the pieces, so I started writing and just didn’t stop!

SG: So you never actually studied composition per se. All your studies are in performance.

EB: Yes – they are all in performance. I do have a certificate from the Hanoi Conservatory in the dan bau, but no, I don’t have any training as a composer whatsoever.

SG: That’s interesting because when I was looking at your bio on your website there is so much about recent accomplishments – your Guggenheim Fellowship, major commissions. I was impressed to see that you are the only member of Orpheus that has also composed for it…

EB: Well, I’ve never been a member of Orpheus but for many years I was the only person that had both played with Orpheus and also composed for them. But I think that’s changed. I think there was a mandolin player recently who played his own mandolin concerto with them.

SG: And you are also the only non-Mormon I know that’s received a Barlow grant.

EB: A lot of non-Mormons get Barlows…for many years I would apply for everything and just get nowhere. I would say for the first 10 or 15 years I was a composer people would say to me, well, you have to make a choice – you can’t be both a composer and a performer. People would say, oh, she’s just a flutist – to my face. So I was dismissed. And now it’s really cool to be both – there are a lot of young people who are composers and performers – it’s perfectly normal, and in fact, it’s an asset. But when I was starting my career it was not an asset whatsoever.

SG: Yes. It’s becoming a trend. But most of the composer/performers I know mainly play their own music. There are some exceptions, of course, but very few composer/performers I know actively perform other people’s music.

EB: Maybe that’s by choice.

SG: It could be by choice.

EB: Well, I like playing my own music, but it would be so sad to only play my own music, instead of all the other great music. It is difficult, if I’m playing as a flutist in some great orchestral piece, to come home and try to write. I feel like my music isn’t needed, since there’s all this great stuff out there. And my music’s pretty quiet and it can seem insignificant. Also in the early days I took orchestral auditions because it was the only career path I knew of. When I was young and fearless I was a runner up for some pretty big jobs and at the time I was very disappointed that I didn’t get them, but now I’m really glad because I like how things have turned out. But when I was playing flute all the time, and so much great music, it was enough – I wouldn’t have needed to be a composer. I just need music. So, if I was, say, a violist in a string quartet, I think it would be enough. Why would I need to write anything else? Because you could say anything you needed to say. There’s music to do it.

SG: As a composer with no specific training in composition – you are coming to it from a performer’s perspective. Have your influences been the kinds of music you were playing?

EB: I would say yes – but while I’m not trained as a composer, I am very trained as a classical musician. Pretty much from day one, I checked scores out of the library and studied pieces I was playing. And also when I first came to New York, I was a full-time usher at Alice Tully – I worked there 3 years, and I heard a concert every night. And I looked to see what was being programmed and checked the scores out of the New York Public Library. At the time, that was enough too – there was just so much music that I had never heard. I’m from rural Alabama and there was not much music in my childhood. There was church music but that was about it. So, things that kids now would have heard by the time they were ten were completely new to me in college. I remember hearing Stravinsky for the first time and just being totally blown away – that he had written all these pieces and I didn’t even know them…

SG: That brings me to something I was going to ask you about. One thing that I have always thought about your music – and about you in general – is that you have an uncompromising aesthetic. If I say that or people are reading this blog entry, people might think I mean that you are writing hard-edged or gritty music, which is not the case at all, of course. But I feel like you exist in your own universe and that you write music that is really you. It’s very sincere; it’s poetic and mystical. In everything of yours that I have heard, I have never heard you try to prove that you are something else. You’ve never seemed like you felt pressured to write such-and-such because Lachenmann is doing that, or Beat Furrer is doing that. I’m wondering if that is also a product of coming out of performance? If, in some ways, that has made you less self-conscious?

