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EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with composer Mara Gibson about Cascade Quartet debuting her piece ‘Blackbird’

String quartet performs Sunday at First Congregational Church, Tuesday at Russell Museum

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Classical music often is considered performers playing pieces from legendary composers such as Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, who wrote their greatest works hundreds of years ago.

While that music will always be beloved and appropriate in a classical setting, it doesn’t mean that classical performers are incapable of playing brand-spanking new music, too.

Such is the case this weekend when the Great Falls Symphony’s Cascade Quartet premieres a new piece of music that even its composer has not heard played by live yet.

The quartet debuts Mara Gibson’s “Blackbird” on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at the First Congregational United Church of Christ and again on Tuesday at 7 p.m., at the C.M. Russell Museum.

The quartet also performs three other pieces by living female composers, “Spirit of Sores” by Olivia Block, “High Country Suite” by Lynn Petersen, and “Amazing Grace” by Jennifer Higdon.

Mara Gibson
Mara Gibson

What’s particularly notable about “Blackbird” however, is not only will it be the first time anyone plays it in public live, the Cascade Quartet in March will perform it in Kansas City with 13 dancers and a video inspired by the music playing simultaneously. The piece also was inspired by poet Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Blackbird,” which you can read here.

Gibson spoke to Big Sky State Buzz about the project, how the Cascade Quartet got involved to start with, and what she’s looking forward to while seeing them perform her piece for the first time on Sunday.

BSSB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Mara. To start off with, anytime you have new music being put out into the world, it must feel exciting and a little nerve wracking. Going into this upcoming show, how are you feeling about having the Cascade Quartet performing it? 

MG: I am beyond excited. I met Megan Karls (violinist) at Yale last summer. I actively seek out performers that like to collaborate. I do not view the compositional process as singular. Together, we create pieces.

BSSB: Super. Secondly, how would you describe the vibe of the music? What do you hope people might take from it? 

MG: There’s a bit of everything in there, from hypnotic, to lyrical, to explosive feels to ethereal to peaceful. I mapped the piece extensively and after analyzing Steven’s poetry by stanza I started bouncing those ideas off of the choreographer and videographer. I then came up with a few basic premises I wanted to convey. Most importantly, I wanted to convey that the perspective shifts. At first, the blackbird is viewed as an observer, then the reader imagines being the bird and finally, the reader connect with being the bird. Aging, emphasizing feeling over understanding, the importance of gestures and inflection are all big themes in the piece for me.

BSSB: Do you often take pieces of literature and use them as the jumping-off point when you go to create music, or what, for you, is the place where the whole idea for a new musical creation begins?

MG: I definitely get a lot of extra musical ideas from poetry or from visual art or any number of different aspects, but all my music starts from a sound for me, even if it’s something more abstract. I use that as an inspiration point, and so I always have a sound in mind, a specific sound, that anchors me in terms of shaping musical ideas.

BSSB: So when you say abstract, is that like a natural sound, or a musical sound or what kinds of sounds are you talking about?

MG: Well, I think it can be both. I do not make a big distinction between musical and natural because I think all sounds have innate music qualities in them. Music is just organized sound, but you can create a piece out of something benign as the cicadas outside. You can use that as your subject matter. Now, I typically use a “musical” idea but I might frame that idea in non-traditional ways. The emphasis may be on a timbre instead of a melody.

BSSB: I see, interesting. So, for “Blackbird” what was that sound that got you started?

MG: Well, one of ideas I really tried to exploit in this piece is using really high harmonic sounds, as artificial harmonics, which, symbolically, serves as a metaphor for the magic that the blackbird represents. I think the specific sound of the instrument works that way into the storyline of the piece.

BSSB: What about writing for a string quartet do you enjoy vs. writing for a larger group of musicians?

MG: With a string quartet, there’s a certain homogeneity to all the timbres, which makes it both attractive and also really challenging. When you’re writing for an orchestra for example, you have a pretty wide pallet of sounds and timbres to pull from, but with a string quartet, you have four very, very similar instruments, and so to get them to speak individually and as a unit is a real challenge. Something that I thought a lot about when composing this piece, was how I wanted the ensemble to speak as one voice but how I really wanted each one of the parts to speak individually as well.

BSSB: So, not only that, but when the quartet joins you in Kansas City in March, you’ll be adding the dancers and the video elements too. How did those parts influence how this all came together?

MG: I have worked with the videographer Caitlin Horsmon on a number of other projects, and I am very interested I said in doing a cross-disciplinary work. We had this idea of wanting to work together and integrating some dance, as we’ve done a music and video mixture many times already. So, we invited our colleague Gary Abbot, and we just loved his work, so we decided two years ago we were going to do this project, and then I started looking for a quartet. I was lucky enough to meet Megan at Yale this past summer, so that’s how the Cascade Quartet got brought into the mix. You can check out some of Horsmon’s work here and some of Abbot’s here and here.

BSSB: Nice! So, we’ll wrap things up here, what’s your plans for the piece after March?

MG: Well, this showing this weekend will be the first iteration, so we’ll see how it goes then. I’m then planning to bring back the real sound of the quartet to the dancers to start rehearsals. Up to this point they’ve just been working with midi files. It’ll be much easier to actualize once they hear the real sound from the quartet. But, to answer your question, after March, I’ve already got other quartets interested in the piece, and I really, really like the idea of having quartets continuing to do this. We could potentially get venues hosting the piece. I mean, it could be all the same people just in a different venue even and that may bring a different personality to the table. But yes, we’ve got plans for it and I’m excited to see it continue to evolve.

When Gibson isn’t writing music, she’s teaches at the University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory as an associate professor while leading the Conservatory’s Community Music and Dance Academy as its director. She also is founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop and co-director/founder of ArtSounds and coordinates undergraduate composition. She released her first compilation CD “ArtIfacts” last May.

Tickets to Sunday and Tuesday’s shows are between $5 and $15 and can be purchased at the door.

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