Composer Sarah Gibson Talks Toy Pianos and Sound Investments
Born into a creative and artistic environment, Los Angeles-based composer and pianist Sarah Gibson has been writing songs since she was five years old. Noted as a “serious talent to watch” by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gibson often finds inspiration in visual art, and is equally comfortable composing music for a chamber ensemble or a toy piano. Gibson is part of the esteemed faculty at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where she earned both her Masters of Music degree and Doctorate of Musical Arts degree in Composition.
Earlier this year, Gibson was named the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) Sound Investment composer, and she is currently working on a piece that will be premiered by the lauded group in January 2019. Throughout this process, Gibson has had the unique opportunity to lead multiple salon events with dedicated LACO audiences, giving them the chance to see how a new work evolves throughout the writing process.
BMI talked with Gibson about her continuing work with LACO as their Sound Investment composer, her new-music piano duo HOCKET, and how a football injury led her to try a new way of composing.
How did you start composing? Can you share a little about your background?
My family had a rickety upright piano in the basement that I loved playing. I begged my parents to take piano lessons from age five, but I was told I had to wait until I was seven. So, in the meantime, I started playing by ear and picking things out by myself. Neither of my parents are musicians, so they didn’t know that was what I was doing. I was very fortunate that my first piano teacher realized I was writing little pieces, and she encouraged my mom to keep a tape recorder by the piano and press “Record” whenever she heard me practicing something that didn’t sound like what I was supposed to be practicing. Then, I would bring in the tape to my piano lessons and my piano teacher would help me write it down.
There also was a program my K-12 schools participated in, sponsored by the National P.T.A., called “Reflections.” This was a yearly creative arts competition — visual arts, photography, writing and music composition — held at the school/county/state/national level at all grades. I entered with a new composition every year from the time I was in second grade. It was such a supportive and encouraging program for me, and [it] really kept me writing a piece a year throughout my education.
I should also say that my mother is a self-trained painter and always encouraged creativity growing up. I painted, drew, colored, and made music all the time as a child and felt very free to express myself creatively. That certainly influenced my compositional style at a young age.
Tell us a bit about your duo, HOCKET. How did you enter into this collaboration?
HOCKET is a new-music piano duo based in Los Angeles dedicated to broadening the definition of a piano duo. Thomas Kotcheff and I are both composers/pianists; we met in graduate school at USC, where we were both getting degrees in composition. We quickly discovered that we have a passion for commissioning and premiering new compositions and decided to team up as a duo performing new works for piano. We perform repertoire for piano four-hands, two pianos, toy pianos, melodicas, small percussion instruments, keyboards… you name it. We have premiered over 45 works in our five seasons together and are very excited for our upcoming season!
You perform and write occasionally for toy piano. Can you talk about why that instrument is appealing to you?
The toy piano is such a great instrument! My interest in the instrument began when HOCKET starting offering it to composers with whom we were collaborating. Being in a piano duo means that traditionally our concerts would have entailed only one instrument and timbre. By adding the toy piano — which has a history in contemporary music from John Cage to Phyllis Chen — we were able to add a new color while changing up and amplifying the standard piano duo sound. The toy piano can be melodic, percussive, and bell-like — all wonderful colors to work with as a performer and composer.
You compose for many instrumentations — full orchestra, a wide variety of chamber ensembles, and vocal groups. Can you talk about how you approach writing for these different ensembles, and whether the type of ensemble has an effect on your compositional process?
My music is very much influenced by the people for whom I am writing. As a collaborative pianist, my background as a performer really affects my process. I love rehearsing and workshopping, so especially when I’m writing chamber music, I often meet with the players to show them snippets of what I’m doing and get their feedback. HOCKET has been an incredible way for me to combine my two passions — performing and composing — and it’s always great collaborating with and getting feedback from Thomas on what we’re working on. Obviously, the larger the ensemble the more difficult it is to workshop. But, I write at the piano and I feel that the physicality of playing and singing what I’m writing as it happens really helps me with pacing, form, and direction.
You have some incredibly inventive titles for your works — “and it’s spring when the world is puddle-wonderful,” “I prefer living in Color,” “Sure baby, manana,” and “Follow the Crumbs Out of the Woods.” What’s the inspiration behind these? Does the title come before the composition, or vice-versa?
Much of my music is inspired by visual art. Whenever I have writer’s block, I go to an art museum. I love reading the placards that museums post next to the artwork and very often my titles come from these museum descriptions or quotes found in the descriptions by the artist. For instance, “I prefer living in color” is taken from a quote by David Hockney. I’m drawn to bright colors, so often the titles reflect artwork that is vibrant and bold.
Your “Left-hand Piano Concerto” was a winner of the USC New Music for Orchestra competition. Was there a specific reason you wanted to contribute to the repertory for the left hand?
My senior year of college I was playing football with a bunch of composers — bad idea! [Laughs.] The ball was thrown my way, I caught it in a weird way and broke my pointer finger on my right hand. For the next nine months I could only play piano with my left hand and had to give a left-handed senior piano recital. It was a really difficult time and totally changed how I was making music my senior year.
There is a history of left-handed repertoire for pianists who have injured their right hand, or in the case of Paul Wittgenstein and Ravel’s left-hand concerto, a pianist who lost his right arm in WWI. Once my finger had healed, I felt like I had something to say about the repertoire, having done so much research and practice on the repertoire for my recital. I wanted to create my own response to a piece for left-hand, and felt that a left-handed concerto was the way to do it.
You currently teach at your alma mater, the University of Southern California. Is teaching something you always wanted to do?
Wanting to go into academia was a huge reason I pursued my doctorate. I love teaching and feel very fortunate to work at the USC Thornton School of Music. It’s wonderful being surrounded by students with so many different backgrounds, majors, and interests in my classes. I’m always learning from them. I also teach composition at the Los Angeles Philharmonic through the Nancy and Barry Sanders Composer Fellowship Program with Artist Director Andrew Norman. This program — which is for high school composers — is so phenomenal and has confirmed for me how much I love teaching composition. I definitely see teaching as a major and important part of my career.
You were named the 2018-19 Sound Investment Composer by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), where you will premiere a new orchestra piece in January. Can you explain what this role involves?
This program in absolutely incredible and I am so honored to be the Sound Investment Composer for this season. The commissioning collective is funded by a series of “sound investors” who become a part of the creative process through its inception and premiere. Throughout the year leading up to the premiere, I am asked to present a series of “salons” to the sound investors. In these salons, I share my previous work, the progress of my work for LACO, and even edits I’m currently working on for the commission.
In fact, the second salon is amazingly a reading/workshop of the commissioned work with LACO. The reading happens three months before the premiere, so I am then able to make some changes to the piece based on things I may be inclined to edit after the reading. This is so rare, to be able to workshop a piece for orchestra before its premiere. It makes the piece and process so much more personable and collaborative. LACO has been an inspirational joy to work with and I can’t wait for the remaining salons and premiere!
What are you working on now?
I just submitted my score to LACO for the reading, so I’m currently working on making parts for the orchestra. Then, I imagine I’ll be excited to work on edits once the workshop occurs. There are already a few things I’ve been thinking about editing, so I’m excited to get going on them.
How did you start working with BMI?
I registered with BMI when I was starting college. Most of my professors were with BMI, so I was excited to follow suit!
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