The award-winning California-based coloratura soprano talks to Composers Edition’s Dan Goren about her new album with pianist Siu Hei Lee on Centaur Records and exploring both contemporary works and hidden corners of classical repertoire.
Dan Goren: Congratulations on your new Album of works by Jeffrey Holmes, James Erber, Jack Van Zandt and Gyorgy Ligeti. I’ll ask you about that in a moment, but first I’m struck by the less well-trodden paths of your classical repertoire and your focus on contemporary music. What has drawn you to these areas?
Kirsten Ashley Wiest: I started out on the typical opera-training trajectory – entering into a conservatory program and studying a lot of Baroque and Classical operatic repertoire and German Lieder – but quickly realized that I wasn’t entirely happy or artistically fulfilled by trying to fit into the prescribed vocal and musical boxes which have been built into the standard vocal repertoire over time. I was craving more individual expression in my singing! So I began exploring lesser-known vocal works that would allow for more artistic exploration and had less preconceived notions of what was correct or expected visually/physically and musically within a given performance. At first, this was a dive into the music of established compositional names who were not necessarily thought of as “vocal composers” like Alberto Ginastera, Morton Feldman, and Anton Webern, but quickly evolved into working with living composers on new and underperformed repertoire. For me, the most exciting thing about music is getting to bring it to life in a way that means something personal – delivering a unique and authentic message is absolutely essential in my performing – and there is no better way to do this than through music that does not yet have a convention! In this situation you are truly free to express and explore as an artist. Because of this drive, I am most drawn to composers who also have their own unique, personal writing styles and aesthetics. I love to hear a piece of music and think “oh, this has to be by x composer!”. I found this in the music of Holmes, Erber, Van Zandt, and Ligeti, who all have an authenticity about their writing while retaining a strong connection to lyricism and a core of vibrant musical expression.
DG: Exploring more idiosyncratic compositional territories must come with particular technical and interpretive challenges. How have you navigated these and where/who have you looked to for guidance?
KAW: I have been incredibly fortunate to study with two highly accomplished new music singers during my schooling, mezzo-soprano Jacqueline (Jacqui) Bobak during my Master’s work at California Institute of the Arts and soprano Susan Narucki during my doctoral studies at the University of California, San Diego. The first time I took a course on extended vocal techniques was with Jacqui. It was in that course that I became familiar with many different vocal techniques outside of the typical classical vocal training as well as their differing forms of notation. My work with Susan then greatly expanded upon this foundation, seeking to continuously push the boundaries of the “palate of vocal colors” used in singing, as she once said so beautifully. Both of these women have helped me to explore and expand the sonic range that I am capable of producing with my instrument.
Working and communicating directly with composers on their pieces is also a wonderful resource that you have access to in a lot of contemporary music! Figuring out the why behind certain compositional or notational choices directly from the composer can give great insight into creating a meaningful interpretation of any repertoire, which can frequently transcend any technical challenges that may be thrown your way. I have found that the more a performer can understand (or commit to a self-prescribed version of) the why in music, or the subtext of the piece as we singers often say, the less technical challenges are actually technically difficult – they instead become a normative part of the musical journey and cease to feel as challenging.
DG: Your new album ‘Luminous’ with pianist Siu Hei Lee starts with Jeffrey Holmes Fragments, a mesmerising set of four evocations with brilliantly icy piano writing. It’s a powerful opener!
KAW: Thanks! This piece has definitely grown with me over the years – I believe my first performance of this cycle was back in 2012. I was just beginning to find my voice then at the age of 22 (still very young for a classical singer), and remember being intimidated by the demands of the smooth lines and icy textures that you mention. But as time has passed, I have found a sense of power in this style of singing! Once I heard the finished recordings, I knew this piece had to open the album – its mystique and power are intense and captivating while leaving much open to interpretation of the listener. I do not want to influence our audience too much, but I find in this work a haunting sonic landscape and envision myself as a sorceress casting spells under the starlight with each rising and falling melodic line. It is powerful and empowering!
DG: The Holmes is followed on the album by James Erber’s Phoenix, a setting of two 16th century sonnets by Giordano Bruno. With unfolding two-part inventions for the piano it is redolent with a certain sadness.
KAW: I think of this piece in terms of being the manifested voice of the phoenix: yes, there has been sadness in the journey, but there is also great hope, renewal, and rebirth that ultimately leads to something even better and more exciting in the end. Besides in the text, I think this is also present in the music itself. The notation of this piece is complex, particularly in terms of rhythmic and compositional structures, but remains deeply lyrical and expressive in the core of its creation. This duality of mathematical structures paired with rich poetic expression within the vocal lines (not entirely dissimilar to those of Verdi) really captivates me as an entire artist, simultaneously stimulating both the logical mind and the expressive spirit.
DG: We have a marked change of atmosphere as we cross back across the Atlantic for Jack Van Zandt’s Apples and Time Crack in October, setting four specially composed poems by Jill Freeman. Highly characterful, it sounds like you and Siu Hie Lee thoroughly enjoyed making this recording
KAW: Absolutely! This piece is rich with changing character and is a fun exploration into many different sound worlds within the overall larger structure of the complete song cycle. We did have a lot of fun in bringing out the different colors and textures of this piece, aiming to approach it from a more playful perspective than the previous works on the album. The poetry is full of detailed descriptions which Van Zandt paints particularly well into his piano writing, so we had a good foundation of traditional word painting to work from when bringing this piece to life.
DG: You finish the album with an impressive and highly entertaining performance of Gyorgy Ligeti’s showcase Mysteries of the Macabre. You clearly revel in exploring a full range of vocal and expressive possibilities!
KAW: I have to admit something: this is my favourite piece in the entire world to sing. No piece of music has ever fit my voice so naturally. I know this is probably a strange thing to hear (and I feel a bit strange admitting it), but from the very first day I cracked open the score in a practice room, I knew this was going to be “my piece”. It just felt so right and so easy. That was 10 years ago, and I have since been on the hunt for a similar piece of music to be able to rotate into programming – but to no avail! There is truly nothing else out there that is similar! The heightened, over-emphasized looming mental breakdown of the character, the extremes of the vocal writing in both range and technique, and the powerfully evolving rhythmic drive of the music all draw me into this piece. It is an evolution from beginning to end where the listener keeps thinking “this can’t possibly get any more intense”…and then it does! For about 10 minutes! It’s kind of like the ultimate musical joke, but presented in an engaging and extremely powerful manner.
DG: Well it makes for a great ending to a fabulous album. Congratulations and many thanks for talking with me – it’s been a great pleasure.