Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Growing up, there was always a piano in the house. My parents aren’t professional musicians, but my dad is a fairly good pianist and I’d always hear him practicing when he got home from work. Both of my parents are fans of classical music and would often take me to various concerts, which included Celebrity Series soloists and various Boston Symphony concerts, as well as Boston Ballet shows at the Shubert theatre.
Shortly after I started piano lessons, I started coming up with little piano pieces of my own, and my piano teacher at the time, Melanie Almiron, referred me to Rodney Lister. He then became my first composition teacher, and taught me for quite a number of years. Rodney was definitely one of my important early influences, and introduced me to the music of many prominent composers, such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Arthur Berger, Milton Babbitt, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and many others. He also taught me the fundamentals of music theory before I began taking courses through the New England Conservatory Preparatory School’s theory track.
My piano teachers were also important early influences– I began studies with Vanessa Morris, and then moved to Melanie Almiron, who taught me for several years before I transferred to Bertica Cramer. She had a particular focus on tone production and ways of dealing with inner voices in textures that has stuck with me through the years. I think it’s also affected how I deal with issues like inner voices in a compositional context.
It’s difficult to say when I decided to pursue a career in music, and I’m still in the early stages. I think it’s been more of a gradual process than a single moment of decision, but these early figures were definitely important in helping the process along.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
Aside from these key early figures mentioned previously, the people I met while in Finland (this was during two of my high school years) were important influences as well. I studied composition with Paavo Korpijaakko, and piano with Kristiina Kask-Valve. Since then, the various people I have studied with since beginning college have been important influences. When I started college, I had a fairly good understanding of common practice theory and harmony, and thanks to Rodney Lister, a decent knowledge of twentieth century music. During my undergraduate years, I studied with several different composers and gained valuable insights from all of them. Martin Amlin and Ketty Nez both gave me helpful exercises from week to week, to keep expanding my technique. It was also within these first two years that I started experimenting more with quarter tones.
In my third year, I studied abroad at the Royal College of Music for a term with Kenneth Hesketh, who I’m now studying with for my masters. When I returned to Boston, I studied with Richard Cornell in the spring. During this third year, I gained a much better understanding of orchestration and textural thinking. After several years of trying to figure out how microtonality worked within my language, Alex Mincek and Joshua Fineberg really gave me helpful insight into different approaches to this type of material, and helped me integrate these different approaches with different types of gestural thinking. They also really helped me develop ideas on larger-scale forms and different textures, which were facilitated both by these teachers, and by the music they exposed me to. These formal and gestural ideas are issues that I’m continuing to explore in my masters studies. During this time at the RCM, I’ve also worked on refining the orchestrational and textural ideas that I started exploring in my undergrad years.
During this time, I’ve also kept up my piano studies. While at BU I took lessons from Sergey Schepkin and Linda Jiorle-Nagy, and I’ve taken piano privately at the RCM from Nigel Clayton. Piano has been a useful way to approach music in a different, more kinaesthetic way, and has also given me helpful insights into what being a performer is like. I suspect that some of what I’ve learned in my piano studies regarding phrasing and voicing has bled over into my compositional approach.
On a more general note, I’m also influenced by what I hear. If I hear something particularly interesting in a piece, I’ll try to figure out how it works, and that process of trying to understand what I’m hearing often ends up feeding into how I write.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
One musical issue that took me a long time to get to grips with was microtonality. I remember hearing quarter tonal music for the first time and getting a bit of a headache because my brain didn’t know how to process it. After repeated exposure over a period of several years, I began to find ways of dealing with intervals that were smaller than semitones and gradually became fascinated with the idea of microtonality, eventually trying to figure out how to deal with microtonality in my compositional language. The long (and slightly painful) process has been worth the effort, as it has made my compositional language more interesting, and it has also resulted in me being a more flexible musician.
