Interview: Washington Plada

The following is an interview I conducted with Washington Plada back in August. The transcript has been edited for clarity, but since English is Washington's second language, I decided to keep his idiosyncratic grammar to better preserve the flow of his speaking and thoughts. As usual, if you are interested in financially supporting these interviews, you can follow me at my Patreon, linked below.


Adam Eason: Okay, it should be going. All right. So this is Washington Plada. He's a composer, also a guitarist from Uruguay and he's joining us for an interview today. So thanks for coming in. 

Washington Plada: Thanks for inviting me.

Adam Eason: Yeah, so I think to kick off with how many people have you met so far in Oregon who know where Uruguay is?

Washington Plada: Very few to be honest. And well, that's been a constant throughout the states. I think it's such a small country that it makes sense that not a lot of people know it. It's only three and a half million people. What are the chances that you meet somebody from Uruguay in the States? Small. 

Adam Eason: Yeah. Yeah pretty tight.

Washington Plada: A lot of people know us because of soccer. So soccer fans tend to know where it is and know the famous soccer players from there. Lately a few years ago the country was in the news, too, because of the Progressive President. It was maybe five six years ago when this president that was very progressive passed a lot of laws, like they legalize weed. They legalized abortion and gay marriage the same day. So that was kind of a big deal and it's always interesting when somebody asks me where I'm from and to listen, let them know and kind of spread my spread my heritage a little bit. 

Adam Eason: Yeah. So what's the musical education like in the country? How did you start with music? 

Washington Plada: It's not as widespread as it is in the States. I find it fascinating that here it's how, since a very young age they're for the most part introduced to music through Elementary School. I didn't have any classes of elementary school, in elementary school. I mean music classes. So I had something in... what is it? Like last year of middle school. We have only one class. That was all we had through middle school and high school as a music class. They told us about some composers and that was it. Yeah, no real music playing. No instrument playing or any of that.

Adam Eason: I got you. Yeah, it's music appreciation kind of thing.

Washington Plada: Yeah. Music appreciation. And then some of my friends played and I picked up a guitar and that's how I started rock and roll, had my own like cover band and then grunge, and my own grunge songs. Oh, yeah, so I play bass for that band. I'm not... I started with guitar and I'll call myself more a guitar player, but I always end up playing bass because now I want to. We always need a bass player and its like, "Ok, I'll do it."

Adam Eason: What's the music scene like there? I mean if you're doing like a rock band grunge band kind of stuff. 

Washington Plada: There's a lot. People play like, we all, I would say like 99% of the people, but everybody plays. Some more, some less but like there's always a guitar there and everywhere you go, to a party, you go to wherever your friends and there's somebody that plays and... music is... it's a very important part of our culture and yeah. I was always interested in classical music. I will go to every concert I could even though I lived in a very small city. Around like 30,000 people. So we didn't have many chances but I took all the chances I could but I didn't take the chance to study. Just any music more formal education in... When I was older after High School and I started, I went to a different city just for some days just to take classes in violin. I took violin classes for over a year and then I came to the States, so I couldn't continue. Yeah. Easier for me to continue my education here and started from the ground up going to Community College getting my... all the music theory and all this stuff. So that's how.

Adam Eason: Okay. So what what brought you to the states in the first place? Was it for music education or were there other reasons?

Washington Plada: No. No, it was love.

Adam Eason: Okay!

Washington Plada: Yeah it was... I was in Argentina. I was just doing some backpacking and I met some girl and we kind of hit it off, fell in love and spend some time there, travelling together. Well after, she was from here. So after a while we were like, well this internet thing is not working we'll move in together. And I decided to come to the States.

Adam Eason: All right, and that was to Oregon?

Washington Plada: No, it was to California, was in Santa Cruz. It's a small town like south from San Francisco? 

Adam Eason: Okay. Yeah.

Washington Plada: It's a beautiful beach town, beautiful. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, how long ago was that? Like, how old were you?

Washington Plada: It was 11 years ago? 2009. 

Adam Eason: Okay. Gotcha. And then you stayed in Santa Cruz for a while and you're just kind of hanging around like working there. 

Washington Plada: Yeah, I lived there. Primarily there, then a couple years in the Bay Area, San Francisco. 2017 I moved to Oregon. I came to Western Oregon University to finish my bachelor's degree. Now at the moment, I'm living in Eugene, Oregon. 

Adam Eason: Okay. Yeah. 

Washington Plada: I just finished my first year of the master program in composition here at the University of Oregon. 

Adam Eason: Okay, cool. So where did you go before Western Oregon University?  You were studying down in California at the time.

Washington Plada: Yeah, down in Santa Cruz I did a Community College. That's called Cabrillo, Cabrillo Community College. So I did my first two years there and then I transferred to Western Oregon and I finish those the remainder 2 years to get my bachelor's there. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, and that was for music as well?

Washington Plada: Yeah, that was for music composition. Yes, it was a cool program, gaining knowledge not only to classical composition but also to film music and jazz arranging. Very good program, it was very interesting. 

Adam Eason: Who was your teacher there in, California? 

Washington Plada: We had many teachers. What happens is when you go to a community college in California for the first few years, even if you go, you don't have private lessons. So I didn't have any composition lessons until I came to Oregon. So the first two years mainly was music theory and like, aural skills and music history. Yeah, nothing nothing... Nothing in composition. 

Adam Eason: Okay, was it kind of strange? Making the musical shift, I mean, because if you're playing in garage bands and pick up rock and roll bands and kind of things like that, I imagine most of that's by ear. And then going to something where it's all notated and then having to think maybe more abstractly rather than more aurally... was that kind of a difficult shift for you, or did you just kind of... sink into it? 

Washington Plada: Um, it was... it wasn't difficult. It was different. It was very different. But I think the training that I got from playing in rock bands actually helped a lot, because it's... I think it's a really good complement to what you see, mixing the oral tradition with or the listening tradition with the visual. I think it's more, it's more powerful and in my case it kind of like complemented each other. I didn't say that "Oh, wow. This is two separate things that they don't really like connect." I think they connect really well and even though like this, at least the little that I was studying, there was no room for playing by ear. It still helped. Yeah, but I didn't know anything when I started. So what can you imagine one little first year of violin? Like I knew the duration of the notes and not much more. Yeah, the interesting thing was that the little bit I studied, I studied in Spanish. So I had to learn all the names for the note durations for everything. I think that's that was the most difficult part. 

Adam Eason: That was the hardest part, the language part?

Washington Plada: The language. Yes. It's the new language. Yeah, but I caught up very fast. Yeah, it's fascinating, I mean, when you're studying something that you love, I think it's even if it's a little bit complex, you're excited to do it.

Adam Eason: Yeah. Sure. 

Washington Plada: Yeah it was, it was a good... It was a good challenge.

Adam Eason: Cool. And then you came up to Western Oregon University and you started studying... I'm sorry, I forget the professor's name that I met.

Washington Plada: I studied with mainly with Kevin Walczyk. He's a very well-known name in the band world. He's one of the... one of the top composers for the band world today in the in the US. 

Adam Eason: Okay. What drew you up to Western Oregon University. Was it him or another connection maybe? 

Washington Plada: Yeah, I... before I start, a friend came to me and said go to him. I really like the program because first it was a small school and, honestly, coming from a community college I was a little bit afraid to... a little bit afraid to land in a big school and fall through the cracks and not find my way. I was kind of used to a community college like when you have small community, everybody knows each other. The professors know the students it's kind of like it was an environment that I felt safe. This school I thought that would provide me that, that was one of the reasons but the other one was I'm very interested in different aspects of music. So this school program, I mean, like I said before like with the classical instruction plus the film plus jazz arranging and then they have Latin ensembles to play. It fulfilled a lot of... a lot of my interests. I thought it was... I visited other schools and they didn't really caught my attention like this one did and I can say that was a very... I made the right decision because I'm really happy about the education I got and all the things that were offered to me. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, it sounds like it was all kind of right up your alley. 

Washington Plada: Yeah, I loved it. It was great. I learned a lot. A bunch of really cool and dedicated amazing professors and also students that we keep in touch today. I know that I'm going to have some players for life if I need like finding some players to collaborate, and that's great. 

Adam Eason: Yeah for sure. So what kind of compositions did you start writing at Western Oregon University? How did you begin with your private lessons?

Washington Plada: So the first thing I brought to a lesson was some compositions that I had done on my own with guitar. But they weren't... they weren't notated. I had some software on my computer and I was like, plug my guitar in and started playing and get some rhythm going and then come and do the lead or some melody with another guitar. So that's what I... what I did was to, I transcribe that to a notation software. And what I did was instead of the lead guitar with the melody, I decided (audio glitch) instead. And with the help of the professor, I reworked it from there, from a more classical standpoint. So my first composition was this short piece for guitar and flute. 

