Composer Spotlight: Lisa Bielawa

Composer Lisa Bielawa. Photo by Phil Mansfield.

Composer, producer, and vocalist Lisa Bielawa has been part of the ACO family for over two decades. In 2001, she performed as a vocalist in ACO’s presentation of Hee Haw by Randall Woolf. The following year, in April 2002, she participated as a composer in the 11th Annual Whitaker New Music Readings, an early version of ACO’s EarShot Readings. After the Readings, ACO commissioned her to composer The Right Weather, which ACO premiered in February 2004 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall.

Most recently, ACO co-commissioned Lisa to write a new work for violinist Jennifer Koh. A co-commission with Carnegie Hall, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Orlando Philharmonic, Sanctuary is also the featured work of ACO’s 2020-21 Commission Club. This annual club invites individuals to be part of a new musical work, from the composer’s first creative spark to the world premiere concert. Members support the cost of creating the work and are invited to exclusive events to interact with the composer. The next Commission Club event takes place Thursday, April 8th, 2021 at 6:30pm ET. To join, please email

ACO caught up with Lisa recently about her work on Sanctuary. The New York premiere, originally scheduled for April 2021, has been postponed due to the pandemic.

Jennifer Koh performing world premiere of “Sanctuary” with Orlando Philharmonic. Courtesy of the Orlando Philharmonic, photo by Alex Sturgill.

American Composers Orchestra: Tell us about your decision to write a concerto for Jennifer Koh. How does writing a work for a specific soloist impact your composition process?

Lisa Bielawa: I always write for people, never really for instruments per se. Each soloist has their own relationship with their instrument, with performing, with audiences and listeners, with sound. I am like a puppy when I am composing for someone – I follow them around to hear them play and watch them weave energies around them, form bonds with listeners and communicate with conductors, take various composers’ music into their own sphere and make it all work in their own unique way.

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

ACO: You have spoken about completing a deep-dive research on the word “Sanctuary.” How and where did that happen?

LB: I was the William Randolph Hearst Visiting Artist Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society for 2018 in Worcester, MA, for a full month, expressly to research the word “Sanctuary” as uttered – and pressed into various kinds of service – throughout American history. What I found was a veritable treasure trove of nuanced meaning around this complex and highly emotionally charged word. In the description of the work on your website, you cite 21 “Threshold Texts.” What is a “Threshold Text” and how does it function in this work?

“Threshold” is the name of the second movement of the piece, so these are the 21 phrases (texts) that I employed in the creation of the second movement. By ‘employed’ I mean that I actually set each text as if was going to be sung, always using the same intervallic relationships for the actual word “Sanctuary” (which appear in all 21 of these phrases), no matter where it occurs in the phrase, and subsequently, melody. These text settings are so plainly articulated that if someone were to listen to this movement with the 21 texts in order on a page in front of them, they would likely be able to track them.

ACO: You write about the structure of the work being three movements that represent a journey towards sanctuary. Can you tell us more about that?

LB: This is an imagined journey that could be an internal one, and could also be that of an actual refugee coming to this country, as Jenny’s parents were. “Speak,” the first movement, concerns itself with Declaration. Understanding oneself, and the fact that one is not safe where one is. Bringing that realization to a clear articulation. “Threshold” is the point at which this declaration becomes a need to move forward towards safety, decisively. This movement, which is – in length- more than half of the piece, sets in motion the journey towards safety. “Breathe,” the last movement, is an arrival. It has a special, intimate (and, again, absolutely audible – for those who know the piece) relationship with Bach’s A minor violin concerto, which has been there for me at times in my own life when I have reached towards safety.

Jennifer Koh & Lisa Bielawa taking a bow at world premiere of “Sanctuary” with Orlando Philharmonic. Courtesy of the Orlando Philharmonic, photo by Alex Sturgill.

ACO: Sanctuary had its world premiere in January 2020 with the Orlando Philharmonic. Will you be revising the work before it makes its New York premiere with ACO in the future?

LB: Jenny and I have worked closely on her part, polishing and maximizing its idiomatic naturalness for the instrument and for her virtuosity in particular. These changes will be integrated at the New York premiere.

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