An Interview with Composer Ashley Reneé Seward.

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Beyond the Notes presents

Women Composers of Song from Around the World

Presented by A Modern Reveal

Wednesday, March 15, 2022, 12:00 PM

Charles Library Event Space

Featuring Boyer College of Music vocal studies students and collaborative pianist Gabriel Rebolla

Light refreshments served. Boyer recital credit given.

All programs are free and open to all, and registration is encouraged.

Welcome back for the March installment of the Beyond the Notes concert series. This month’s concert, “Women Composers of Song from Around the World,” presented by A Modern Reveal, honors women’s history month. The program of vocal works features composers from Brazil to Australia in eight different languages, highlighting the vast repertoire provided by underrepresented identities.  

In anticipation of this celebratory performance, I conducted an interview with Canadian composer Ashley Reneé Seward (she/they), whose song “Let the Little Birds Sing” opens the program. Seward is a Vancouver-based composer who utilizes post-tonal approaches in their writing to execute creativity and openness in her works. The following interview was edited for clarity and length.

Seward, Image via Ashley Reneé Seward

Kaitlyn Canneto: How do you think your identity or experiences personally have informed your own compositions?

Ashley Reneé Seward: It’s interesting, because the transgender part has really only come into my music very recently, and only in a couple [of] pieces. I’ve had an interest in…experimental vocal music—I’m trying to get across the embodied feeling that, that a lot of cis[gender] people get when they first meet a transgender person or a visibly gender non-conforming person, there’s a gut reaction that tends to happen. Lately, I’ve been interested in figuring out what musically and theatrically evokes that…the piece on the program [“Let the Little Birds Sing”] is definitely not one of those…The thing that I think has more broadly influenced by music is my neurodivergence, which I would call it a big source of my creativity, an out of the box kind of thinking—in that metaphor, I can’t see the box. This song is a good example because…when I was reading [Edna St. Vincent] Millay’s poem, from this two or three poem cycle called “Three Songs of Shattering,” it’s about losing one’s first love, it’s very kind of melodramatic. I thought it would be neat to take that melodrama and twist in an ironic element, because the piece is this very jaunty with lots of [mixed] meters, and it’s…a spring sounding piece in a lot of ways.

Kait: I appreciate your openness to and sharing your own personal experiences and perspective. Either specifically to this piece or anything else from your repertoire, how are the specific parts of your identity, either neurodivergence or being trans[gender], how would you say that they manifest in your works?

Ashley: A lot of it boils down to my influences—the composers that I’m inspired by the most tend to be ones who share one of those identities. Mahler was just absolutely the most autistic person in all the classical canon, and I think for that reason, [his] music really resonates with me…When you think about Bruckner, how strange [his] music is with all the weird pauses in the middle of things and…phrases that go on forever, repeating the same thing, it’s very much alike. I think of it musicologically [as] a very artistic way of writing music—Mahler definitely encompasses that as well; it’s in the way phrases are attenuated. For me, I can really hear a sense of almost non-resolution…And that happens in my music a lot—I don’t like to end…in a very definitive way. This piece, of course, “Let the Little Birds Sing,” is kind of an exception to that because…it’s very clear where the ending is. 

Then the transgender part, it’s kind of similar. A lot of my approach to music involves form—form, first and foremost then harmony, melody, and instrumental color…things that I have developed through training …but the heart of it comes from things like form and rhythm and harmony; and to that end, this piece…formally, it’s quite simple, but rhythmically, it’s very indecisive. It starts in VI [chord] and then goes to vii for a bit and then goes to VI and then goes to V…it switches around a lot—and I do that quite a lot…this aspect of formal nonresolution in meter, a flow of time. Back to Mahler and even Beethoven, it’s a big part of those composers as well, rephrasing where you’re not breaking things up into static chunks, more so creating a whole thing through a phrase.

Kait: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not especially partial to the canon [in my research]. Anything remotely, even slightly outside the canon—or deviating from a perfect authentic cadence (PAC), for example, I appreciate.

