5 Questions to Katherine Balch (composer)

The 2019-20 season is filled with a number of exciting commissions and residencies for Katherine Balch, an acclaimed young composer taking the symphonic world by storm. Katherine began the season as a guest composer at the Takefu International Music Festival in Takefu, Japan where her works, Thread, Unfurled for flute and piano and Prelude for cello and piano were performed. On January 24-25, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, led by Krzysztof Urbański, will premiere her new companion piece to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and in March, Donato Cabrera will lead the California Symphony (where Balch is Composer-In-Residence) in the world premiere of Illuminations, a song cycle for three voices and orchestra. In addition to her compositional work, Balch has written candidly about her experiences as a composer and shared an intimate portrait of her time with Katie Agócs while she was a student at NEC. Eager to learn more about this fascinating artist, I asked Katherine five questions about her experiences with mentorship, composers who inspire her, and the many projects that lie ahead.

You have two exciting projects on the horizon: Cantata for Orchestra and 3 Voices for the California Symphony, as well as the world premiere of Beethoven pairing piece for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra–both taking place this seasonWhat can we expect to hear in these new works?

I’m really excited about my last California Symphony commission as their Composer-in-Residence. Illuminate will be a ~30-minute song cycle for three voices and orchestra that centers around excerpts regarding female protagonists in Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations, paired with resonating texts by Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Anne Carson’s Sappho translations. The singers are dear friends and masterful interpreters of music old and new: Kelly Guerra, Molly Netter, and Alexandra Smither. This piece feels important for me to write because one of the reasons Rimbaud’s poetry resonates with me is that there are always these seemingly offhanded but critical references to the perspectives of women and children throughout his work. It’s almost as if he is describing the world through their lens. So I wanted to pair particularly striking instances of this with four of my favorite female poets to create a libretto that depicts many shades of femininity, or at least, resonates with my own associations and experiences of this term/idea. I hope the piece will be heard as a joyful outpouring, because that’s what I feel when I think about these texts, the women they represent to me, and the women who will be singing them. I didn’t really seek out or intend to write a piece “about” this, it just sort of happened as I was assembling the texts and realizing what I was feeling the urge to put together and express.

My short piece for Indianapolis will be paired with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Something that’s so striking about that Symphony, besides its famed obsessiveness, etc., is its surprising use of space, especially in the first movement’s retransition and the whole third movement. I’m stealing a chord progression from the retransition and savoring/expanding the space between each harmony, exploring non-pitched or sparsely pitched textures. The visual metaphor I have in mind is holding his manuscript under a microscope and seeing all the little grains and details and fibers of the paper in between each inky chord on the page.

Katherine Balch's current "studio view," including a formal overview of Iilluminate and sketches of her piece for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra--Photo courtesy Katherine Balch

Katherine Balch’s current “studio view,” including a formal overview of Illuminate and sketches of her new work for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra–Photo courtesy Katherine Balch

You wrote an excellent article for NewMusicBox on the benefits of sustained mentorship, highlighting your own mentor at NEC, Katie Agócs. How do composers in the early stages of their career (perhaps feeling a bit vulnerable or inadequate) go about finding a mentor?

Thanks for reading that article. Teaching and mentorship is something I think about a lot, and I really don’t think I’d be a composer if it weren’t for the individuals that have supported and encouraged me along the way. In fact, I don’t think it’s too bold to say that pretty much everything I’m interested in or excited about can be traced back to a great teacher.

It’s hard to offer general advice about mentor-seeking as everyone needs something a little different. I suppose for me, I’ve been attracted to those who offered models of art-making (either in terms of aesthetic inclinations or process), lifestyle, or career trajectories that I felt I could relate to or hoped to emulate long-term–but more importantly, I’ve been attracted to those who seemed genuinely invested in their student’s artistic growth. I think one can trust their intuition about this and steer away from mentors that offer a sort of one-size-fits-all approach to advising younger artists.

As for seeking out mentorship when feeling shy/vulnerable/inadequate, I think we all feel this way to varying degrees all the time, and any figure of authority or high regard should be sensitive to that. The amount of times I’ve had wonderfully positive interactions with those that I looked at from afar as “intimidating” or “unapproachable” provides solid data points that most people are really nice.

Although you have said, “Femininity is the least revolutionary part of my artistic identity”, were there ever times when you felt that it was something that others used as a framework (or a crutch, perhaps) to try and understand or characterize your music, possibly including teachers and mentors?

I’ve never felt that my gender was a framework through which mentors/teachers viewed me, and I’m grateful for that. I know many of my peers have not been so lucky as to have a similar experience. The only times my gender has been invoked were in the mildly self-congratulatory promotional way that organizations or their commentators sometimes get about increasing the diversity of their programming, but I don’t particularly mind this. I think if organizations feel pressure to promote women, trans, and non-binary artists or artists of color and they respond to that pressure, that’s a good thing. Emily Doolittle has an article on NewMusicBox titled Why Yes, I do want my music performed that I identify with. I know other women/people of color/trans and non-binary people feel differently, which is totally understandable.

Katherine Balch--Photo by Ted Moore

Katherine Balch–Photo by Ted Moore

Which composers (from any era) do you draw the most inspiration from?

Oh, where to start? Stream-of-conscious: Beethoven, Schubert, Unsuk Chin, Györy Ligeti, Gerard Grisey, Kaija Saariaho, Zosha Di Castri, Nina C. Young, Andrew Norman, Luciano Berio, Salvatore Sciarrino, Eric Wubbels, Ashley Fure, Sophia Gubaidulina, Clara Iannotta, Alberto Posadas, Wolfgang Rihm, Rebecca Saunders, Erin Gee, Hans Abrahamsen, Meredith Monk, Debussy, Ravel, Pérotin, all of my teachers and many of my peers. I’m sure I’ll read this later and feel like I’ve left out critical names. I like listening to music and try to keep an open ear. Lately, I’ve been listening to more Anthony Braxton after being turned into stupefied, tingling jelly by a performance of some of his Ghost Trance Music I heard this summer by International Contemporary Ensemble.

The last few years have been incredibly busy for you. What projects are you looking forward to in the coming seasons?

I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with the human voice this year. After finishing Illuminate, I’ll start working on a piece for Exceptet, commissioned by the Barlow Foundation. I want to take advantage in particular of member Sarah Goldfeather’s versatility as both a violinist and vocalist and create a modular “set” of pieces that can be assembled in a variety of ways. I’ll also be writing a song cycle for the Brooklyn Art Song Society, collaborating with a wonderful writer on the text, more details TBA! I am feeling a bit in the middle of a musical growth spurt, and I’m hoping that reconnecting with the voice as a featured instrument (I vocalize a lot when composing) will help sort it out!