Adam Eason: Okay. Yeah and were these still kind of... I'm trying to figure out how to segue into this because I know I asked for a commission from you while you were still at Western Oregon University and you wrote some cello and piano pieces that were based on kind of Uruguayan I guess... traditional musics? Like tangos and milongas and things like that. Were your first compositions sort of slanting in that direction already or were they just sort of naturally coming from that source?

Washington Plada: Yeah, so a big inspiration of my music. My idea when composing is to fuse traditional western music that we call classic, classical music with world music, the music from different parts of the world and... One of the music that I know the most is the music from my own country, the music, the most popular music there, it's tango that we share with Argentina, milongas and candombes. Candombe is the only one that is only from Uruguay. 

So a lot of my inspiration even unconsciously sometimes just slips in my music because these are... this is my musical heritage. So it's hard to know (glitch) that the music doesn't get involved when I'm writing. But I also do like the composition that you commission for me because the theme was Latin American Music, the concert you were putting on, I drew more influences using some of the rhythms and from those styles that I just mentioned in and using like, the rhythm or some kind of aspect in building, building upon those or as a source of inspiration for each of the pieces. 

Adam Eason: Okay. 

Washington Plada: That's kind of what I want to do with my music. It's so all the music kind of has some kind of World Music association, even if it is from the music or from the feelings or from the thoughts or bring some kind of mundane aspect if you can say that.

Adam Eason: Sure that makes sense. I'm kind of curious because I know that my piano partner and I, Dianne, had a little bit... it took a little while to kind of click into especially the condombe rhythms. I'm curious if you have found it difficult translating some of the stuff that happens naturally by ears. Sometimes there's a lot of details that get lost when you try to write it down. So I'm curious how you approach that problem, especially because if you try to hyper notate everything like some of Bartok's pieces, he tried to get every little nuance in there and it just looks kind of crazy. So I'm curious how you approach that issue. 

Washington Plada: Well, I... this is, this very... it's a very new process for me to kinda like translate things from one culture to the other, and mixing cultures so I learned a couple things through the process and even like working with your piece and with a previous piece that I also drew something from condombes. Condombes... It's a... It's an Afro rhythm. So it started as a dance and music that was playing with these three distinct drums. So they can become very complex rhythms that interlock when the three drums are played. So if you played one drum by itself, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but what you put the three together, the rhythms compliment each other. When they are not playing all together (glitch). 

For example, the chico that's being played is the first beat so the downbeat so it's like (demonstrates rhythm). So if you play by yourself, it doesn't make sense. But if you're playing with the other ones, for example, the bigger drum that place the down beats with the boom boom and when you play them together its (demonstrates rhythm). 

And what I tried to translate some of those rhythms to different instruments like piano, it can be really complicated to play because as Westerners with downbeats, for example, and that's something that is very, very strong in the western culture. And if you're not that familiar with us, you tend to kind of always want to give like a nod to the downbeat. So for example, if I give you the chico drum that doesn't have the down beat, I had experienced this before and when I had written some music kind of condombe using that rhythm, that people tend to grab the first note and give it to the downbeat it can be... the ensemble can be a little bit not on the same page. Yeah, so I've learned that things are very difficult to translate literally or there are ways to get the same effect but you can avoid the confusing notation or the confusing rhythms. It's a very fascinating experience how you sometimes you had to rework things. Of course, you don't think about this until it happens, right? Because it's like well... and then you realize that it's much more than just notation. 

You can have the best, the best player playing that and it's not that they cannot play, they can, but there's much more to they don't know, a certain feeling, there's the knowledge behind this, the culture that all that makes the music's not just notes on the staff. And a good player, this much more that you need sometimes to express what you really want to tell through their music and I think people that are trained in different traditions might, like... It might not come naturally for them. So I think you... you for example, you're a composer, too, so as a composer we have to build a bridge between what do you want to say and who's going to say it and make the link as a smooth as you can so the performer can catch without a lot of information or detail. Without writing an essay about what you want them to come to play. I think that's what we're doing, this show is when the players can play what's behind your mind without have to have a meeting for two hours telling them what you want, right? 

Adam Eason: Yeah, for sure. So kind of taking a little bit of a sidetrack. You also have some compositions that you sent to me that are sort of like meditation-centric sort of relaxation musics. And you said you've written them with like yoga or like massage or just kind of different things along those lines and it looks like you have those tracks up on Spotify. So what kind of drew you in that direction? And when did that happen? Like was this while you're at school before you're in school for anything? 

Washington Plada: This is a very, at least to me, is a very interesting story. So this is that's how my... How can I say this? My approaching music started predominant time in my life? So I was a professional cyclist back in Uruguay, and when I was 18 years old, I had an accident when I broke a couple vertebraes on my body and I have difficult to walk and I had like a two-year-long recovery with doctors, chiropractors a lot of stuff. Before that I had a contract to come and race for a professional team in Kansas in the US. And I didn't do that of course because I just couldn't come when they wanted me to come. So I couldn't do much during those two years, were a little bit, like, me in bed, me walking a little bit in the house. This was mainly when I need to do something else than cycling and I couldn't do much with my life.

So that's kind of when I found music, I found playing music for myself was a little bit of relief for my life, kind of a little bit mentally like, just to put my... my energy on something else and at the same time I started, I grab the guitar for the first time and that's what my first approach to music was like... Music made me feel better. It made me, kind of, give me a purpose. And at the same time when I was listening or practicing the guitar, laying down in bed or sitting down... my pain would go away. Maybe it wasn't... it wasn't really away. But my mind wasn't focusing on that, right? So that was the first time I realized the power of music and how music can be more than entertainment. It could take your pain away, either really physically or just distracting your mind.

But I didn't have any knowledge more than my own experience so that led me to start playing the guitar and then all the rock bands and whatever I told you they playing festivals and stuff like that, but I always been interested in how music can affect your... your mind, your body and so when I came to the states, when I was living in San Francisco, I found this kind of more internet University that taught a year-long certificate that's called Sound, Voice, and Music Healing. It's a one-year certificate and through CIIS is that it's a university in San Francisco. And there the education that we got it was... it went from very new age all like "woo, woo" to like scientific and everything in between, you know. We got new age people. We got monks. We got scientist, we got all kind of musicians. So we were exposed to many different modalities and different approaches, which was great, you know, because you pick or they're like, oh go deeper in the one that you really liked or wanted

So during the time I was having a lot of problems sleeping, and we had to get a final project going to graduate from the class for the certificate. My idea was to do something with music that I could play or something. So I started to compose music to try to help me sleep. I would go to a computer, write music and then at night go and try with myself. Yeah, it was like, "Oh, these are distracting, I don't like that. Those bells they're too loud." Okay, and go the next day. I adjust it, remove instrument, play another instruments and I came up with a set of seven songs that I presented as a CD together with no intention of anything else, just, that was something for me, to help me. And then after a while I was like, "Well, why not share it with the world?" So I decided to press like a hundred CDs and it turned out that a lot of people liked it and they went from New Age studios on the east coast in Buenos Aires, for example to yoga teachers and practitioners and massage therapists and like, at the time, I put in some promotion, put it on CD Baby and people were writing emails from different parts of the world saying, "Hey! Like, I like what you're doing."

So yeah, that's always been a big part of my big interest in music so it kind of goes parallel with my more academic music composing. I hadn't done anything yet applying all my new knowledge or my academic knowledge, though. Those songs are pre-music education. Yeah, it doesn't mean that it's not good because it's a different approach. So I'm gonna write piano, it's not like I write a thousand notes like in one second because that's not what it's about. It's more about an experience and I did trying it on myself with the the goal of relaxation and yeah. Yeah, I'm very interested right now I'm researching. I want to write an article... no, more than an article, it's a paper. How music can be used for... to help with stress and anxiety.

Adam Eason: Yeah. A music therapy sort of thing. 

Washington Plada: Yeah. I kind of really like, (unclear) being made and for many years and I'm, I want to back all that up with science and experiments. I found a lot of experiments done by universities on how music can help with postoperatory like pain, for many different reasons, so I kind of wanna (unclear) a little bit like everything I do and bring some research behind it maybe. I'm thinking that might become a book in the future and also bring my composition expertise and me, with all the all the science behind it. Maybe bring my composition expertise and to guide other people that want to make music with that purpose.

Adam Eason: I see. 

Washington Plada: Kind of tie it all together. Okay, that's kind of like still an idea that maybe... it's kind of a strong idea. So I don't know when that might happen, but I'm in the research phase right now. We're collecting papers, reading and just starting from from (glitch).

Adam Eason: Nice, so currently though you're at University of Oregon and for your master's program and are you studying with David Crumb? 

Washington Plada: I am, yeah, I'm studying with David Crumb. And also with Robert Kyr. 

Adam Eason: Okay, both. 

Washington Plada: Yeah with both. Yes, so when you start this program you have to have a year with each. Okay, and then at the end of your two years you pick... you pick one or kind of like, it defaults to the professor that has more more expertise in the area that you want to develop your thesis or your your big project. So yeah. Already it's been a fantastic experience. They are both like great composers and great educators. They both have tremendous experience, great composers it's been, like, wonderful. 

