Original Vistas, A Conversation with Ingrid Arauco

Composer Ingrid Arauco

In celebration of her new CD of original compositions, I sat down to talk with my colleague Ingrid Arauco, who is a professor of music theory and composition at Haverford College, and whose work I often perform. Vistas is one of those albums that invites repeated listenings: the mix of styles and moods played by multihued, and sometimes unusual combinations of instruments, compels the ear. The CD is beautifully recorded, and the performances (by clarinetists Ricardo Morales and Paul Demers, cellists John Koen and Yumi Kendall, pianist Charles Abramovic, flutist Jeffrey Khaner, violist Burchard Tang, trumpeter Frank Ferraro, and violinists Barbara Govatos and Hirono Oka) are stellar.

I asked Ingrid about her concept for the album, her background, and about being a woman composer in today’s world. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

 DLH: The textures and sonic quality, particularly in your writing for ensembles that include winds, is quite startlingly beautiful. I especially love the poetic quality of the eponymous “Vistas” for flute and piano, in which three of the four movements are inspired by a work of art. Tell me a little about the interplay between visual arts and music in this piece.

IA: PCMS (Philadelphia Chamber Music Society) asked me to write a suite for flute and piano, and in thinking about the ways I might characterize the different movements of the suite, I found myself looking at a little card on my desk that a colleague of mine sent me years ago.  I had always loved the picture reproduced on this card:  Kawase Hasui’s woodblock print Snow at Shiba Park.  Perhaps because I had spent so long in the company of this image, I found that a musical complement came very quickly to me.  As I mention in my program notes, there is a quality to this picture, a wonderful balance between energy and tranquility, that I found captivating.  The second movement was inspired by another familiar image, that of Monet’s Landscape: The Parc Monceau, which is such a joyful work.  The choice of Josef Albers’s Park was also an easy one to make– I had just finished reading a book about his glass pictures; this image was on the book cover, and I was fascinated by the pink rectangle in the midst of all the blue and green, how it centered the work and imbued it with spirit.  In each case, I had strong feelings about the style I would use to render each image musically, and these musical styles are as different as the styles of the images themselves.  The most interesting decision compositionally, however, was including the “Bagatelle” movement; it does not refer to any visual image, but I simply felt I needed a quick, tonally more spiky movement after the tonal warmth of the Monet movement, as a refreshment of sorts, and to set up the particular tonal mix of the Albers (fourth and final) movement.  I would love to write another piece which directly relates to visual art or architecture.

DLH: Another piece on the album, your String Quartet Nr. 2, written in 1998, was performed just a few weeks ago at Haverford College by the Amernet Quartet. How did that live performance differ, in your ear, from the ensemble that performs it on the CD?  Is hearing a live performance of your work, in which a performer brings his or her own interpretation to the piece, and which might be affected by many factors “in the moment,” a satisfying or disconcerting experience? Or both?

IA: I’ve been fortunate to hear this piece performed live a number of times by different quartets. In each performance, there are fascinating differences in detail– it’s always interesting to me, for instance, to hear how the musicians interpret a few passages which I mark “gruffly” in the score — I’ve discovered there is quite a range of “gruff” in terms of bow stroke and tone quality!  But what matters is that the detail works within the larger interpretive concept of the piece.  I also think that if the overall structure of a piece is strong, it not only withstands, but embraces variation in performance detail– by which I mean the sort of personal voice and creative response that I’d hope a performer would bring to music in any case, and which makes live performance endlessly interesting.  The only time a performance of my work is “disconcerting,” as you put it, is if there is a major disruption, such as might happen if someone totally loses their place in the music.  But even then, there is something for me to learn– I always have to ask, could I have notated something more clearly, or simply?  You learn what is difficult to put together, and why, and maybe keep that in mind for next time.

DLH: We’ve spoken a little about the phenomenon of giftedness in music, and how surprising it is that certain individuals can contribute so much to the world of music while coming from a “non-musical” family background (at least professionally non-musical.) Chopin, Tschaikowsky, and Artur Rubinstein spring to mind. Were there professional musicians in your family? When did you start learning to play the violin, and at what point did you know you wanted to become a composer?

