Music to Inspire Dialogue

Composer Angelique Poteat and the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra rehearse at Roosevelt High School. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)
Composer Angelique Poteat and the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra rehearse at Roosevelt High School. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)

It is an interesting thing to watch an orchestra rehearse the unheard work of a modern composer. It is even more interesting to watch them rehearse with her in the room, offering suggestions where needed. Nestled among the musicians. Playing the clarinet.

Angelique Poteat – composer, clarinetist, loser of sleep – is doing just that: premiering her new work Listen to the Girls with the inter-generational Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and Northwest Girlchoir, while lending her own voice to the mix with the deep, lusciously vibrating sighs of her bass clarinet.

In Listen to the Girls, Angelique sets the thoughts of teenage girls to an orchestral score. It is a complex, layered work with challenging meter and rhythms that seemed, in early rehearsals, to have a mind of their own. Orchestra and choir are slowly bringing these into focus, wrestling with each until finally weaving a tapestry of sound, rhythm and meaning that is at once elusive and approachable.

Feedback in progress: Anna Edwards (music director), Angelique, and the SCO. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)
Feedback in progress: Anna Edwards (music director), Angelique, and the SCO. (Photo: Shaya Lyon / LMP)

I asked Angelique how she came to write this piece, and what she hopes it will communicate.

What inspired you to choose the theme of girls for this particular concert?

I wanted to write something for girlchoir with orchestra; partially because of my experience working with the Northwest Girlchoir, who I knew would be fantastic, and because I was disappointed with the lack of repertoire for that particular combined medium. The question was, what to use as source material for a piece?

The more I thought about young women today and the issues that plague them in society and popular culture, it became apparent that I needed to write something that addressed this relevant topic. The rest of the concert was programmed around this piece.

How did you prepare to write Listen to the Girls? What kind of guidelines/constraints were you working with? Was there a research stage before you began composing?

The piece was created in several stages. It took me a little while to come up with the questionnaire that I presented to high school and middle school aged girls to complete anonymously, creating the inspiration for my text.

In addition to reading up on a number of psychological articles on the development of young women today to start, I asked friends, male and female, for suggestions on questions to include in the questionnaire, trying to touch on a broad group of points while leaving the questions open-ended.

When I collected the answers from the anonymous girls, I had another long process of sorting, rewording, adding to, and finalizing text from these responses. I wanted the music itself to reflect the energy of these words and to be somewhat accessible to a younger audience while still fitting within the category of “serious concert music.”

Is composing for an orchestra of widely ranging ages and skill levels different from composing for an orchestra of more consistent skill levels?

I tried not to take the varying “skill levels” of the musicians in the orchestra into too much consideration when I wrote this piece. I wasn’t aware of who would be playing which part, and I had confidence that the very talented student musicians would be up for the challenge, especially because of the way the rehearsal schedule is set up.

Writing for a professional orchestra as a living composer, I have had to be slightly weary of limited rehearsal time, which certainly influences certain organizational aspects of my music. For this group, some of the performers will have had upwards of six rehearsals of my piece, while others only get one or two, so I chose to write what I wanted.

In rehearsal, I’ve had the chance to get to know many layers of Listen to the Girls through repetitive listening and section-by-section focus as I move around the room. The audience will be hearing it just this once (for now). What sounds, rhythms or motifs should they keep an ear out for?

I have various motives that recur throughout the work. Listen for the first four notes of the piece – these come back a lot. I’ve gotten to calling this my “strength” motive.

The fast-paced lines that layer over each other return in the fourth movement, my “real life” motive.

The soprano solo at the end of the third movement is actually the inspiration for almost all melodic material in the entire piece.

The last four notes of that solo, the “doubt” motive, becomes the primary material for the fourth movement, started off by the celesta. As for the rest, just listen to the girls!

A snippet from the score of 'Listen to the Girls' by Angelique Poteat.
A snippet from the score of ‘Listen to the Girls’ by Angelique Poteat.

While I was chatting with a few of the young female musicians during break on Monday, they described the text as “relatable” and said that even the sounds themselves are of their generation. What do you hope the musicians and choir will come away with after performing the piece? What do you hope the audience will come away with after hearing it?

I want this piece to inspire dialogue and conversation: between girls, parents, male peers, anyone, really. This is something that I feel can be related to, which I believe is so incredibly important in concert music today. How great, to go and hear live music that is relevant, exciting, involving of so many people with different and unique things to share.

For the musicians, I hope they welcome the new music and have fun with it, and eventually seek out more opportunities to expand their repertoire to include new works and commissions.

The Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and Northwest Girlchoir will perform Listen to the Girls, as well as works by Michael Daugherty, Leanna Primiani and Richard Strauss, at the University Christian Church on Wednesday, November 18, 2015, at 7:00pm. For details and tickets, click here.