03 Mar 2010
Sophia Serghi — An Interview
Composer Sophia Serghi is presently professor of music at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she has taught since 1998, with two years away in 2000-2002.
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Piotr Beczala, the Polish lyric tenor, stars in the current La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, London.
In Gounod’s Faust at the Royal Opera House in October 2011, Zhengzhong Zhou is alternating with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the part of Valentin. Alternating, not covering or substituting. Since Zhou is very young, it’s quite a challenge.
Composer Sophia Serghi is presently professor of music at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she has taught since 1998, with two years away in 2000-2002.
Her musical studies included work with Jonathan Kramer and Fred Lerdahl at Columbia University. She has been commissioned by groups including the Nash Ensemble and Relache. We spoke via Skype on February 5, 2010.
TM: You were born in Cyprus.
SS: I was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1972, and grew up in a very musical and culturally interesting family. My mother was a musician. She was a pianist and also a composer. She wrote music for choirs and also did a lot of theatrical productions for children, and wrote the music for those as well. She was a very accomplished pianist — she studied at the Sorbonne, and at the Guildhall School. Coming out of a very small place like Cyprus she was a rare phenomenon. She also was a Professor of Music Education at the Ionian University in Greece. My father had theater in his background. He was a trained classicist and historian with a masters from Harvard as well as degrees from other countries, but his love was the theater, and he did finish drama school in Athens, Greece. He went on to produce a lot of plays, and he ended up being Minister of Culture on the island for thirty plus years. So I was surrounded by musicians — Yehudi Menuhin would be coming through for a performance. I remember him as a kid. My father told me stories about Kurt Masur visiting with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, and would bounce me on his knees. Zubin Mehta basically I was around a lot of culture when I was growing up, but in a very small and isolated part of the world, because Cyprus is a tiny place, and only gained its independence in 1960. What I am describing only happened ten years after independence, since I was born in 1972. My father was responsible for setting up the National Theater, the State Orchestra of Cyprus, the National Gallery — lots of artists, painters, dancers would come through — the Ballet Russe would come through. That was my background. When I was fifteen my parents allowed me to participate in the American Field Service program (AFS), going to a great school in the Chicago suburbs, New Trier High School, with four orchestras, a full opera production troupe, three choirs — it was better than most colleges. It was complete coincidence that I landed there. That year I realized I could do something with all the music writing that I had been doing throughout my youth. My mother would give me lyrics for the songs in her plays and say “Here — try these!” and so on. I started studying piano at six, and I was more interested in writing music than in practicing what was on the page.
TM: That’s a very common story — that the composer is less interested in other people’s music than in writing their own.
SS: I would drive the piano teacher crazy — she would give me an assignment, and the next week it would be transposed into a different key, I would be adding my own counter points, and eventually she just said “Bring me your stuff.” When I discovered contemporary music during my year in Chicago, it completely changed my life. I had an opportunity to perform on stage at Carnegie Hall under John Rutter’s direction as part of the choir from New Trier. Meeting John Rutter and realizing that a composer can have a life put things into context. I had to return to Cyprus to finish high school and after that I was convinced that I would return to the United States to pursue music composition as a career.
TM: Please say a little more about Cyprus, since many people in the US will not know so much about the island.
SS: Cyprus did not have a chance to get on its feet after independence because in 1974 Turkey invaded the island, and since then it has been divided in half. I was one and half years old when that happened, and as a result I spent some time in England with my mom, since my grandmother was living in England. Any infrastructure in place in 1960 was set back because of the 1974 war. My father, since he was in the government, remained on the island, and once the immediate danger passed, my mother and I returned, and the country began rebuilding. Education on the island has always been great, but there were gaps. For example, I wanted to study cello, and there was nobody who could teach me cello at the time. My piano teacher was spectacular, but up to a certain point — the idea of studying Prokofiev was totally outlandish. Chopin was as far as anyone would go in terms of new music, or maybe Liszt, so when I came back from my one year in Chicago, and had learned Prokofiev, had listened to new music, I got very much intrigued by this whole thing.
