Anna Pidgorna : composing through the body

Anna Pidgorna (b. 1985) is a Ukrainian born, Canadian raised composer, artist and vocalist, who combines everything from traditional music making, to visual arts, to writing, to carpentry in her multimedia practice. Characterized by “a balance of bold colour palettes, strong melodic profiles, and unexpected performative elements” (Nick Storring for MusicWorks Magazine), her work traverses both acoustic and electronic realms.

Anna was born in Ukraine and is heavily influenced by her heritage. Thanks to a generous grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Anna spent three months recording folk songs in Ukraine in the fall of 2012 and again in 2013. Her folk-inspired works include her multi-award winning chamber opera On the Eve of Ivan Kupalo, Like Doves with Gray Wings Embracing, Weeping and Bridal Train.

Anna is also developing her own vocal style which expands the folk practice past its traditional boundaries. She is working on a cycle of songs for her own voice and varied instrumental ensembles, which currently includes “Weeping for a Dead Love”, “What Else Can I Give Him?”, “Teach Your Daughters” and “Drown in the Depth”.  With her strong background in visual arts, Anna is bringing visual elements into her music. Her violin duo Through Closed Doors is inscribed onto a restored antique door designed to act both as a performance score and the setting for the intimate drama played out by the performers. Her mini-opera Mirror, Mirror exists as a limited-edition set of five hand-printed panels created with linocut, watercolour and yarn.

A recipient of several awards (SOCAN Foundation Young Composers’ Awards, Boston Metro Opera Contempo Fest 2014), Anna is quickly rising on the contemporary music scene. Her music has been performed throughout Canada, as wells as USA, Italy, Austria, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, South Korea and Uruguay. Her piece The Child, Bringer of Light received its premier at Carnegie Hall in New York, and Light-play Through Curtain Holes represented Canada at the ISCM World New Music Days 2013 in Vienna.

She participated in composition workshops with R. Murray Schafer and Soundstreams in Toronto, Kaija Saariaho and Anssi Karttunen at Carnegie Hall in New York, and Gary Kulesha and Chen Yi at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.  She has worked with So Percussion, the Gryphon Trio, aTonalHits, Thin Edge New Music Collective, and soloists Katelyn Clark, Paul Dwyer, Gamin, Janice Jackson, Rachel Mercer, Andrew Morrow, Olivia Steimel, Nick Tolle and Dobrochna Zubek. Her music has been commissioned by Toronto’s New Music Concerts, Soundstreams and 21C Festival.

Anna completed her undergraduate studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick in 2007 and a master’s degree at the University of Calgary in 2013. She has participated in two creative residencies at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta. Anna is currently pursuing a PhD in music composition at Princeton University.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

When I was a child in Ukraine, my father and his friends used to sing Russian ballads and Ukrainian folk songs accompanied by acoustic guitar. That’s probably one of the reasons that song and voice are important in my work. Another important influence was a collection of Soviet-era LPs, which were essentially like radio plays for children, with actors and music and singing. My favorite LP was the one about Peter Pan. I played it constantly and apparently sang along very loudly, often waking up my little sister. There’s something about the combination of magic and minor keys in this musical world that I still find very appealing. And, well, the ability to remain a child, in your imagination if not in body, to be Peter Pan, is a prerequisite to being an artist.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

Hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the first time really made me feel like here was music I could understand on some deep and basic level. It is partly because of Stravinsky that I began to really explore my Ukrainian folk heritage, though I took it in a rather different direction. Kaija Saariaho taught me a great deal about writing for strings, and is an important role model because of her professional success. Ana Sokolovic is similarly a great professional inspiration. Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child is a piece that I wish I had composed. That combination of beautiful soprano/bass counterpoint with the highly structured spectral harmonies is absolutely magical. I love Kurtag’s vocal music, especially his song cycle Scenes from a novel. There is something so raw, intimate and spontaneous about his connection with Rimma Dalos’ poetry. R. Murray Schafer’s gorgeous illustrated manuscripts were an important inspiration for my own visual explorations.

