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UW's Laura Schwendinger strikes a chord

Credit:Colm McCarthy
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Her hands are demonstrative. When Laura Elise Schwendinger talks about getting down to work, her hands mime the rolling up of sleeves. As she describes a violin composition, they play an imaginary violin in a manner that almost conjures it visible. Whenever she sits back up after doubling over in one of the delighted full-body laughs that consume her, they sweep her blond hair back over her ears and push her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose. It is as if the contemporary composer, in depriving her hands of the piano keyboard and whatever manuscript she is working on at the moment, has let them off-leash. They are restless, rambunctious, as if they can't wait to return to the service of Schwendinger's creative impulse.

At this, they are indefatigable. "I have a fairly active career as a composer," she understates. At 45, the UW-Madison School of Music associate composition professor is at the crest of renown. Her works have been performed by the likes of soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Arditti Quartet and the Orion Ensemble, in settings as hallowed as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.

She is in unrelenting demand to compose new commissions: Coming soon are new works for the Cygnus Ensemble, the Corigliano String Quartet and the piano-percussion duo Sole Nero. A CD of her music is forthcoming on the Centaur label. On leave from teaching this year courtesy of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she continues to direct the UW's Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and has just returned from a residency in Salzburg, Austria, by way of another at Ireland's Tyrone Guthrie Center.

Sitting in her spare office at the UW's Mosse Humanities Building, she is surrounded by few trappings that signal her stature. Aside from the baby grand piano, it is furnished with a standard-issue desk, a couple of chairs and file cabinets, and a desktop computer. There are no ostentatious displays indicating Schwendinger is the first composer to be awarded the American Academy of Berlin Prize, or that she is a 2007 Copland Award-winner, or that she has enjoyed repeated residencies at the MacDowell and Yaddo colonies and one at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy. But there is a small cactus.

The younger of two sisters, Schwendinger was born in Mexico City while her parents were exchange students at the University of the Americas. She is of Austrian, Russian, Dutch and French extraction, with a wee bit of Irish blood. "I'm a mutt," is how she sums it up, but those nationalities can claim a bulk of history's great composers.

She notes that her mother, a retired social worker, "jokes that the reason I'm a composer is that when she was nine months pregnant with me, my parents went to see Stravinsky conduct The Rite of Spring. She thinks it might have had a big effect on me in utero. I don't know, but I love the piece."

Of greater significance, she suggests, was her father's love for music. "His grandfather was a cantor," she explains, "and so there is a sort of religious and musical kind of lineage." On weekends, her father - a writer, scholar and lecturer - would wake the family with recordings of Shostakovich, Beethoven and other classical composers. For more than a decade during her youth, he organized a humanities festival centered on seafaring folk music. She met Pete Seeger and a host of other folk musicians.

"My parents bought a piano when I was 3 or 4," she says, her hands moving over an imaginary keyboard, "and I think pretty soon thereafter I started making up songs." She began studying piano when she was 7 or 8 years old. By 12 or 13, she was studying composition.

At Berkeley High School, "which was a wild and fantastic place for music," her peers included the avant-garde jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer Peter Apfelbaum and the jazz pianist Benny Green. She made music with both, and with classmates who have since established careers with orchestras around the world.

Her momentum accelerated at the San Francisco and Boston conservatories of music and UC-Berkeley, where she took her doctorate in 1993. Among her chief mentors: Andrew Imbrie and Pulitzer laureate John Adams. Adams, she says, "is sort of the reason I'm a composer."

Composer and, now, a mentor herself before coming to Madison, Schwendinger was on the faculty at the University of Illinois-Chicago while her husband, Menzie David Chinn, was teaching at the University of California-Santa Cruz. "After a while," Schwendinger says, "it just became too much, and we started looking for positions in the same city." Madison struck them as "the most interesting community in terms of politics. Growing up in Berkeley, there's an open-mindedness and a belief in what government can do in a positive way. Madison seemed very similar." Chinn is now an economics professor and associate director at the UW's La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Though sometimes exhausting, the demands of composing and teaching yield symbiotic benefits, Schwendinger observes. Mentoring her composition students keeps her critical ear attuned to the possibilities and pitfalls of different musical ideas.

"In the western world, we think a lot about pitch and rhythm, in that order," she explains. "And after we've been through the years of the texturalists coming from Poland, Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Paderowski, and the experimentalists, it's strange to spend all that energy just on pitch. I try to get my students to take all of the different parameters of music, texture, color, timbre, rhythm, pitch, and collapse the hierarchy, so that they're never thinking about the next thing without considering all of the stuff that they could be thinking about."

Back in the Monroe Street neighborhood where she and Chinn live, she has created a home studio furnished with a 1926 Kimball baby grand piano, a big desk, a printer and a few filing cabinets containing masters for her scores. It approaches artistic sanctuary save for the presence of a telephone and the prospect of being interrupted by cats. Here, she devotes four or five hours a day to composing - often keeping a queue of three or four commissions prioritized by deadline.

A good commission might bring $15,000, she notes, but involve seven months of work. A degree of privacy is essential, "because you don't want to feel self-conscious. You just want to make noise. You know, some of it's going to sound beautiful, some of it's going to sound just god-awful, and the point is, you really want to be able to experiment and not be self-conscious about it. As long as you have a semi-private spot and a piano that's fairly in tune, it's actually a joy to work anywhere."

