Mezzo-Soprano Suzanne Schwing

If there’s a professional choral performance the New York area, chances are mezzo-soprano Suzanne Schwing is in it.  I’ve enjoyed working with her in C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, in which I appreciate her impeccable precision and artistry.  C4 is only one of many ensembles with which Suzanne performs; in December alone, she appeared with the New York Virtuoso Singers Sextet, the Collegiate Chorale, the Pro Arte Singers, and as soloist with the Choral Society of the Hamptons.  Suzanne will sing with the vocal quartet in the ImaginaryTimescapes performance.

As a frequent performer of contemporary music, Suzanne explains the unique challenges and pleasures she associates with singing this repertoire: “There’s a particular skill set that is required when performing contemporary music.  This isn’t to say that it’s a different skill set than is required when performing older, more mainstream works; rather, it’s that same skill set being taken into uncharted territory.  With contemporary music, there is little or no previous performance history from which to draw an example, and this requires perhaps a greater degree of focus during the preparation and performance of the piece.  The flip side of this is that there are also few, if any, expectations attached to the piece on the part of the listeners—there’s no-one in the audience saying, “But this isn’t the tempo that Muti took on his 2007 recording,” for example—and this offers the performers greater latitude to create the new reality of the piece.  The challenge of these pieces lies in their newness, which offers a heightened sense of freedom in return.”

You can hear Suzanne on 2 recordings released in 2012 in which she is a soloist—…With Peace in Mind (Choral Music of Nancy Wertsch) with the New York Virtuoso Singers and as Alto soloist for Messiah with the Choral Society of the Hamptons.  Also look out for a CD of 25 world-premiere compositions with the New York Virtuoso Singers in conjunction with their 25th-anniversary celebration concerts in Merkin Hall, which she will record in early 2013.



Violinist and Soprano Elizabeth Derham

Today I would like to introduce violinist and soprano Elizabeth Derham, who will be performing in both the string quartet and the soprano duo (with myself) in the Imaginary Timescapes performance.  Before I composed Nigun for the two of us, I had the pleasure of singing with Liz, as she is known, in the soprano section of C4: the Choral Composers/Conductors Collective.  She’s the kind of singer who wants to hang back after rehearsal to sing through a particularly exposed soprano part and discuss strategies for getting the intonation just right in a tricky spot.  Add that to the fact that she has a clear tone and a voice that easily and evenly jumps around from below middle C to As and Bs above the staff, and you have your ideal new music singer.  That she also has perfect pitch is a bonus!

In November Liz and I premiered Nigun, my work for two sopranos and electronics that we will reprise on February 16th.  About the experience, Liz had the following to say: “Working on Nigun was a fantastic experience for me, both because it was my first time working with tape and because Karen’s writing is so wild. I have always loved music with electronics, so singing along with the taped voices was a real thrill, especially when we got to do it in the hall with the tape at full volume. After the experience of performing Nigun’s complex whirl of vocal textures, I can’t wait to do it again, and to perform more music of this genre.”

Like the rest of the Imaginary Timescapes string quartet, Liz is pursuing her Masters degree at Juilliard.  She studies violin there with Joseph Lin and Naoko Tanaka and plays frequently with the New Juilliard Ensemble and AXIOM.  Liz is an avid performer of new music, having worked with artists such as David Lang, Magnus Lindberg, Robert Wilson, and Bill T. Jones; and she has premiered numerous works by composers at Juilliard, Aspen, and Fontainebleau, as well as works by freelance composers around New York City.  She has been concertmaster an co-concertmaster of numerous orchestras.  Career highlights include soloing with the New York Young Musicians Ensemble on tour in Italy, playing the American and Israeli national anthems for the Pave The Way Foundation 2004 Annual Dinner at the Harmonie Club in Manhattan, winning the 2007 Abraham Katz Memorial Award in the Friday Woodmere Music Club Young Artists competition, and giving the Western Hemisphere premieres of four new string quartets at the MOMA’s Summergardens outdoor concert series.



Violinist Alex Shiozaki

It’s great to perform with musicians who are in love – the two violinists in the quartet are soon to be married, but as they are quick to point out, not to each other.  Alex Shiozaki is marrying a fellow musician, the pianist Nana Shi, with whom he frequently collaborates.  The couple made their Carnegie Hall debut in Stern Auditorium with Mendelssohn’s Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra. As a duo, Alex and Nana have given many recitals across the country, performing repertoire from Beethoven to Schoenberg to Satoh. They can be heard often in NYC, concertizing in venues including the Juilliard School, WMP Concert Hall, and the Roerich Museum.

