Nine Questions: for Ursula Kwong-Brown
Daniel Godsil, composer and member of the Ninth Planet artistic committee, sits down for a conversation with Ursula Kwong-Brown. Hear Ursula’s piece Unwinding III plus much more at our debut concert Sat November 2, 2019 at 8:00pm.
DG: Ursula, we’re so excited to be presenting your work Unwinding III at our inaugural concert! The piece we’ll hear is a new installment, part of an ongoing series for you, correct?
UKB: Yes, Unwinding III is the third piece that I’ve written inspired by the craniosacral therapy process of “unwinding” - it’s something that’s been very important to me ever since I had a bike accident back in 2013, right after moving to Berkeley.
DG: I always enjoy learning how composers find inspiration for their work. I have to say, I’m extremely fascinated by your inspiration of this particular piece coming from physical therapy. Could you tell us a little more about this?
UKB: My music has always been driven by narrative. These “unwinding” pieces are all variations of the same story: landing on my head during the accident and undergoing craniosacral therapy as I recovered. Basically, the therapist holds your head in their hands, supporting its weight entirely, gently allowing the muscles to shift ever so slightly and release their tension. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
DG: What do you hope to accomplish with the new version of this piece for Ninth Planet?
UKB: My first two “unwinding” works attempted to tell the entire story of my accident; it’s a classic dramatic arc, but it also spans a huge number of emotions, so those pieces are broken up into many contrasting sections. For this work, I decided to cut the whole beginning and simply start with the process of healing. There’s still a sense of building tension, but it’s all within the world of therapy: a sparkling wash of sound with repeated arpeggios and trills, and a rising melody that outlines minor seventh chords.
DG: You've been writing a lot for orchestra these days...how do you translate your thinking to chamber groups? Do find it difficult to deal with a more limited color palette?
UKB: That’s a great question! There are a surprising number of similarities between writing for orchestra and composing for a mixed chamber ensemble. The instrumentation for my piece is flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, marimba and piano: that’s a huge variety of colors to balance! The articulations and timbres are all so different - it’s not like the homogenous sound of a string quartet. It’s definitely a challenge and I didn’t get it quite right the first time, but the musicians were very kind to let me revise the piece after the first rehearsal. The Ninth Planet musicians are all superb players who are excited about being part of the compositional process. I feel very lucky to be working with them!
DG: You lived for some time in the Bay Area. Browsing through your music online, I came across a great piece you did at CNMAT called “In Transit” that seemed to integrate sounds from BART...what are you up to now, and are you finding the same kinds of site-specific inspirations?
UKB: So glad you liked it! That piece for the Black Cedar Trio was the result of a Chamber America commissioning grant for works that reflected community. Generally, my works tend to reflect my personal life, but I’m always open to other inspirations! Ironically, I just returned to trains, sound designing with my partner the world premiere of Stonewall for New York City Opera. The opening moment was a heavily-processed subway screech we created.
DG: Are there any Bay Area spots you miss?
UKB: Yes! I miss so many spots in the Bay Area. I miss driving down to the Berkeley Marina at sunset. I miss sitting on the beach and watching the dolphins swim past in Half Moon Bay. I miss hiking in Tilden Park. And I miss Berkeley Bowl! And the farmers markets. The produce in NYC simply doesn’t compare.
DG: You’ve said that you’ve decided to become more politically active; does this translate at all into your music-making activities?
UKB: Absolutely. Many of my recent pieces engage with issues that are important to me politically. “Cover the Walls” was based on Chinese poetry carved into the walls of the Immigration Detention Center on Angel Island. The orchestral version was premiered by the Berkeley Symphony last year, and a choral adaptation will be performed by the Pacific Chorale in LA at the end of October. “I should have taken the train” was my response to the #MeToo movement. It sets a true story of sexual assault written by my friend, Hannah Howard, using piano and recorded text. And I’ve recently started a work for soprano and orchestra inspired by women’s suffrage, both the uplifting aspects and the darker undertones of racial inequality and voter restrictions - all of which have resonance today.
DG: What music are you listening to these days?
UKB: No one ever asks me that! I’ve been listening to a lot of minimalist-related music, from the older guard (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, David Lang) and younger composers like Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli, to more electronic/ synth-based: Suzanne Ciani, Nils Frahm, CFCF, etc. It’s been a joy to discover new music through my partner, Danny Erdberg, who is a sound designer for theatre and dance.
DG: You’ve been involved with Ninth Planet in its various iterations for some time now... we’re happy to feature your piece here, and hopefully we’ll continue working with you for a long time to come! Are there any other ways our audience can hear more of your music locally or otherwise?
UKB: I’m very much looking forward to continued involvement with Ninth Planet! Uniting the performers of Wild Rumpus with the composers of Composers, Inc. opens up so many exciting new possibilities for collaboration and performance. If people are interested, many of my pieces are linked from my website, ursulakwongbrown.com. Also, the UC Berkeley orchestra will be performing a piece of mine featuring Ann Moss next spring (2020). Stay tuned!
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