ListN Up: Lisa Bielawa (April 15, 2022)

ListN Up is a weekly series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Composer, producer, and vocalist Lisa Bielawa is a Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition and takes inspiration for her work from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. Her music has been premiered at the NY PHIL BIENNIAL, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, SHIFT Festival, National Cathedral, Rouen Opera, MAXXI Museum in Rome, and Helsinki Music Center, and more.

Hi, I’m composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa, and welcome to my playlist! Like many listeners and musicians, after two years of feeling terrible isolation and uncertainty, I’m finding that my ear is drawn to sounds and experiences that offer a feeling of transcending space and time. I’ve been drawn to sounds of bold and clear vitality after moving for so long through murky social and political waters towards an uncertain future – and others I speak to, composers and listeners alike, have similar stories. But even before the pandemic, I always found many depictions of the distinction between tragedy and comedy, “serious’”music and “light” music, to be insufficient. Joy can be deep, ecstatic, fantastical. The most rigorous joy is anything but light  – it has great power and can sweep us up and deliver us someplace entirely new. Time and time again, I have returned to my life-long project of exploring expansive joy through my work. Now more than ever, I feel a return to this desire to seek this kind of powerful joy. Here are some glimpses of that journey — thank you!

XVII. Pax: Communion (“Secret Songs”) from Mass by Leonard Bernstein

A powerful early formative experience for me was singing the role of the Child Soloist in the SF production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. I was ten years old, and every night I sang this scene, I felt the enveloping power of community around me like a cloak of magical musical powers. A piece that addressed itself to bringing many communities, styles, views, and people together through an expanded definition of the Mass, this piece has probably influenced every piece I’ve written since then, 42 years ago.

“Exit” from Chalk and Soot by Colin Jacobsen, performed by Brooklyn Rider, Dance Heginbotham, Shara Nova, and Gabriel Kahane

No composer I know radiates pure joy in music-making the way violinist-composer Colin Jacobsen can, both in his music and in his playing. This excerpt from his ballet music for Dance Heginbotham features his own string quartet Brooklyn Rider in effulgent, rhythmically buoyant figuration and two brilliant singers who are also composers of note: Shara Nova and Gabriel Kahane.

Bouchara by Claude Vivier, performed by Susan Narucki and Asko|Schönberg Ensemble (Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor)

Another composer who meditated on the expansive emotions of love was Canadian spectralist Claude Vivier. In this track, the soprano uses an invented “language of love” to intone her fervor with richly textured, rigorously homophonic instrumental constructions supporting her. This recording features the peerless soprano Susan Narucki, but I have also sung this piece and remember the physical sensation of singing over and into these blocks of sound. One wonders what joyful masterpieces we might have heard had Vivier not met a violent death in his 30s.

II: “or” from In medias res by Lisa Bielawa, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Gil Rose, conductor)

I composed this concerto for orchestra as the final summary of my wonderful three-year residency with the Boston Modern Orchestra, founded and directed by Gil Rose. The themes of the piece came from 15 individual solo works I had composed over three years for the individual section leaders of BMOP. This was the culmination of a broad-scale collaboration of sheer exuberance. Finding expression for that joy became the project of this work, drawing (sometimes unconsciously) on many of the other works on this list.

Hotel Destiné by Toby Twining, performed by Toby Twining, Lisa Bielawa, Jeffrey Johnson, Gregory Purnhagen

My first solo gig in NYC when I moved here after graduating from college was as the soprano in the a cappella quartet, Toby Twining Music. Singing this music with these amazing colleagues – in just intonation, employing a whole arsenal of extended techniques – was a musical growth experience like no other, and the music itself was bursting with joyful fascination and invention. This track is named after the hotel where we stayed on our first international gig in Amsterdam.

Millefleur by Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, performed by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra

While Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė doesn’t shy away from the darker elements in her searching symphonic music, this track shows how her sublime detailing and taut but patient orchestrational pacing can serve a deep joy, as well.

Fantasy by Earth Wind & Fire

When I went to the Cazadero Summer Music Camp in the redwood forests outside the SF Bay Area at the age of nine, I had only really ever heard early or modern classical music at home. Every day after our classes and rehearsals, the hundreds of kids would gather and sing this song together before dinner. I fell in love with Earth Wind & Fire’s ecstatic, love-driven sound and fierce brass writing (and Maurice White’s stupendous male soprano) and have kept it close to me since.

Stride by Tania León, performed by the New York Philharmonic

I was at the premiere of Tania’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece commissioned in celebration of the centenary of the 19th Amendment by the NY Philharmonic, and it has stayed with me ever since. While we are not (yet!) able to share the full-length performance, this short teaser gives us a glimpse of the shimmering brass writing and proclamatory bursts of coloristic celebration.

Land Sea Sky by Lisa Bielawa, performed by the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Gil Rose, conductor)

My first work composed for live performance since before the pandemic, Land Sea Sky finds me back in my quest for deep and rigorous joy as a compositional challenge. These three movements tell three different women’s stories of journeying, from three different centuries, with an ending that literally soars – as the 18th-century diva and pioneering balloonist Mme. Thible ascends and floats away over the earth in a hot air balloon.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or