Praised by The New York Times as “spellbinding,” violinist Alex Shiozaki regularly premieres new works between performances of more traditional repertoire. Equally at home with music new and old, he has appeared as a soloist on stages from Carnegie Hall to Harvard University’s Paine Hall. For several summers, he has been invited to Tanglewood as a New Fromm Player, specializing in contemporary music.

Described by conductor David Effron as “a natural leader,” Alex has led as concertmaster the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Juilliard Chamber Orchestra, New Juilliard Ensemble, Harvard Bach Society Orchestra, and more. He has also performed with Ensemble ACJW, Le Train Bleu, and Second Instrumental Unit in NYC, and with the New World Symphony in Miami. In the summer of 2011, Alex joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on their tour to Japan.  Highlights of his appearances a chamber musician include being featured on the Wednesdays At One concert series at Alice Tully Hall, in the Focus! Festival at the Juilliard School with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and in a New York Times multimedia feature performing Stravinsky’sL’histoire du soldat under the baton of Alan Gilbert.

Alex is currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Juilliard School as a C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellow, stududing with Ronald Copes and Joseph Lin of the Juilliard String Quartet.  I look forward to working with Alex for the first time in the Imaginary Timescapes concert, where he will be performing the song cycles Reflections on Espionage and October in Galicia for voice and string quartet.

You can hear Alex on Dec. 13-15 in Cosi Faran Tutti, a new opera by Jonathan Dawe that “celebrates multiple permutations of love by pulling the covers off the seemingly random combinations of desire to which all are subject,” directed by Ryan McAdams  (Teatro Theatre, the Italian Academy, 118th St. and Amsterdam, NYC, 8pm).  Other performances can be found at, and I recommend listening to his recording of Jones’ Night Music, among his recordings you can stream at

Please visit the RocketHub campaign site for this performance  to learn more about the performance and find out how you can become involved.

Bass Phillip Cheah

When Tania León encouraged me to produce this performance, and I started putting it all together, Phillip Cheah was the first person I called. One of his many talents is an ability to sing in both the bass and the soprano register, and his involvement enables us to perform one of my choral works, Signifying Nothing, with only four people even though it calls for a three-part soprano divisi at one point. But that unique ability aside, Phillip’s musicianship is an invaluable asset to the vocal quartet for the Imaginary Timescapes performance. I worked with Phillip in C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective from its founding in 2005 through 2010, when he left to take a position as Music Director of the Central City Chorus. (Coincidentally, Phillip conducted C4’s premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere, one of the works he will sing with the vocal quartet.) Whether singing under his baton or alongside him, and especially when he is conducting one my compositions, I always appreciate his heartfelt expression and exacting ear.
Phillip’s voice, praised for its “particularly potent contribution” (New York Times) and a “warm tone and stately presence” (paterre box) with a three-and-a-half octave vocal range that “defies the laws of nature” (Time Out New York), has made him in high demand as a singer and inspired song cycles written for him by Patrick Castillo, Jonathan David, and Frank J. Oteri. Phillip has sung with too many professional choruses and orchestras for me to list them all here, and he is currently a member of the professional choir at the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. I’ve enjoyed hearing some of his recitals—Phillip collaborates regularly with pianist Trudy Chan in performances at the Tenri Cultural Institute (the Imaginary Timescapes venue), the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, and the Cornelia Street Café (as part of the 21st Century Schizoid Music Series).
In addition to Phillip’s accomplishments as a singer, his conducting has been hailed by the New York Times for the “warm tone and carefully calibrated blend” elicited from his choirs. Phillip has conducted New Music New York, Cerddorion, Amuse, the Amato Opera, and well as being a founding member of C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective with me, as I mentioned. He is presently the Music Director of the Central City Chorus and the staff accompanist at The Brearley School.
Can’t wait until Feb. 16th to hear this vocal phenom?   Check out the “Quire of Cheahs,” a series of all-Cheah choral recordings, or recordings from Phillip’s recitals at

Free Concert Tonight: Cellist Sofia Nowik

Over the next week or so, I would like to introduce you to the talented musicians who will join me for the Imaginary Timescapes performance. Your contributions to this campaign are primarily going to them. I will start with the cellist Sofia Nowik, who you can hear in a free solo recital tonight at the Juilliard School (8pm, Paul Hall, 65th & Broadway, no ticket required). Tonight Sofia will play works by Bartok, Faure, Janacek, Martinu, and Poulenc.

