ListN Up: Katherine Balch (December 4, 2020)

ListN Up is a series of weekly artist-curated playlists. Born from a desire to keep artists sharing and connected during times of isolation, ListN Up offers an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Described as “some kind of musical Thomas Edison” (San Francisco Chronicle) Katherine Balch is a composer and educator originally from San Diego, California. As the recipient of the 2020 Elliott Carter Rome Prize and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, Katherine will be spending the bulk of 2021 in Italy, where she plans to complete an album of works for double bass, build wind chimes, and work on upcoming projects for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She is currently on faculty at Mannes School of Music and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. Her music is published by Schott PSNY.

Hi! My name is Katherine Balch. I’m a composer currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and soon I’ll be relocating to Rome, Italy. Often my go-to musical soul food during the pandemic has been string quartet rep, so today I thought I’d share with you a few of my favorite very recent string quartets. These range from blissed-out fiddle jams to microtonal soundscapes to noisy, jittery, scratchy wizardry. All of these pieces have influenced my own string quartet writing in some way or another. I hope you enjoy and discover something you haven’t heard before that brings a little magic into your day. Thank you for listening!

The Opium Eaters (2016) by Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, performed by Escher String Quartet

A piece for this moment: stillness, reflection, inertia, proof even the most ‘monotonous’ can beget ultimate tug-on-your-heart-strings beauty (pun intended). This string quartet is my Heiliger Dankgesang of 2020.

String Quartet No. 1 (2016)  by Zosha Di Castri, performed by JACK Quartet

Another piece for this moment, maybe a bit more reflective of my general mood: frenetic activity, impatience, an off-kilter passing of time from which windows into alternate universes—more playful and lively than this current one—are revealed. The last few minutes float suspended between the contrasting possibilities presented earlier, like looking down from above the music rather than reflecting on it­­ retrospectively.

Everything Changes Nothing Changes (2019) by Tyshawn Sorey, performed by JACK Quartet

I was lucky to hear the U.S. premiere of this piece at Sorey’s Miller Theatre Portrait Concert in March 2019. Clustered harmonies coalesce, then dissolve, then emerge rearranged around a handful of “tonics” in a liquid, low-gravity world. The title is very apt; listening to this piece is a patient, meditative experience.

Prospective Dwellers (2016) by Tomeka Reid, performed by Spektral Quartet

The F-minor opening pizzicato groove conjures up the A-minor opening of the 2nd movement of Maurice Ravel’s quartet, to my ears, but this time with chirping and trilling commentary that gradually beckons the texture into more melodic territory. Sweet solos and duos float seamlessly over the walking bass, sometimes going in surprising directions, like the types of conversations we used to have when we could just sit around and hang out with each other and let words flow where they will.

A Failed Entertainment (2013) by Clara Iannotta, performed by JACK Quartet

The sounds in this piece are total ear candy for me—scratchy, swishy, fragile, sinuous noise. Little surprises keep emerging from accessories distributed around the quartet, shaping sustain into pulse: bird whistles, desk bells, vocalizations, and those delightful swirly European paper clips that, when attached correctly, turn the violin strings into bell-tones.

Reflets (2019) by Corie Rose Soumah, performed by Flux Quartet

Another delicate, jittery piece whose intimacy feels particularly suited for my headphone-centric COVID existence. Spectral chords punctuate the jagged soundscape with refreshing warmth. Admittedly, contrary to my intro, Reflets couldn’t have possibly influenced my string quartets, given that it was written after, but I first encountered Soumah’s music a few years ago through her Limpidités I for solo double-bass, a piece I’ve flagged for inspiration as I start working on my own solo suite for the instrument.

This is My Scary Robot Voice (2015) by Kerrith Livengood, performed by Argus Quartet

This piece takes its cue from Horatiu Radulescu’s fourth String Quartet, inviting players to “incant the rhythms of a number of different sentences, as though speaking them aloud,” but to a decidedly more playful end. The result is a mesmerizing microtonal field that oscillates with a speech-like ebb and flow and is peppered with subtle humor: don’t you want to find out how a string quartet says, “this is my scary robot voice”?

Voodoo Dolls (2008) by Jessie Montgomery, performed by PUBLIQuartet

Finally, most people are familiar with Montgomery’s Strum but Voodoo Dolls is an equally propulsive fiddle-y outburst from around the same time. I love the way this piece plays with shuffle-esc bowings to articulate variations in the pulse and moments of distortion cajole the groove into more electrified extremes. FWIW, I often pair listening to Montgomery’s quartets with other contemporary American fiddle vibes, like Kittle & Co’s debut album, Whorls or Sarah Jarosz’s Song Up in Her Head.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is a program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. Editorial decisions are made at the sole discretion of the editor-in-chief. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.