During my teens, after perestroika, there were a lot of Russians who came to the island to study how capitalism worked, instead of going to a totally western country. Cyprus was close, and it was something between the Middle East and Europe, so it was a safe haven for the Russians. When the Russians would arrive to take their seminars in capitalism, my father did lectures in classical Greek civilization. As a gift they would give him records, so he would bring home Schnittke, Sviridov and Gubaidulina and all these out-there composers whom I had never heard of. I had those sounds in my head, but I couldn’t put them in context until I came to the United States and realized that wow! These composers whose music I love are actually real people, and belong to a context called “contemporary music”. So Schnittke and other Russian composers played an important role in my early life as a composer.
TM: How did Cyprus come to become a British protectorate?
SS: That’s a long story. Cyprus had never been anything on its own until 1960. It had always been in the hands of some conqueror, be it the Venetians, or Richard the Lionheart, or the Franks, or the Ottoman Empire. Cyprus was sold to the British by the Turks in the later nineteenth century. In 1959 there was a liberation struggle.
TM: How much of the population spoke English?
SS: Everyone speaks English, and the education system and the constitution was very well-thought out because of the English. The infrastructure was way ahead of its time. But they never imposed English in the schools — Greek was always the main language. Until this day the English School is the best private high school on the island. Everything about the culture is very much Greek, but it’s a melting pot of the Middle East and Europe. The language we speak on the island is a Cypriot dialect which is quite different from what is spoken in mainland Greece. It’s a little closer to classical Greek, a little more archaic. If I was speaking with a friend, and someone from Athens was listening, he would understand about thirty percent of what we were talking about. It’s quite a different language.
TM: Are there influences from Italian and French?
SS: Yes, Turkish, Italian, some French. The official language taught in school, though, is Modern Greek.
TM: Were you studying composition as a child with your piano teacher?
SS: Not formally at all. I kept writing on my own. Basically, I imitated anything I was listening to. If I was listening to Shostakovich, I would imitate that. If I was listening to Mozart, I would imitate that. Any records that came into my hands, and I fell in love with — I would just write in that style. But it was entirely on my own, and it wasn’t until fifteen, when I was in high school in Chicago, that somebody actually noticed that I did that. I wrote a requiem that year, and my choral teacher at the time encouraged me. There were no formal lessons until I went to college here in the United States. That being said, though, I had enough of a portfolio that I applied to Cambridge University to study composition simply because I thought “John Rutter is a product of Cambridge, so I will apply to Cambridge”. As simple as that. Cypriots who wanted to study abroad would go through the process of taking four or five A-levels, and would also take SATs if you wanted to have the option of going to the United States, and Greek examinations for the Greek universities. I took my A-levels and did really well on them, was accepted to go to King’s College, Cambridge, but then I got a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States, which meant that my parents would have to pay nothing, so I did that instead. My life would probably have been very different had I gone to Cambridge, from a musical point of view, because studying in England at the time (1990) was very different. It was a very narrow track, in comparison to a small liberal arts college in one of the most liberal cities in the United States — Portland, Oregon, which was very, very far away from Cyprus, which for me was a plus at the time, since I was looking for adventure.
TM: What sort of music were you exposed to, in terms of popular music, while you were still living in Cyprus?
SS: It was clearly UK top 40, basically. We had one Greek Cypriot radio station, and the British bases — since as part of the liberation in 1960 Cyprus gave the British two rather large pieces of land that are used as military bases — which had a radio station. So we would listen to the top 20 charts once a week. I would wait for that one time a week when I could turn the radio on, sit down with my tape recorder, tape the top 20 for that week, and listen to them over and over and over. Michael Jackson, Madonna — that is what came from outside. Then there was Greek popular music, a completely different thing entirely. We had Greek tradition music as well, Greek Cypriot traditional music, plus classical music from the various groups that would visit Cyprus. I loved popular music, and I still love it. I teach a seminar on hip-hop in sub-Saharan Africa. I love popular music.