Ashley: For sure. And the good thing about new music is that we’ve moved on to new tools. So things like the PAC, the sentence, and the period and all these very classical artifices are, kind of, not in the repertoire anymore…there’s a book by composer Ken Kennan on counterpoint where in the preface he talks about “every musical era is either contrapuntal or harmonic.” He says that, in harmonic eras, there’s a very established convention. And there he’s referring to the Classical and Romantic periods, and in contrapuntal times there’s much more experimental zeitgeist…Obviously, I don’t really think that’s a dichotomy that you can strictly map onto any period of human history, but I think it’s an interesting way of framing. What’s really happening right now, which I think is we have to, we have both harmonic and contrapuntal areas, because on the one hand, you have the mainstream music industry where there are established conventions that are determined by recording studios and their executives—Now, on the other hand, you have pretty much everyone else, where a lot of people have much more freedom to do things than they ever have before.

Speaking of the PAC, one thing that I kind of love about the perfect authentic cadence is that it’s been stripped of its power in a way—it’s this thing that is, dissected and in undergraduate music courses, you’re just—you’re just hammered over and over with…until you can recognize it anywhere. I think there’s something kind of beautiful about how, in an effort to understand the thing, we’ve made it meaningless in a way. I think that’s, I say beautiful, because it really sucks a lot of the magic out of the canon…I think it really opened at least, my mind, and the minds of a lot of composers I know. 

Kait: That’s a really excellent perspective, thank you. Apart from Mahler, for example, who or what other things, people, [or] anything at all, are inspirational for you when it comes to composition?

Ashley: I mean, there’s really so much I take [as] inspiration from the books I read, from the games I play, from movies and shows that I watch, from just things that I see around the world. A lot of it isn’t tangible in my music, because my music tends to be, or at least the way I think about it, very emotionally driven. Whenever I sit down to write, I’m always thinking of adjectives, like how would I describe emotionally the thing I’m about to write…it comes from everywhere. There are some things that I think a lot of composers are very interested in—I think every composer has…a set of sensibilities that they are best at expressing. For me, I love to take it all in—everything that I can. Sometimes it’s hard to remain open to everything that life has to offer. I think that a very important part of being an artist is letting yourself be available to be inspired, because it really can come from anywhere. 

Speaking of more concrete composers, Mahler’s a huge one…since I was in high school, his music has really been a guide for me because…classical harmony even in his contemporaries, it’s just not there—the harmony is so tied in with folk music and all of these other things that it’s really hard to detect…where the classical influence comes from. Besides him, Tchaikovsky’s a big one—Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Brahms, Bach as well [from the canon]. More recently, there’s a couple of living composers whose work I’ve studied a lot: Alex Temple, brin solomon. When I listen to music…I listen to the same things over and over…and it’s a very eclectic mix. In terms of contemporary composers: Sofia Gubaidulia, Benjamin Britten is a big influence, especially in my vocal music—Louis Andriessen, from him, to Julia Wolfe, to Hans Abrahamsen, to Canadian composers like Bekah Simms, my old teachers, Dorothy Chang and Jocelyn Morlock are big influences. There’s a Ukrainian composer whose music I have been getting into a lot lately, who does the most beautiful, ethereal, very, extremely-delicate textures that are just like really, really wonderful—Valentyn Silvestrov…It’s really anything and everything that comes across my way. 

Outside of classical music, there’s so many different kinds of music I listen to—lately I’ve been getting into old time-y…gunfighter ballads, recitations, and Marty Robbins-sort-of stuff. Just looking at my record shelf, I listen to a lot of jazz…Broadway musicals, popular artists: Kate Bush, Alanis Morissette…really anything and everything…I think everything really, in life, has something to teach you…and I think that openness and being available as much as you can to be inspired…that’s really what I tried to do.

Kait: That was a very beautiful and inclusive answer. 

Ashley: Thanks. 

Kait: Going back to the theme of the concert, what are some ways or anything that comes to mind for how women like you can be better represented in the arts?

Ashley: It’s a tough thing…I think there could be more acceptance of our own smallness—I think there could be more humility. I know that’s a big part of a lot of marketing schemes for symphony orchestras and even new music organizations—that’s a much wider problem that in many cases just can’t be the purview of the artistic director of X new music ensemble. I think— more humble listening to our musical relatives will go a long way.