Sofia studies with Darrett Adkins at Juilliard, where she is a graduate student and a principal cellist in the Juilliard Orchestra. She also plays as a freelance musician throughout the tri-state area, performing in orchestras and as both a soloist and a chamber musician for numerous concerts, recitals, and recording projects. Sofia premiered Tim Keyes’ The Mighty Mississippi, a concerto for cello and large-scale orchestra and choir with the Tim Keyes Consort, and she also appeared as a soloist with the Manalapan Symphony Orchestra, Central Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and the Livingston Symphony.

Sofia has served as both principal and assistant principal with the New Jersey and New York Youth Symphonies, respectively, and as well as with the Plainfield Symphony. As one of the musicians chosen to represent the Juilliard Orchestra , she was invited this past summer to co-lead the cello section in a special joint project with the Royal Academy of Music (London) under the direction of composer and conductor John Adams. This collaboration produced two performances, one in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival and a culminating performance in London at the BBC Proms Festival. Sofia is also a cello mentor and coach at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division, a member of the Juilliard School’s contemporary ensembles New Juilliard Ensemble and Axiom, and a Teaching Assistant for the Liberal Arts Department at the Juilliard School.

Can’t make tonight’s recital? You can hear Sofia again this coming Monday, Dec. 10th, when she will perform with Juilliard’s contemporary group Axiom in a program featuring Toru Takemitsu’s Archipelago S for 21 players and John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music (8pm, Alice Tully Hall, free tickets available at the Juilliard Box Office.)

(Originally posted Dec 6th, 2012 at 10:25 AM EST)

Obsessions from the Twittersphere & Confessions from the Blogosphere

There is one last work on the Imaginary Timescapes performance that I have yet to write about—the companion pieces Obesessions from the Twittersphere and Confessions from the Blogosphere, “serious” music that makes the audience laugh. The seed for Confessions from the Blogosphere was planted in my brain when I received a valentine in 2006 from my friend Ethan Chessin, a trombonist and music teacher who has periodically brightened my days by mailing absurd cards involving construction paper and few words. This particular one featured the letter “B,” a snake, and a single word: “blogosphere.” (Perhaps there was also a small heart somewhere on it identifying the creation as a valentine; anyway, it arrived in February.) Back then the word was fairly new, and it did have a ring to it.At some point I started poking around on blogs, looking for material. I found a “confession” that was only mildly embarrassing and pretty funny, and then I started looking for more, discovering that people write some pretty absurd, and sometimes hysterical, things on the internet.

Fun fact: the 2007 premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere by C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective was conducted by none other than Phillip Cheah, who is singing bass in the vocal quartet that will perform these pieces on the Imaginary Timescapes concert! The program note for the first performance of these two pieces as a pair (I wrote Obsessions from the Twittersphere in 2009) is as follows:

In the few years since the premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere, on-line communication has blossomed and diversified. The arrival of Twitter was both powerful and ridiculous. The same tool is used to spread political movements and to inform the world what one had for breakfast, in brief spurts of 140 characters or less. Focusing on the ridiculous, Obsessions from the Twittersphere mocks the mass-distribution of the meaningless. Tweets about obsessions from strange to harmless are patched together in an unfolding dialogue between strangers.

Confessions from the Blogosphere is inspired by the comparatively old-fashioned realm of the on-line blog. Like a tweet, a blog post is inherently public. Unlike the twittersphere, however, the blogosphere often has an association with intimacy. Created in an intimate, comfortable space (at home, alone with one’s computer), it frequently contains highly personal thoughts once relegated to the old-fashioned diary. As I started reading blog entries that ranged from the banal to the bizarre, I was captivated by a unique kind of confession motivated more by humor than by guilt. The text to Confessions from the Blogosphere is composed entirely of quotes from these blogs. The quotes overlap and compete for attention, reflecting the context of fast-paced internet surfing in which they are read.

Obsessions from the Twittersphere

I have a slight obsession with my iphone.
I have a very weird obsession with fat pigeons, they’re so… interesting.
My obsession has probably turned unhealthy.
Yes, I do think your obsession with Samantha is a bit unhealthy.

Holy crap, dude.
My child has developed an obsession with buckles.
Like, on her booster seat,
All she wants to do is snap and unsnap them.
I have an obsession with strollers.
We’ve got like eight!
Thank God I can’t afford my obsession with cars.