TM: How was it arriving in Portland, Oregon? Was it a shock, culturally?
SS: I arrived wearing a blue blazer and a white turtleneck — I looked like an Oxford University prep kid. My roommate that first day took one look at me and thought “Oh my God! What am I getting into here?” She was wearing Birkenstocks and clothes that looked more like pajamas that she got from a thrift store and patchouli oil within six months we had met half-way. I became more of a hippie and she cleaned up a little bit. It was a huge culture shock. I immediately became immersed in the music — I loved the whole grunge scene that was happening at the time. Portland was very, very big on the map in grunge terms because Seattle wasn’t that far away, San Francisco was right down below. Portland had its own grunge bands, mosh pits, and so forth. I was sixteen and a half, and Portland was such a liberal, open-minded town that it completely changed my life. I could not have gone to a more foreign place.
In a lot of respects, I became an ultra-open-minded person, not just personally and politically, but musically. The great thing about Lewis and Clark College is that it’s a very small place, and the ratio of instructor to student was 1 to 5. I got a lot of attention from my professors, whom I got to know personally. Three of them had a huge impact on my life as a musician for many years.
TM: Who were you studying with?
SS: My first teacher was Vincent McDermot. His main influence was in world music, and specifically the Javanese gamelan. Lewis and Clark is known for its great world music program — there’s the gamelan, there is Obo Addy, who does Ghanaian drumming. I studied Indian vocal styles, I sang in the gamelan, I played in the gamelan. This exposure to world musics gave me an appreciation of my own background, because growing up in Cyprus I would shun the Greek music thing. “Oh my God, this is so boring .let’s turn it off”. Once I realized that the sounds from the gamelan would find their way into my music it opened the door to all the rhythmic, frenzied music I had been exposed to while growing up. It was a huge liberation for me to come to terms with my own heritage, that I didn’t have to sound like Stravinsky, I could sound like a melting pot, which is how I still sound.
TM: When I think of music from that part of the world, I often think of irregular meters.
SS: I remember in my first composition class, not with Vincent McDermot, but with my piano teacher at the time, at Lewis and Clark. She asked us to write a piece, and for me it was normal to write in 11/8, and then jump to 7/8, and go to 5/8 — it was something innate. I performed the piece on the piano, and everybody was thrilled, with questions about “what does 11/8 sound like?”, “how do you break it down” .that’s been in my music effortlessly. It finds its way in, whether I think about it or not. That’s the same for a lot of modalities and collections of notes that I tend to use. That being said, the Javanese gamelan also had a huge effect on me in terms of choice of notes.
My piano teacher, Alexander Lee Frick, was a wonderful man. He passed away a couple of years ago. He had studied with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and had a great career as a pianist himself, and became a great teacher. Through Lee, I became a really good pianist. At the time I was a brilliant pianist, and when I graduated from college I had a choice — to either go become a professional pianist or go to grad school in composition. Composition won me over, because although I love performing on the piano, and I still do, very much, I am a people person — that comes from my culture, I think. I couldn’t think of practicing by myself in a practice room for seven hours at a stretch, in order to keep up with the caliber that I was at the time. Composition always came more easily — it was just a way of life for me. Grad school was a breeze. I loved it — it was easy. Had I gone to study with John Perry at USC, it would have been a lot of hard work. I took the easier road, and went to Columbia.
TM: And New York City is the cultural capital of the US.
SS: I went from this expansive, natural place to a room that was an 8 by 11 foot cell that I lived in for four years while I was at Columbia, at International House, which was a great place to live, but you don’t have much space. My outlet was my window- I had a million-dollar view, overlooking Riverside Park, Riverside Church and the Hudson River. And my radio, which was just phenomenal, because I had such a wide range of music in my little cell. I would write music with the radio on and the window wide open and I would let the city sounds come in. I wrote very eccentric and adrenalin-crazed music at the time. My main teacher there, Jonathan Kramer, was a huge influence in terms of pushing my boundaries, allowing me to go in a direction that I wouldn’t normally, saying “if you feel this adrenalin, throw it in there. Go wild. Push your performers to the limit.” And I did. I wrote really virtuosic pieces that required a lot of stamina, but at the same time, accessible to the audience.
