Composers Spotlight: Judith Sainte Croix in Residence at Turtle Bay Music School

David Johnston

Composer Judith Sainte Croix is one of six composers chosen as winners of the 2010 Con Edison Musicians’ Residency: Composition Program. In this interview she talks about Lukas Foss, working in New York City, and how the birds of Costa Rica shaped her new opera.

When did you start composing?

I was born into a musical family and they took me to concerts from a very early age. I remember thinking at 3 and 4 years old – where is Chopin? Schubert? Beethoven? Why didn’t they come out for a bow with the pianist? I was always interested in the person creating the music.

What are some of your inspirations when composing?

I am inspired by nature because I can feel my essence when I am in nature.

You recently visited the rainforest in Costa Rica, as part of your prep for your current compositions. What drew you to these sorts of sounds? What is it you want to do with this suite?

The Costa Rican Suite came to me from a few different directions. I had a wooden Abenaki flute with me in my cabin in the forest in Costa Rica and I noticed when I would play there was another flute that I heard outside. But it wasn’t a flute, it was a bird, and it sounded so much like my flute I thought it was another flute – but it was a bird.

The other thing about this bird is that it would sing back to me what I played my flute in its scale. It did not have a fixed song. We responded to each other. So I would write that music down. It was an amazing experience.

And there was another bird. This one sang in the dark, at night. This bird had a breathy quality to its sound and was unique. Also it was the only bird singing at night. I knew these things would be in the piece, but there was no structure yet. The structure occurred to me later when I was relaxing quite a while later by a lake. There I felt a persistent sense of a diagram that was of great interest to me. And what was unusual about it was that the diagram illustrated the way quantum physics is explained – the waves- becoming particles – becoming reality. The diagram communicated quantum ideas -but in music rather than words. The structure came very strong -not like a mental process – more like a good feeling – like an enjoyable paradigm downloading in my imagination. Luckily it made musical sense.

How has the Con Edison Residency helped you?

By giving me a place to rehearse and perform the “Visionary Dance” from my opera “The Vine of the Soul.” This piece has a lot of elements that need to be worked out in a rehearsal space. The dance is the middle movement of the opera and is almost an hour long. In the dance the main character Howard, who is in a forest, has a transformative experience. All singing in English stops during the “Visionary Dance” because the singing is done by Spirits of Nature who have their own language. Howard’s response to this is in movement rather than language because it is deeper and more mysterious. There is singing but it is non-linguistic. There are visual elements too that help Howard and the audience take a journey into the interconnectedness of things—photos of leaves, flowers, water…also masks on apparitions, fabric like wind…

You’ve worked with some prominent modern composers, like Lukas Foss. What was that experience like and did it affect your own composing?

When I was a young composer I heard Lukas Foss talking about an orchestra piece he constructed from a dream in which fragments of music had washed up on a shore. I felt excited that he was expressing other dimensions, other realities – through music. I wanted to create and perform my own music as I saw these composers doing. I knew there was something in me that needed expression.

What’s challenging about being a musician working in NYC? What is a positive aspect of it?

The artist has a vision inside, a feeling, a dream that they feel compelled to express. What is great about New York City is that here you have a chance to bring that out, because there are a lot of people here either doing that or who think that artistic expression and creation is an extremely important and a necessary thing to do.

How can we learn more about you and your work?

Come to the performance of the “Visionary Dance” Friday Dec 17th at 7PM at the Turtle Bay Music School, 244 E 52nd St. Manhattan. Get the just released CD “NYFA 25 Years of New York New Music.” Part of the Costa Rican Suite “Los Pajaros Blancos de la Noche Profunda” (The White Birds of the Deep Night) is recorded on this collection. Or check out www.sonoratrio.com or www.judithsaintecroix.com

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