40th Birthday Concert & Gala – Composer Spotlight: Elizabeth Ogonek

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek strives to create music that is energetic, dramatic, vivid, and colorful. Often inspired by text, her work explores the transference of words and poetic imagery to music. The nature of her interests has led to several collaborations with emerging writers including Sophia Veltfort, Ghazal Mosadeq, and Jonathan Dubow.

Recent and upcoming commissions include works for the London Symphony Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and Fulcrum Point New Music Project for the Ear Taxi Festival in Chicago. Born in 1989 in Anoka, Minnesota, and raised in New York City, Ogonek holds degrees from Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, and the University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music. In 2015, she completed doctoral studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She is currently Mead Composer in Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Assistant Professor of Composition at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

ACO’s 40th Birthday Concert & Gala – Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center – will feature the US premiere of Sleep and Unremembrance. Elizabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions about the piece.

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

American Composers Orchestra: Sleep and Unremembrance is inspired by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s While Sleeping, one of her last works, which reflects on the brevity of life. Your music often explores the transference of words and poetic imagery to music. Can you talk about how you discovered this process for writing music, and why it works well for you?

Elizabeth Ogonek: I’ve always seen myself as being kind of bad with words. I find writing and speaking to be two of the most grueling tasks. Because of that, I’ve always admired those people for whom words are an expressive and freeing medium. I began reading a lot of poetry for that reason. It quickly became a lens through which I attempted to make sense of my work as a composer. Deep down, I think I was seeking that expressive freedom in my own work. I found myself turning to words and poetry specifically as a way of structuring my musical ideas or holding me accountable for the decisions I would eventually make. Calling on text as a creative constraint was one that was open ended enough to allow me to make my own choices but at the same time it provided a framework within which I had to work if I wanted any relationship to exist between a poetic idea and a musical one. About musical limitations, Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” I think about this a lot. 
ACO: A big part of ACO’s mission is providing composers the opportunity to work closely with an orchestra while they hone their orchestral writing skills. Can you describe the value in being able to work closely with the London Symphony Orchestra while writing Sleep and Unremembrance? How did it affect your compositional process?

EO: First of all, I’ll say that I think it’s absolutely crucial that young composers interested in writing for the orchestra have the opportunity to work with an orchestra. (So cheers to you, ACO!) In many ways, there is very little that is intuitive about writing orchestral music unless you’re immersed in it. By working one-on-one with the players, attending rehearsals, hearing the orchestra play contemporary music and the standard repertoire (for me, this really illuminated the LSO’s particular strengths) and by having the opportunity to workshop my own music, this issue of understanding how the orchestra works is one that I started to face. In doing so, I came to know the LSO as a very particular living, breathing community of musicians. I think the nuances of that community (for example, their impeccable precision, virtuosity and weightlessness, among other formidable characteristics) are what I tried to tap into while writing my piece.

I should also say that the LSO gave me the opportunity to fail and to learn from that failure, a gift not often bestowed upon composers outside of school. About eight months before the premiere, the orchestra workshopped the first half of my piece. I remember it sounding cumbersome, exceptionally dense and structurally ambiguous which resulted in a multitude of revisions. Most importantly, it informed the way I approached the second half of the piece which is much more transparent and delicately orchestrated. This new direction is one that has preoccupied my music since then.

ACO: Our season opener celebrates 40 years as the only orchestra in the world wholly dedicated to the creation, performance, preservation, and promotion of music by American composers. Can you think of any American composers from past or present (or genres or movements of American music in general) that you especially feel should be reaching more listeners today?
EO: There are so many, but for the sake of brevity I’ll say Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Stephen Hartke. Crawford-Seeger because she was a badass who’s incredibly expressive music is thoroughly undervalued. And Hartke because there are new things to discover on every level of his music and his compositional wit, to me, is just thoroughly disarming.

ACO: What are you most looking forward to at our 40th Birthday Concert & Gala? Are there any other pieces on the program that you are particularly excited to hear?

I’m excited about the whole program, but I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Paola Prestini’s piece and the Duke Ellington [Black, Brown, and Beige]. Most of all, I’m looking forward to celebrating an orchestra that has steadfastly provided orchestral opportunities for young composers.  


Hear the US premiere Elizabeth’s Sleep and Unremembrance, plus works by Prestini, Bernstein, Ellington, Gershwin, and more, as ACO celebrates 40 years of American music – Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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