Sophia (Zosha) Di Castri is a Canadian composer/pianist living in New York. She was appointed as Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia in 2014. On Thursday, December 1, 2016, the Miller Theatre at Columbia University will present an evening-length Composer Portrait series concert of Di Castri’s works featuring performances by Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles. We asked her 5 questions to learn more about the program, her musical upbringing, and her choice of collaborators.
New York’s Miller Theatre is presenting an evening of your work in its Composer Portrait series this season, including 2 world premieres. What should we listen for in the works on the program?
In several of these pieces, I am interested in the physicality of the performers’ gestures. The new Yarn/Wire work is as much about sound as it is the trajectory of the ensemble on stage. Some of the pieces explore new territory for me including hybridized genres, and passages of guided improvisation. The nature of the instrumentation for this concert also bears a particularly personal inflection. From my earliest memories, I have played the piano and it has defined who I am. Because of its familiarity, it is both a natural choice for expression and also a surprising challenge, to transcend muscle memory and find something meaningful to say. Percussion has always been the primary means by which I expand the sound of any ensemble. My father was a “closet” drummer, and I also played percussion in high-school (including a stint as the drummer for the big band, for which I was wretchedly too timid). These influences have perhaps left their stamps. Lastly, in the last six years I began using my voice as a compositional tool, (scatting gestures, then recording, transcribing, and orchestrating these to get at a more spontaneous, kinetic music), and I found my writing really changed. I am not a trained singer, but I do use my voice to push through to new places and catch the impression of ideas before they fade. Writing for the voice is a relatively new venture for me, the Ekmeles sextet being my first attempt in 2013. It has been very stimulating to engage with text though, and I find in words both a structure and a humanity that can sometimes be lost in writing purely abstract music.
What made you decide to become a composer?
In my last year of high-school, I had a happenstance but very formative experience working with the Composer in Residence at the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composers Program. Previously I had only improvised music at the piano, but had not ventured to write much down (having little background in theory). This first taste of hearing the imagined music in my head come to life, realized by a professional orchestra in front of an audience, was a total revelation. It was thrilling! The first thing I did when I arrived at McGill University as a piano performance student was to begin knocking on the doors of the composition faculty to find out how I could learn more. After doing both for a while, my energies became increasingly focused on composition. After McGill, I took a yearlong hiatus studying political philosophy at Sciences Po in Paris. I wanted to see if there were other things I could do, and though I proved this was possible, it became increasingly clear to me that composition was to be my vocation.
You studied at McGill, in Paris, and then Columbia – who were the teachers who most influenced you and why?
Brian Cherney was my principal composition teacher at McGill. He opened my mind to what writing music could mean, imparting a great sensitivity to color and orchestration. He was also responsible for introducing me to music theatre (such as Kagel’s innovative pieces), as well as the work of artists such as Klee, Ionesco, and Beckett. Studying with the Philippe Hurel and Tristan Murail definitely expanded the way I think of timbre, harmony, and form. Paris was also the first time that I really encountered composers using technology as a compositional tool, and this definitely changed the way that I work. It was interesting studying with Fred Lerdahl, because I think we go about writing music in very different ways. I learned a lot from his questions and writings. Finally, two non-composition teachers who strongly influenced my work are Douglas Repetto, with whom I took a sound-sculpture class, and historical musicologist/theorist Ellie Hisama, who connected me to a community of feminist musical thinkers for which I am very grateful.
How do you choose the dance troupes, choreographers and ensembles with which you collaborate?
I have always had an interest in collaborating with other artists, and would seize any opportunity that came my way to work with interesting people in other mediums, even people I hadn’t previously met (such as with Thomas Hauert and his dance company ZOO). Now I am more particular about whom I choose to work with. I look for collaborators that I have either a strong personal connection with, or that I suspect share similar artistic concerns. When working on Near Mute Force, I stumbled upon the work of Rivka Galchen, and although she was a total stranger to me, this discovery was the first moment that I felt really inspired to work on the piece. I sent her an email out of the blue and we had a wonderful exchange, first virtually, and then in person. She was very generous and open with her work.
As for the musicians I seek out, I am progressively drawn towards projects that extend beyond the traditional concert format. I look for people who are fearless, fun, supportive, and creative. My writing approach is gradually transitioning towards a model closer to the world of choreography or theatre than to the traditional role of the composer. I want to work with people who enjoy an interactive approach, and whose individuality will help shape what I write. This is what has drawn me to work with groups such as Yarn/Wire and Ekmeles.
What can we expect, looking forward, in the way of more electronics in your compositions? How do you see the role of electronics?
Electronics will likely always play an important role in my work, especially given my interest in various interdisciplinary collaborations. It is a very flexible medium, which allows a close contact with the final resulting sound throughout the creative process. I see it as a natural extension of the way I work (which is primarily in Logic Pro), sculpting and shaping sound into form through experimentation, improvisation, and close listening. That being said, electronics add a logistical layer of complication that can sometimes get in the way of having pieces played multiple times, so I do like to balance out my work with pieces that are purely instrumental. My immediate upcoming projects after this will not involve electronics, and for this I am somewhat relieved, as putting on a concert like the Miller Theater portrait is a big task!