Act Without Words: Interview with Luna Pearl Woolf

As a curator at C4NM, I am focusing my energies on presenting programs featuring women as primary creators. I recently connected with Luna Pearl Woolf, the Composer-in-Residence for this year’s Bard Music West Festival. Woolf was commissioned to compose music for Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words I, which will be premiered as part of this inaugural festival, March 17-18.

Emma Logan: Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Luna. Can you tell me about your commission coming up with Bard Music West?

photo by Nadine Hennelly
Luna Pearl Woolf: This is one of the most fun projects I’ve have the pleasure to do, because it’s a combination of chamber music and opera, or staged theatrical music, which is something that is very dear to my heart. Over the last few years I’ve been increasingly writing more opera and theatrical music, so this is a great combination of those interests. Bard Music West has given me the opportunity to work with Mark Streshinsky, a great director, and Renata Rakova, our terrific clarinetist, and to write new music intended for a powerful Beckett work. It’s so exciting!

EL: What draws you to drama and music so much?

LPW: I think drama in music is inherently there, and it’s part of what draws us to music. Music is storytelling. We are drawn to a piece of music, whether it’s classical or another genre, because of the emotion it evokes in us. What I love about dramatic music is that it’s a long form – it’s not simply expressing one or two emotions, but it’s constantly drawing you from one state into another through a transformational experience. Of course, in opera or forms with characters, you have empathy for the people you are seeing on stage. For me, that is an outward expression of what we are already experiencing when listening to music. Because I’m a very visual person and I grew up around the theatre, it’s really very natural for me when writing to think of the progression of the musical structure as going hand-in-hand with an emotional journey or trajectory that takes you somewhere.

EL: This piece you wrote for Bard Music West is based on Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words I. Can you tell me a little about that?

LPW: Bard Music West is a new festival. They designed their events this year around György Ligeti, and Beckett was a great influence on him. They brought me on as composer-in-residence to write new music for Beckett’s play, Act Without Words I, which is very cool. Act Without Words I is a short mime-play. It’s entirely without words, as the title implies, but Beckett has been very specific about what you see on stage and what the character goes through. It’s a one-man play and he goes through a really intense journey from a kind of affable innocence at the beginning to utter emotional paralysis at the end. Beckett makes that happen with the simplest means – he has a pair of scissors, blocks, a little jar of water. These and the man’s environment put him through this emotional grinder.

Of course, there is a lot open to interpretation in the play, but what Bard Music West has allowed me to do is really craft what I wanted the music to be. They mentioned in their call for scores that they specifically wanted to feature the clarinet, so I immediately saw solo clarinet as the best instrumentation, because the man in Beckett’s play exists as though there are no other humans in the world. We don’t think of him as lonely, but more as a rat in a cage. I loved the idea of a solo instrument and especially the clarinet because it really has such a wide array of timbres and dynamics. The clarinet can transition from silly to serious without even blinking, which Beckett does as well. The play has really black humor, so we’re going to laugh as this man is going through this horrible journey. I really loved the idea of solo clarinet for all of that.

EL: Did any other symbolism or elements from Beckett’s work get directly translated into the music you created?

LPW: It’s an interesting question. There are musical elements that relate to specific things happening in Beckett’s play, but sometimes the relationship is very clear to the audience and other times I don’t intend for it to be clear. The audience doesn’t need things spelled out for them. The music serves to complete their sensual picture of what is happening. So they are in the room where they are getting the visual from the actor and I’m creating a sound world that completes that sensual journey.

I’ve tried to exploit the unique qualities of the clarinet to create music that relates to the desert and to the character’s survival. For example, I used multiphonics, which is a terrific effect that the clarinet does so well. That music comes in and out of the play and coincides with the character’s realization of the danger he’s in. Similarly, there are objects that appear and there is music that I know relates to those objects, but the audience doesn’t necessarily need to be aware of that specific relationship. On the other hand, if they do, the audience will realize that the scissor music, for example, will change as the man relates to the scissors in different ways throughout the play. I’m using musical building blocks that end up combining into a picture which doesn’t need to be interpreted point-by-point by the audience. It’s more of an impression that brings the whole drama together.

EL: You mentioned earlier that the message of Act Without Words I is subject to interpretation. Do you think there is a particular message you accomplish with the addition of your music?