EB: Well, this is something I’ve thought about a lot and I’d have a different answer. I’ve always had music in my head. You’ve heard enough of my music by now – in a way it kind of all sounds alike. When I start writing a new piece I often try to do something different – bigger or stronger. But then I end up shaping it and shaping it and shaping it until it’s like all my other music. It just doesn’t sound like me unless it’s this particular way. I’d like to have a little more scope – not necessarily to write a piece like I heard you guys rehearsing today, the one that made me feel that my music was wussy. But sometimes I think that though my music is strange in its own way, people think it’s conservative, and it’s got too many nice tunes, and they dismiss me. So, I would like to be changing the world with my music, but you can only do what you can do. And the other thing about not having studied composition: I’ve come a long way from my background – I’m from a farm in Alabama and a super religious upbringing – but I am not by nature rebellious. I think I’ve always tried too hard to please people. Not necessarily to be liked, just to not upset anybody. So, had I studied composition, say, in college, I would have tried to please my teachers – but since I didn’t study…

SG: Then you only had to please yourself

EB: Well, I wasn’t even thinking about being a composer then. I was kind of a late bloomer in realizing what I had to say. So, maybe in the long run, the timing worked out OK. It was OK to not win those auditions. The dancer boyfriend came along at just the right time. That relationship really opened doors for me. You know, I’d basically gone from the farm to the practice room. And then I was touring with the Erick Hawkins Company and discovered poetry and was introduced to the shakuhachi, which has been a major thing for me – just all kinds of ideas. I’d never even read much of anything before then, so, I guess it worked out OK.

SG: But that says a lot about you, too, that your dancer boyfriend asked you to write a piece and you just did it.

EB: I just did it!

SG: A lot of people would say: “I am not composer” and just not go there.

EB: Oh, I wanted to do it so badly! But I thought I shouldn’t.

SG: Interesting. You were mentioning that sometimes you wished your music were less conservative. But in a lot of ways your music is only conservative on the surface.

EB: Yes.

SG: The first piece of yours that I heard was “Rural Electrification.” And that really blew my mind. That piece of music, along with the collaboration with visual artist Lothar Osterburg, was a magical experience. But that’s the thing – you’d created this magical world, but in order to do so, you created a veneer of seeming normalcy. And under it – there’s something really quite strange about your music. One of the things I really like is the quote on your website from Kyle Gann. I love that quote because he compares your music to a Magritte painting. He says the wallpaper is beautiful – but what does he say? There’s a fish popping out of a vase! There’s something interesting about that. If you look at the surrealist paintings, too – on the surface they are representational– but when you look more closely there is something odd that captivates your eye. Your music does that too. And to me it comes from being music of your imagination. There’s a kind of dreaminess and “imaginary landscape,” so to speak, in your music.

EB: There is!

SG: It’s interesting to me. I had no idea you were coming from a straight performance background. A lot of my favorite composers never studied composition.

EB: Some of them never studied music, either, but I can’t have done that – it’s too late!

SG: What’s your next big concert?

EB: Yours! And I can just sit in the audience! Then in early March, I’ll perform in the premiere of my piece “Arboretum: a dark symphony for theremin and antiphonal strings.” This is with the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by my old friend, the composer Roger Zahab. I’ve wanted to write this piece forever, and I applied to all kinds of groups and grants for years, to no avail. So I just wrote it anyway! There are also more performances of “A Bookmobile for Dreamers” coming up, in Miami and in Newfoundland.

SG: So, I wanted to ask you specifically about the piece we are going to be premiering on our next concert, “Just Visible in the Distance.” What was the inspiration behind that piece?

EB: I’ve been thinking about writing it since you guys mentioned over lunch, when we were playing one of my other pieces, that you wished you just had a quartet. I said, well, if I wrote one would you play it? And you said yes. This was a bright beacon for someone who is slightly insecure! Because sometimes you write things and people say they want them and they never play them. At first I thought, I can write anything – but then I thought – oh, it’s my string quartet! It’s so important. It’s the form every composer wants to write for – and for a great quartet.

So, it was a little intimidating, but I tried to allow anything to happen. I had so many different sketches but things kept recurring. There was musical material that I’d written for other instrumentation that, when I was writing it, I couldn’t help but think that it would be great to have strings, but instead I’ve got x,y,z. So, I thought, well, I’ll just see if some of those ideas will work. The movement “Harmony, No Protagonist” is originally for piano – I wrote it for Peggy Kampmeier as part of set of pieces called “Sound Diary,” which was the first music in my head on any particular day. As beautifully as she played it, I thought if I could have a quartet I could have sustain and everything – I changed it a lot, and then it was just sitting there. I didn’t know if it was part of the piece. And then I had this movement from a piece for flute, dan bau, violin and cello that had kind of worked but the instruments never blended quite like I wanted them to blend – so I took part of that and allowed myself to make a movement. And a movement of my piece for bass koto and sho, I allowed myself to use that. There were two movements – the viola movement, and the Aria – the cello movement – the tunes of those were the very first things I wrote but I couldn’t get them to work, so I put them away for a month. But I kept thinking and I’d get them out and try something, put them away, get them out, put them away, get them out…So, they were in the piece, out of the piece, a billion times.

