Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, featuring a snapshot of each composer in words through exploration of the many possible meanings of the term “practice.”
practice, noun. Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. (Oxford English Dictionary, no. 3)
“What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve.” – J. S. Bach
White walls and floors of wide pine plank, typical for old New England homes. A spruce-colored Indian block print neatly hung. Some small framed artwork: an engraving of an allegorical map of love, a painting of trees by Gustav Klimt, and a convex oval glass featuring ladies in gowns of pink and purple. An Ikea desk that has admirably withstood multiple, interstate moves, barricading the single window. And its partner, a full-sized, electric keyboard, positioned at a 90° angle.
Pivoting on her toes in front of the camera, Kate Soper apologizes for the mess. (Does she mean the short stack of library books about lost Greek plays on the writing surface? Or the binders stuffed with an opera in progress perched on a footstool? Ah, now I see: pencils and sheets of staff paper dispersed across the keyboard.) The room, her home studio in Northampton, Massachusetts, is spare and visually quiet.
“I get up early,” says Soper. “I have breakfast. I make tea and take it up to the studio. You can see my mug. I turn on the keyboard and just work. I have a rule that I can’t open the computer until it’s 10:00am or it’s been at least two hours. I use a program to block the internet because I try not to test my willpower. Back when I was writing Ipsa Dixit, I would leave the modem in the trunk of my car at night and not let myself get it until lunchtime the next day.”
One does not get the impression that the thirty-something year-old Soper, who projects a steely stick-to-it-ness, would be easily sidetracked by the shiny trappings of the internet. Or by any other temptations, whether found in the pages of books or journals, though most of these volumes are kept at a safe distance in another room.
Rather, it seems inevitable that Soper would feel her attention pulled in several directions at once because her music knits together literature across centuries and cultures: by philosophers and poets, novelists and journalists, literary theorists and visual artists, as well as classical Greek tragedians. A chamber piece commissioned for the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition later this season will conjure up “missing scenes” in literature, hence the short stack of library books on lost Greek plays. And her opera in progress adapts the Roman de la Rose, an allegorical poem that winds through 20,000 lines of medieval French. Soper is not only hyperliterate, but her work leans towards a kind of post-modern hyperliteracy: a virtual interconnectedness of texts through webs of fluid links.
Still, Soper writes new works today in much the same ways she composed Ipsa Dixit: by hand, making jottings, notes, and cross-outs in pencil from her black, wheeled office chair. This, she says, is “how the synapses formed” for her compositional process. She sketches phrases and checks herself at the keyboard. She sings aloud to explore sounds she wishes to commit to the page. There is a nose-to-the-grindstone repetition in her methods, and yet she firmly views her labors in this studio as separate from a musician’s practice.
Ipse dixit /Ip-suh dik-sit/: noun (Latin). Literally “he, himself, said it.” An unproven yet dogmatic statement which the speaker expects the listener to accept as valid without proof beyond the speaker's assumed expertise.
Ipsa dixit: “she, herself, said it . . .”
Ipsa Dixit (2010-2016) premiered at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on December 9, 2016. The piece was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Composition in 2017. Composed for quartet, it employs Soper’s voice and selected members of the ensemble she co-founded and co-directs, Wet Ink: Josh Modney (violin), Erin Lesser (flute), and Ian Antonio (percussion). You might think of Ipsa Dixit as an opera, but it does not have a dramatic arc in a traditional sense. The staging, by director Ashley Tata, is spare.
According to the liner notes by Steve Smith for Ipsa Dixit’s forthcoming release on New World Records, the term, which is found in Cicero’s De natura deorum, is a “Latin translation of autòs épha, a Greek phrase used by followers of Pythagoras when they argued not on the basis of evidence or proof, but simply by invoking their master’s authority.” Simply put, if the master says it, it must be true, an accepted tactic for settling disputes among scholars even as Sir Francis Bacon was developing empirical scientific method during the 17th Century.
The master whose words dominate Soper’s piece is none other than the father of Western philosophy; she dedicates three movements utilizing the full quartet to Aristotelian texts, like architectural columns on which the total work rests (or the tones of the tonic triad in Western harmony):
I. “Poetics” asserts, as we may remember from an introductory philosophy class, that “Art is imitation,” the outgrowth of our human need to capture reality in other forms, including tragedy, poetry, dancing, and music, as well as the rules that govern these forms.
III. “Rhetoric” introduces “ethos, the character of the speaker; pathos, the stirring of emotion; and logos, persuasion through truth or apparent truth,” not only to explain the construction of arguments, but also to address the intentions of the speaker and the capabilities of the audience.
V. “Metaphysics” concerns the nature of being, what causes things to be, and, more importantly, what it means to be.
What Aristotle uses for his methods and what he hopes to accomplish by examining these broad, basic premises – aside, perhaps, from asserting his own authority – he does not say. As the composer and the singer, Soper embodies that authority while her music is calculated to challenge, unravel, and dissolve it.
Like a great orator lecturing her students, she declaims these passages plainly, and her instruments engage in text painting, slavishly imitating words in the most literal fashion. But her control is an illusion, revealed as recognizable figures and phrases from a modernist musical vocabulary (signifiers of language?) give way to effects and extended techniques (abstractions? preverbal thought?). In the end, the instruments are literally taken apart (disembodied sounds? madness?). Our narrator slips from language we can understand into unintelligible texts as if she’s speaking Greek (oh, wait, she is speaking Greek!) and the glossolalia of speaking in tongues. (Is authority a religion? A prop like the master’s bell?)