Another issue that I struggled with for a while is my sense of rhythm. Although I naturally have a decent sense of rhythm, my sense of pitch has always been much stronger than my sense of rhythm, and thus I have had to work much harder at rhythm-related tasks than pitch-related ones. Thus, playing highly coordinated, rhythmic chamber music in various ensembles was a bit of a challenge. Ultimately, however, it made my sense of rhythm stronger, as did gradually working out a more interesting rhythmic language in my own music.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I’ll answer these questions together, as usually commissions thus far have come from specific players in the form of the question “Would you be willing to write me/my ensemble a piece?” I suppose these commissions have usually had an additional length constraint. This specification affects my subsequent formal planning and how extensively I develop the material that I use to form my initial ideas for the piece.
Usually, I try to work with a particular performer or ensemble. This means I’ll have the difficulty level of the particular piece in mind as I’m writing it, as well as that performer or ensemble’s strengths in mind. Ideally I like to work fairly closely with the performers; for instance, when writing Mirage (a fairly recent piece scored for saxophone, flute, and piano), I knew I was working with phenomenal players, and that some of the players had more of a new music background than others. Mirror Rim, which was written for the Britten-Pears young artist programme, is another product of close collaboration with players.
In a situation like this, I end up learning quite a lot about both the players involved, as well as the instrument. For instance, when writing Mirror Rim, I ended up learning many useful things about extended techniques for brass, and I learned a great deal about saxophone multiphonics while writing Mirage. This is always exciting, and I can then transfer this knowledge to when I write future pieces for similar instrumentations, keeping in mind that there is a great deal of variability from player to player (for instance, multiphonics are particularly finicky and may not always work reliably from one player to the next).
Of which works are you most proud?
Hard to say, but I’m fairly happy with some of my recent ones. I’m quite pleased with how Mirage came out, for instance– the form mostly works quite well, and I find the overall flow of it satisfying. Kuje, which is a piece for wind ensemble, began as a textural and rhythmic experiment, and I managed to create an environment that is simultaneously frantic, but clear and precise.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Eclectic and quirky, I suppose… it contains bits and pieces from lots of different sources of influence! Form is important to me, and I like creating satisfying formal structures. Often there will be melodic ideas (as well as harmonic ideas) that get transformed over time and take part in creating the structure. My textures can be quite colourful, and I’ll often use unusual doublings and/or instrument ranges to create particular timbral colourings. My harmonic approach relies a lot on voice leading, and can fluctuate in and out of structures that center around particular pitches. Sometimes I extend these ideas of voice leading to include quarter-tone voice leading, and the same goes for melodic ideas that either intrinsically include quarter tones or are gradually transformed with microtonal ideas. In addition to using quarter tones in a more melodic and chromatic context through voice leading, I also employ a more harmonic approach to quarter-tonal and microtonal material, which can be quite spectral. To recount, there are many different influences that I draw upon at varying times, and how I employ them is usually more of an intuitive process than a calculated one.
How do you work?
Depends a bit from piece to piece, but I usually start with some sort of idea. This may be a melodic fragment, formal idea, harmonic structure, an idea for a kind of gesture, something more conceptual, or something else. I’ll then toy around with this idea, which often will generate some sort of related material. Sometimes I’ll come up with something unrelated, which might or might not fit with the original material– this is something I then have to figure out. I continue with this process, and eventually try to figure out some sort of form that I find convincing and feel works with the material at hand.