Adam Eason: Yeah. I know that David crumb is George Crumb's son. George Crumb, the kind of Avant-garde composer, and I haven't heard a lot of Robert Kyr's music but you and I met at the Oregon Bach Festival Composer Symposium, and he had I think one or two samples of his music played there and he seemed a little bit more... I guess romantic kind of feeling? How would you describe the differences between their styles and have you been gravitating more towards one or you trying to tie them together? 

Washington Plada: Actually their styles are very different. So their approach to composition is... I would say that in some level is very opposite, but not... It's not this is better than the other, but they're just different and they are both really good. So what I notice from the classes is that Robert Kyr focuses a lot on the emotions, what's the story behind what you want to write, how you can project all those feelings and emotions to the piece and maybe that ties a lot to what you're saying about the Romanticism in this case. I think that's what a lot of like romantic music comes from is all of... all these big emotions. And experience with Crumb is more focused on like the purpose of each note. There in a more like... How can I describe it? It's more... it's not so much all these stories more about like well, that's these notes go together here, is more like...

Adam Eason: Like how its constructed I guess?

Washington Plada: Yeah. I don't want to call it intellectual, but it's more... The approach is it's more about what's the purpose of each note there? How do I tie together how this relates to that, it's more about like the music and not so much like bringing this story into it. So I'm fascinated by both worlds and trying to put those two together, because I think if I can do that, that would be amazing. For me, I'm not saying that I'm going to be the best composer. I'm saying that I love both approach in there. So like but the good thing is that they both have very different approaches, but both of their music is amazing. There's no one way of doing things but I want to bring the best of those worlds and like have a purpose behind each note I put on my paper that is deliberately put there for a reason. And that note can bring the best emotional effect that I can bring. So I think that's if I can convey that I'll be happy. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, I saw you posted... I think it was the Delgani String Quartet? Is that right? You wrote something for for them. Can you tell me what can you tell us a little bit about that work? Kind of what brought it about and... yeah. 

Washington Plada: So through the University, through this program that I'm currently doing, they bring us amazing artists to work with. I really like that. So the Delgani String Quartet started working with us, so we had the possibility to write for them and we started writing the pieces and then came for... they work with us throughout the whole process. So since the inception of the song until the performance, we wrote elements like a little bit more than sketches, like an advanced sketch lets say, and then they came and they played it. We told them about the story of the our piece and what we're going to convey: what, why, where everything else, all the details. And then they played what we had so far. There was like between 20 and 40 measures for the first time we got together. And they gave us feedback about this work that doesn't work. Or you can do these to translate better your ideas. 

It was like an amazing experience. They are great people, amazing musicians and they're like wonderful to work with. It was really cool. So it was a group setting, they came, everybody presented their piece. And it's really nice not only to hear your piece, but you hear your classmate pieces because you're learning from that, too. What they're saying may apply to other pieces if it does not apply to this one. I'm sure you'd apply it to your next one that you are writing. So then they came a couple more times. One time they came at the 50% of the piece, and they came at the... a few weeks before the concert. So we had to have the piece completed and they went through to make last minor details and and then we have rehearsal with them. 

And the piece was performed. All that process was very eye-opening and wonderful to work with. As a composer, you don't have all the time, that input. So you, your commission, or you're writing something on your own and you don't have all the players there. Like, the feedback like from the cello players and viola, from the violins, they're each giving you specific things about how their instrument work, how you can notate it better, how you can make it sound better. That's amazing because it's bulletproof then, your piece. At the end of that process you have something of really good quality that, you know, that can be played. Yeah, of course, then we have different categories of players but that's a whole different story. 

Adam Eason: What's the story? What's the story behind the piece? 

Washington Plada: The Spanish title translates to "Never Again." This... that phrase was used during the dictatorship in South America in the 70s until early 80s. Mostly all Latin America went through a dictatorship and they were very sad and scary times. Lots of people disappear, a lot of torture, lot of no good things happen and the militaries were in charge and everything that they didn't like, it was severely punished. Even just for having, like books that they didn't like at home, you know? They would come and it was very sad and "Nunca Más" is started as a saying like, never again, never again.

We don't want that again. Last year, 2019, a lot of riots and protests against the government were happening in many countries in South America, in (Chile), in Colombia, in Bolivia. And there was this collective fear because all that was done with the military that were going to streets, and again we were seeing in Chile many people disappear. A lot of people got killed and seriously injured like with because the militaries were like shooting them on the streets. Like, Big Brother's here. It was very sad and happened in many countries.

And there was this Collective fear of the 70s again. Yeah, and people were really afraid that they were going to take over the government and there's a lot of people that are alive right now they're in the 60s that they went through like, their mom, their dad, their cousins, disappear then themselves. Like I had friends, my parents friends. They were tortured, some of them disappeared. So that fear is still very strong. So I titled that piece "Nunca Más" because it was hard for me to see all this happening in my, like, only happening in my country but happening in other countries that I had, like, a very strong connection to so what's my way of letting participating in saying "No" say "Nunca Más" to that from being in the states. I cannot fly there and go to fight because that's not possible for me right now. So my fight is through music and through music can be heard. To a lot of people, and it's my way of like contributing to Chili's fight. So that's what the piece talks about. 

So the piece in the first, in the beginning of the piece is very chaotic and it kind of wants to translate a little bit what's going on in the street. Is this fight, is this bombs, is this fighting between people, police like, trying to survive yelling and screaming for your rights? And that's what the piece tells about. The middle of the piece, it changes completely the mood goes to, like, very quiet and almost delicate sound. What I wanted to translate there it was what's going on in the... in the mind, it the heart of some person that is looking. They're kind of like, aside from all the chaos, but it's looking at everything how you see how everything gets destroyed, how your family, your friends get beat up, they die, and it's a reflection of like what's going on, you know, yeah. By the end of the piece, the chaos comes back and is the guy is like kind of wakes up is like whoa, like I need to like, you know, the realities here around me again, you know, he wakes up from the dream state, let's say. And the piece finishes in this fury. Really fast and and loud and the piece ends as the quartet playing as loud as they can on their instrument. Just like, that's kind of an end to that fight, but the same time the moment is the fight itself. Yeah. 

Adam Eason: Okay, that's 

Washington Plada: That's a really strong piece.

Adam Eason: It's pretty heavy. 

Washington Plada: Yeah, I'm really happy how it turned out.

Adam Eason: I was very struck by its expressivity when I watched the video of it. 

Washington Plada: Yeah people seem to like it a lot, I'm very happy with it. It was not an easy piece, it was challenging and the performers, the Delgani String Quartet, did such an outstanding job, they can take whatever you throw at them. They get it. They play every single note how it needed to be, it was like perfect. I couldn't ask for more. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, they they definitely killed it at the performance. It was pretty awesome. Okay. Well, we're being up at the end of time, actually. It's always a little surprising how fast these hours can go. So I guess I'll just end with if you were to name a musician or a composer that like you think basically every Uruguayan would know. Like, maybe they don't like them, but they just know them. Who do you think that composer or musician would be?

Washington Plada: Does it have to be from my country, or...? 

Adam Eason: I mean just like just as a general like oh, yeah, everybody's heard of this person. 

Washington Plada: Wow. I didn't see that coming. That's a good question, it makes me... I don't know, it's not easy, but... Wow. Well, I would say definitely Carlos Gardel. 

Adam Eason: Gardel. Okay. Yeah.

Washington Plada: Yeah, he's a tango singer. Everybody knows him. That's kind of an icon of Uruguay, Argentina, South America. When you talk about tango, it's hard to not talk about him because he, in the singing tango, he is... He's the best. Yeah, even though he died like a long time ago, even if you asked to young people, they would know who he is. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, he did a Por Una Cabeza, right? 

Washington Plada: Yeah. And many many more. Yeah. Yeah. Well known all over the world, known in Uruguay, but a lot of people know him. If you know tango, you probably think about two and I think those two are probably Gardel in the singing style and Piazzolla in the instrumental tango, those are kind of like... Of course, there are more in the instrumental tango, but if you set up a he's probably one of the most well-known. Yeah, so he brings kind of like more classical. 

Adam Eason: Right, right. Also jazz and stuff.

Washington Plada: Jazz and stuff. So I think it covers more ground. The other people that play tango that they are great orchestras, that's only like in that style.

Adam Eason: Gotcha. Cool. All right. Well, I guess that's that's all for today. Thanks for joining us. It's been a really good talk with you. 

Washington Plada: Yeah, thank you for inviting me in, this is great. And I love talking about, like, mostly about my heritage and my country, it's nice to like, be are an ambassador. Yeah. Be a humble ambassador for my country and my music. Thank you. It's a pleasure. And let's see if we can collaborate soon enough. 

Adam Eason: Yeah, of course! Yeah, do something together.

Washington Plada: I know that I have to say that I love the collaboration we did together. That concert is still going to happen? Like when the Latin American concert. Are you still thinking about it? When all this clears up? 