It is not only the authority of these texts and the one who voices them under scrutiny. “For it is the voice alone, of all our faculties, which can represent our thoughts and ideas,” writes Aristotle. Soper will not be content until she confronts the authority of text itself. Language is ambiguous and imprecise at best; truth is at once partial and multiple, subjective and imagined. (Is philosophy a kindred spirit to poetry in its use of language? Is music better able to convey truth than words?)
Could one consider Ipsa Dixit a metatext on the meaning(s) of truth?
“I think so,” says Soper.
“Is it really possible to strip Aristotle of his authority or do we inevitably confirm and reify his canonical position simply by referencing him?” I ask. “Does European musical modernism impose an authority of its own, one that is in tension with these questions?”
“We are complicit…” she answers.
To further illustrate these tensions between text and meaning, language and thought, Soper brings additional authorial firepower to the table in the alternating, even-numbered movements:
II. “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say,” a duet with flutist Erin Lesser, draws its texts from Lydia Davis, a master of concision whose dense, knotted language locks her characters in tight mazes.
IV. “The Crito,” written by Plato and adapted as a dialogue between Soper and percussionist Ian Antonio, visits Socrates as he awaits execution. Should he escape or is he obligated to follow an unjust law, a type of language that requires different versions of the truth be reconciled?
VI. “Cipher,” the final movement featuring violinist Josh Modney, orchestrates a unusual quorum of writerly voices: visual artist Jenny Holzer, whose statements are typically engraved on placards, emblazoned on signs, and projected onto buildings; logician Ludwig Wittgenstein explaining the multiplicity of signs in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; Renaissance literary theorist Pietro Bembo describing the character of vowels; Sigmund Freud proposing the nature of dream states; medieval music theorist Guido d’Arezzo asserting that “everything can be made into song that can be spoken”; and the opening of a verse by American poet Sara Teasdale, who won the first Columbia Poetry Prize in 1918, later renamed the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Through it all, Soper is center stage for 90 minutes without intermission, a difficult feat. The hoops through which she jumps to produce a work that is so intensely skeptical about its own potential to communicate is another of the piece’s inherent tensions. Ipsa Dixit seems designed to ask us what it means not only to be a composer, but to be a vocalist-composer, the very thing Soper has made her life’s work. If we have begun with the query, “What is art?” must we then also ask, “What is practice?”
“I think of practice as something I do as a performer. For me, practice is something physical that you do with a discreet goal in mind and you expect to see improvement towards that goal. Unlike composition, it seems so functional as a concept. Like do this over and over and you’ll be able to hit those pitches accurately.”
Soper has another studio in which she works: an office at Smith College, where she is a professor in the Music Department. A spacious wood-paneled room in a domed neo-classical brick building, it holds a Steinway grand piano. A thick soundproof door locks in a variety of potentially loud, unkempt utterances. Soper does not do any of her work related to Smith in her home studio, nor does she compose in her campus studio. “Almost never,” she insists. “I find it helps to compartmentalize.”
This is where she practices. “I practiced a little bit this week,” she says, “because I had to drive down to New York to sing and play. I work up to my performances to make sure my instrument is still there. But I can go for weeks or months without practicing and not notice. It’s not part of my daily routine the way composing is.”
Practice is utilitarian, Soper would have us believe. “Again” is the operative word: Do it again, play it again, sing it again. Repetition with a purpose. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? As J. S. Bach once wrote, “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself” (revealing the Baroque roots of the humble brag). If only.
Do her words themselves mean what they say? Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Soper sat at the piano with open books of poetry by Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay and sang through them while devising her own accompaniment. At Rice University, she took up formal music studies, but played open mics in basement dorm lounges as a singer/songwriter. She devoted a summer in India to learning Carnatic music, a complex improvised tradition.
In graduate school here at Columbia, she became part of a coterie of composition students who relied on each other to perform so that they had ready opportunities to hear their work in development. She became the singer in Wet Ink, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this season, out of necessity; she could not fully participate unless she had a role to play. She became a better singer because she “wanted to be on their level, so that I could sing their music the way they were playing mine.” She’d never sung on any concert in the composition series sponsored by the Music Department until she composed “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say” in 2010, the starting point for the larger work that would become Ipsa Dixit. She began to study voice seriously only after she’d completed her doctorate.
Soper’s practice and her compositions cannot be so easily decoupled. In her career, practice has been at once practical and aspirational—a lever of possibility for the music being made, and the creative circles she wished to enter. One also gets the sense it’s a space Soper visits – albeit reluctantly—to suspend her intellectual doubts about music’s power.
Proof in point: as a graduate student, Soper was “roped into” Columbia’s Collegium Musicum, an elite choral ensemble that focuses on Renaissance music. “Grad school is very macho, very thorny,” Soper remembers. “And choir is, well, kind of dorky. I’d go to composition seminar, we’d all go out drinking afterwards to argue with each other, and then I’d have to leave for Collegium. Everyone would say, ‘Oh, what a drag.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know.’ But as soon as I’d sung ‘Ahhhh,’ I’d be in a different world.”
Like the choir, practice gives this composer a place to breathe. “How good is the sound of ‘O,’ which sends the spirit out with lips quite extended,” writes Pietro Bembo, as quoted in Ipsa Dixit. There is joy in the labor as well as its fruit. When asked what else an audience might wish to know before her performance tonight, Soper drops the conceptual grappling in favor of what can be felt, bringing the piece into the realm of experience.
“Whatever I’m trying to say,” she explains, “is not actually in the text or in the music. It’s in the whole of what I’m doing. Just try to enjoy yourself and let it come in. Then, maybe later, you’ll have an impression of something that is useful to you. That is my hope.”
— Notes by Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.