An Interview With Margery Goldstein
Margery Goldstein, violist with Symphony Pro Musica, is the composer of “Sky Woman Falling,” which will be premiered by SPM on March 19 in Hudson and March 20 in Westborough. Violinist Nada Batu met with Margery Goldstein to chat about her piece and her life in music.
Nada Batu: Thanks so much for talking with me today! How long have you been involved with Symphony Pro Musica?
Margery Goldstein: Actually, Andy (Margery’s husband, and principal cellist in SPM) and I are founding members of SPM. We were with Mark [Churchill] before SPM, and were on the committee to set up the new orchestra. In those days, I was playing violin and piccolo in the orchestra; I hadn’t taken up viola yet.
NB: Did you study music when you were in school?
MG: When I attended Wellesley College in the 70’s, I was studying music, but the music department wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Everything I was doing back then, between playing shows, playing in the orchestras at MIT, and being involved in operas, was very practical, and the department was not practical. And I should have transferred, but when you’re a kid, you don’t know! It was a great school in many ways, but it wasn’t the place for me. So I came out of it thinking that this music stuff was going to have to be on the back burner, because I don’t have an avenue for furthering it.
NB: But you’ve composed for a lot of your life, right? I know you’ve composed pieces for SPM in the past.
MG: When I was a little girl, I played and listened to music, and I realized that if I can play music, then I should be able to write music, and that’s when it started.
NB: So you really had to work your way up from composing when you were little, to symphonies and larger works for orchestras!
MG: Yeah, you just have to keep on working. One of the things that was very helpful in the 90’s was the software Finale. At that point, I had 3 little kids and sitting at the table with the flare pen and the ruler was just not cutting it! So it’s very nice to be able to get yourself on the computer. It’s useful for revising, and also playback, because that’s one of those things about writing, is that unless you know people that can play for you or it’s for an instrument that you play, you can’t always hear it all. My piano playing is… well I can get around on the piano, but nothing too complicated! In any case, I’ve written a number of pieces for a concert band, a youth chorus, and SPM.
NB: How did you come up with the ideas for your piece Sky Woman Falling?
MG: Well, I always wanted to set a text, but finding the right kind of text was difficult. I read a lot of folk story anthologies, and when I saw this one, I knew it would be perfect. There are many different versions of the story, but they all have the Native American roots. There’s a prophecy that there is something down in this hole, and this woman falls down into it. That’s common among all the versions so I think that’s the way it is, but its not through sinfulness, it’s a mistake. I like the story because first of all, it’s reasonably short and has these iterative aspects with the different animals, and that’s the hallmark of a good folk story - that it has repetition. It also makes for very good music! You do get to write variations. These variations [fourth movement] are one minute each. I’m hoping that eventually this can be danced.
NB: Once you found the story and thought it was the way to go, how did the composing process go for you?
MG: The odd thing about this piece, compared to anything else I’ve composed, is that this piece sort of composed itself from beginning to end. Of course, I went back and did a lot of changing, but most of the time when I write pieces, I pick the different themes. Here, I picked two notes: C and A flat, and thought, we’ll see where it goes from there, which was interesting. It was a very easy experience. It took me a couple months to compose this - a summer project. It felt like I was in control the whole time, but in a way, I wasn’t. When I came up with the first theme, that the oboe plays, I didn’t think was original because it came to my head so easily. There’s only so many combinations of notes in the world, but I was impressed because that worked so well. Later on, when I bring it [first theme] back, it just fell into place and it was a wonderful feeling. I’ve also written a lot of program notes, and you have to talk about that broad structure when you give people program notes. I don’t feel like it was much of a compromise, I think it’s a really user-friendly piece. The oboe is the duck, the loons are the two clarinets, and the bassoon is the heroic muskrat. The brass players are the arrogant beavers!
NB: So now that we have been rehearsing the piece for about a month and a half, what have you been thinking about the piece? Have you had to change any things?
MG: Oh I’m very pleased! I did add a harp part because we have a harp player. It was fun to add a harp part. I have a friend whose daughter plays harp, so I’ve been passing these by her for harp notation, and I hope the harpist likes it. Maybe once we have performed it and I listen to a recording, I might want to make it longer.
NG: How would you compare Sky Woman Falling with other music you have composed?
MG: One of the things about being older is that I’m far less concerned with being experimental. What I used to write was far less tonal, and very spiky. At this point of my life, I’m far more comfortable writing tonal music. This piece isn’t necessarily completely tonal, but it’s modal. I don’t feel like my mission with this particular piece is to shock people or take their brains away from the story. I want to complement the words of the story and supplement their experience of listening to the music and the story, and it feels good. I think it was a successful attempt to do that and not necessarily to be completely cutting edge. I would like this piece to have legs, and be played by community orchestras or youth orchestras. I think about that when I’m composing. I really like when I write a piece of music, and the second violin section likes it. Having come out of playing since I was a little kid, it’s really important to me to give people something to do that they’re going to enjoy playing.
NB: So what is next for you?
MG: Having done this, I’m just waiting to find another good story. I read a lot of folk stories, and I’m sure there are stories like this from all over the world that would work really well.
Sky Woman Falling
In this traditional Iroquois creation story, the creatures of the Water World, represented by different instruments of the orchestra, cooperate to provide a safe landing for Sky Woman, who is falling from the Sky World. The result is Turtle Island, our world.