I once read this anecdote about – I think it was Bonnard, the painter. Somebody had visited him in France and he had a studio with all these blank canvases on the wall. He would put a dab on one and a dab on the other, then he would go out and walk on the beach with his dog for a while, and then he’d come back and put a dab here and another dab there. And over time they all became paintings. And sometimes I feel that’s what I’m doing. Everything is related, but it’s just so long before I can see it – I’m just too dense to see how it all fits together.

SG: It’s “just visible in the distance,” so to speak….

EB: Or not! It’s really opaque. And then there are things that seem so clear. I have dreamed about you guys. I’ve had dreams that you’re playing my music, and I think – Oh, it works – I’ll go write it down. And then, it’s gone! Poof! So, I had all these pieces and I kept moving them around, letting certain things recur, throwing them out, and putting them back. In the middle of this I wrote the Nanotudes for you, just for fun, the little tiny short silly pieces that I gave you – just out of frustration that I couldn’t finish anything.

SG: We need to do those!

EB: They’re silly pieces…

SG: Encore material…

EB: Or maybe a children’s concert! Anyway, I just love the books of W.G. Sebald, he’s Lothar’s and my favorite. And when you read him, it’s like listening to music, even though it’s words – the stream of consciousness and the associations and how ideas tumble out of themselves. I can re-read those books once a year and they seem new again. It’s like you’re carried through them and they almost erase what you’ve just read or something. And then I thought, well, maybe I can just put some of these pieces together. I can make them really short if I like. It works in his books – why can’t I do it? So, I started assembling them, and joining them, and putting glue in between…

SG: So, there’s no specific co-relation between various movements and various episodes in his book?

EB: No…

SG: You’re inspired by the way he structures his books?

EB: Yes and no…in the book in particular that I’m thinking about – “The Rings of Saturn” – he takes a long walking tour. It has chapters, but he’s thinking about things. His mind is wandering and digressing as he walks. But it’s not an action novel of what he’s experiencing at that moment– he’s walking and his mind is traveling and making associations – so it’s castles in the air.

SG: So, are each of your little miniatures like something that he may have encountered or thought about on that walk?

EB: It’s what I would have thought about if I were doing what he was doing. So, I like to think it’s similar to his way of notating the processes of his mind through time. Because any sort of narrative – fiction or non-fiction – he’s somewhere in between – or music is time-based, and you do go through it. But he’s very interested in history so he somehow seamlessly manages to put together – it’s both that he’s moving through his walk and his thoughts are tumbling ahead but he’s making all these associations from the past, the present and the future. And music at its best is like that. It encapsulates anything you can express. It’s hard to say what I mean in words – but music is much more complete than anything you can in words. I hope you can make sense of what I mean…

SG: It’s very clear! And I guess the last thing I can say is that one of our long-running jokes between you and the Momenta Quartet is that we champion your music because you are such a great cook! Every time we’ve worked on your music, we’ve had some rehearsals at your house with a fully catered lunch. Today you even invited Heidi Jacob, who is another composer featured on our February 20th concert. I was wondering if you’d like to share with our blog audience one of your most famous recipes, perhaps?

EB: Oh – I guess you’re asking about my guacamole!

SG: Yes!

EB: And I would advise young composers, if I’ve learned anything – the best way to get a group to play your music is to feed them well – also beautiful parts with no bad page turns…


EB: Feed them really well, finish your pieces early, whenever possible, hire them to play your music at nice venues, put cues in your parts…

SG: Yes, that’s one thing we really appreciate about you and other composers who are experienced performers – you understand that what we need.

EB: And I know you have limited time and I don’t want you to spend it assembling parts and marking cues.

SG: So, then we have more time for guacamole!

EB: Exactly, which is MUCH more important!


Speaking of which, here is Elizabeth Brown’s guacamole recipe in the composer’s own words – the URTEXT!:

Eli’s Guacamole

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

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 Santitos. In general, I use salted, regular corn chips, not the baked ones, which seem wimpy next to good guacamole.