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New Artist of the Month: Composer Katherine Balch

September 1, 2020 | By Joshua Kosman, Musical America

The first thing a listener is apt to notice about the music of composer Katherine Balch is its combination of familiarity and other-worldliness. The harmonies and rhythms that underlie much of her work are fundamentally akin to those of Schubert, Brahms, and the other composers whose music she grew up playing on the piano. But those musical frameworks come cloaked in sonorities that are eerie and elusive – a blend of unorthodox orchestration, deftly extended instrumental techniques, and a gentle but determined push against the predictable.

In the double-bass septet Kalesa Ed Kaluca (whose title is a whimsical mashup of the first names of the seven original performers and dedicatees), Balch has three of the players deploy chopsticks. The orchestral diptych of Chamber Music and Leaf Fabric calls for prepared piano and binder clips on the low strings of the basses. The section violinists in Balch's violin concerto Artifacts use thimbles and plastic bags at strategic moments.

None of this is revolutionary, to be sure, but the sounds that result have a beguiling freshness. That's because Balch's experimentalism is a pursuit of new textures rather than new techniques.

"For me, composition is mostly an attempt to transcribe what I hear in my head," she says. "Usually what comes first is a sound, which I have to notate or translate using musical tools. Dissecting or playing with that sound gives me information about the sound, which in turn gives me information about the structure of the piece."

Multi-tasker

Balch, 29, comes by her analytical and experimental instincts honestly. She grew up in San Diego in a scientific family; her parents are researchers at the Scripps Research Institute, and her brother is a surgeon. She enjoyed a wide interest in music as a kid, but didn't think seriously about composition until she was halfway through pursuing as double degree at Tufts University (in history and political science) and the New England Conservatory of Music.

"I have a hard time doing things just a little bit. So I was co-authoring a paper with a history professor, being a TA, and writing music. I was pretty stressed out."

Studies at NEC with composer Kati Agócs — a relationship about which she has written at evocative length — and a commission from the New York Youth Symphony helped steer her more firmly toward a musical career. After that she went on to do graduate work at the Yale School of Music with David Lang, Christopher Theofanidis, and Aaron J. Kernis. That's also where she took an introductory botany class, which sparked the fascination with plant life that recurs throughout her work in titles such as Leaf Catalogue and Epiphyte.

"When you study the biology of plants, you find a lot of things that are applicable to music," she says. "The veins in a leaf form patterns that are self-similar but not quite symmetrical, which is what I try to do in my music. I want to be able to achieve that balance of detail and structure.

"Also, even though melody and harmony are obviously part of my music, what I think about when I compose is texture. There are incredible layers of texture in plants and certain tree barks — a complicated and dense thing made up of all these lines — and I find myself asking, 'What would a texture like this sound like?' It's proved a fruitful metaphor for me."

A onetime Young Concert Artist composer in residence, Balch recently completed a three-year residency with the California Symphony in Walnut Creek in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first woman to participate in the program since it began in 1991. For that orchestra, led by music director Donato Cabrera, she composed like a broken clock in 2018, an alluring exercise in musical machinery; she followed it a year later with the more ambitious and impressive Artifacts, composed for her school chum and frequent collaborator, violinist Robyn Bollinger.

This spring was supposed to bring an even more capacious undertaking — the commissioned premiere of Illuminate, a 45-minute cantata for three female vocal soloists setting texts by Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Sappho along with lines from Rimbaud. But the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on that, and Balch acknowledges ruefully that it may be a while before a piece this big and demanding gets a performance.

When we spoke in mid-August — just days after her marriage to fellow composer Ted Moore — Balch, who normally lives in New York, was sheltering at the home of her new in-laws in the mountains of Colorado. She is working on small, imaginative scores that can be performed by her friends under quarantine conditions ("I can't write for the drawer") — one for solo accordion, another for soprano, crystal glasses, and gravel. She's gearing up to spend most of 2021 in Italy, as a recipient of the Rome Prize. And through her teaching at the Mannes School and Columbia University — now, of course, done remotely — she keeps encouraging her students to pursue the same breadth of interests that have inspired her as a creator.

"I have never liked this idea that if you want to be a musician you have to be prepared to devote yourself to it to the exclusion of everything else. To me, that is pedagogically irresponsible. The world is full of magic and amazing things — history to learn about, things to discover — and all of that feeds into my music."

 

Photo by Ted Moore


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