5 Questions to Kate Soper (composer) about IPSA DIXIT

Kate Soper is best known for her work with the Wet Ink Ensemble. The group recently released an album of Soper’s striking “philosophy-opera” IPSA DIXIT, a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Music that was described by the committee as “a breakthrough work that plumbs the composer’s fertile musical imagination to explore the relationships between idea and expression, meaning and language.” She is the Iva Dee Hiatt Assistant Professor of Music at Smith College, and is currently working on a new opera titled The Romance of the Rose. On October 27, Kate Soper performs IPSA DIXIT with the Wet Ink Ensemble at her Composer Portrait concert at Miller Theatre. I asked Kate five questions about the inspiration behind her vocal works and the effects of collaboration on her compositions.

IPSA DIXIT has been described as a “philosophy-opera” which may be performed in its entirety or in parts. How do the various facets of this work (the diversity of texts, instrumentation, etc.) combine to form, if not a narrative-driven stage work, a stunningly cohesive one?

If this work seems cohesive, I think it’s due to the fact that each movement comes from the same basic investigative principle and the same working method. The basic investigative principle was: how can I use music to explore something fundamental about being a thought- and language-user, with all the contradictions and paradoxes and limitations that thought and language (and music!) produce? The working method was: spend a deadline-free, luxurious amount of time developing gestures and forms and ideas, and enlist my performer collaborators in the Wet Ink Ensemble to workshop with me every step of the way.

The three duo movements (now II, IV, and VI) were all written within the span of about two years and quickly became part of the Wet Ink rotation. While they each have their own particular concerns, it started to dawn on me over a couple of seasons of performing them regularly that they had things to say to each other, and that I wanted to find a way to weave them together–hence the idea of composing three quartets for the full group to balance out a whole program.  The last duo (“The Crito”) premiered in fall 2012 and the first quartet (“Poetics”) in spring 2015.  I think having a couple of years of getting really comfortable with the intimacy and ensemble virtuosity of the duos helped me carry that feeling into the larger pieces, so that there was the same atmosphere of experimentation, curiosity, and comfortable risk-taking in rehearsals and workshops with all four of us that there had been when it was just me and one other person. And of course I’d been working with percussionist Ian Antonio, flutist Erin Lesser, and violinist Josh Modney for so long at that point that I was really familiar not just with their formidable skills but with all my favorite sounds and tricks from them, which might also help maintain a sense of cohesion through the whole work.

Wet Ink Ensemble

Wet Ink Ensemble

Narratively, I did spend some time trying to think about what subject matter would be up to the task of providing a conceptual glue. While the duos have a lot in common with each other, it’s probably in their approaches to narrative that they differ most: the flute/voice duo, “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say,” is a (relatively) straightforward text-setting of three profound and experimental but still comprehensible texts by Lydia Davis; the percussion/voice duo, “The Crito,” is a little stage play involving very literal characterization of the players; and the violin/voice duo, “Cipher,” is a more surreal and circuitous take on the problems of language. (This is my feeling about the duos, anyway: the individual listener’s mileage may vary!)

Unlike with the duos, I was approaching the quartets from the get-go as pieces that would be grouped together and that would have to relate both to each other and to these previously-composed works. I knew I wanted to involve a deep treatment of rhetoric, which led me to Aristotle–and from there I got excited about the idea that each quartet could be an Aristotelean examination of a language-adjacent topic, with which a duo could be paired. Hence, Aristotle’s “Poetics,” an examination of what makes good tragedy, leads into the flute duo with all its melodrama and pathos; “Rhetoric” leads into the percussion duo with its interpretation of a rhetorically-charged dialogue; and “Metaphysics” introduces the violin duo, which leaps off of the plane of literalness into abstractions.

The first time we performed a quartet hinging directly into a duo was a performance of “Poetics” and “Only the Words…” in the summer of 2015.  It was really exciting for me as both a composer and a performer to experience the re-contextualization of a familiar piece, and to feel these movements slotting into place as part of something larger that was just starting to come into focus. Ultimately, the experience of the complete IPSA DIXIT is very cohesive for me personally, as a performer/composer, because I’m onstage the whole time with the same three players, continuing the wide-ranging musical conversation we’ve been having for the better part of a decade. Hopefully some of that aura gets communicated to the audience as part of the overall fabric of the piece.

I enjoyed reading a recent interview about your childhood attempts to play music from books of poetry at the piano. For works involving text, do you ever begin with the voice(s) and other forces in mind and seek out the words that attempt to put these musical ideas into words, or do the texts nearly always inspire the music?