A new obsession is building.
I want a new obsession.
Developing a small obsession for sesame snacks.

Europe’s obsession with corporate remuneration has little to do with preventing excessive risk taking.

I know,
We need to find a place that makes good leechee martinis,
They are my new obsession!
Lately I developed an obsession with Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture of Bucharest.

Twitter is an obsession.
My obsession has probably turned unhealthy.

— compiled by Karen Siegel from tweets by: @Squeakees, @jkamazingkris, @tripleXmas, @j9gem, @samarapostuma, @thody, @Angians, @trishaO_o, @YasTwit, @mister_Sam, @KraseyBeauty, @viapontica and @MissBeeyawnkuh.

Confessions from the Blogosphere

I like Paris Hilton for real.
Should I be ashamed?

I’ve never been a fan of Tom Cruise.
There! That’s off my chest.

I occasionally watch a couple soap operas.
My cousin got me hooked on “The Young and the Restless” when I was fourteen.

In junior high I joined the chess club because I liked the nerdy boys.

Yes, in the most worrying O.C.D. episode of late
I pulled out all of my shoes.
I wiped them down, treated the leather.
I took my post-it notes and wrote in black sharpie a short description of the shoe
Which would then be visible when stuck on the inside of the clear stackable boxes in which my shoes reside.

So there you have it people.
I have issues.
I have admitted, shared, and am feeling positively at ease with my madness.

My weakness isn’t pairs of shoes, gadgets, or collecting D.V.D.’s.
I’m continually tempted to buy new notebooks
The paper variety.
You can never have too many notebooks
And I love looking through old journals full of old sketches from over the years.
While digital is such a powerful medium and my wacom pen is lovely
Nothing beats the satisfaction of doodling on a piece of paper.

There, that’s off my chest!

— compiled by Karen Siegel from blogs by: “Misty,” “Mulligan,” “Kim’s Suitcase,” “Style Editor,” Rachel Cunliffe, and “a gay, partnered guy from South Louisiana.”

Come hear the internet come to life on February 16th!  (Tickets, $20, are available here; proceeds befenit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.)


There is one piece on the Imaginary Timescapes program on Feb. 16th that is different from all the rest—Nigun, for two sopranos and electronics. I composed this piece this fall because I was interested in the interplay of two similar voices in alternating synchronicity and asynchronicity with folk-inspired material, and because I wanted to explore working with sound design. So I confounded the parents at the playground by showing up with a digital recorder instead of a child, and used the resulting recordings of children playing as the source material for the electronic part. I had also been looking at a book of Jewish folk songs (nigunim) leant to me by Rabbi Scheinberg, which influenced the melodies I wrote. The final ingredient was the involvement of soprano Elizabeth Derham, whose voice I knew would work well with my own as I wrote two intertwined soprano lines. Here is an excerpt from our Nov. 20th performance of Nigun at the CUNY Graduate Center:

And the program note for Nigun is as follows:

There is a tradition in Jewish communities of singing melodies without words, known as nigunim (or in the singular, nigun). This vocal duo is a take on this idea of vocal expression through melody and syllables chosen for their musical qualities, and is distantly related to some actual nigunim. The electronic part weaves in and out of the voices, at times nudging the music forwards and at times taking over to become the central focus. It consists of recordings of children playing; these recordings have been cut, pasted and looped to echo the rhythmic character of the vocal lines. Thank you to Rochelle and Bernard Natt, my mother, and my husband for enabling me to finish this piece during the unusual times following Sandy.

Come hear the internet come to life on February 16th!  (Tickets, $20, are available here; proceeds befenit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.)

Signifying Nothing

Signifying Nothing is unique among my vocal works because it is the only instance so far when the musical ideas completely preceded the choice of text. I had studied Ligeti’s music, and I was inspired by the polyrhythmic textures he called micropolyphony and the way he broke down words into individual phonemes. It occurred to me that if I could transition from a homophonic choral texture with standard text treatment into a polyrhythmic texture with fragmented text, and back again, the music would go in and out of cohesiveness with a striking effect. The idea was to let each phrase ebb in and out of being, only briefly existing as an understandable line of poetry with a cohesive melody and rhythm.

