5 Questions to Nokuthula Ngwenyama (composer, violist)

In the oeuvre of composer and violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama (No-goo-TOO-lah En-gwen-YAH-ma), music opens the listener to the majesty of emotional connection within space and time. Her lean towards programmatic music manifests in glowing consonances, strong themes, and driving rhythmic patterns. Whether writing for voice, string ensemble, or solo instruments, Ngwenyama centers rich and resonant timbres, reflecting her early obsession with the depth of the viola’s sound.

Winner of the Primrose International Viola Competition, Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and an Avery Fischer Grant, Ngwenyama has built a successful global career as a soloist and recitalist and performed with major figures like Valerie Coleman, Sharon Robinson, and Jaime Laredo. Her compositions have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, LA Phil, and the London Symphony, with recent commissions including her piano quartet Elegy (2021), written for the Kalichtein-Laredo-Robinson trio, and Miasma (2021), written for violinist Bella Hristova.

Her latest commission for Takács Quartet explores humanity’s relationship to Earth and the universe. Requested to align with Takács’ 2023-24 season theme, celebrating “the natural world in the context of a rapidly changing climate,” Ngwenyama’s Flow includes the sound of the Big Bang; the meditative and spiritual techniques of Om and Pranayama; Classical Indian Dadra Tal rhythm; the murmuration of starlings; and vibrations at a subatomic level (quarks!). We had a chance to sit down with Ngwenyama to learn more about her inspiration for Flow and gain insight into her work as a composer.

Your new work for Takács Quartet is so vast in its sources of inspiration, but this isn’t the first time one of your compositions has been inspired by a physical or spiritual topic. How important are the programmatic aspects of music to your compositional practice?

Very important it seems, Kori.  I write as I hear it depending on the situation, then listen and trust where my heart takes me.

Extra-musical narratives are important because they have the ability to invite concepts larger than the self to be interpreted by the inner ear. There is opportunity to play, discover, and push boundaries while bringing that journey into the score and to our shared experience through sound. They push me to explore and portray things I might not have otherwise considered. I embrace the calling of each piece to truthfully express, tell a story, collaborate on, and contribute to an idea.

Growing up in Los Angeles before music notation software meant exposure to lots of programmatic music without thinking much of it. Our middle school class was trained in calligraphy at the behest of harmony teachers who couldn’t read our assignments. Then we were told extra income could be garnered copying out parts *quickly and neatly* for the studios.

We were also exposed to vast amounts of repertoire from archaic to contemporary, popular, R&B, and experimental. My mother blasted material from the modern music class she audited at UCLA after retiring from their administrative staff. I played the kalimba my uncle gave me. I fondly rehearsed and performed Richard Strauss’ masterwork Metamorphosen with my life mentor and counterpoint teacher Dr. Herbert Zipper. It was a well-rounded music education. Through it all and to this day, I never considered any music better or worse based on an impractical absolute-programmatic dichotomy. I simply consider the expression of music across all genres.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama -- Photo by Mark Morgan

Nokuthula Ngwenyama — Photo by Mark Morgan

In terms of compositional practice, I believe the act of transcribing what the inner ear hears unveils its essence, whether programmatic or not.  That is basically how composing music ‘happens’ to me. It can be playful, too. ‘Method’ composing (i.e. inhabiting a role or a concept through music; ‘being the table, sports car, ice cream cone’ or first moment of the universe) can be rough. It’s completely unrealistic, and that’s OK. When rules (self-imposed or otherwise) need to be broken, the score remains, as does hopefully a healthy dose of humor and humility.

When Harumi Rhodes and Takács Quartet asked me to write Flow about any aspect of the natural world, it brought about an exploratory journey beyond our pre-atomic origins to the imagined sound of our collective beginning. Developing through four movements (Prelude, Lento, Quark Scherzo, and Finale), it includes the cooling of our universe, examines our majority hydrogen sub-atomic structure via a waltz, and ends in the mantra:

Enjoy and go with the flow,
We only know what we know.

Flow can be heard live through 2024, including with co-commissioners 92nd St ‘Y’ on Mar. 13, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society Mar. 15. The complete list of tour dates and commissioners can be found here.

One thing I love about your music is the primacy of melody, the interlocking of different rhythmic parts, and the resonance and richness of the instrument or ensemble. How do you know when you’ve landed on thematic, rhythmic, or textural material that will be the root of the piece?

Thanks so much. I really don’t know what’s going on until I start writing, then it leads me. I initially hear fuller textures with the foundation included. Then I transcribe that sound onto the instruments, or instrument at hand.

That’s what happened with Sonoran Storm for solo viola, which turned into the last movement of my Concerto No. 1 for viola and orchestra, performed here by the Janacek Philharmonic with Anthony Armore conducting.

And, it’s happened with my string quintet Primal Message, which evolved from me joining the Dover Quartet to a piece for string orchestra, harp and percussion, performed here by with Maestro Xian Zhang and the Chicago Symphony.

Any melody my ear replays on a broken record gets developed until I can let it go. That’s the compulsive aspect of writing, where nothing is done until balance is achieved and it’s “right.” It takes time. Composing definitely forces me to slow down and invite the air to clear. I think of these two statements quite often:

“I wish only to render what I can hear. There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law.” – Claude Debussy
“The time is always right to do right.” – Martin Luther King, Jr

Your introduction to composing was very organic and baked into your musical education. Do you feel that learning how to compose is as accessible as learning how to play an instrument?

Yes, I am thankful my entry into music was so holistic. It would not have happened without the love, kindness, and support of family and community, who embraced me both before and after my natural parents could no longer take care. It was extraordinary. I love and appreciate this incredibly webbed network.

It’s a blessing to have strong role models — who continue to encourage me. In terms of early compositional influence and encouragement, thanks LA theory crowd: Ann Pittel, Helen Cranmer, Mary Ann Cummins, Warren Spaeth, and Dr. Herbert Zipper. They, and all teachers, are my heroes.

And yes, I believe learning how to compose can be as accessible as learning how to play an instrument — as long as family, community, and self do not limit a genuine desire to do so. It starts with exposure, then thrives with support and encouragement. Learning to play and write music has huge benefits for everyone at anytime, but the benefits are exponentially better the younger the exposure. For me, in terms of expression, it’s as important as writing and reading words. But what do we composers, musicians, and artists accomplish beyond self-satisfaction, learning to play and write when everyone has not been given an opportunity to learn to listen? I’m up for teasing those ears.

Nokuthula Ngwenyama -- Photo by Mark Morgan

Nokuthula Ngwenyama — Photo by Mark Morgan

How does composing impact your performing, and vice versa?

It’s like an infinite loop of appreciation for the other. They both invite me to strive for better. I admire my colleagues and their musicianship, so the pressure is on when writing for them. Then there’s the tactile sensation of preparing and performing the scores of others, the meditation of practice that brings it all alive. It’s especially fun performing in Umama Womama with fellow composer-performers Valerie Coleman and Han Lash, because we encourage and enjoy each other’s language so much.

If you could commission any composer (alive or dead) to write you a new viola work, who would it be and why?

Julia Perry because she was brilliant, her violin concerto is great, she is under appreciated, and her Sonata for Viola and Piano is presumed lost.


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