"Thrilling" is one of the words she uses. Exciting. Fascinating. Dangerous.
Laura Schwendinger is describing her experience with "Shadings," the contemporary composer's collaboration with her cousin, New York-based lighting designer Leni Schwendinger. Scheduled to premiere March 4 at Carnegie Hall as part of the American Composers Orchestra's Playing It UNsafe project, "Shadings" finds the UW-Madison music composition professor confronting risk.
"Emotionally," she says, "it's a significant thing."
The ACO conceives its UNsafe initiative as a six-month "research and development lab" intended to incubate new American orchestral music that transgresses established boundaries. Spying the call for proposals last year, Schwendinger didn't expect those boundaries to include the frontiers of her own creative identity.
She thought instead of Leni, whose New York-based Light Projects firm creates illuminated environments, from public parks and plazas to Seattle's opera house, New York's Port Authority and Scotland's Kingston Bridge. The cousins had longstanding ambitions to collaborate.
Next month's premiere performance by ACO's Orchestra Underground places the Schwendingers alongside young innovator Sean Friar, whose "Clunker Concerto" for orchestra and percussion ensemble features repurposed automobile parts; experimental vocal composer Joan La Barbara; and renowned avant-jazz saxophonist/composer Henry Threadgill.
Schwendinger's laurels include the first American Academy in Berlin fellowship ever awarded to a composer, and her work has been performed by artists from Dawn Upshaw to the Arditti Quartet. Her 14-minute composition for "Shadings" pairs with her cousin's photographic exploration of Japanese architecture and Buddhist landscapes.
It has been a privilege, Schwendinger says, to participate in the workshops leading up to next month's premiere - thrilling to observe the other composers at work and to enjoy such broad license to engage the orchestra.
It's a long way from Madison to Carnegie Hall, the composer concedes, and "these pieces may not have an extended life in communities where there's not an American Composers Orchestra." But short videos documenting the works in progress can be viewed here. Schwendinger hopes the finished works will also appear online.
Comparing her own UNsafe experience to those team-building exercises where you fall backwards and trust your partner to catch you, Schwendinger discerns a sense of surrendering how she views herself as a composer and encountering a new self that may lead her in other directions, even toward opera.
Perhaps the most striking departure for this new self, she explains, involved "allowing the music to be very sparse and simple, almost floating." Affecting the way tension in her music is released, she observes, it "feels very unsafe."
She detects similar reactions among the program's other composers. "I think we're all excited," Schwendinger says, "but also apprehensive."