Arts & Culture

With old forms, improvisation, Bielawa creates ingenious anachronism

6 min read

Manhattan composer Lisa Bielawa is a Radcliffe Fellow this year. Her tiny studio on Concord Avenue is spartan: white walls, a piano, a violin, two chairs, a table strewn with music staff paper. On one side is the glow of a computer. On the other is a single window, with a blur of trees beyond.

But the little studio, as Shakespeare wrote of art, is such stuff that dreams are made on.

The dream that Bielawa made at Radcliffe this year is “Double Violin Concerto,” a 24-minute composition that premieres in Boston next week (March 29). It pays homage to music’s past by reviving an old form. (Double concertos were last popular in Antonio Vivaldi’s 18th century.)

“It’s kind of anachronistic to be writing one of these now,” said Bielawa, taking a break in her Radcliffe studio. “It’s like [a poet] learning to write in cantos.”

But “Double Violin Concerto” is musically modern, scored for solo violinists who at intervals are free to improvise.

Its three movements call for the wind, brass, and string instruments found in a small orchestra in the Baroque period. But it calls for an accordion, too, which Bielawa playfully added to replace the era’s harpsichord.

Music and Bielawa go way back. Her parents are in and of the world of aesthetically organized sound. Her keyboardist mother is a scholar of early music; her father is a composer. As a girl of 3, Bielawa took her first violin lesson, and picked up piano not long after that. Family concerts — with brother, father, and mother — were part of growing up.

But music as a career for Bielawa only goes back to the spring of 1990. Two weeks after graduating from Yale with a degree in literature, the aspiring composer and vocalist moved to Manhattan to make her mark in the world of music. Of those early days she said, “I almost starved to death.”

Good thing she didn’t. Bielawa — who is also midway through a three-year term as composer-in-residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project — has since given the world the gift of her soprano voice. She is the vocalist with the Philip Glass Ensemble, a showcase of minimalist modern music, and still otherwise performs widely as a voice artist.

Bielawa has also given the world the gift of her advocacy, primarily as co-founder of Music at the Anthology (MATA), a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing the work of young composers. (The annual MATA festival is in New York City this year, March 31 to April 4.)

“Young composers should be commissioning each other,” she said, “and not elbowing each other aside for commissions.”

Bielawa has also given the world the gift of a growing body of modern music — for orchestra, opera, solo voices, chorus, and music theater. Her compositions acknowledge the past, and anticipate the future.

They are a fearless blend of musical styles and eras that Bielawa owes to her eclectic musical upbringing. And all are inspired by words that move her. Sometimes inspiration comes from the famous: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Blake, Pushkin, Rilke, Kafka, and Gertrude Stein.

“It’s what I do,” she said of her lifelong appetite for world literature. “Writing music is my response to reading.”

Inspiration also comes from the spoken word. Bielawa composed 2007’s “Chance Encounter” by weaving into its lifting, lilting arias lines of conversation overheard in public places. (Her blog, started a few years ago, is called “Chance Encounter,” too, and shows the same tenderness for the beauty of the overheard.)

“Chance Encounter,” the composition, has a rich traditional sound, but it also highlights Bielawa’s modernity. It was composed for an outdoors ensemble of wind, brass, and string players who walk from place to place. (“Chance Encounter” is part of a multiyear Creative Capital project for performance in public spaces.)

The inspiration for “Double Violin Concerto” came from 12 lines in Walter Kaufmann’s translation of “Faust.”

“Leave the great world, let it run riot/And let us stay where it is quiet,” the last lines read. “It’s something that has long been done/To fashion little worlds within the bigger one.”

“What is a concerto?” — or any art, for that matter, asked Bielawa. “You’re making a little world within a bigger one.”

The little world of Bielawa’s new concerto starts with a brief and formal first movement, “Portico,” that in traditional style puts the full orchestra to work.

The second movement, “Song,” accelerates into the future, surrendering the score to two solo violins. One has only E strings, giving it a tinny, high-pitched flavor on a microtonal scale. Meanwhile, the orchestra’s role is reduced to musically disjointed “space junk,” said Bielawa, pointing to the sparse notations in the score, “like Sputnik flying past the windows.”

The third and longest movement, “Play within a Play,” was inspired by a melody familiar to Bielawa from her work as a vocalist: a ninth-century Gregorian chant based on the biblical lamentations of Jeremiah.

But she turns the tenor of tragic content into a dozen minutes of modern, rhythmic, and joyful music — multiple versions of the melody at many different speeds.

The third movement also gives full modern reign to improvisation, based on a musical “ornament library” tucked into the score. “It is definitely experimental,” said Bielawa of the freewheeling end to her concerto. “It’s unusual to leave this much instrumental control in the hands of the musicians.”

Doing the improvisation will be the two solo violinists, Colin Jacobsen and Carla Kihlstedt, who are Bielawa’s longtime friends and collaborators. (The composer’s 2003 “Kafka Songs” was scored for Kihlstedt, who sings and plays the violin simultaneously — as she will in the new work too.)

The ornament library — a collection of suggested musical gestures Bielawa calls “the play area” — may be freewheeling, but it’s not free-form. It gives the improvisation borders. It constrains the modern without confining it.

In musical terms, said Bielawa, “I’ve written a grammar.”

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project will premiere Lisa Bielawa’s ‘Double Violin Concerto’ — the fourth of four works on the program — at 8 p.m. Saturday (March 29) at the New England Conservatory of Music’s Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave., Boston. (There’s a preconcert lecture at 7 p.m.) For information and ticket sales, call (617) 585-1260.

For a documentary clip of ‘Chance Encounter,’ go to