At some point, I start sketching some of these ideas out; this may include jotting down melodic fragments, or sketching out some sort of formal diagram. Once I have a clear enough picture of how the piece works, the writing process starts. This starts out on paper, and when I have a fairly complete paper draft, I move to the computer to typeset and edit.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
There are so many! Some that come to mind immediately include people like Scelsi, Saariaho, Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Berio, Murail, Messiaen, Britten, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Varese… and there are many more! I listen to a lot of music from composers going further back in time as well– everything from Chopin to people like Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Haydn, Corelli, and all the way back to composers like Palestrina, Josquin, and Ockeghem. And, of course, Bach; I think the St. Matthew Passion is one of my favourites, as well as the B minor mass.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
As a composer, success is writing a piece that I’m pleased with. The form makes sense, things fit together in a satisfying way, and the piece feels solid and cohesive, as well as being pleasant to listen to (or at least I find it pleasant to listen to). Other things that invoke a sense of satisfaction include challenging myself in some way and then fulfilling the challenge in the way I was intending to, or not quite fulfilling it but discovering something else along the way. As a pianist, success for me is mastering the technical elements of a piece, as well as maintaining a balanced equilibrium between one’s own artistic impulses and the composer’s intentions. This means allowing the piece to speak for itself while allowing for some personal artistic expression.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Everyone is different, and different people naturally find some things easier and some aspects of music harder. You may need to work harder to do well in some areas than in others, and this may be frustrating at times. However, if you work on your problem areas, you will end up a stronger musician for it. Also, focus on your own goals and development, instead of comparing yourself to others.
Be willing to learn, and be willing to acknowledge your mistakes. Always be willing to try new ideas and consider approaches that differ from your typical approach (if there is such a thing).
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Writing music somewhere, and hopefully getting good performances in one way or another.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Besides composing? I like practicing piano, taking long walks, reading, folding origami, listening to music… I think these are the things I like doing that I engage in most frequently. On vacation, my family and I are quite active, so I’ll often end up going on long hikes, kayaking, or skiing (either cross-country or downhill), depending on the season.
What is your present state of mind?
It’s quite positive currently, although my schedule’s been a bit hectic, with a lot of exciting things going on. I’ve had a lot of rehearsals in the last few weeks, which culminated in two new premieres last week (Kuje and Mirage). This past weekend was the LSO Panufnik Reality Days, which was amazing and felt a bit surreal. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next months hold in store with a couple more premieres, and beyond that, look forward to continuing to work on various projects and try to challenge myself musically in different ways.
(interview date 21 February 2018)
Lara Poe is a Finnish-American composer who is currently based in London. She has collaborated with musicians such as the JACK quartet, Dal Niente, Sound Icon, Semiosis quartet, Jonathan Radford, Laura Farré Rosada, Aija Reke, and Timo Kinnunen, and her works have been performed in the US, as well as the UK, Finland, Latvia, Germany, and Taiwan. She has received recognition in several competitions. In 2017, Poe received the BMI Student Composer Award William Schuman Prize for the most outstanding score, and was the winner of the 2016 American Prize in Chamber Music composition, student division. Poe was also a participant in the 2017 Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, and her piece Mirror Rim will be performed at the 2018 Aldeburgh Festival. This coming year, she will be taking part in the 2018-2019 LSO Panufnik Scheme.
Poe is currently studying at the Royal College of Music, as an RCM scholar supported by a Big Give Scholarship, with Kenneth Hesketh as her principal composition professor. She has also studied electroacoustic music with Gilbert Nouno. Prior to her studies at the RCM, Poe studied with Martin Amlin, Richard Cornell, Joshua Fineberg, Paavo Korpijaakko, Rodney Lister, Alex Mincek, and Ketty Nez. She received her Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University, and studied at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School while in grade school. While pursuing her bachelor’s degree, Poe received the both the Boston University’s Wainwright prize and Department of Music Theory and Composition award in 2016, and was inducted into the music honor society Pi Kappa Lambda in April 2016.
Poe’s current projects include Sonifying Noise Pollution, which is a collaboration with Royal College of Art graduate Jennifer Haugan. This project is an interactive, multimedia examination of noise pollution levels throughout the UK. Poe and Haugan presented Sonifying Noise Pollution at the 2017 IRCAM forums in April 2017, and are working to include more data points and more interactive features. Poe is also working with violinist Aija Reke, who is currently learning her violin concerto, and Poe is also working on a variety of both large-scale and smaller scale projects involving colleagues at the RCM.