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Q&A with composer Anna Pidgorna

Photo by Amanda Bullick from Brutally Beautiful.
Photo by Amanda Bullick from Brutally Beautiful.

Canadian Anna Pidgorna is a composer, artist and vocalist, who combines everything from traditional music making, to visual arts, to writing, to carpentry in her multimedia practice. She was part of the first Soundstreams Emerging Composer Workshop in 2013, and is marking her first Soundstreams main-stage commission with her piece On the Courtship Displays of Birds of Paradise*, which will have its world premiere in Squeezebox on February 10.

She works in both the acoustic and electronic realms, independently and in conjunction. Anna particularly enjoys working with voice, and exploring solo instruments and small groups. She tends to gravitate towards simpler musical materials, infusing them with a great deal of expressive nuance and timbral variation.

We chatted with Anna in advance of Squeezebox, to discuss how she became a composer, how she composed her piece for the concert, and the impact that the Emerging Composer Workshop had on her career.

* Anna Pidgorna’s world premiere is supported by The Koerner Foundation.

Soundstreams: How and why did you begin composing music?
Anna Pidgorna: I started composing in high school,
first writing some songs for guitar and voice, and later trying my hand at instrumental composition through the International Baccalaureate music course. Why? I guess it was a new challenge and a new creative outlet. It was just something I was experimenting with and before I knew it, I was studying it full time at university.

SS: You work as a composer, artist and vocalist, and incorporate visual art, writing, and carpentry into your multimedia practice. How do all of these art forms come together in your work?
AP: They come together in different combinations in different pieces. I rarely compose purely ‘abstract’ music; my musical ideas tend to be tied to a story, to something going on in my life, or some other sensory experience. I have done visual arts since I was a child and I have recently started creating scores with visual elements. Last year I produced a set of linoleum prints which make up an illustrated score for a mini-opera. For a while, I worked on a heritage house renovation to support myself. Out of that came a violin duo painted onto an antique door. Because I tend to think in terms of story and drama, I am naturally drawn to opera. I have written my own libretti. I have been studying Ukrainian folk music for many years and now I write these ‘invented’ folk songs, which I sing in a pseudo-folk style.

Anna Pidgorna working on a piece of art, to accompany a score. Photo by M. Teresa Simao.
Anna Pidgorna working on a piece of art, to accompany a score. Photo by M. Teresa Simao.

SS: You’re currently pursuing your PhD in music composition at Princeton University. What is your area of focus?
AP: We can do whatever we want here. I have many interests and they are all welcome here.

SS: In May 2015, you had your debut “as a folk singer of sorts,” performing with So Percussion as part of the Princeton Sound Kitchen. What was the experience like, being on the stage as a performer, instead of behind the stage as a composer?
AP: Not having grown up as a performer, I’ve felt that I missed that side of music making. I wrote a sort of performance art piece when I was in undergrad; I still get to perform it occasionally and I love it. Singing in this pseudo-folk style has become a great outlet. What’s cool about performing my own music is that I don’t have to write everything down and I can make adjustments as I go. The tricky thing is that the composer in me wants to write music that is a little too hard for the performer. It forces the singer in me to catch up. At the same time, my particular abilities and limitations inspire different musical material and new ways of solving problems.

SS: Tell us about the piece you’ve composed for this concert, and what it’s like composing for the accordion.
AP: This duo for saenghwang and accordion is inspired by the courtship rituals of birds of paradise. There are several short movements each based on a different bird. At least one of them is made up, however. Writing for the accordion is fun and easy for me. I’ve written for it a number of times and it’s one of my favourite instruments. It’s very versatile and tactile. Writing for the saenghwang has been a big challenge. It is a very old instrument designed for a particular kind of music. It has 17 pipes spanning about two octaves with various notes missing. It is played by covering holes in the pipes. The particular circular arrangement of the pipes creates many challenges because you physically can’t reach certain holes at the same time. I love the sound of this instrument and how the act of playing it appears very graceful and flowing, but it was difficult to figure out how to write for it and make the music my own.

Photo by Amanda Bullick from Brutally Beautiful.
Photo by Amanda Bullick from Brutally Beautiful.

SS: How do you feel you have changed or grown as a composer since participating in Soundstreams’ first Emerging Composer Workshop?
AP:
Both times that I’ve worked with Soundstreams, I came up with very intricate challenges for myself in terms of combining technical and conceptual difficulties. When writing for the Gryphon Trio as part of the Emerging Composer Workshop, I wanted to tell a particular story, bringing in Ukrainian folk elements and timbral exploration, all while navigating a different tuning system on the string instruments. It was a very hard piece to write. This time I am trying to capture the essence of these bird courtship displays, to create music for their choreography, while at the same time working with a challenging instrument I have never seen before. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle or navigate a labyrinth that you yourself have created. So in some ways I am in the same situation as before, but this time I have a few more skills to get me through. I am also more flexible and quicker to change course when I hit dead-ends.

SS: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
AP:
The best piece of advice came from this fantastic film called Untitled. The lead character is an experimental composer who is struggling to find some sort of acceptance for his own work and how it is received. Towards the end he asks an older composer how he manages to continue composing with all the stupid comments he receives. The older composer’s answer is that “you have to find meaning in the process.”

LIGHTNING ROUND
Favourite city: I’ve lived and visited enough cities to know that each one has its good and bad sides.
Worst airport: Some dinky airport in Honduras where I had a very long layover on the way to Utila.
Guilty pleasure song: Anything by ABBA
Best concert hall: It depends on what you want to perform.
Favourite restaurant: Depends on what I want to eat.


Hear the world premiere of Anna Pidgorna’s piece On the Courtship Displays of Birds of Paradise, for saenghwang and accordion at Squeezebox on February 10. Tickets on sale now!

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