TM: How do you choose what style to work in? In the USA now it seems like anything is possible. How do you choose from all the possibilities on the menu?
SS: When I arrived at Columbia, it was one year after Mario Davidovsky had left to go to Harvard. Mind you, when I was in college, I was aware of Modern music, I did exercises as part of a theory course, was aware of the imposing position that Modernism had had in the United States for quite a while, but I had never felt compelled by a need to do this. Nobody told me that I needed to do it to gain acceptance anywhere, to be validated as a serious composer. I never felt that. I was always encouraged to do my own thing, to continue with my own voice in finding something new for myself. When I arrived at Columbia I was the only woman among 40 male composers. The next year a woman came from Japan, so we were two. Great! All these guys were writing in that “modern” style. They were either students of Mario Davidovsky, or had been influenced by the atonal, dodecaphonic, serial music esthetic, and instrumentation- and orchestration-wise, it was a very specific style that you had to write in. When I arrived, I was probably not considered a very serious composer, because my music was not that at all. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, but it was totally tonal. Thank God that I arrived at the time that I did, because things changed over the next four years at Columbia. The whole idea of there being “uptown” and “downtown” music was on the verge of collapse. By the fourth year I was there it had collapsed — I watched it collapsing. I sensed all this anxiety from my colleagues about how their music should sound, who was going to be in the audience, if Babbitt would be in the audience, what would he say — they would hover around him to see what would come out of his mouth. I was on my own little planet, and was allowed to be on my own little planet, at least in part because I was a woman.
For me, if something moved me — let’s say I was playing Scriabin, and there was an etude that moved me — I would use that etude in a piece — the gestures, or even the melody. I would borrow that, and plant it in a completely new environment, where it is somehow recognizable, but maybe not. It’s not unlike sampling. For me it was paying homage to a lot of things — maybe a Latin song that I had heard on the radio. I would start with that, and then if it turns out to be in a certain style, great. My music varies considerably — I have introspective pieces and others that are really wild, that are dances, others that are really out there — clustery, loud, noisy. I never felt like I needed to box myself into an esthetic — anything goes.
TM: Please talk about your study with Fred Lerdahl.
SS: It was one year of study with Fred. He gave me a lot of confidence, he understood what I did — he was a very, very good teacher. I loved Fred’s music as well — it was closer to the direction that I saw myself going, post-modern, but with great respect for the tradition — you could see where his music was coming from. Where I didn’t see eye to eye with Fred was in the whole area of music theory. I am not a theorist, I never was a theorist, and will never be a theorist. Fred was trying to work on form, and ideas extrinsic to the music, whereas I didn’t feel that I needed to go in that direction. I sit down and write from left to right — I don’t think about form, I don’t think about structure — it is just there when it is done. I have had music theory grad students, friends, professors from other universities, pick up my music and find great connections, things that I never thought of. I just trust in what I know and what I have been doing for such a long time.
TM: You seem to belong to the camp of composers who have a more organic, rather than architectural, approach to composition.
SS: I think so. Two composers who give a context for what I do are Fredric Rzewski and Joan Tower. Tower’s music sounds architecturally sound, Rzewski’s, not so much. Rzewski would say “Look, I am a pianist, I sit at the piano, I start improvising, out of that something is created. Then I start writing the music down, and from there the structure is being built”. That is my way too. I am a pianist. I know my fingers are going to go where I want them to go. They have never failed me. If I sit there and put my hands on the keyboard something is going to happen. If I take that something, put it aside, and sit down the next day, something else is going to happen, and maybe the two will belong together, and maybe they won’t, but they are there. If I have a deadline, if I have to write a piece, I will sit at the piano, and I know it’s going to happen. I don’t have to think about structure, or number combinations — that’s just not my way.
