“There’s definitely an element that’s strange but really exciting,” she said of giving her work over to others. “That’s what I want, for people to do these things, and I can move on to the next thing.”
Here are edited selections from the conversation.
Is “Sirens” a different work with this new set of singers?
The piece hasn’t been revised, but the three of them are very different from the three of us. I played my character in a way that was very related to my personality. I was in grad school, and then freshly out of grad school, and trying to figure out, “O.K., this is the kind of music I write in New York, and this is the kind of music I wrote as a kid; this is what I’m thinking about, but this is what my friends might think is cool” — all these intellectual and social concerns and cultural ideas. I ended up playing it kind of grouchy and ornery, like this grouchy professor thing. And Victoria [Benson], she’s more playful and gentle with it, which is cool. Neither way is better.
Credit An Rong Xu for The New York Times
How did “Sirens” help you pull together all those different strands in your writing?
When I was a kid, I couldn’t write lyrics, so I would just put books of poetry on the piano and sing through them. So I have dozens of, like, Robert Frost settings. Then the first gig I had — I was 18 — I had written all these songs. It was an open-mic night in the basement of a dorm, and I raced through them five times faster than I was supposed to, and I didn’t look at the audience, but I loved it.
But I eventually started feeling a lot of panic and writer’s block about “I really want to be a composer, but what if I can’t do it.” I didn’t want to write songwriter-sounding music. I wanted to write like Xenakis or Berio. I would also write very confessional, personal lyrics, and I was getting a little older and more mature and wanting to value my privacy a little more. I feel like I outgrew it.
At Columbia [graduate school] I was interested in a cleaner, harder sound, so I was writing a lot of complex chamber music and stuff. I was loving it and being really invigorated by it, but I didn’t want to feel like I was prohibited from doing other stuff because it made me less of an intellectual. I think I was worried about how to reconcile my intellectual side with my singer-songwriter side. And “Sirens” was a good opportunity to write everything, because with the sirens you could say they have to sing in every style. There’s a setting of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that I did when I was 14 in there; I didn’t change a note. “Sirens” is a collage of my style, my influences.
Video by Kate Soper
“Ipsa Dixit” uses a huge range of texts — Aristotle, Lydia Davis, Freud — to question, and poke fun at, how we express what we want to express. What’s the root of the academic interests in your music?
I grew up in a thinky house. My dad’s a philosopher; my mom has a Ph.D. in French. So there was a lot of discussion of ideas, which affected me as a musician. I was always really interested in the life of the mind. And then in my music, I’m interested in the limits of that. You can be going as deep into an idea as you can, and then someone breaks into song and your attention is diverted to emotion.
Your next project may be your most ambitious: an opera based on the “Romance of the Rose,” a medieval allegory of love and reason. It’s dizzying — nearly 22,000 lines of octosyllabic Old French couplets. How did you get this idea?
I read it in the spring of 2011, and I just put a pin in it: I have to come back to this.
The opera begins in something that might be a representation of some allegorical garden with dancey music. But what I’m trying to reveal is a darker side of allegory and what it might reveal about us. The premise is how little we can know ourselves: You have your reason on one side and your heart on the other. And maybe you have other impulses — Shame is one of the characters — and the advice you get from all of them can be corrupted. And the one pulling all the threads is False-Seeming, who is like music, in a way, which makes us feel things we don’t necessarily want to feel. The force of manipulation, of distorting words.
But it has to end with some sense of hope. Some sense that we can acknowledge that it’s very difficult to know exactly what the right thing is to do, but we have to persist.
Did you intend it to have political implications?
It got darker over the last few years. I do feel like it suddenly became this idea of “Oh, you can’t win against False-Seeming; you can’t win against someone in power who tells you it’s sunny out when it’s raining.”
What do you do? You have to keep going and remember you’re not crazy.
So how is it progressing?
In May, I had finished a draft, and we read it aloud, and I just knew it was not right; it was not the story I wanted to tell. So I basically rewrote it. And now there’s a workshop in June. The libretto’s done, and the goal is to finish all of the music and a piano score for June. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not 100 percent sure, but there will be six or possibly seven singers and then an ensemble of about seven, plus electronics.
What role will you sing?
I don’t really know. I thought I was going to be Lady Reason, because I do empathize with someone who thinks she can use her intellect to answer every question about the human condition, but discovers air or light or moisture can get into that, too, and ruin it. Then I started writing Shame, and she has an interesting trajectory, and her vocal music happens to be a little more suited to me. And the third soprano character is really not my type — she’s a voluptuous coloratura in a gown — but that could be fun.
I could also not be in it, but I kind of really want to.
“Ipsa Dixit” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year. Has that led to a lot of new commissions?
I’ve been saying no a lot, and that feels weird, but it’s just because no one was asking me before. The most meaningful work of mine has not been commissioned. Basically most of the stuff I’ve done, I’ve felt compelled to do it, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do it. I don’t know how suited I am for commissions for various ensembles, now that I’ve gone down this rabbit hole of writing texts and theater pieces.
One day, when I get sick of what I’m doing now, maybe I’ll want to see about instrumental music more, and see what I can communicate without language. But I could also see just, like, writing novels. So we’ll see.