Kate Soper is a composer, performer, and writer whose work explores the integration of drama and rhetoric into musical structure, the slippery continuums of expressivity, intelligibility and sense, and the wonderfully treacherous landscape of the human voice. She has been hailed by the Boston Globe as “a composer of trenchant, sometimes discomfiting, power” and praised by the New Yorker for her “limpid, exacting vocalism, impetuous theatricality, and…mastery of modernist style.”
Kate has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters (Goddard Lieberson and Charles Ives awards), the Koussevitzky Foundation, Chamber Music America, the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, the Music Theory Society of New York State, and ASCAP, and has been commissioned by ensembles including Carnegie Hall, the American Composers Orchestra, the Tanglewood Music Center/BUTI, the MIVOS string quartet, and the Ogni Suono duo.
As a new music vocalist, Kate performs frequently in her own works and in the works of others, and has performed with groups such as Alarm Will Sound, Morningside Opera, the SEM Ensemble, Dinosaur Annex, and the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf. Upcoming projects include the release of Nadja for string quartet and soprano, recorded by the Mivos quartet; the full premiere of Ipsa Dixit, an evening-length cycle of duos and quartets for voice and instruments; and The Romance of the Rose, an operatic investigation of allegory and courtly love from the Middle Ages to the present day.
Since 2006, Kate has been a co-director and vocalist for Wet Ink, a New York-based new music ensemble dedicated to seeking out adventurous music across aesthetic boundaries. She is Assistant Professor of Music at Smith College.
What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?
KS: My dad used to play various of the Beethoven piano sonatas when I was little and I remember being intrigued and kind of scandalized by how audacious they were. (In particular I’ve always been blown away by the first few bars of the Waldstein.) Once I took over as the primary piano-user in the household, I would spend hours trying to recreate that odd combination of “rightness” and outlandishness you find in that music. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was free to leap right off the harmonic grid, but I think those early improvisations taught me a few things about the pleasure of surprise in music and the ingenuity needed to set up the unexpected.
Another thing I liked to do as a kid was to open up a book of poetry, prop it up on the piano, and improvise a piano/vocal setting. This is basically not that far off from what I often do these days, 20+ years later.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?
KS: This changes over time. In my early 20s I was drawn to a hard, complex, cleanly abstract sound world that was refreshingly antithetical to what I’d been writing up until then, as a teenager and as a college student. I listened to a lot of Xenakis and Ferneyhough and Varèse. I also discovered much about sound during this time from Ligeti, Sciarrino, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Berio. Once I settled into the scene in NYC and started getting to know the people around me, the most influential/relevant composers became others in my generation (or thereabouts). I joined the Wet Ink Ensemble ten years ago and have worked regularly since then alongside the other composers/performers in that group (Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, and Eric Wubbels), which has made for some memorable cross-pollination. That’s also the point at which participating as a vocalist in the music of my peers became a valuable part of my artistic life, as it continues to be. I’m also very interested in composers who, like me, think of their work in a theatrical dimension, like Rick Burkhardt, Gelsey Bell, Carolyn Chen, Jessie Marino. And in the past several years I’ve been uncovering a true affinity with Medieval music–something about the complex triangulation between concept and surface and design, the alchemy of it all, really does it for me. In particular I have a great love for the music of Guillaume de Machaut.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?
KS: I am a firm believer in the importance of routine and cling desperately to a schedule. There’s a fragile haziness over the mind right after waking that is really good for deep, slow contemplation: I work in the mornings, early, for as long as I can before being distracted or getting bored or having to go to work. I find the computer poisonous for the thinking/composing process so it stays shut off until those early hours are over. If I’m working on a written text (which I more and more regularly do in my work) I sometimes use the computer since I have terrible handwriting, but in that case I shut off the internet with a cheap software program called “Freedom.” (I have developed pretty decent willpower over the years but it’s better not to test it too much.) And I almost always type up my music using software notation after I’ve got it down on paper, for part-making ease and legibility (again, the handwriting is truly atrocious).
If I’m writing electronic music the computer comes back on, naturally. I find it easier to work on electronic music at any time of day, especially if it involves fussing with a tape part, because all the material is splayed out in front of you and nothing needs to be coaxed up from the deep. I’ve mostly used Max/MSP and Protools in my work, but now I run the electronic music studio at Smith College so am looking more into cheap, free, easy, flexible software and hardware ideas.
Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.
KS: A couple years ago I embarked on a harebrained scheme to link my three duos for voice and instrument together with three quartets for the full complement, in an evening-length work for voice, flute, violin and percussion called Ipsa Dixit. The duos, written from 2010-12, are a tribute to my first years of in-depth collaboration with my Wet Ink performer colleagues and mark the beginning of a blatant instantiation of my obsession with language, meaning, and expressivity–an obsession that finds its way into pretty much everything I write, whether vocal or instrumental (or just text). The quartets, which I just started writing in 2015, are all based on works of Aristotle. (More about the full work is here.)
The first quartet, and the first movement of the whole shebang, is an adaptation of Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise whose surviving sections describe art and the best way to create art, specifically the art of tragedy. I end my setting with a snippet from Oedipus Rex, which was one of Aristotle’s favorite plays and which he quotes heavily in Poetics. (This last section, beginning at 9:45, is in Ancient Greek and is a quote from the Chorus, bemoaning the ever-present threat of catastrophe in the life of mankind.) My challenge to myself was to illuminate the treatise while simultaneously, and secretly, gathering up the musical materials and the dramatic force necessary to build to a “tragic” climax in which the expressive and formal authority which is automatically granted to me as the soprano soloist (and which is typically inviolable in music with a vocalist) is challenged by the instrumentalists. It’s also a good example of the working process of Wet Ink, which typically involves tons of workshopping and intense, creative, collaborative rehearsal over weeks, months, or years. Poetics is followed attacca by the first of the duos, Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say (which can be watched here).
I am currently working on the last of the quartets and penultimate movement of Ipsa Dixit, which is based on Aristotle’s Metaphysics.