Adam Eason: Yeah, it's a little bit hard to say. We did most of the program that we wanted to do. So it ended up being like 75% We had like the Piazzola, your pieces, Ginastera, a little bit of Ponce, but we didn't quite have enough time at that... Like this was early/late December and we were going to do a couple more pieces and then covid hit so we had to kind of shelve some things but we got most of the programming we wanted. 

Washington Plada: Well, maybe if you do another one maybe I'll come up with something new for that. 

Adam Eason: Yeah that we are. All right. 

Washington Plada: And thank you. 

Adam Eason: Thank you. 

Interviews with Artists: Lisa Neher

This transcript has been edited for clarity. You can watch the interview in full here:
Adam Eason: Okay, and now we pretend like we're saying hi for the first time again.
Lisa Neher: Okay. Hi!
Adam Eason:  Hi, how are you?
Lisa Neher: I'm doing well.
Adam Eason: Yeah, good! For everybody who is unaware, this is Lisa Neher... I think I got that [pronunciation] right? Singer, composer, all around great person. Now, I think the best place to start is at the beginning. So what is your earliest musical memory? 
Lisa Neher: Wow... I mean for me it's a lot of running around in the backyard pretending to be Tolkien characters, or Kirk and Spock, or Luke and Leia, or some mashup of those and humming my own soundtracks. There was always background music going on in my head and in my mouth and in my throat, so that's a pretty early memory.
Another early memory for me would be my Uncle Dan's wedding. I think I was a flower girl and I must have been... four maybe? And I remember my aunt sang, I think she sang Ave Maria, and just being like "Oh my gosh! Rose sounds amazing!" and she did. She was a really big choral singer in high school, and I don't know if she did it in college or not because she was in nursing and that's pretty intense. But that's a big memory of mine, too, is it's kind of one of those faint childhood memories.
Adam Eason: And you grew up in Portland. I think I have that right?
Lisa Neher: Oh, actually I grew up south of Seattle in this town called Kent Covington. Covington used to be unincorporated. So South/Southeast of Seattle in the suburbs, and then I came to Portland for my undergrad at Lewis & Clark College. So Portland is like my second, you know, it's where I grew up as an adult, I guess? As an undergrad you kind of have another sense of growing up somewhere. 
Adam Eason: I got you. Did they have school music programs where you were? 
Lisa Neher: Well, so it's interesting. I was home-schooled, and so there was probably school music. I'm sure I think Kent has actually pretty good schools. So I'm sure they have music going on. It was probably great, but I wasn't involved in it. I did get involved in the junior high and high school musicals, which were considered extracurriculars. So in Washington state what's really awesome is everyone pays education taxes, so homeschool families, they have the access to any of the extracurriculars that you want or you can go in and take a class or two classes or whatever and just not be somebody who's working towards your diploma. So I made use of that the minute I got excited about drama and was involved in the musicals and while in junior high and high school and that was how I got involved in school music was through musicals. 
Adam Eason: Okay, and you learned music from your parents? Or from private instructors who are brought in from school?
Lisa Neher: So I took piano lessons from a neighborhood teacher, a wonderful woman named Mary Bolstad, and then Laurie Shannon who was another kind of local private teacher and I took piano lessons and just a few voice lessons to help with musicals, but I didn't do voice lessons till college on a regular basis.
Adam Eason: Okay, interesting. So I'm skipping ahead a little bit, but all of your undergrad, Masters', DMA... has a very heavy theater emphasis. It seems like. Like at Lewis and Clark you got voice, composition, and theater. University of Kansas I know as a big musical theater place. I think.
Lisa Neher: Yeah! My degree at from University of Kansas is actually composition. 
Adam Eason: Oh, okay!
Lisa Neher: Yeah. So like this is welcome to the the crazy world that is Lisa's CV which is always some weird combination of things that is not quite consistent, but it always kind of comes back. Yeah, so there was musical theater happening at U of Kansas. It's also a big opera school. Again, the weird thing. I love University of Kansas. It's a great composition program. It's a great vocal program. It's just always hard at the graduate school level to do two things. It's very difficult. So I was involved in the Opera department just a little bit my second year. I was in the chorus for Riders to the Sea and I took voice lessons from a wonderful TA and then my second year at U of Kansas from one of the faculty members Julia Broxholm, who's fabulous.  
Adam Eason: So you've always had a mix of the classical side and more contemporary musical theater side and opera and it's all kind of...
Lisa Neher: Yeah, and I think... I don't necessarily have contemporary musical theater like pop rock stuff. And Lewis and Clark is a program that's mostly straight theater. I mean non-musical, sometimes people call that straight theater. And so they only did one musical I was there and ironically it overlapped with my very last semester when I was doing two senior recitals and a senior theater project, so I was not a part of that musical and the timing of that seemed very  ironic to me at the time. At the same time, I was so excited to get to put on these events that you kind of been building up to that it really wasn't that big of a sense of loss to me, because I just knew there was no way I could add anything on top of that.
So I let it go and everyone was wonderful. They did Urinetown, it was hilarious, and I had fun watching my friends. And and then I went back and rabidly practiced and composed and all the other things. Yeah, but I wouldn't say my training in theater is mostly... like the acting was very much separate from the singing. I love to combine them, but I definitely don't have the pop rock contemporary training in the same way that I had the legit Golden Era of classical musical theater, you know? That's kind of where my voice has more of the technique right now, maybe someday that will change.
Adam Eason: Okay, so not so much the Andrew Lloyd Webber's... 
Lisa Neher: Well, Webber is pretty much still... Okay, I guess it depends on the show, you know, and then it gets all involved in these kind of crazy things about voice types and belter versus legit and whether that means legit is soprano or not, you know? But I guess if you think about Pop Rock musical theater, that's not something that I have extensive training in at this time. But you know, if you go back to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, those kind of golden age of musical theater. That's the kind of technique that I studied. 
Adam Eason: Okay. Because musical theater in general, like opera and the more recent kind of musical theater, is not something I'm hugely well-versed at, but you do opera-ish stuff as well?
Lisa Neher: Oh for sure.
Adam Eason: Yeah, and how do those two... they're pretty different sounds to my ear.
Lisa Neher: Yeah, they are different sounds.
Adam Eason: And you know... I'm thinking of like, there are sometimes polyglots will say when they go to a country it takes them a few days to get into the language and then when they come back home it takes a few days to get back into it. Is it hard for your brain to switch back and forth between those two styles or is it not as compartmentalized?
Lisa Neher: Yeah, I think you could say there's something similar. I mean if you think about what's asked of you in the classical style: consistent vibrato, consistent legato, the chiaroscuro, that bright/dark sound that's kind of a mix of the overtone projection, you know? That you get this kind of "wraaaahw!" around in your head, resonance... That's a technical term, but you get like this resonance thing going on along with the depth thing... And mainly because of the tradition of miking [in musical theater] a lot more variety of sounds are possible once you're miked. So as mics became things that were used in musical theater, this allows a lot more variety of sounds that you can make that wouldn't otherwise project. So musical theater might has a different approach to vibrato, you know, maybe more delayed vibrato, maybe different diction stuff. So I think you can totally like, if you do a lot of it, you can kind of come back to your opera and go like "Oh, whoa! Oh, I got to remember to keep that vibrato going all the time!"
And then a lot of the time, too, we might be asked, "Hey less vibrato," or "No, no less! less! less! More talky less singy!" is a direction that is often given when you move into that musical theater space. But also if you kind of look at the styles that I say I'm more comfortable in which is like, the Golden Age and legit, that's the time when they weren't miked as much. Original Rodgers and Hammerstein, you know, you listen to Julie Andrews sing The Sound of Music? That's pretty much classical technique, really not that different at all. So the farther you deviate from those I think... You can get into habits like anything else.
But as a voice teacher, I believe the voice can do many things. We can have many gears. I'm a triathlete, I can swim and bike and run, and I think the voice can do the same thing. It's kind of a matter of like, do you have the time to study each one? Do you have good coaches to help you figure out how to do each thing so that you know how to move into those different gears and do you want to be switching between those? How does that fit with what you're working on? 
Adam Eason: I also noticed on your biography, you have a number of pretty heavy classical rep that you've done. So like the Bach B Minor Mass, Durufle Requiem. I think I saw Faure on there? I can't remember all of them, there a lot. 
Lisa Neher: There's a lot of things! Yeah. I haven't done the whole Bach B minor. I think I did an excerpt of that. Often the whole Bach B minor might be done by an even darker contralto, but I've definitely done the St. Matthew's Passion and The St. John's Passion. 
Adam Eason: So yeah, so something I'm kind of curious about because those aren't overtly theatrical pieces. And I mean, I guess you could make an argument they have theatrical elements to them because of the stories that they're telling, but how much of the theater element gets brought into your performances of not quite as theater-y stuff, or even down to like lieder, kind of the classical art song. 
Lisa Neher: Everything. Yeah, I can't quite get into anything without... It's all storytelling. It's all communication. Now, there's different style. There's different movement. I've seen art songs staged in a way that I didn't think actually helped. Like it's not necessarily that to do something and involve theater is to... It does not always mean that you're going to do a bunch of blocking in my opinion. I think theater tells us that we're always communicating something we always have a goal. We always want something. We're trying to get it. We're trying to communicate or trying to... we're in dialogue, that to me is theater and I think oratorio absolutely has to feel that way and actually maybe even more so when you repeat the same three lines for 6 minutes. 
