"Meet Our Students": Lara Lewison (CC '20)

What year are you at Columbia?

Class of 2020.

What are/will you be majoring in?

English with a Music Concentration.

How long have you been a participant of the MPP?

Since fall 2016.

How have you benefited from MPP programs and performance opportunities?

I've participated in private violin lessons, MPP chamber ensembles, master class, performed in the Weill Hall chamber concert, in the Music @ Maison Française series, and have a Midday Music recital coming up with my lovely clarinet trio (with Nikki Pet, Rebecca Wan) on 4/4/18. Last December, I performed the entire Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen at Maison Française, coached by Allen Blustine. This was a project that the quartet (Erik Helstrom, David Newtown, Kaya Curtis) was dreaming about for a while. When we finally put the show on, the house was packed!

I have an exciting solo violin/electronics recital coming up at Maison Française on Friday, February 16 at 1pm, where I will be performing Kaija Saariaho's Frises and Pierre Boulez's Anthemes II. To prepare for this recital, I've been working with Taylor Brook, a DMA student here, and Maja Cerar, my violin teacher.

Any tips on how a student might be able to fully take advantage of all the musical offerings at Columbia?

My advice would be to take advantage of the specialties and interests of your private teachers, chamber coaches, and other faculty here. Think about performances or projects that would be difficult or impossible to do without the resources that you have available to you at Columbia. Since my violin teacher, Maja Cerar, is experienced with playing electro-acoustic new classical music, I asked her last school year if she would help me learn to play something with electronics myself. I browsed through the collection of scores in the music library and found the score to Saariaho's Frises. I was referred Taylor Brook, who helped me perform a movement of Frises at one of the MPP Chamber concerts at the Italian Academy in April. 

This winter, I was offered a recital opportunity at Maison Française, and quickly jumped on the opportunity to continue the project of learning how to perform with electronics. I chose to continue to work on Frises and picked up Pierre Boulez's Anthemes II. Both of these pieces have live electronics programmed using Max/MSP. These electronics often respond directly to what I am playing in the moment.  Even though I am playing with a computer, the rehearsal process resembles a rehearsal process with another live musician. Part of preparing performance has been making small adjustments to the Max patches, in order to tailor the sounds that we want according to the score.Frises is fun because it offers the opportunity to explore the boundaries of pitch and harmonics. Saariaho is keenly aware of how to exploit the way that sound is produced on the violin. Instead of eliminating the "unpleasant" sounds that we tend to avoid completely--too harsh, bright, dull, or piercing--she gives specific directions about how to control these sounds. The electronics respond to this as well, amplifying the violin and sometimes expanding on the pitches of the harmonics, as well as a variety of other effects.

I am especially excited to present my work on Anthemes II. From records that I can see online, it has only been performed a handful of times. I am not sure if this is because the violin part is so difficult (I would confidently say I've never played anything remotely as difficult), or because the Max patch is difficult to acquire and construct, but I think that this serious undertaking will be worth it because the piece is so cool. The electronics often sound like a real human playing their own instrument, rather than a bunch of random bleeps and bloops. I am so happy to have support from Taylor and Maja and benefit from their expertise in electronics and electro-acoustic music, their attention to detail, and their patience and belief in my wacky project ideas.

How do you balance the busy academic schedule with practice time? Any tips?

I would suggest living near a practice room, or else you will have to schedule in travel time. I live in Carlton Arms this year, and it's just far enough to not be worth going back home in the middle of the day. Squeezing my violin case between seats in lecture halls so that I can practice between classes is not fun. No leg room, people get annoyed with you, etc.

What was the most memorable musical experience in your life?

Two of my most memorable musical experiences were as an audience member. Recently, I attended the JACK Quartet's performance of G.F. Haas' String Quartet No.9 in the pitch dark at National Sawdust. The JACK quartet is master of controlling timbre. During a few moments I forgot that I was listening to a string quartet. Despite being in the pitch black, the performance felt visual--I swear I was seeing intricate, colorful patterns. Performances like this are also inspiring because they make me reconsider all of my preconceptions about how to play chamber music. I rely so much on watching my colleagues' bodies when I play with them, but what if I couldn't see, and I just listened as intensely as I possibly could? Performers who specialize in new music amaze me because they have developed extensive ensemble techniques to adapt to new scores. This is fun for me to watch because I can challenge my own ideas about how to signal and how to respond. In 2012 I attended the full Ring Cycle at the Seattle Opera. Alone, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I remember trying to convince my high school friends to go to other operas with me, but all I really wanted was to go see the Ring, alone, so I could be surrounded by luscious landscapes and rhinemaidens twirling in the air. I have always been inspired by how opera singers produce sound. A large part of violin technique is imitating the voice. Even though the violin can look and feel like an unnatural appendage, we often have to think about what the body is doing when it is singing. How we physically achieve sound may be different, but thinking about different instruments helps us expand our palette of colors, timbres, and styles of phrasing.

My most memorable musical experience that I was directly involved in was playing Strauss' Alpine Symphony under the baton of Andris Nelsons this summer as part of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. He is such a precious man--he drove around in a little golf cart, has a thick Latvian accent which cracks to a high pitch every few minutes, and comes up with the cutest yet most bizarre metaphors to describe his ideas during rehearsal. But besides the fact that I enjoy his character, he is a delightfully sensitive conductor--his expressions and movements while conducting make so much sense. When you follow his gestures, you feel integrated into the collective sound. And you don't only feel integrated vertically into a sound across all sections of the orchestra, but horizontally through the phrase, the movement, all the way through the entire piece.

What does making music mean to you?

A lot of us classical violinists have been scritching away at this piece of wood for as long as we've had memories, so it's easy to take our involvement with music for granted as something we've always known. I think that making music means to give ourselves and our audiences a chunk of time to listen. No matter the type of music that you make, or the genres you enjoy the most, music is a medium that you get to experience in real time. The process of working on a piece to mold a listening experience--or rather, the possibility of a variety of listening experiences--is special to me.

Anything else you would like to share with the readers? (fav food, fav composer/musician, music recommendation, fav quote, etc.)

Yes! I would like to invite you to the electroacoustic solo violin recital with pieces by Saariaho and Boulez that I mentioned earlier. I'm super excited to present this project, and hope it will lead to many more exciting projects in our future. 1pm Friday, February 16, at Maison Française. See you there!