Q&A: Daijana Wallace

Composer Daijana Wallace discusses “Through Distance,” featured on Sputter Box’s debut album.

Daijana Wallace. Photo: Julian Kincaid.

Sputter Box’s debut album, Sputter (SHRINKS THE) Box, features more than 25 brand new miniatures, each scored for bass clarinet, voice, and djembe.

Through Distance” is Track 01 on the album.

NATASHA NELSON: Would you begin by talking a bit about your piece “Through Distance”?

DAIJANA WALLACE: I think I pride myself on being able to write for my friends, and so this project was really intuitive to come by. I knew Kathryn before – I had met her at Cortona Sessions in 2018 – and I’ve been following her work through this ensemble. I loved the work of Sputter Box, but we hadn’t previously been able to line anything up because of our various schedules.

I think in general, writing during the quarantine was very, very difficult. I was thinking about all the various projects popping up about collaborating via Zoom or Skype, but there were so many. It was nice to get to write something for friends in a project that I felt good about, amongst all the other ones to possibly choose from.

Are the Cortona Sessions geared toward contemporary classical performance?

DW: Yes. It’s Cortona Sessions for New Music, and what it’s about is giving composers and performers opportunities to work together, and to get mentored by composers and performers who perform a lot in that medium. For composers, it’s a chance to learn how to work with new people in a short amount of time. The first year I was there auditing, which was great. I observed a lot and learned so much. I attended again the next year and participated as a composer.

Listen to Daijana Wallace’s piece “Upstairs Neighbor,” written for the Cortona Sessions for New Music in 2019. Performed by Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello) and Eli Geruschat (percussion).

What’s your primary instrument?

DW: My primary instrument is cello.

What kinds of pieces do you often focus on writing, and for what instrumentation? Was this composition particularly new in any way?

DW: Not necessarily. I’ve written a lot of chamber works, which make up most of my catalogue, and I’ve written for voice before, but every voice is so different: yes, you have range—but what’s the sound? The singer’s tone? How does their voice operate? That’s always a challenge, but I just tried to keep it safe [laughs]. I’ve written for percussion in solo and chamber settings and for wind instruments, as well. I hadn’t written for clarinet yet, specifically, so it was great.

“Shades,” for solo cello. Composed by Daijana Wallace; performed by Kivie Cahn-Lipman.

What was it like composing a minute-long piece? As a composer, how does one go about writing material to fit a specified duration?

DW: I think this is particularly difficult, because I like to think that I write short pieces—and when I say short pieces, I mean pieces that are about less than ten minutes long. So this was challenging to write something for just one minute. How much detail do you have to put in? Do you want it to be like a tiny rhapsody? Do you want it to have an A-B structure? The thought of form comes to mind, as well as musical complexity.

Not only is quantity of material a factor, but how much time does an ensemble have to rehearse it and put it together? For this project, Sputter Box asked that scores didn’t have a lot of syncopation and a lot of improv because of the medium that they were working with. I especially love adding improvisation elements in my scores, so the challenge there was to get away from that a bit. I’ve always wanted to try out songwriting, so I feel like this was a really fun moment for me.

Hear Wallace’s improvisatory piece entitled “Spaces,” featuring performers Justin Noel Hall (percussion), Chris Agnew (alto saxophone), and Genevieve Rucker (horn).

Had you heard Sputter Box’s vocalist, Alina Tamborini, sing prior to writing this piece?

DW: Yes, Sputter Box posts various videos on Instagram and Twitter.

Right! I seem to have forgotten about the presence of the internet for a moment there.

DW: [laughs] I had listened to most of the “Sputter (SHIFTS THE) Box” miniatures before I had even decided to start the project, just to see what everybody else was writing, as well as what everyone else was doing for these wonderful musicians. So I had done a little bit of research, but it’s so different when you’re doing everything virtually, without getting to interact with a collaborator in person.

Would you describe the text for “Through Distance”?

DW: Since we’re talking often about social-distancing, I wanted to think about the idea of distance, but not in the way that everybody was thinking about it in the current moment. The easiest thing to draw inspiration from was being in a [long-distance] relationship with my boyfriend, and thinking about that in retrospect, since we’re spending a lot of time together now. The text addresses distance, but not the distance that we’re all facing right now.

For other vocal compositions you’ve written, did you set your own texts for those, as well?

DW: I’ve worked with a poet named Julien Evans. I set their text for a song for string quartet and voice. Julien’s poetry really spoke to me in this way that they write. It’s almost difficult to want to be writing my own text – and think about writing my own text – when they just produce such amazing, wonderful work. But for a project like this, it’s so short and so small, you know? Usually poems take up a lot of time, spatially.

How so?

DW: When I think of text-setting for art songs, even if they’re short art songs, they range from about two minutes, onward. Working with text like that, you really want to dedicate a lot of time and energy into it. For this project, it was easier to write my own. For other projects, I’m definitely looking for texts from other poets, or from snippets of Tweets, or something I see on the internet.

When writing “Through Distance,” what part of the texture came first: the text and vocal melody, or the bass clarinet and percussion parts?

DW: I sang through the vocal line multiple times to figure out how the text was going to flow, and how it was going to sound, so that came first for sure. What came next, [through] singing it over again, was how to evoke this R&B vibe, given the instruments that were available for me to write for.

What elements did you write into the score to evoke that in particular?

DW: That’s a great question, thanks—I think it’s the constant pulse with Peter in the percussion. When I think about music, it’s always through – there’s always this thing about – feeling. The way that I felt this R&B Ballad could come together was [demonstrates rhythmic figure] and also, the sound of it. I wanted to make sure that it sounded good, to also supplement that feeling.

Would you describe your approach to crafting the vocal melody within the instrumental texture created by the clarinet and percussion parts in the score?

DW: When I was constructing this piece, the vocal part came first and the percussion part came after that to establish this rhythm, this groove. Then, the clarinet came in to reinforce harmony and add background textures. That was the last part in the composition process.

I think the voice and percussion are at the forefront of this work—and it makes sense. It’s like a pop song, almost, just for instruments. That was the order of operations: the vocal line, then percussion, and then the clarinet to add harmony, as well as texture.

Does the composition include extended techniques?

DW: I think the only thing that I have in there are some wind noises for bass clarinet, but nothing super crazy [laughs].

Did writing for a digital medium, versus for live performance, influence your compositional approach to the piece? Were there any surprising elements in hearing the finished recording for the first time?

DW: Yes. I think what I was surprised about was to hear it all come together. I’m not sure what editing software the ensemble used, but everything sounded like one collective unit. And even though I had heard the other videos before, and they sounded great, [it’s unique] when it’s your project and it’s your baby.

Would you like “Through Distance” to be performed live once we have access to concert halls again, or is the composition’s creation for a digital medium, specifically, essential to the work?

DW: It’s so different to think about pieces being performed – and written to be performed – in a virtual medium, as opposed to pieces being written to be performed in a physical medium. I think that if this were to be possible in a physical medium, I would love to expand more on it if given the time, because it’s just one-minute long. If it were expanded into a collection of miniatures or into a full song, I feel like for me, it would be more fulfilling in a physical medium. But I wouldn’t be opposed to having more interpretations of this virtually. I think that would be really awesome.

Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about today?

DW: I’m really appreciative that I got this chance to work with such incredibly talented and dedicated musicians. That’s one thing I love about composing: I have one part, but the performers make everything about composing possible. I just have to thank them one more time.

Find Daijana Wallace’s website at daijanawallace.com.

This article is part of a series, featuring interviews with 16 composers whose work is featured on Sputter Box’s debut album. Read the feature article here!

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. #ShelterInSound

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