I mean you have to... Yes, of course. There's a suspension of reality when anybody starts singing on stage. It's not like a realistic television show where we sort of, you know... most television to be in the style of realism or melodrama. That's the style of acting that were the most familiar with as American audiences. There's many styles of acting. It's not only realistic kinds of acting or kind of intensified realistic kinds of acting which would be like melodrama where we kind of have a little heightened emotion. That's very common in our television and movies which is how most of us encounter acting on a daily basis. 
So where was I going with that? So there's the first of all there's many styles, you know, so if I do a piece that is like a contemporary music piece, that's kind of maybe very avant-garde and doesn't really seem to have a story you can still approach that with theater because theater is about "doing," theater is about communicating, theater is about making bold choices and doing that thing and being really comfortable doing that thing. If you're talking about oratorio it often means being very comfortable standing and being in that space. Of standing and communicating something and of shaping it in subtle ways.
It's not just that "Erbarme dich" is sad for 6 minutes. That's too simple. It's got to be specific. There's got to be variety and finding that variety within the style of singing Bach with your eye on the conductor. Yeah, that's pretty subtle. But I think there's a big difference between every time you sing that phrase having a specific intention that changes, of deciding whether you're actually speaking and looking directly at the audience, or you're choosing to address an unseen entity; versus having wandering eye syndrome and not knowing exactly which of those you've chosen, which is something that a lot of younger singers can fall into when they're first trying to get their hands around this, you know, because it's a huge task and it's a ton of music. So theater to me is a lens of approaching everything that I do. But it's not one size fits all yeah. 
Adam Eason: You got your DMA at University of Iowa, and I actually found that I could download your thesis. 
Lisa Neher: Oh way cool! You're one of the ones I got in my report! I get an email once a month. 
Adam Eason: Nice! I didn't read it because it's 300 pages long, but I did read the abstract and you wrote about composer Gabriella Lena Frank who you met at University of Kansas. 
Lisa Neher: Yeah, she was a guest. She came as a guest composer. Yeah.
Adam Eason: Was that for an extended time or is that like a one off... 
Lisa Neher: I think it was like a day or maybe two. Must have been a few days because I feel like the one of the ensembles was performing some of her stuff. So I met her first there and then a couple years later I was at the Cortona Sessions for new music as a singer, which is a kind of an artist retreat style festival for new music composers and performers to have this really loving safe space to experiment and grow and drink wine and enjoy beauty and create together and she's on faculty there. And so we we met again there, or we connected there, and I sang her cycle Quatro Canciones Andinas on one of my doctoral recitals.
Adam Eason: Gotcha. What was it like writing a thesis on somebody who is still alive?
Lisa Neher: It was awesome. I highly recommend it. That was actually one of my criteria when I was thinking about what to write about was ideally did not want to write about something that had been written about a lot before. I didn't think that that would be as helpful or as useful. Where really what I was able to offer by writing about Gabriela's music because she's so generous and open-hearted and giving of her time and herself was that, in addition to my thoughts and analysis of the music and the text, I got to call her and have her talk to me about these pieces. And this was so helpful to me as a performer to get more insights. It was so inspiring and it was also so wonderful as a composer to understand some of the things that inspire her and that have led her down this path of the work she's explored and how she thinks about composition and how she thinks about orchestration and how she chooses texts and stories. 
So I felt like I knew I was right about someone living. I knew I didn't want to have a little review where I was going to have to thread the needle between a bunch of experts, you know, as a sort of a someone newer to this kind of scholarship that sounded like a lot of headache and tearing my hair out just to try to claim some tiny piece of space that didn't seem very useful and also as a contemporary music singer/contemporary music composer. Yeah, but I knew it would only work if I had somebody who was going to be super excited about that and open and she was so, so wonderful, she gave me access to some non-commercially released recordings to help with my analysis, because some of the works had not been commercially recorded or at least hadn't been at the time and access to scores and just interviews with her. She was also so loving and kind about like, you know, "Don't just write what I say. Write what you think!" You know she was so trusting and I really appreciated that.
Adam Eason: Yeah, I guess I can kind of see you might want to know the person you're writing about on some level. It's easy to imagine that could go a different direction with a person who has a different personality. 
Lisa Neher: Yeah. Or just, you may not be able to have access to things. I mean, when I was thinking about different ideas and different composers that I might want to focus on and one of the pieces that I was looking at, I can't remember who it was by... But anyway, my professor was like, "Why don't you write about such and such?" And I said, "Well, I don't know them. There was no recording. I can't even begin to make an analysis of this piece." If I'm trying to pluck out from a chamber score on the piano... I mean, just from a practical standpoint, and I really think pretty practically when it comes to starting to define a big project like a dissertation, I really didn't want that to become some horrendous task of me paying people to make a realization of a score just so I could analyze what was happening. And you can't just analyze music in my opinion by looking at the score. You have to hear it. You're letting go of so much that your imagination can't put in for you. 
Adam Eason: So these songs and even the composer herself. You mentioned that you're a little surprised your teachers, your professors, haven't heard of her as a vocalist and that a lot of the works on her Spotlight bio from Schott publishing... I think? 
Lisa Neher: Oh, I think it's Schirmer. 
Adam Eason: Ah, ok. [Those works] were instrumental. Have you found that maybe in contemporary classical music there's a slant more towards the instrumental as opposed to the vocal?
Lisa Neher: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, totally 100%. it's getting better in some areas. I mean our theory books, our theory curriculum, our music history curriculum. It's not just contemporary. You know, once we're out of the Renaissance, we're going to be lucky if they talk about anything vocal. You know.
Adam Eason: That's true. Actually. Now that you mention it.
Lisa Neher: Yeah, it is true actually. It's actually really strange to me because I remember in theory class we'd have to choose pieces to analyze, and when I go back now and I look at art songs that I'm assigning my students, I think, "This is exactly that form thing that people were talking about. Why didn't we look at some of these art songs for examples of different phrase forms?" Do you want obvious examples of the most common modulations ever? You go to Gilbert and Sullivan. How helpful would it have been not just for the singers in the class, but just to everyone to get to see some examples in, you know, tonal theory of really obvious "This is how [it is]." It's like when you go and you read church hymns and you go that's all the part writing stuff they were talking about and for some reason these silly books. You know these textbooks they jump right into like the most difficult exceptions to the rule in the most thorny Beethoven string quartet ever instead of letting undergrads see five examples that are super obvious. So anyway, there's my soapbox.
Yeah, I think... I mean look I've had like so many great experiences with wonderful composers and performers who absolutely take singers totally seriously and it is fabulous, but there's definitely a feeling that if you're a singer in new music, you better have perfect pitch and if you don't you're dumb. That is definitely a thing. Especially if you're talking about new music that values very crunchy sonorities or pointillistic things where the pictures are sort of coming in and not necessarily being traditionally related to each other. These are things that are very difficult sometimes for non-perfect-pitch singers to do. Yeah, because we don't have buttons. So again if that's one of the genres or one of the aesthetics that's being elevated, then that is also an aesthetic that's a lot easier to do on a piano as it turns out. Maybe it's a lot easier to have success with certain instruments with that and not with singing or probably other certain instruments and that's more difficult. But I mean, yeah, there's a bias. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. 
Adam Eason: It's interesting what you brought up about using vocal music as examples, or the lack of examples of vocal music, because I think... I always appreciated like... Webern, who is almost the epitome of the thorny composer for a lot of people. And I remember actually going, "What are his songs? And what text did he pick?" and actually reading the texts and then when I went back to his Sinfonia, I was like, "Oh! I get what he's expressing!" because I have the text. Like, there's a literal, concrete sort of imagery that he has in mind underpinning his music. 
Lisa Neher: That's a nice way into something sometimes, too, if a style is something that might be a little harder to relate to at first or if a composer... Yeah, it can be really wonderful to have a text or program or  something, you know, it's not the only way but I think it can be a really great way. Especially if you're talking about, maybe, an audience that you want to reach that hasn't maybe heard that recently, you know. 
Adam Eason: Yeah, so pivoting more towards your own compositions. You've written a chamber opera. White Horizons, right?
Lisa Neher: Yeah. 
Adam Eason: What were the circumstances that brought this about and what was it? Where was it done?
Lisa Neher: It was done at the University of Kansas. So University of Kansas has a fabulous student performing new music ensemble, Helianthus, that is organized by Forrest Pierce who is one of my mentors and was the reason I went to University of Kansas - to study with him. And what he did was he took one of the semesters for Helianthus while I was there, and that was going to be the semester they performed new chamber operas by several of the composer's who was studying at U of Kansas at the time. So what we did is in the fall semester, we wrote our pieces, we were matched up with people who signed up to be in the class to do this project in the spring semester, so we wrote specifically for those people, and then in the spring semester, we did musical rehearsal staging rehearsals and then performances of the chamber operas. So I wrote for two of my colleagues as the singers and then a quartet of instruments and a fabulous conductor, and then I actually performed in a colleague's own Chamber Opera as well. 
Adam Eason: Was that Li Kai Han? 
Lisa Neher: Yeah, Li Kai Han Jeremiah. Yeah, the Nightingale and the Rose is beautiful. Yeah, really cool.
Adam Eason: How is your experience working on those smaller, very small theatrical works from the large kind of full scale productions that you've been part of.