IA: There were no professional musicians in my family, though my parents were avid listeners of classical music.  I began piano at around six, and violin about a year later, in school.  I was so incredibly fortunate to have a piano teacher who included the Bartok Mikrokosmos and selections from contemporary piano literature in my early musical “diet”– I was so captivated by the Bartok in particular; it opened up a whole new world for me.  I spent way too much of my practice time sight-reading those pieces rather than practicing my other assigned pieces!  My teacher also had me write a short piece each week; sometimes style studies, usually whatever I wished.  Every week I began my lesson by showing her this piece.  I was surprised to learn, many years later, that other piano students had not had a similar experience at their lessons! So just to say that writing music came as a natural form of self-expression. Through my teens I had many wonderful opportunities as a violinist, playing in chamber ensembles and in orchestras, where I was able to experience being inside the music in a powerful way.  During college I encountered the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, more Bartok– which together made a profound, life-changing impression.  Nevertheless, I did not make the move to composition until after graduation.  I asked my theory professor, composer Robert Hall Lewis, if he would teach me, with a view to continuing my studies in composition.  Thankfully, he accepted and after working with him for an intense two years, I had prepared a portfolio and was accepted into the composition program at Penn.  So, I think I was preparing to be a composer from an early age, even though I did not consciously make the decision until years later.

DLH: When you studied for your doctorate in composition, at the University of Pennsylvania, you mentioned that your training under George Rochberg, Richard Wernick, and George Crumb was very rigorous. Tell me a little about each composer’s teaching style, and how their teaching might now affect your own teaching style today.

IA: The composition program at Penn was indeed rigorous, but I’m so grateful for that, and for the opportunity to have worked with these great composers and mentors!  As for teaching style, perhaps a story will convey something of the quality of Rochberg’s teaching:  I played for him on the violin one of a set of variations I was writing, which was very free and cadenza-like in nature.  Afterwards he was silent a while, and then simply made a few cuts in my music, sometimes from mid-phrase straight into another phrase further on.  As I played this new version, I felt the structure tighten…it was a great feeling, and a marvelous lesson.  Dick Wernick worked in the trenches with me, so to speak, on things like harmonic progression, rhythmic shaping, and structure too.  He had, and has, a critical stance which is unflinchingly honest, which I admire and respect so much.  I worked with George Crumb on orchestration, and on a piece for orchestra.  What can I say about that ear for timbre and texture?  I remember once he suggested adding a harp harmonic to a particular chord so that the sound would not be “leaden.”  What a difference– with the addition of that touch the sound rose and bloomed!  But I’d be amiss if I did not also mention an inspirational teacher, wonderful composer, and friend, Jane Wilkinson, who helped me out tremendously and gave me much invaluable practical advice, not only about composing but about teaching, that I continue to benefit from to this day.

From these teachers I learned to set high standards and to teach with integrity.  And particularly from Jane, to do this with some measure of compassion for the student; just plain kindness, really.

DLH:  Historically, women have been severely underrepresented in the world of classical music, in both composition and performance. Do you feel that’s improving? Are there any roadblocks you’ve encountered in your career as a result of your gender, and how did you overcome them? Do you have any advice for any young female composers who might be following your path?

IA: I think the situation is vastly different and better for women composers than it was in the mid-80′s, when I was a graduate student.  As for roadblocks, well, I prefer to think of these as opportunities in disguise, or opportunities to grow stronger and more confident.  As for advice, I would simply say, be the artist you are, and be that absolutely as well as you can.  And keep challenging yourself– that’s the only way to move forward artistically, and probably in other aspects of life as well.


To hear Vistas and other works by Ingrid Arauco, please visit her Albany Records webpage.



There are 2 responses to “Original Vistas, A Conversation with Ingrid Arauco”

  1. What a nice way to get to know an artist: by interviewing them and letting your reader hear from your subject directly. I was especially intrigued by the way Arauco interprets visual artwork into music. I wonder what it would be like to look at the world through her eyes. Does she look at scenes and objects and automatically hear music? Is this a type of synesthesia? I was also fascinated that one of Arauco’s first teachers told her to compose bits of music as part of her regular lessons. What a great way to get a child into the habit of creating sound.

  2. What great questions to ask, Deb! In every answer, Ms. Arauco’s passion for her work was evident. Also, I loved learning about how Ms. Arauco was influenced by visual art in her compositions–truly fascinating!