She is compelled. "You hear this music," she explains. "It's there, sitting there. Even if I didn't have a commission coming in, even if you don't have a piece that you're working on, something will manifest. It'll sit there, and it'll keep knocking on your head, in your memory and your thoughts, and you'll hear it over and over and over again. And the only way to really purge it is to compose."

If the work is solitary, its rewards can be electrifying. When the Arditti Quartet premiered her String Quartet in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, the auditorium "was standing-room only. There must have been 1,000 people in that space. It was stuffed. And you could hear a pin drop. They don't play in America very often, so people are Arditti fanatics. They all came out, and the appreciation they had, after my piece and the other pieces and just for new music, because they mainly did new music, that was just an incredible moment."

An insightful review from a knowledgeable critic is also gratifying, she allows. "I almost had a heart attack when Richard Buell of the Boston Globe put me on his season's best list," she says. Reviewing Fable in 2003, Buell hailed the way the first movement's "long-lined melodiousness" bumped "against violent disturbances," the second movement's "night music, lighted by phosphorescent swirls and arabesques," and the finale's "punchy, irascible tone.... This was shrewd composing," he concluded.

But perhaps no reward Schwendinger reaps as a composer is more moving than the esteem of those musicians who perform her work. Many are of a stature that merits a pinch-yourself-to-make-sure-this-is-real response. The soprano Dawn Upshaw, for example, performed Schwendinger's 1988 composition In Just Spring for five years on tour at the turn of the century, committing it to a DVD.

The reward of writing for artists of such caliber, she says, "it that you know you can do what you want to. I mean, on a certain level you have to remind yourself what's idiomatic for the instruments, what the instrument can do and can't do. I always push that limit."

Musicians who have performed Schwendinger's work concur, suggesting that they find reward in the challenges she presents. Jenny Lin, who premiered the piano adaptation of Schwendinger's ensemble work Magic Carpet Music, describes the composer's works as "often complex and highly virtuosic, but I find the challenges as a performer most satisfying, giving the fingers a complete work-out."

And Sally Chisholm, violist for the Pro Arte Quartet, expresses unabashed admiration for her UW School of Music colleague. "I love Laura's music!" she exclaims, citing the passion and craft of her compositions. If the performance challenges of works such as Schwendinger's 2008 composition in memory of her mentor Imbrie proved "tantalizing," Chisholm notes, they are "always in the service of the music itself."

Schwendinger's most wrenching experience as a composer grew out of dark inspiration. On Sept. 11, 2001, Schwendinger woke up in her Chicago apartment and turned on the television while she prepared for a 9 a.m. theory class she taught. She watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and as the first tower collapsed.

Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation to compose a work for Spectrum Concerts of Berlin, she had been working on a piece she describes as both light and about light. It was a big-deal commission. Now, she found herself sickened to a point of creative paralysis. For a week, she struggled in vain to continue composing the work. Then she abandoned it, and started from scratch.

What emerged was Celestial City, a work for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, reflecting the profound sadness Schwendinger felt, a seismic shift in her creative instincts and her attempts to reconcile her composition to the changes at hand. In addition to the terrible loss of life, she mourned "the beginning of what happens when this happens."

Her voice is as somber as her face as she elaborates, her hands uncharacteristically still. "On one side it probably means more attacks like this, and on the other side people who want to use this event to get their point across, maybe not in the best possible way. I just sort of saw it as creating a division, and ultimately I think that's what happened. So it was sort of a sadness for the country as a whole."

Celestial City, which premiered on Jan. 22, 2003 at the Berlin Philharmonic Recital Hall, begins with a musical representation of the event. "Then," says Schwendinger, "the gut of the piece is really a very long lament, and there is a spot, which is roughly what we call the golden mean, which happens almost three-fifths of the way through, where literally the souls commence and move on to the next plane."

Composing Celestial City proved therapeutic, but her sadness persisted. Her reaction was to move back toward lightness, as "a way to bring myself out of a dark space."

Today, she is on a bright, shining mission to overcome what she perceives as the public's fear of contemporary classical music. "It shouldn't be a scary thing for people," she contends. The apprehension is most acute, she says, among "people who don't feel like they know enough about music to really get what's going on."

To cure this affliction, Schwendinger prescribes greater exposure to contemporary music. "The first time you listen to Rite of Spring, it may be kind of hard to listen to," she acknowledges, "but by the third or fourth time, it will make sense, and by the fifth or sixth time, you'll hear the beauty in it."

This holds true for much of contemporary classical music, she says. "Try to embrace it," she urges, her hands fluttering to her heart. "You may find a new love."

The Schwendinger File

On the web:

Highlights in her CD collection: The complete Webern, conducted by Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon 457637-2). "I have everything that Elliot Carter has ever produced, because I adore his music," she says. "I have all of Garbage's records. Their CDs, I think, are fantastic."

Guilty pleasures in her CD collection: Dolly Parton, Chicago.

About that surname: "Schwendinger was an interesting name to learn how to spell when I was a little girl, but for a composer name it's pretty good."

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