Lisa Neher: So, you know, what I think is really neat about chamber effort and where I draw parallel to black box theater, is that chamber opera really lets everyone be on the same playing field. Often times, you're not even performing with the pit. You don't need to because the ensemble's small enough where you don't have to have that acoustic muffling, I guess? Or that's probably the wrong word. But you know, sometimes if the orchestra was actually on stage with the singers, you couldn't see them and also the brass might kind of blow out the singers sometimes depending on the acoustics of the hall. So what's great about chamber music is there's ideas of balance, of collaboration, of really looking your fellow ensemble members in the eye during those music rehearsals, it's so much more fun and collaborative. 
You also get to be really creative about using your space. We staged these in 3/4, so we were able to put audience on three sides and then there was just one kind of backdrop, and that also made it very interesting to set up the space, to set up where the people were going to move. The minute you're doing three quarters, you have to move in a completely different way as an actor because no matter where you're pointed, someone's kind of looking at the rear side of you, so you have to move in a different way to kind of give that love and work the corners. And it's really interesting and audiences love kind of seeing they can kind of [see our?] reactions. It was really, really neat project and it's a model I keep going back to in my dreams of what I would love to create and how I can make that happen. 
Adam Eason: It's kind of an uncommon genre. Are there other people? Is this like percolating around in the background and is just kind of waiting for its time in the sun or is this kind of still... 
Lisa Neher: I think there are many companies. They're, like, if you kind of look up in the opera, there's some Facebook groups and you go around, there's quite a few small opera companies doing really innovative neat things with new works, with staging older works differently, you know. There's a lot on the east coast and then there's a smattering of them in other places. I mean, we have Opera Theater Oregon here based in Portland that does unusual smaller work sometimes or you know, the Little Prince isn't necessarily a smaller work, but they did it in kind of an intimate space. And Renegade Opera which is a new company that's getting started up and they're doing... Well, they were supposed to do this summer, it was supposed to do Clemenza di Tito staged in a really unique way and I think that's being pushed because of the pandemic.
So I do think there's a lot of this going on in little places and then in between, there's kind of these places where we're not seeing it in every city yet, and like any small companies it's really challenging. I mean, opera is really time-consuming, even on a small scale, and it's very expensive even on a small scale. So you have to figure out how you're going to do that. I think it can be a real passion project and you have to have a good team behind you which is kind of another reason why I keep having ideas and I haven't quite figured out how to make it happen yet, but I have schemes. I love to scheme. 
Adam Eason: It's interesting the comment about cost because I think my assumption and probably the assumption of most people is that this would be a fairly cost-effective way of moving forward. I think it just sort of goes to show how expensive opera as a genre is. 
Lisa Neher: Yeah, I think if you talk about, like, a chamber ensemble, maybe that doesn't memorize things? And doesn't have to do staging, doesn't have lights or costumes, and doesn't maybe need the same staging space? Even if you even if you stage things and usually you still want some kind of like entrance and exits and you know, things like that. And opera, even chamber opera, often has a conductor that can often be helpful depending on the music especially if it's contemporary, it may really require a conductor. So you need to have kind of a space for the conductor, space for the singers. They have to be able to see [the singers]. It has to be memorized, and you're going to have to do musical rehearsals and staging rehearsals with a rehearsal pianist, and then have your time when everybody gets together and you run it a few times. So it's a much more involved process than a chamber music concert and anytime you have to memorize things and any time to have to stage things.... It takes more time.
Yes, absolutely, it is way more affordable than grand opera, but I think grand opera companies, they don't want to let go of that. I mean they exist like a symphony doesn't want to become a string quartet, you know, it's a beautiful genre in and of itself and also there are people who are writing new wonderful grand operas, you know? We want to see those on those big stages, too, so I think it's like a both/and for me. You definitely see, like, Portland Opera has done a few kind of smaller chamber productions over the last few years, and maybe even before then, where they've done things kind of in a black box setting that are sort of smaller productions and that's really cool to see them do these hybrid seasons. It's super exciting. I love it. 
Adam Eason: So getting even smaller, you have the you call it the One Voice Project. Can you describe what the project is? It's about unaccompanied voice and what exactly are the goals of the project or is this just like an overarching name for something? Like a general approach to writing for voice? 
Lisa Neher: Yes. The One Voice Project. The goal of it is to expand the repertoire for unaccompanied voice and also to advocate for unaccompanied singing as a completely wonderful genre to write for and to sing in the same way that we have unaccompanied instrumental music for just about every single instrument ever. We don't have that repertoire as part of our normal practice in classical music, although certainly once you go digging there are many pieces that exist, but they are not taught. Nobody has to do an unaccompanied piece at any point in any recital ever. And I doubt as a cellist that is true for you. 
Adam Eason: No, yeah, I mean... Bach is part of the audition process. 
Lisa Neher: So this came out of a few things. The same Li Kai Han Jeremiah, who wrote Nightengale and the Rose, had these beautiful Japanese haiku settings that were really gorgeous. I performed [them] at University of Kansas and also at the Cortona Sessions for New Music, and they were scary to do unaccompanied. You get to the end of a piece you're a half step off, you know it's completely your fault so, you know... it's not because the pianist wasn't there that day. You notice it challenges you in this different way that like, I'm sure all of you instrumentalists who work on unaccompanied stuff have to... "Oh my intonation" or "Oh that rhythm here, oh shoot," you know all those. You're very exposed.
So on the one hand it was this huge challenge and kind of nerding out and geeking out about that was exciting and overwhelming and cool, and then at the other hand was, it was so amazing to sing something on my own and feel like it was complete. Because maybe you've also had this experience of going home for the holidays and your family asked you to play something? In my case, it would be me singing art song, and you sort of have this thing like, okay. Do I just skip the interlude? How do I... oh, let me go get my new note. It's super awkward because it is awkward to do something without half of it. Right? I mean the music doesn't exist [as] just the solo line. The piano part is so important in art song, the piano part is so important in any instrument plus piano combo, it's not solo. It's a duet. It's really a duet. So it was really exciting. And so then I went, "Why don't we have more of this and why don't we do more of this? 
One place where we do have that tradition would be many of our folk songs often have a tradition of where people would sing them unaccompanied. Maybe they're laborer songs that they would do in the field or they would sing them and improvise or whatever. So that's another source of inspiration to me. I sang some unaccompanied Irish folk songs as well as some other unaccompanied pieces on a concert in Iowa with a friend of mine, Timothy Hsu who's a violinist, so we did some solos and some duets. 
And then I put out this call for scores. So the One Voice Project kind of got kicked off then with a call for scores, and of those I selected some winning works that were performed several times in Iowa and then subsets have been performed in many different venues at New Music Gathering in Boston. Some of them actually were on my Third Angle Concert last month. They have become a repertoire that I can pull from and add to a little bit more organically recently, sort of one piece at a time and more by invitation.
You know, back when I did it in 2014, the call... Twitter was still pretty new and I think I got maybe 45 submissions, you know some from people I knew, some from people I didn't know. I think if I put out a call [now], I would be not able to sort through all of them because my network is so much larger and I don't think it would be very fair to people, especially if maybe they were writing something new. So I've been rethinking that as I move forward. How can I, now that I'm lucky enough to know more people who want to write for me, how can I use that most usefully? To ask specific people to write, or to notice somebody has a piece in their repertoire that I want to add to mine that they've already written and needs a second performance, things like that.
Then recently I've written some more pieces for unaccompanied voice. So I was invited to write a piece for Arwen Myers, she's a fabulous soprano here in Portland, for her ArtsLandia concert back in April. And so I wrote Strawberry Man, which is a short song for singer, accompanying with a little bit of claps and stomps. And I just wrote a piece for Rhymes with Opera's 'Pocket Opera Workshop' that's happening next week. And that's a three-minute micro unaccompanied Opera. And so they'll be workshoped next week and is kind of getting my gears going for some other mini unaccompanied projects that I think could be very impactful given that we're all in our homes during this quarantine. 
Adam Eason: Moving on to your own compositions now, I think the one that I heard was at the Cascadia composers presentation you gave it was American Waters. Then I was just looking through some of the titles of your other works. So like... Twister, Icy Celestial Bodies, Thaw... It's very nature inspired and I was curious where that inspiration is coming from. Are they like coming from poetic texts, or is it just a general love of nature and the beauty and sublimity of it all? 
Lisa Neher: Yeah. So for me as a composer I find... maybe this is because I'm a singer or an actress... that I really need to have an image or concepts or a theme something somewhat... even if it's loosely programmatic, that's when ideas flow. That's when I come into artistic flow. Maybe that will change, but I did an experiment a few years ago, maybe even last year, where I sort of tried instead to just think about things purely like, "Let's write some motives!" you know and much more abstract kind of [composition] and it was an interesting experiment. It did not unlock my creativity the same way that once I start to try to write about a gulper eel. suddenly all kinds of cool stuff comes out that I am feeling is useful and interesting and that a clarinetist likes to play. So that's kind of the first thing, is finding what I want to talk about, finding an inspiration, an image, a concept, a critter, or a landscape. I'm somebody who... going out in the world and encountering plants and animals and mountains is really... it's a very spiritual thing. 
