Alyssa Weinberg Finds Inspiration in Bold Imagery and Deep Collaborations

This sponsored article is part of a paid partnership with the Curtis Institute of Music.

“I’m so fortunate to have the close relationships I have with so many musicians,” composer Alyssa Weinberg told me in our recent interview. “For composers – especially if we don’t play an instrument ourselves, or certainly not at a professional level where we have tremendous facility – it can be really frustrating and really challenging to have all these ideas and not be certain if they’ll work, or how best to describe them. I’m so thankful for, and so dependent on, these relationships I have with my close collaborators, who have helped me develop my language and technique, and stretch the limits of what is possible on their instruments.”

The Brooklyn-based composer’s catalog includes chamber, orchestral, and vocal works, opera, and music for dance. Though she is adept at composing for a variety of ensembles, she is especially excited by the flexibility of writing for strings, and feels that the instrumentation allows her to naturally express her musical ideas.

“The control over color, the gradual transformations, and the malleability… I’ve gravitated toward [strings] and kind of built a language around how I write for them over the years,” she explains. “I wrote a piece of chamber music this past summer: a string quartet that included double bass. The overtones, the colors, and the spectrum of the double bass really excited me. I’m definitely looking forward to incorporating more of that into my work. I wouldn’t call it ‘spectralism’ because that’s a rather specific thing, but it’s very much rooted in spending time exploring the acoustic spectrum and the overtone series, and all of those qualities of sound.”

Alyssa Weinberg -- Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

Alyssa Weinberg — Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Weinberg is eagerly anticipating the premiere of a new string sextet commissioned by her alma mater. The work, titled Illuminating Arches, will be performed by Curtis on Tour in six cities across the U.S. in February and March. Inspiration for Weinberg’s music often comes from visually rich experiences in her life. She sketches as a way of illustrating her ideas and feels very strongly about color, which she frequently associates with her music. For Illuminating Arches, she says she initially drew a map, “a rainbow wedge” that captured her recent hiking trip to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah.

“I arrived at the park entrance about an hour before sunrise and drove through the total darkness,” she recalls. “Then, I picked a spot and climbed up into one of the arches. I looked back and I just watched as the park slowly revealed itself and illuminated. All the colors sort of shifted gradually. It was freezing cold in the morning, and the air was slowly warming up. It felt like [me and my hiking companions] started following the sun and chasing that warmth. It was also my first time in that area, so I didn’t know what the park looked like to begin with. There was an aspect of excitement, of this true reveal because I hadn’t been there before.”

The work begins in stillness and darkness, “in that space of unknowing,” Weinberg further elaborates. “I was thinking about the shadows that were changing, the glow and flickering, and the way that the angles were shifting as the sun moved,” she says.

Weinberg’s love of string writing is certainly connected to her close collaborative relationship with cellist and fellow Curtis alum, Gabriel Cabezas. The two met while living in Philadelphia, Cabezas having recently graduated, and Weinberg, a current student. Over the years, they have partnered on a number of projects, including a recording of Pieces of Light, a solo cello work that Weinberg wrote for Cabezas.

Supported by Curtis’ Daniel W. Dietrich II Young Alumni Fund award, the work is inspired by James Turrell’s art installation “Into The Light,” currently on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Turrell uses light “as a sculptural medium,” according to the exhibit curators, and the installation allows visitors to interact with the visible light spectrum through depth and sound.

In Pieces of Light, Weinberg presents the listener with a vivid assortment of sonic monologues. The opening movement, “pink mist,” moves the listener through gravelly bowed notes, slowly increasing in clarity and interspersed with harmonics. A cacophony filters down to a defined ray, and we sense a lifting, upward transition to the second movement, “strobe, squall,” which feels like a forceful, whipping wind disrupting the calm. The third movement, “phosphenes,” presents siren-like whistles that end in a hushed repeated whirring of the bow. The full-bodied fourth movement, “deep indigo,” evokes a core response within the listener through Cabezas’ expressive performance in the higher register. The final movement, “shimmer,”  quickly rises and falls across all four strings, not unlike the flutter of birds’ wings, before collapsing into crisp linear tones and culminating in a sudden silence.

Together, Weinberg and Cabezas lead the New York New Music Intensive, a summer composition program now in its second year. The five-day intensive gives student composers the chance to write a piece for Cabezas, which is then professionally recorded at the end of the week. The program also includes workshops and coachings led by the pair, and seminars on collaborative relationships and entrepreneurship.

Alyssa Weinberg -- Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

Alyssa Weinberg — Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

In addition to her work as a composer, Weinberg is a dedicated educator. This academic year, she is a visiting professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, and serves on the faculty at Mannes School of Music at The New School and The Juilliard School’s pre-college program. And each summer, she directs the Composer’s Institute at Lake George Music Festival in upstate NY, a program she created that accepts 10 student composers aged 18+ each year.

“There’s a really wide range of ages that I curate for the [Composer’s Institute] cohort,” she explains. “Building the community is a centrally important part of the Institute. To me, what makes summer festivals so magical, thinking back on all of my past experiences at programs like this, is you go to this place and you’re so focused. You’re in your own world in this magical bubble, in a totally different ecosystem removed from everything else. Who you spend that time with in these very close quarters, in this very high intensity space, really matters.”

Weinberg brings this same intentionality to her composing, where she believes there’s a fine line between compromising what a composer needs to express through the music and being mindful of writing for specific performers. “You want to write for what gets them excited, because that’s going to lead to a better performance. I want to write for people’s strengths as much as I can and lean into their musical personalities – where they come from, their context, their training, their interests – because it wouldn’t do either of us much good to just ignore those truths.”


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