San Francisco Choral Artists: What composer do you particularly admire and why?
Ash Stemke: Two come to mind. Per Nørgård is a Danish composer whose work had a big influence on my master’s thesis, an oratorio for choir and string orchestra exploring self-similarity. Nørgård’s music inspires me through his ability to translate complex mathematical phenomena into music that is symmetrical and proportional—yet full of all kinds of beauty and emotion, despite its scientific grounding.
I also really admire Caroline Shaw because of her authenticity, her compositional voice, even her general approach to life. I’ve met her a couple times—she was at Florida State for a residency last year. She’s not one of those composers up on a pedestal; she’s down to earth and approachable and will talk to you about your hobbies or anything at all. And that outlook comes across in her music as well—she doesn’t seem to be trying to impress a certain audience or to make an appraising statement with it.
SFCA: Tell us about Be Still and Know, your piece that we will be performing next month? How did the piece come about?
AS: I came to the text because of an experience when I was younger. I was with a group of people in a religious setting, repeatedly chanting the first portion of Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” but each time we would subtract the final word, until we were left with just “Be.” It was a powerful, meditative experience for me—flash-forward many years later, and I decided to take this text and try to emulate that experience in my writing. So the form was there from the beginning—to build up to the full text and then break it down to just “Be” at the end. Strictly following that structure would have been too predictable, but the overall effect is still there—starting soft, growing into the full robustness of the text, and then reversing that shape. This process is something I do a lot in my music—not this specific form, but the idea of creating a structure for a piece and then sort of following it.
One challenge in writing the piece was grappling with how to convey stillness through the music but produce something interesting and engaging. The approach I took was to take the opening gesture of the note E going to the note F—a very small movement—and extrapolating that to the whole piece: if you take a step back, you’ll hear that the piece starts on an E and then ultimately lands on an F major triad at the end of the piece.
SFCA: Do you typically start with the text when writing choral music?
AS: Yes, choral music is all about the text. I like to use the language to determine something about the form or structure or melody. While composing, I’m usually pretty cognizant of what form my piece is taking and how it’s moving, but I don’t always know at the beginning: sometimes I just start writing and then a form emerges.
SFCA: Do you compose in your head or at the keyboard?
AS: Keyboards are great for correcting or quantifying what you think you want to hear, but overusing it can be limiting—your music becomes orchestrated (sorry, or voiced!) versions of keyboard music.
SFCA: Can you share a useful lesson or strategy you’ve learned from a composition teacher?
AS: One of the most important things I’ve learned is that, regardless of what ensemble you’re writing for, not all of your performers need to be making sound all the time. It’s great to vary the textures and give some voices their time to shine, or to be in the background, and it’s important to remember that silences can have energy, depending on how you set them up.
SFCA: Any upcoming projects you’re excited about and would like to share?
AS: A couple years ago I wrote a solo violin score to the 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon by George Méliès, one of the earliest science fiction films. After it was recorded by Christin Danchi, it was selected to be part of Carnegie Mellon’s MoonArk Project. They are building a time capsule, a mini-museum the size of a soda can. It’s a collaboration of several hundred artists and choreographers and scientists, and they are going to send it to the moon in 2019! Inside will be a disc with an etching of the waveform of Christin’s recording of my piece, so in a couple of years something that I helped to create will be on the moon!
You can hear more of Ash Stemke’s music at his website, ashstemke.com.