It's a place where I feel connected and sort of comforted by the fact that I'm not alone in being a living creature that has a beginning, middle, end. You know, there's something elemental. I feel also a kinship and a great deal of empathy. I'm a vegan and I felt this empathy since I was a little kid always with just like every little tiny critter and plant and just feeling like they deserve to have their shot and live and I love that empathy. Also, I feel a sense of the alien that I don't ever really know what their existence is like and that's kind of cool. 
Then with natural phenomena, without making light of [it]... like I know tornadoes can be horrible. You know, I don't want to make light of that or volcanic explosions. But when I think about natural phenomenon I think about how we humans have done a lot to our Earth that maybe the Earth is not so happy about, and that we feel very in control and like it's our right to be in control. 
And then I look at Mount St. Helens and Mount Saint Helens just decided to blow up and there was nothing we could do about it. And it's awful that it hurt people. I feel an odd sense of comfort that we can't completely destroy the Earth, you know. I also feel a kind of spiritual connection that there's something that's sitting there and it's going to be there when I'm gone and it's existing on its own plane, and these things to me are very interesting to try to express through music in some way. Some little bit of appreciation, of wondering, of my place in it all, of its place in its own thing and how little my place in it all matters to the mountain or to the tornado or to the gulper eel, and I hope that that is an invitation to audience members to sit in space.
I think our art form... It unfolds over time. So what do we give our audiences? We give them time to sit with something and you're going to get to sit in something in a sound world. I hope it can be an invitation to sit in that sound world and see what comes up for you and maybe look at that mountain differently or go look up that goofy weird gulper eel and see what it's all about and feel a sense of maybe comfort, and also maybe a sense of challenge to protect and to appreciate you know, so yeah. 
Adam Eason: Yeah. So coming down from the mountain now, you have a keen interest in gender representation and music. Historically, contemporarily, for composers. You know, when I was thinking about this for our interview, I was kind of like... it's a different world in opera and voice. Because I was just remembering, I had to look it up, the Vienna Philharmonic, the first time they had a woman in their orchestra at all, it was like 1997.
Lisa Neher: Terrible. 
Adam Eason: Right? But then in the world of voice the prima donna, what would you call it? Phenomenon?
Lisa Neher: Yeah. Sure.
Adam Eason: Yeah. Yeah it's been a thing for very long time. And you know the thing that sort of kicked off a thought line for me. I saw in your DMA thesis you had a book Michael K Slayton wrote called "Women of Influence in Contemporary Music," and I had the thought that, thinking historically, I could think of a lot of women who had influence but not a lot of women who had power. Does that distinction makes sense to you? Because I'm like, well, we've got Queen Elizabeth, sure, Catherine the Great, you know, maybe some others. 
Lisa Neher: That's interesting. Yeah, I mean, I think... For sure. It's difficult for us to look back and go "How much of it is erasure, and how much of it is limiting in that moment?" You know what I mean? Because I think the historical gaze backwards means that sometimes people who were more influential got erased or their influence has been diminished in how we talk about them. Because it's a choice to keep talking about Beethoven or to talk about Robert Schumann and then mention Clara as a footnote versus the other way around, and we'd have to... I would have to be a better musicologist or have a time machine to know for sure. 
But yeah, I do think that women.... I can even just look at my own life and I can think of the huge influence and the huge impact that women around me have and then the thing is that institutionally the power still is often held not by women, right? Whereas a mentor one-on-one can have an amazing impact on somebody's life and on what they go on to do, you know the impact of women working in the home, you know its a huge impact for hundreds of years of our society, thousands of years of our society. You can't say that's not an impact to raise children or whatever. But were they given the same rights, the same powers? Yeah, I think that's an interesting lens. I think there's probably a good amount of truth to that. 
Adam Eason: What about your view of gender from within the world of vocal music and musical theater? 
Lisa Neher: It's super problematic. It's so problematic. So there's so many... you go to like opera and theater. There's so much typecasting by gender and there's so much heteronormativity and you know erasure of LGBTQ, you know, there's just a huge erasure. And it hurts everybody, you know, it hurts everybody. It hurts the soprano friends of mine who are so sick of singing the damsel in distress and it hurts my baritone friend who's sick of being the sleazy old guy. I mean it hurts everybody and it certainly hurts people who don't feel like there's a place for them at all. Most of all, right, it hurts people who feel like they don't ever get to be authentic on stage. Most of all.
So that's a huge problem, and our associations with different voice colors with different gender and different characters that stereotypical kind of casting is just going to be really hard to unprogram but we have to start doing it. We just have to because just because your voice is low doesn't mean you're a "bad guy," just because your voice is low doesn't mean that you're going to present as male, and just because your voice is high doesn't mean you're going to present as female, or that your identity is female, not even present [as]. That doesn't mean that your identity is a woman, your identity can be many things and that's not tied only to the pitches that you sing.
So this is a challenge. It's a huge problem. I'm probably making all kinds of mistakes in how I described it right now, but I'm forging ahead and doing the best I can. Queer Opera was a really wonderful experience that I was a part of last fall. That's a project that is being put on by Chuck Dillard and his team based in Portland University, Portland State and I performed with that Ensemble. My part was as an ally. It was really, really interesting. We did scenes from standard repertoire, but we staged them to reflect a broad diversity of gender identities and expressions and it was by and far some of the most impactful work I've ever done. The most meaningful theater making I've ever done.
Many of the singers are really talented undergrads and recent grads of Portland State and they were so expressive, they were so sharing of their talents, and it meant so much to all of us to be part of that. So I think that's a model and I think there are some other really wonderful models for breaking that down and a lot of times for uplifting another voice and stepping back and shutting up, you know, and that includes me as well.
And then also we just need more women on stage as well. I mean, we just we need more women's roles. There's so many really wonderful sopranos and mezzos and there's many wonderful basses and tenors, but there's not as many of them. And you can you could hire ten wonderful sopranos for every tenor and probably still have a bunch of sopranos in the city who don't have work and that's stupid. It's extremely frustrating and it's perpetuated every time someone writes another opera that's Billy Budd or Moby Dick.
It's just doesn't fit the demographics of who's available to sing and it perpetuates this problem that you have all these talented people who want work and you're just making them have a harder shot instead of being like, "Sweet! Look at all these awesome sopranos and mezzos, lets write for them as well!" I mean, I wrote White Horizon for tenor and baritone. It doesn't mean you don't ever get to write for any of that stuff.
But yeah, and there's some really wonderful articles on New Music Box and some other publications about how to make vocal writing in classical music like... how to write music and market your music, so it's more open to many different singers. You know, talking about ranges instead of talking about voice types, sort of addressing different ways that we can think about and just disconnect our gender ideas from voice typing, and that's something that I've really been thinking about as well and trying to update on my website: vocal range versus voice type as much as I can. Or include both, at least, and I try to be really clear and upfront with language that you know, if you would like to sing this piece down an octave or up an octave, you're welcome to.
I still think for now we're in this thing where many sopranos want to quickly scan and see what do you have for them, many tenors want to scan what they have for tenor. Maybe someday that will change but I think if one can say, you know, "mezzo-soprano or anyone with this range." If that's a piece that you would like to make available and if it's a piece you really feel has to be sung by someone with specific identity, then you can have that of course. But yeah, it's a big thing. You have to work on it. We just have to.
Adam Eason: Alright, well, coming up on time so we should probably wrap this up. But the last question: on the count of three, first composer that pops into your head three, two one go.
Lisa Neher: Benjamin Britten? 
Adam Eason: Oh, okay. What brought Benjamin Britten to your head? 
Lisa Neher: Curlew River. 
Adam Eason: Okay. 
Lisa Neher: It's so awesome. 
Adam Eason: Yeah, it's a cool piece. 
Lisa Neher: So when I said ,"I want to write chamber opera" Forrest Pierce said, "Why don't you listen to Curlew River?" And I went and got the score and the CD. It was back in CDs and I had like one of those CD players, you know, there's like a portable CD player? And I sat down with the score and you know like... We do school things and sometimes you're kind of making yourself do it? Like, you're glad but it's kind of work... and I was so captivated! I couldn't stop, it was really creepy and weird. It's a weird story and the instrument grouping is so unique and there's so many interesting sounds and I couldn't stop. I had to keep going through the whole show and I love it. 
And I think there's something so interesting, too, he combines this sort of Japanese Noh theater with... this was just on the recording, but that does influence some of his instrumental choices. So he combined that with this sort of morality play format, of the whole cast walking on stage and chanting and proclaiming that they're about to tell this story. I was always kind of a fantasy and Middle Ages geek and I loved that and yeah, I actually... I gotta dig in. I don't know if Benjamin Britten ever said anything about a gender swapped version of those. I don't even know if anyone does those shows in America. I would love to do a gender flipped Curlew River. I would love to do it with a cast of all women. I think it would be wonderful and super cool and I don't think anyone has done it. Or if they have, it's been a while. So why not do it again?
Adam Eason: Cool! All right. Well, thanks for joining me today. It's been wonderful talking with you and hearing your experience. And yeah, I really appreciate it. 
Lisa Neher: Oh, thanks for having me on I really appreciate your time, too. Thanks for asking me.
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Composer Composting