I approach the text and music from different angles depending on the situation.  For instance, “Only the Words…” was inspired by my shock and delight at encountering the Lydia Davis texts, and in that case, I was primarily composing in the service of highlighting an interpretation of her words. In “Cipher,” however, there were many instances where I sought out text to fit a musical idea. A couple of examples: there’s a section where I wanted a string of vowels to transform into intelligible words and back again, and after some experimentation I found that singing a fast string of “A-O-E-I-A-O-E-I” could be convincingly morphed into the words “While we.” I then spent some time googling until I found those words in a public domain poem. This ended up being a snippet from a poem by Michael Drayton–whose poetry I later set as part of my opera Here Be Sirens–and the setting I did of this excerpt is now one of my favorite parts of “Cipher.” Similarly, I wanted a moment at the end of the piece to move from an expressionless sung “Ah” to a character-laden, emotional, first person “I,” and remembered Sarah Teasdale’s poem “Moods,” which is a lovely poem in its own right, but which I chose primarily because it contains a lot of “I” statements.

There are also many in-between examples.  For the quartet movements in IPSA DIXIT, I wanted to begin each one with an explication of some of Aristotle’s ideas about the three topics (poetics, rhetoric, and metaphysics) and end with a musical demonstration of those ideas, so I sought out specific texts to fit this formal framework.  In “Poetics,” the demonstration part uses text from a chorus in Aeschylus’ Oedipus Rex.  In fact, the Aeschylus was the first part of “Poetics” that I set to music, and that setting provided the musical material for the rest of the movement.  In “Rhetoric” the musical demonstration was mostly original text heavily inspired by Aristotle, and I wrote it to fit to certain musical parameters of timing and proportion.  “Metaphysics” was a tougher nut to crack, and the only musical demonstration that made sense to me involved removing the voice/text entirely (which also gives the soprano a much-needed five-minute break!).

Does the relationship between the music and the text change significantly when you are writing your own texts vs setting pre-existing texts?

The working relationship between the music and the text changes a lot depending on whether I’m writing the text myself. I am not a poet, but I am a writer and a lyricist, and sometimes I have such a specific idea in mind that the only way to find the appropriate text is to write it myself.  In my first opera Here Be Sirens, I ran into such a music/text challenge with a set piece about the sirens’ relationship to Persephone. There is a mythological tale that the sirens were originally handmaidens of Persephone, and were given (or cursed with) wings by Demeter in order to seek Persephone out after she was abducted by Hades. I wanted to explore the idea of an origin story that, over time, becomes worn away until the original circumstances are lost and only the consequences remain. To do this, I wrote the words and music for a three-voiced motet in which: 1) the text in each voice tells the Persephone story from a different point-of-view (that of Persephone, Demeter, and Hades); 2) the music for all three voices fits together contrapuntally, and; 3) the syllables of the name “Persephone” are embedded within each verse, so that with some dynamic and metric adjustments over the course of the motet all you hear is three singers singing the name “Persephone.” I’m not entirely sure that this worked the way I wanted it to (a quick audience survey after the premiere was inconclusive), but I loved playing around in the multi-dimensionality of words and music that way.

I’ve tried out many other different text/music relationships in other pieces, as it’s one of my favorite things to do.  For a new piece that I premiered this season, The Fragments of Parmenides, I was exploring a text that exists only in fragments, so I had to figure out how to fill in the gaps enough to make my interpretation of the poem intelligible while preserving the very ambiguousness which I find so tantalizing about fragments. It ended up being a quasi lecture-recital, where I keep interrupting myself at the piano to draw attention to divergent interpretations. I also knew that this piece would begin with a simple and lyrical song, which would come back in a somewhat “fragmentary” way later in the piece–I didn’t know what the text for that song would be, but shortly after sitting down to brainstorm, a Yeats poem that I hadn’t read in a decade suddenly swam to the surface of my mind and offered itself as the perfect thematic compliment.

I’m currently at work on a new opera for which I’m looking for more new ways to think about text and music interaction during the compositional process.  Because this opera has a medieval source (the French allegorical poem “The Romance of the Rose”), I’ve written a few pieces in a medieval formes fixes method. Formes-fixes are musico-poetic structures that have a lot of rules for how the words and music are constructed and how they interact, so it’s been fun to puzzle things out as a composer/writer.