TM: Is there a recent piece that you would like to talk about?
SS: My most popular piece — my husband likes to say it’s my portal piece — and I feel like it shouldn’t be because I wrote it in my freshman year at Lewis and Clark — is called Cantus Integritatis, a very, very simple piece for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra. That piece has gotten more airplay, more performances, more recognition than any other piece I have done subsequently. It’s been my struggle since that moment, when that piece was completed, to come back and capture whatever I captured there. But I can’t. Because I have learned complicated things, I have learned structures, I have learned ideas, and I can’t go back and be that simple person. Maybe later on in life, when I am 80, maybe I will be able to come back to that. That is my most popular piece by far.
One of my signature favorite pieces is called Sizzle, which I wrote when I was under the tutelage of Jonathan Kramer. That’s the first piece where I pushed myself in terms of exuberance and what the performers can do. It’s more like my extreme games, like snowboarding, and the energy that goes into performing these wild pirouettes — that was the idea behind this piece. Music that falls under the fingers, the performers will have fun doing it, but they will feel like Olympic athletes. That energy comes through in this piece. That piece has also been popular and won awards.
I have my two sides — I will go back into writing slow, introspective music which is deep, and mystical and spiritual, trying to capture whatever magic and beauty was there in Cantus Integritatis. And then there’s the other side — the wild, exuberant Greekness in me that has to find its outlet in fun chamber music pieces which exemplify the performer as virtuoso. Those pieces are the most structurally interesting. The slow, spiritual pieces are more stream-of-consciousness.
TM: One of the fascinating titles in your catalogue is the Hommage à P-Funk.
SS: And then there is the popular music. Right now I am writing a piece for the Cyprus State Orchestra which is going to be premiered in May. It’s called Shall We Dance, and I just started writing the jive. Dancing with the stars is in fashion, and I figured it’s my time to write a series of dance pieces for orchestra — like Bernstein for West Side Story — with that spirit. I just finished a string quartet which was performed by the Flux String Quartet at the Kennedy Center in October, which is called Breathless Punk, which is literally a string quartet in punk style. Hommage à P-Funk — that’s what it is — an homage to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Popular music, popular rhythms — always interlaced in the music, whether it has a Russian sound to it, or a Greek sound, or an American sound. I am shameless about using melodies that I hear and love.
TM: Are there other upcoming projects?
SS: My most recent piece is called Spark, and it was a commission by jazz drummer Bernhard Haaks. He lives in New York City, he leads the Bernhard Haaks Quartet, and they collaborate with a clarinet trio of Juilliard-trained musicians. He wanted a piece for jazz quartet and clarinet trio, bringing jazz and classical music together — nothing new, but it was new for me. He also had a specific image in mind — Bushmen dancing around a fire in Africa. I had just come back from Kenya, and had those images very fresh in my head. I created something that is very tribal/ritualistic, that blends in jazz, my style of virtuosic new music. That’s probably my most innovative piece to date. They plan to release it on CD by the end of summer 2010, and will be premiered in Philadelphia next September.
TM: Would you like to talk about your teaching?
SS: I teach at the College of William and Mary, and have been doing that for the last twelve years. It was my first job after Columbia, and the influence of my students and what they bring into the classroom on my work has been tremendous. It’s what keeps my music young and fresh. I listen to music that I would not hear otherwise because they bring it into the classroom. I keep up with popular music, with weird stuff that they listen to. Yesterday a student brought in the most unique tango for his assignment, and I was floored. You can never underestimate a sophomore with a great imagination. I came out of the classroom thrilled. What great potential. I love to see how they develop over four years as musicians. That’s a big part of who I am as well.
Here is a video of Professor Sophia Serghi and Susan Via rehearsing “Toward the Flame” in preparation for a concert on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in Washington, D.C.