LPW: I took certain musical attitudes that are definitely mine. Here’s an example: you asked earlier if there are certain musical relationships to the play, and there’s one that’s kind of funny. The play calls for whistles that the actor reacts to on stage. Together with Mark, the director, we decided not to use an outside whistle, but to let the clarinet be the whistle. I wrote shrill, whistle-like gestures for the clarinet that are designed to have a personality. Whatever the presence is that’s calling the man’s attention to various things in the play has its own attitude – silly, flirty, angry – and becomes its own kind of character. Since Beckett does not include any description of the whistles, I’ve chosen to shape how the whistles behave and change over the course of the play.

Also, there’s a bit of a dance that happens when the water appears in this desert environment and the man realizes he’s thirsty. As the water continues to appear throughout the play, the man’s efforts to get that water become more desperate and more futile. But in the middle of this very contemporary sounding score, I made a dance for the man and the jar of water. That’s a particular interpretation that should be pretty interesting.

EL: My personal interest in contemporary music is the relation and opportunities women have in music. What kinds of challenges in music do you think women, especially composers, face today?

LPW: Well, one thing that I’ve had direct experience in recently that’s been very interesting to me is being a beneficiary of Opera America’s Opera Grants for Female Composers, which is a grant for opera projects that are ready for further development. They just started offering this in 2014 and I was one of their inaugural recipients. What they discovered in the grant projects they’ve offered for the past 20+ years is that only 5% of their grants had been awarded to projects associated with female-composer commissions. They decided to offer this new program to help change the direction. I think that now, the same kind of discovery is being made about orchestral music, so there’s a little bit of a flurry of commissioning geared toward changing the ratio.

When I was in school, I was certainly a drastic minority; I think I was one girl out of ten or twelve composers in college. That was over 20 years ago and it seems like there has been a lot of progress since then. But maybe the progress we’ve made has been in the context of smaller ensembles and new music groups, and we weren’t seeing that in these larger institutions. So now the opera companies and the big orchestras are working to rectify that.

I think one thing that’s very interesting to me and has been coming to my mind more lately is motherhood and composing. Now I hope, and I think that it might be true, that there’s an understanding in the world in general, not just in music, that real life – meaning kids, laundry, groceries, you know – is something that actually exists and everyone is responsible for. It is really inspiring when you meet a woman in the arts, or in any area, with success in her life where she’s been able to balance home life with a career, but as the world begins to understand gender equality in the context of home life, I believe we can start owning up to those challenges while juggling our careers.

EL: Any final thoughts about the Bard Music West project?

LPW: I’m really excited to come back to the Bay Area, it has kind of become a second home to me. I’ve worked with soprano Lisa Delan on a bunch projects, and lots of other great musicians in the area. I’m so thrilled that Bard Music West has welcomed me into this new festival, and can’t wait to see how the Act Without Words I comes together!

**C4NM fans are invited to take advantage of a 20% ticket discount to Bard Music West using the code “C4NM.”

The music of composer Luna Pearl Woolf has been praised for its “psychological nuances and emotional depth,” by the New York Times. Her works in opera, dramatic chamber music, silent film and music-storytelling have been commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Washington National Opera, Minnesota Sinfonia, Salle Bourgie, ECM+, as well as individual artists and festivals, collaborating with artists such as Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade, Daniel Taylor, Lisa Delan, Christopher O’Riley, the Brentano String Quartet, and the Russian National Orchestra, as well as Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons and author Cornelia Funke.

This season the Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello Artistic Director, premiered Better Gods, a new opera centered on Queen Lili‘uokalani and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, with librettist Caitlin Vincent. The sold-out production was directed by Ethan McSweeny and conducted by Timothy Myers. Woolf is the featured composer in The Washington Chorus’s New Music for a New Age series, performing Après Moi le Déluge, a post-Katrina lament for cello and choir, and The Pillar, recipient of Opera America’s 2014 Discovery Grant, conducted by Julian Wachner. Cellist Matt Haimovitz commissioned a new work as part of his Overtures to Bach tour and recoding. The piece, for solo cello piccolo, was premiered at Miller Theatre in New York City and released on the PENTATONE Oxingale Series. Montreal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts hosts a composer portrait evening of Woolf’s music, including One to One to One, a new commission responding to a major work in the museum’s permanent collection. Mélange à trois, Woolf’s wordless opera for violin, cello and percussion, commissioned by the BIK ensemble, opens the program.
Woolf’s recorded music is available internationally on the Oxingale and PENTATONE labels. She has been featured on NPR, BBC, CBC, MPR and WNYC and in the New York Times, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Opera News, Strings Magazine, New Music Box, and L’Opéra among others.
Woolf founded the ground-breaking Oxingale Records with cellist Matt Haimovitz in 2000, garnering several GRAMMY, INDIE and JUNO nominations, and launched Oxingale Music in 2010, publishing the works of award winning composers.

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