The following is an interview of 2013 Composer-Not-in-Residence Eleanor Aversa by SFCA on February 1st, 2013.
SFCA: How come you know so much about science? When did that start in your life? I think that people who read your bio and get to know you as an arts & letters person (language, music, teaching, translating, Russian culture) don’t necessarily associate that with reading Nature and knowing about DNA research. When did you first learn about Rosalind Franklin?
EA: Back in high school, our biology textbook had a small sidebar on Franklin in the chapter on DNA, and I became curious about her story. When I learned the theme of the March concert, I remembered Franklin and started doing some research. That lead me to her article in that 1953 issue of Nature.
SFCA: How often are you on the phone with Magen?
EA: We talked a few times in the week before I submitted the final draft of the Franklin piece, making a few tweaks here and there. Once the rehearsals are well underway we’ll probably talk again at least once to check the tempos and a few other interpretive things. And thanks to a grant from the American Composers Forum, I’ll finally be able to fly out to San Francisco to work through the piece in person!
SFCA: In your bio it says that there is a strong Russian influence in your music. Would you say this also is present in Probably Helical?
EA: You could say the quasi-fugue in the middle section owes something to Shostakovitch…
SFCA: Has it ever been especially strange, hard, or wonderful to be a woman in this profession?
Or haven’t you felt that at all in your career and studies so far?
EA: I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of wonderful and supportive male teachers and colleagues, so at this point in my career, it’s not something I think about very often. I’ve also been lucky to have several women composers in my life as role models, mentors, and friends, so that’s very encouraging. But I would say that being a woman may have made my decision to pursue composition a bit more difficult. Although I had been passionate about writing music from a young age and received some recognition from my work, it was very hard for me to take that first step of applying to composition programs.
It’s often struck me that women are fairly well represented as poets, novelists, and visual artists, but not as composers or playwrights. I suspect this is because writers and visual artists do not require others to make their work come to life. A painter can decide to go to her studio and create a painting, and after that the work of art exists. But to be a composer or a playwright, you have to actively enlist performers to realize your creation. And you have to compete for these performing resources not just with living artists, but with dead ones! A composer has to essentially say to an ensemble, “Look, I know there is a lot of brilliant music out there, but I want you to perform MINE.” I feel that for a lot of women, this attitude seems pushy, immodest, or even disrespectful.
I think this also gets to the question of why write new music at all. You have to have confidence that what you are doing deserves a place on the program- either because of its sheer beauty or originality, or because it relates to modern life. That’s one reason why working on this Rosalind Franklin piece felt so meaningful to me: whatever its purely musical merits, it deals with events from recent history.