Yesterday, I had a great time listening to and playing at a festival commemorating the cello teacher Lev Aronson. Here is a picture of me being awesome:

Yeah, look at that hottie. I'd totally jump his bones. Wait. No. Ew.

The event, as far as I could tell, was hugely successful. Despite the country music you hear at their page, the All Good Cafe was absolutely packed with customers. So everybody knows, yesterday's performance was part of a larger festival given in honor of Lev Aronson, a week long cello fest which will be recurring every year. I think that's pretty amazing, really.

All of the cellists were amazing. It was great hearing so many talented players all in one spot. There was, however, something which niggled at my brain while I was listening. It wasn't until I played near the end that I figured out what was bothering me: I was the only one who played any new music. Granted, it was mine, but still. We heard Vivaldi, Handel, Popper, Lee, Cassadó... But nothing from the 21st century.

So! I will rant a bit about that! What's going on, here? It's a problem I know I've touched on, before. The reasons why new classical music doesn't get performed regularly are multifaceted and complicated. I'll talk today about my experience in college, and maybe some people out there will recognize that experience and set about changing it in what ways they can.

The Great Gulf

In music school, there were two groups of people. Performers. And composers. Performers didn't compose. Composers didn't perform. There were also subtle undertones of "Four legs good, two legs bad" syndrome. People on both sides had a slight tendency to look down their noses across the aisle. It's like... When you're at a wedding. And the wife's side of the family doesn't entirely approve of the husband, and the husband's side of the family really isn't all to sure about it either, but it's a wedding so they're forced to more or less put up with each other... It was like that. And I know, from playing in the orchestra, that when student orchestration readings came up, there was often a slight tension in the air, as if some number of the musicians felt rather put upon.

I can only speculate as to how things got this way. Surely the fact that the two sides have become so distinct from each other is part of the problem. Composers, of course, play an instrument. But in my time, I never really saw too many composers compose for themselves, or groups they had created. And performers almost 100% never wrote any music. Most of that has to do with perceived ability, I imagine. Our current school system goes to great lengths to try and stamp out creativity where it can, and it leaves a lot of wounded souls in its wake. "I can't compose" is a phrase I heard not entirely infrequently.

Part of me is tempted to say "You mean, 'you won't compose.'" But... That is somewhat inaccurate and certainly callous. Mental blocks, as I wrote about yesterday, can be incredibly powerful, and it is foolish to imagine that something that is "all in your head" shouldn't have an impact in the physical world. Placebos, for example. Well, it's even more pronounced when it comes to creative endeavors. So there's that.

But there's also something else. There's very little music theory in high school programs, and none in middle school. Insofar as some amount of music theory is helpful for composing, it's perhaps also true the "I can't compose" line comes as much from ignorance as it does from self esteem. So there's that as well.

Building Jeff Bridges

The simplest way to start is to simply connect. Shake hands, make friends, grab a beer. Think back in the past how many pieces were written with specific performers in mind. Benjamin Britten for Peter Pears. Mozart for Anton Stadler. Haydn for Esterhazy. Brahms and Joachim. Etc. Etc. Etc. The list goes on and on. Collaborate. All the great composers of the past did, so should you.

Also, composers: Write for yourself. There is no easier way to get immediate feedback about what works and what doesn't than if you write something you can play, and go out and play it. The best part about it is, you don't have to pay for rehearsals. And performers: well... Try and break out of your shells a little bit. Write a short song. Or something in simple binary. Or a fugue or something. Whatever you want. It doesn't matter if you never perform it. Just getting into the composing mind set will help you understand music in ways you never get when you are just studying it for performance, or for theory. It's amazing how it clarifies things.

Recommendations of the Day

Today, I want to highlight a couple of the collaborations I noted above. In particular, Brahms' Violin Concerto and Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. Brahms wrote the violin concerto for Joseph Joachim, a great violinist from the 19th century, and the Serenade was written for Peter Pears, an absolutely phenomenal tenor. Both are somewhat long. If you're strapped for time, the Dirge from the Serenade will knock you flat, and the last movement of the Violin Concerto will pick you up again.

Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op.31

Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto, op. 77

Tango Notturno

I'm getting a piece performed, yaaay! It's called Tango Notturno. Here are my liner notes:

Since I'm not a famous composer (or, at least, as famous as a composer can be these days), I have not often been asked “Why did you write such and such?” I have, however, been asked the question enough times to know that the correct answer is not “Because I felt like it.” Never mind that that's the real reason behind me writing anything. There is a palpable disappointment in the eyes of those who receive that answer. Also, they never really believe me.

I suspect the answer people are looking for is more along the lines of “Because writing music is the Meaning of Life!” or “Because writing music is a one lane highway directly to the very face of GAAAAWD.” I suppose those could actually be the answers to “Why did I write such and such,” but if they are, then the Meaning of Life and the Face of GAAAAAAAWD are curiously mundane. Truly, I wake up one day, think to myself “Hey, that melody is kind of neat,” and then I write it down.

But, as I mentioned, that's not really the correct answer. So I'm going to pretend like my answer to the question “Why did you do what humans often do?” is not “Because that's what humans do,” and give you the real truth of why I wrote the Tango Notturno. It goes like this. I was walking along one day when I was approached by The Terrifying Technicolor Turtle. For those who don't know (I don't know how you can't, but people also don't think that writing music is something that people just do without good reason, so I suppose anything is possible), The Terrifying Technicolor Turtle is about 40 feet tall and speaks Pig Latin. For the sake of clarity, I will translate what it said to me.


To which I replied, “Holy shit, a giant talking turtle!”

The Terrifying Technicolor Turtle reiterated its question.

To which I replied, this time, “I don't know. Write a song I guess?”


“Ok, sure, but why a tango?”


“... but these words don't alliterate in Pig Latin.”


So I wrote a tango for a Klondike bar. It was the best Klondike bar ever.

--- --- ---

Writing the tango was not without its problems, however, and all those problems were named Astor Piazzolla. Quick history lesson. Piazzolla did to the tango what Beethoven did to the Symphony: explode the form to previously inconceivable heights, and, in the process, ruin the form for everybody who wanted to compose in that form forever after them. Not that that is the fault of Piazzolla or Beethoven, so much as it's the fault of their raving, frothy fans.

It goes like this. Somebody writes a tango (symphony). You want to be hip and cool so you write it like Piazzolla (Beethoven). The frothy fans get all frothy and say you're just being a copy cat, your piece is unoriginal, it sounds just like Piazzolla (Beethoven). So then you try again. You write something that sounds as far from Piazzolla (Beethoven) as possible. The frothy fans get all frothier, and tell you your tango (symphony) isn't a tango (symphony) at all because it doesn't sound like Piazzolla (Beethoven). It's round about this time that you, soaked to the shins with froth, stab your accuser in the stomach with a rabies shot, because people don't just froth like that unless they've been bitten by a rabid animal in the past 48 hours. You're doing them a favor either way.

I'm not sure if I successfully skirted the line between writing something that is clearly a tango without sounding overly like Piazzolla or not. To be sure, there are a number of similarities, but, to paraphrase Brahms, even a comatose pigeon would be able to hear that. There's the sustained melody line, the crashing piano bass line, the tango rhythms, etc. etc. But my sense of harmonic progression is certainly different, as is the approach to form, and the piece lacks a bandoneon part. Among other things, I suppose. It doesn't much matter, because Tango Notturno kicks butt, so it doesn't need me to write an apologetic for it. Either you like the tango or you don't, and if you don't you're outnumbered. The rest is for musicologists to figure out, bless their hearts.