I started thinking about what might be an appropriate text, and then my husband suggested Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth. With its existential theme, it was absolutely perfect (“Life’s but a walking shadow… signifying nothing.”) To top it off, just after I chose that text, members of C4 (the Choral Composers/Conductors Collective of which I was a founding member, and for which I continue to compose, sing and conduct) brought up the idea of doing a Shakespeare-themed concert. And so C4 premiered Signifying Nothing in 2010. The full soliloquy is below, and you can hear C4’s performance of the piece at

On February 16th, I will perform Signifying Nothing as part of a vocal quartet with alto Suzanne Schwing, bass Phillip Cheah, and tenor Dennis Tobenski. Thanks to Phillip’s amazing flexibility, we can perform the piece with only four singers even though it calls for a three-part soprano divisi at the end—Phillip with jump from bass to soprano!

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdays, have lighted Fools
The way to dusty death. Out out, brief Candle,
Life’s but a walking Shadow, a poor Player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

— William Shakespeare
from The Tragedy of Macbeth: According to the first folio (spelling modernised). Hamnet Edition, 1877. Act 5, scene 5.

Come hear the internet come to life on February 16th!  (Tickets, $20, are available here; proceeds befenit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.)

October in Galicia, part 2

Continuing yesterday’s post on Ewald Murrer’s poetry set in October in Galicia, a song cycle for soprano and string quartet that I will perform on the Imaginary Timescapes concert… Here are the final two poems of the cycle. I’m interested to hear what you think of them as poetry, before you hear the music these poems inspired.

October 4th

The voices of dogs
beyond the mountains. 

Early morning, a dream chased me from bed. A difficult dream. The white body of a unicorn flying above me. I could not breathe, I was sweating.

The unicorn’s horn pierced the sky. Stars poured swiftly to the ground like fruit blossoms.

The Fuks’ awoke around five in the morning. I do not exactly know the time, there is no clock in the house.

We rode donkeys in the cool dew.

We came to a stop in mysterious, fragrant marshes. Fuks slouched with his finger at his lips. Abigail whispered something into her hands.

In those places, it was as if there were no sunrise. Quite the opposite, the darkness thickened.

Silently, we waited.

And finally, from the distance, a unicorn was approaching.

Abigail closed her eyes and, for some time, did not open them. Fuks tinkered with something by the donkey. I stared mutely at the magnificent animal, that dream come to life.

Then it happened. Abigail cried out. My unicorn ran off. We returned empty-handed. Surreptitiously, they looked at me. Perhaps I was the cause of the failure.

Then silently, it drizzled. The landscape went damp.

October 23rd

Are you not the moon,
you have such a white face.
I saw you behind the hill
and you fled.

I read through bulky old books with the rabbi. The rabbi blew the dust off their spines.

Unicorns reveal themselves in dreams. In the rabbi’s books, we discovered the ancient homeland of these animals.

Organ music from the heavens.

— Ewald Murrer, translated by Alicie Pist’ková

(Originally posted Dec 2nd, 2012 at 10:42 AM EST)

October in Galicia, part 1

I composed October in Galicia in 2005 for the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the CUNY Graduate Center.  In the Imaginary Timescapes performance, I will perform a new arrangement of the work for soprano and string quartet.  October in Galicia is a setting of selections from the Czech poet Ewald Murrer’s fantastical book, The Diary of Mr. Pinke, translated into English by Alicie Pist’ková.  The surreal day-to-day happenings of Mr. Pinke occur in a timeless group of villages revealed by a translator’s note to be modeled on the historical region of Galicia (now part of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia).  I found this novel-in-verse in an English language bookstore in Prague, and was captivated by the enigmatic poetry.  What do you make of it?

The first poem in the song cycle is as follows:

October 1st  

A cockcrow

in the day’s din.

A wonderful rumor reached the village, even my ears.  Apparently Mr. Fuks catches his unicorns here in our region.  He cuts off their horns and sells them as talismans.  The horn of a unicorn brings good luck (as does the unicorn).   It is also medicinal, it cures evil spells, jinxes, thin blood, aches of the head as well as those of the soul.

The nature of a unicorn is to act as a sentry.  The unicorn is the silent protector of secret knowledge.  A taciturn scholar.  A wise visionary.

Mr. Fuks sells the unicorn, whose horn he has cut off, as an unusual breed of horse.  These horses do not remain with their buyers long, however, for the bolt at the first chance.

This animal can only be caught with the help of a virgin.

Mr. Fuks has a daughter, Abigail.

— Ewald Murrer, translated by Alicie Pist’ková


(Originally published Dec. 1, 2012)