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

Most of my music is guided by some sort of extra-musical drama and this drama shapes the musical form. I very rarely compose truly abstract music. For instance, The Child, Bringer of Light (described below) explores Carl Jung’s archetype of the Child and the journey this mythical being takes to discover itself, conquer darkness and bring light into the world. On the courtship displays of Birds-of-Paradise is structured around the complex choreographies of the mating displays of different Birds-of-Paradise. Weeping draws on Ukrainian folk weeping tradition to create a group grieving experience. Through closed doors is an agitated dialogue between lovers trapped on either side of a closed door. There is always a story or a concept which guides the development of the musical material.

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?

I became a composer before I was a performer so I don’t play any instrument at a high level. I used to be extremely reliant on Finale and it’s playback function to compose because I simply didn’t have the skills to hear my music any other way. Some of my earliest compositions, however, were electroacoustic, so I think I understood on some subconscious level that music didn’t have to be confined to the rigid structure imposed by notation software or musical notation period. I started to break away from Finale about seven years ago when I decided to rent a cello while writing a solo cello piece, The Child, Bringer of Light.

I wanted to understand how all the harmonics worked. While I was figuring our the structure of the instrument, I came up with various gestures that I then developed into a whole piece using Finale to overcome my own obvious limitations as a non-cellist. Having the instrument in my hands also helped me understand what Saariaho was doing in her solo cello pieces and to connect her notation to the sound. It made me see how music can emerge from the structure of the instrument itself. This was a huge breakthrough in terms of my composing process. I really had to use this approach when writing the saenghwang part in The Courtship Displays of Birds-of-Paraise. It’s a traditional Korean instrument made to play very particular repertoire. It has 17 pipes which are missing a couple of pitches and which are arranged in a circle in a mixed up pattern that suits the music it is designed to play. It is impossible to write for this instrument without constantly thinking about its physical structure, so the gestures must by necessity emerge from the structure of the instrument. I didn’t have access to the instrument though so I had to do my best to imagine it in my hands.

The next breakthrough came when I started singing after getting to Princeton University about three and a half years ago. This has been especially important in my exploration of Ukrainian folk music. This is how I finally started to feel it from the inside. Singing put my body into the music I am writing. The whole process has become more physical rather than simply cerebral. I use my voice to compose even instrumental music. I record myself improvising using Logic. I layer different lines. I use midi instruments and sometimes record gestures on real instruments which can’t be expressed through midi. I create these skeletal mockups of sections or entire pieces and then transcribe and develop them in Finale.

The first piece composed this way was Weeping for instrumental sextet. This process has been extremely liberating. There’s more of an immediacy to everything. I don’t lose what’s in my head while attempting to write it down. I just sing and then figure out what I’m doing later. When I write vocal pieces for myself to sing, I also think about the structure of my voice: the different registers and how my voice moves between them, the colors I can produce, how ornaments happen, etc. The process of figuring out this structure also inspires musical gestures. So my vocal lines emerge directly from my vocal apparatus, just like the cello gestures emerged from the structure of the cello.

I don’t have a regular composing time. I tend to compose in bursts as I approach and  inevitably pass deadlines, and take breaks in between pieces. I work in my own simple home studio which has a microphone, a midi keyboard, a laptop connected to a large monitor, and a set of speakers.

Please describe a recent work.

I was inspired to write Through Closed Doors while working on a house renovation project. My main job was to restore the old woodwork. I loved removing layers of old paint from doors and revealing the beautiful old wood underneath. There was one particular door at the house, which had a hacked out hole in it. We learned that a teenage girl attacked it with a kitchen hatchet in a moment of passionate anger. This door contained this evidence of a very violent act in its structure. I started imagining lovers having an illicit conversation through this door, building up a dialogue from whispers and knocks. The idea to actually notate the music on the door came from Renaissance manuscripts which were laid on a table top and required the performers to stand around this table to read their individually oriented parts. The special notation I developed for this piece incorporates dynamic variation, bow pressure and accents right into the staff lines, creating a notation that aims to look the way it sounds. It makes the interpretation process more intuitive. The resulting lines also resemble the wavering growth lines in wood.

One thought on “Anna Pidgorna : composing through the body

  1. I know that 103 yea old, 24″ wide door. It was painted green over red mahogany stain. You return it to life again with a great art on it. I love your composition of different arts work. Every piece you write is a composition, and not just music. And the most important pieces in those compositions are your Heart and Soul.

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