5 Questions to Laura Strickling (soprano) about The 40@40 Project

Soprano Laura Strickling is an exceptional performer, leaving her mark in virtually every genre of vocal music. In addition to her work in opera and oratorio, she is a voracious recitalist, curator, and consultant, and an expert on contemporary art song, giving performances of songs from her diverse repertoire around the world.

Laura actively brings new music into existence by commissioning composers to write vocal works, and she has expanded her role of commissioner-performer with a new initiative in celebration of her 40th birthday. Aptly named “The 40@40 Project,” Strickling’s original aim was to commission forty new songs by forty composers. Unsurprisingly, given her great enthusiasm for song, that project has expanded. Laura notes, “‘The 40@40 Project’ is the beginning of a personal mission to commission with intentionality and to encourage and help other performing musicians (or music lovers!) to do the same. If we want the future of song to be bright, we need to be a part of making it happen.”

Your dedication to performing, promoting, and commissioning art song is unmatched. What draws you to this intimate genre?

The same things that attract me to singing in general–community and communication. Art song is a relational art form. Authentic communication is starting to feel like a lost art, and I firmly believe that song is an avenue toward reclaiming it. It is very difficult to speak honestly with other people, even on issues as simple as what brings us joy or pain. It is hard to be vulnerable. When I sing a song recital, I am putting stories, ideas, or emotions out into the universe and hoping that they start conversations; hoping that they make a difference in someone’s life–brings them comfort, clarity, perspective, or useful discomfort.

Words matter. What we say and how we say it matters. By setting words to music, composers are creating a musical response to the text that unlocks additional dimensions of meaning not accessible through reading or spoken recitation alone. I choose songs and build song programs carefully because effective communication is fundamentally important for humanity. Art song organizations are sprouting up in cities all over the United States, and I want to see more of that moving forward because it builds community.

Laura Strickling--Photo by Alain Brin

Laura Strickling–Photo by Alain Brin

Tell us about the original parameters of “The 40@40 Project,” how it has evolved over time, and the impact, if any, of COVID-19 on the process.

I had the idea for The 40@40 Project in November 2019. I made the realization that while I’d been asked to premiere myriad works over the course of my career, I’d never actively commissioned any. So often, we think of singing as a solo journey but it’s really about collaboration, and the collaborative relationship between singer and composer is one of my favorite parts of my job. I decided to aim high and commission 40 songs by 40 composers. And now I’m over 40 composers because there are so many amazing people I want to work with! The parameters are specific, but broad: one 2-5 minute song scored for soprano and piano. The choice of text is up to the composer, with my approval, in any language.

At the very beginning, I stated a song delivery deadline for the composers and had a plan to present a song premiere concert in New York on my 40th birthday. But Covid-19 required flexibility in all plans, and I’m still revising how everything will roll out. Ultimately, even the uncertainty has been positive–the extended timeline has allowed for more collaborations. I couldn’t know at the time I had the idea what an important role it would play in my life in 2020 and now into 2021 as live musical performance has been on hold. I’m fortunate that I’ve had this lifeline of connection with composers and poets during this lonely era. The only real change Covid has wrought concerns the timeline. Ultimately, The 40@40 Project is a beginning, not an end in itself. It’s the commitment of a personal mission to commission with intentionality and to encourage and help other performing musicians to do the same.

Commissioning new works can seem like a daunting prospect for solo artists, duos, and other small ensembles. What resources are available to help artists engage with composers and bring new works to life?

I’ve never done this before, so I’m learning as I go. I ask friends who’ve done it and pull at thread after thread of information until I find the answers I need. At the very beginning, I went straight to the composers themselves–“Here’s what I want to do. How do I do it?”–and they were generous with their advice. Admitting that you don’t know what you don’t know and asking a lot of questions will get you far.

If you’re a performer approaching a composer with a commission request, the best advice I can give is:

  1. Give clear parameters: number of songs/works, voice type/instrumentation, total length, projected premiere location and date. The more information you are able to provide, the more accurate composers will be in quoting you a fee.
  2. Be clear about your timeline. Ideally, plan at least a year out. Two or three years out, depending on the scope of the project/the composer’s scheduling constraints.
  3. Singers: present a selection of texts/poems that you are interested in having set, but understand that they may not work for the composer and be open to discussing alternatives.
  4. Everyone (and I cannot stress this enough)FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE COMPOSER’S PREVIOUS COMPOSITIONS. Let the composer know exactly why you are approaching them, specifically. What about their music excites you? Demonstrate your respect for them and your genuine interest in the work they have done.

Finances are the biggest anxiety for most artists considering commissioning. I’ve gotten some small grants, invested my own money, accepted generous donations from long-time career cheerleaders, and bartered with composers (trading my time and talents for theirs). I still worry about how I’m going to make it all happen–particularly at a time when I haven’t been able to make money as a singer in over a year–but I believe in what I’m doing and I have faith that I’ll find ways to bring it all across the finish line. Set your own commissioning goals, start saving money or pursuing outside funding sources towards the investment, and, most importantly, start building relationships with the composers in your community so that when the time comes, you’ll know who you want to work with.

Laura Strickling--Photo by Patria Alexander

Laura Strickling–Photo by Patria Alexander

You’ve performed hundreds of songs from almost as many composers throughout the course of your career. For composers who are new at writing for the voice, what are some essential elements they should keep in mind?

At last count, I think I’ve performed over 500 songs in thirteen languages! As with most disciplines, the best way to learn how to write for the voice is to do it. A lot. And for lots of different voice types. The human voice is the only instrument we are all born with. Exploring all of its expressive capabilities isn’t just an exercise in writing music, it’s a study of the very source of human communication. And while we are grouped into basic vocal categories–soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass, countertenor, contralto–no two voices are the same. The palate available for voicing your musical thoughts is inexhaustible!

When singers learn your songs, ask for, and be open to, honest feedback. They’ll let you know if the writing caused technical difficulties or barriers to clear delivery of the text. Over time, you’ll be able to preempt these issues without feedback. Don’t just ask the extreme possible range of notes for a singer to sing, strive to understand the concept of tessitura, the section of the voice in which each singer is most comfortable singing. Learn about passagio, the breaks between registers in the voice. Consider the dynamic balance between voice and instrument(s). Never forget that singers need to breathe and rests are our friends. Ask the singer you are working with if they are comfortable with any extended techniques you might want to employ (such as screaming, whispering, straight tone, audible inhalation or exhalation, intentional vocal fry, whistling, etc.)–they all take a physical toll on vocal cords, and not every singer will be willing to pay the price.

You have great power–singers need composers to write music for us to sing. You are in the vulnerable position of handing your creation over to us to interpret for the world–that is our power. And both sides of the equation are important.

The composers involved in “The 40@40 Project” employ a wide variety of musical styles and hail from various backgrounds, reflecting classical music’s increasingly diverse landscape. How would you encourage performers and presenters to find and explore new works, especially ones that might not be featured prominently in mainstream publications and concert series?

I looked to the artists around me. I am surrounded by composers from wide-ranging backgrounds with distinct musical points of view, and I am endlessly curious about how they do what they do. I’ve found that most of them want to talk about their work if you ask them. (And, note for composers, singers want to talk about what they do, too!) The overwhelming majority of the composers in The 40@40 Project were friends before I ever got the chance to actually collaborate with them, and the songs are so much more meaningful to me because I know the person behind them. Several of the poets in the project are friends of mine, as well. Being able to connect the threads of creation happening around me has been so fulfilling. Most of the composers working in your area are not famous (yet!), but they’re doing the work. Find them. Make music together. Your lives and the music you make will be richer for it.


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