Kate Soper

Kate Soper–Photo by Liz Linder

When you are composing works for musicians whom you have worked with for a long time, I would imagine that the process inevitably becomes a collaboration of sorts. In these cases, how much revision goes into the score following the first read-throughs of a new work, and have there ever been moments when something that you envisioned just didn’t work, and feedback from a colleague fundamentally changed the course of the piece?

It is a very collaborative process. As my Wet Ink colleagues will tell you, I am pathologically unable to stop revising so there is always lots of evolution over the course of the rehearsal process and beyond.  I don’t think I’ve ever composed a piece that didn’t go through some noticeable change not just during the rehearsal process, but between the premiere and the second performance.  This is not very efficient (especially when there are years between the premiere and the second performance, as happens), but I’ve accepted it as part of the working process for me.

There have been countless times where I envisioned something that didn’t ultimately work, and made changes in response to a colleague.  This runs the gamut from rote things, like allowing more time for percussion mallet changes, to larger, more fundamental issues.  Two examples from IPSA DIXIT: in “Cipher,” I knew I wanted there to be a moment where Josh and I play the violin together. I imagined myself doing all the fingering and Josh just doing the bowing, but the first time we tried that I was putting too much pressure on his arm by pressing both hands down on the violin and it was uncomfortable. So, we tried it where I would just take one string and he would take the other three–and then we arrived at a point where he couldn’t reach the chord I’d written, and so I added my other hand at that point, which gives the section a nice element of ratcheting things up. Coming up with the general idea was one thing, but I would never have been able to actually write that section without Josh at my side.

Joshua Modney and Kate Soper

Joshua Modney and Kate Soper Perform Cipher–Photo by Spencer McCormick for New Music USA

The second example is more structurally significant, and involves the “Poetics” movement from IPSA DIXIT. I wanted to enact a tragic scenario at the end of this movement, and my initial version involved the flutist and violinist (Erin Lesser and Josh Modney) actually chasing me downstage with their instruments, playing as loudly as possible, until I was cowering and kneeling. Then they’d back off, I’d recover, and we’d all move on to the Sophocles setting mentioned above. When we started working with director Ashley Tata for the staged premiere, she pointed out that that part of the piece rang false: there was no plausible tragic scenario in which Josh and Erin would actually physically attack me, and anyway, if they were going to do that, what was stopping them from just finishing me off? Ashley was seeing things from a dramaturgical point of view, and it just didn’t make sense: it’s not tragedy if you can’t relate to it or find it believable in any way.

So we started talking about what would be a believable tragic scenario involving the group of us, and came up with the idea that, rather than becoming inexplicably incited to violence, Josh and Erin would simply loose interest in performing the piece with me and would eventually wander offstage despite my efforts to engage them. This is still not a real-life scenario, but it relates to a possible reality in which my colleagues decide they’re no longer interested in my music or in collaborating with me. This would still be devastating, and, while I hope it is a very unlikely scenario, it’s more likely than Erin hitting me over the head with her piccolo (I hope, I guess??). And in fact, when I perform that moment now I feel some tugs of alarm, sadness, and embarrassment when all my friends abandon me onstage, whereas in the previous version I mostly just felt adrenaline.

How does your own practice as a composer/performer affect your creative process?

The realities of being a composer/performer affect the revision process, sometimes making things more expedient and sometimes drawing them out. It can be difficult to be fully present in an evaluative composer mode when you are performing in your own piece, and sometimes it’s only when I hear a recording that I realize I need to make changes. Other the other hand, being present at all the rehearsals as a member of the ensemble means you can make a lot of changes on the fly, based on what you’re experiencing physically, that might have been hard to come by from the outside. The flute/voice duo from IPSA DIXIT, “Only the Words…”, is a piece that came fully formed right out of the gate on our first performance, but only because we had been running it through in bits and pieces in my apartment in NYC for weeks before we ever did it live.

Here Be Sirens was somewhat similar, although on a larger scale: because the whole opera is scored for only three piano-playing sopranos–and I was one of them–we were able to do a ton of rehearsing just by sneaking into a practice room somewhere, which meant that by the time we were ready for staging, we had the music internalized and I had worked out most of the compositional kinks. This kind of shaping-as-you-go gets harder the more people are involved: The Romance of the Rose is scored for seven voices, eight musicians, and live and taped electronics, and it’s become clear that multiple workshops over many months will be necessary to figure out what’s working and what needs work in the music, story, and pacing.