Composer Spotlight: Lisa Bielawa – Using Rituals to Open Creativity

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. Next, she was selected to participate in the 2002 annual Whitaker New Music Readings, an early version of ACO’s EarShot Readings. From there, ACO commissioned her to write a new work. ACO premiered the final piece, The Right Weather, in February 2004 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall.

The newest partnership between Lisa and ACO is her concerto Sanctuary, written for violinist Jennifer Koh. A co-commission with Carnegie Hall, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the Orlando Philharmonic, Sanctuary was scheduled to premiere in April 2020. After two years of waiting, ACO will finally return to Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere of Sanctuary on March 25, 2022.

Lisa spoke with us about the upcoming premiere and the origins of the work.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): As an Artist Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in 2018, you did a lot of research about the word “Sanctuary” before writing the work. Then the pandemic happened, which gave a whole new lens through which to view that word. Does your work have a different resonance now?

Lisa Bielawa (LB): Tragically, it has to do with the experience of fleeing as a refugee. Sure, the pandemic, yes. But also, Ukraine. The thing that inspired this was my time with Jennifer Koh at protests against the travel ban. Jenny would hold a sign, “Proud daughter of Korean refugees.” She would finish a performance and go to a protest. As I was writing this piece for her, I wasn’t doing this in an objectifying way. I wanted to explore the experience of coming through an emotional journey and finding sanctuary in something. Is it friendship, is it safety? People go through divorces or deaths. With Covid, everyone can relate to idea of fleeing or enduring suffering in their own lives. One hopes that everyone finds sanctuary in some kind of embracing comfort. For a refugee it’s finding a place to stay for a moment.

From Noble Lives and Brave Deeds by Clara L. Mateaux, 1890. Image of Elizabeth Wydeville and children taking sanctuary in Westminster Abbey.

Sanctuary means emotional safety, too. I was extremely isolated during the pandemic. I had physical symptoms of touch starvation. For me, sanctuary was when I could finally hug my boyfriend. That feeling of embrace. There are other people who went through lockdown with an abuser. What is it that delivers each of us? I would have to believe that everyone has had some kind of experience that requires forbearance. At the end of which, one hopes we all find a sanctuary.

“Home should be a sanctuary from the world without, a place where nothing is too good for the family, and where perfect understanding and harmony reign.” – Grand Rapids Press, March 14, 1908

LW: Can you tell me more about your writing process and how you approach writing a new work?

My music is never about me. It’s about the community for and by which it will be performed. It’s more for the listeners to know about themselves than to know about me. For many it is important for people to declare their identity through their work. But that’s not my relationship to my work. Usually, I find something that has oscillating resonance or universal relatability. It can provide an experience to enable audiences to learn something about themselves.

Refugees are fleeing harm. During the pandemic, our ability to flee harm was impaired. The idea of sanctuary is something that each of us has had to find where we can. Do we flee isolation by having a Zoom cocktail? There wasn’t a way to escape.

The second movement is called “Threshold.” We go through something and then we are through it. Leaving a marriage. A death, that person is gone.

Harriet Beecher Stowe excerpt that inspired the cadenza in the second movement, and the transition into the third movement, “Breathe”

LW: What have been your landing places of Sanctuary?

LB: Acceptance is a sanctuary. Yoga. I’ve learned to just take a breath and step back. Say, “Okay, it’s bad. But today, I have that awesome yogurt in the fridge that I like. There’s yummy coffee. I get to hear Colin Jacobson tonight at 92Y.”

I also figured out a way to get human touch. It’s easier now that we’re not sanitizing groceries. I brought some of my friendships deeper into my life. Calling up some people and saying I need to connect with them two-three times a week. The reason the first movement is called “Speak” is that the first step is “I need out of this box.” Sanctuary keeps certain things in while also keeping things out. It’s an instance of keeping harm from reaching you. Sanctuary means both freedom and protection from harm.

Excerpt from newspaper Kansas City Star, January 11, 1887.

LW: It’s been a long wait to see this work have its NY premiere. It was planned for April 2020, then tentatively for April 2021, now it’s finally happening in March 2022. What has that been like?

LB: My responsibility is for myself. I need to take care of myself. That is part of my job. My job requires that I don’t let myself be sucked down by this terrible depressive energy. It’s very real. I’m not denying what’s there. It’s not about having my head in the sand.

You’re asking me, What’s a sanctuary? A concert is a sanctuary. I had a huge concert in the National Cathedral in D.C. recently. I almost couldn’t handle it. It took place on March 13, 2022, which was exactly two years after the lockdown.

Advertisement from the Tampa Morning Tribune, June 11, 1916

LW: Do you follow any rituals?

LB: My morning ritual is so delicious to me. I wake up, I make the bed completely. I make coffee. While its brewing, I play scrabble games on my phone. I do the New York Times crossword. Coffee is ready. I write in my diary. After coffee, after my diary, I do yoga. I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 9.

Advertisement taken from The Montgomery Advertiser, December 16, 1914.

I like the crossword because it doesn’t require creativity. It’s the only part of my day where there is a right answer. The crossword is either finished or not finished. Then I go to yoga and someone tells me what to do. Part of my ritual is to energize my mind and body in a space completely away from creativity. Everything else in my life is boundary-less.  

Sketches of Life, Manners, and Scenery: a Book for the Young by Paton and Ritchie, 1855

All visuals courtesy of Lisa Bielawa’s time as the William Randolph Hearst Visiting Artist Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in 2018.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.