Music Monday: Orth: Stripped

[OK, so this week we’re doing something a little different! A few months ago now, Rene Orth, a composer friend I met at the fresh inc festival back in 2013, posted a recording of her new string quartet, Stripped. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to feature it in a Music Monday post, but since she’s a friend, it felt weird to write about her and her work in my usual manner. So instead, I approached her about doing an interview instead, and this is the result! Things in italics are from me, and things that are not are from her. (This material has been consolidated and condensed from an e-mail exchange.)]

Rene! Thanks again for agreeing to do this! I normally start these posts with a little bit of informal biography — can you tell us how you got into music? Were there any key formative experiences?

My parents made me play piano from a young age, and I honestly had no interest in pursuing it as a career — I was going to be a Business major/Chinese minor. Then when I got to my undergrad, I found out that if I minored in Music, I could continue taking piano lessons for free. I loved the department so much, I ended up majoring in Music. I didn't take my first composition lesson until my junior year though. After undergrad, I had some plans fall through and moved back home, and took some time to figure out what I wanted to do. I took an interest in audio engineering after an internship in Argentina and went to school for that. Upon graduating, I took a corporate job for — wait for it — editing voiceovers/writing copy for on-hold messaging. Within a few weeks, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the cubicle life. Fortunately, my old undergrad advisor called me up and mentioned that “if I was still interested in composing”, I should maybe apply to University of Louisville’s Moritz von Bomhard Composition program. I had zero expectations of having a chance (since it had been a long time since I’d been composing), but I thought that at least the application process would take up some of my time when I was bored out of my mind. They called me a few weeks after I submitted my application with the offer. This was in 2010, and I’ve been seriously composing ever since.

That’s certainly a unique path to the composing life! What are some of your biggest musical concerns? What do you hope people get out of your works? Can you say a few words about your compositional process?

I write with hopes to move people. That’s honestly all I care about. I believe that music can move people in ways nothing else can, and that’s why I write. As far as my process goes, I feel like it’s different with every single piece, and I’m learning to write all over again each time. Usually I start out drawing a guideline to the form of the piece, and I have to start with some small musical idea. From there, it just depends on the piece.

How did Stripped come to be? Was there a specific inspiration behind the piece?

Stripped was commissioned by the Barnes Foundation (a fantastic art museum in Philadelphia) for the Aizuri Quartet. It was premiered alongside the opening of an exhibit: Strength and Splendor, Wrought Iron from the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen. I thought a lot about how these metal objects were stripped from bigger structures, and viewers are forced to view them in their original simple forms and discover the beauty in them. My goal for Stripped was to slowly reveal beauty out of ugliness and incoherence.

Additionally, on a personal note, I wrote this piece during a time of loss. It struck me that in a similar way, when someone is suddenly stripped from our lives, we are left to remember the beautiful and wonderful things about them. Stripped is a small personal tribute to my friend, Alex Greene.

Regarding the nuts and bolts of the piece itself, what’s one thing you hope listeners take away from this piece? Are there any specific landmarks they should keep an ear out for?

I hope that they are moved — and that they can find beauty out of ugliness and incoherence. There’s a small melodic phrase based off the opening trumpet solo of Mahler’s 5th symphony. It was one of the last things that Alex played this past summer with the Aspen Orchestra, and so I took the beginning motive and transposed it and stretched it out rhythmically. That’s how the lyrical ending came to be anyways — it was all derived from that.

Rene Orth is a composer originally from Dallas, Texas. Her music has been described as “whimsical, spikey, sometimes show-bizy, always dramatic, reflective, rarely predictable, and often electronic” (Musical America).

Recent and upcoming projects include commissions from the Aizuri Quartet, the Louisville Orchestra, Philadelphia One Book One City program, and Women's Sacred Music Project. Her most recent chamber opera, Empty the House (librettist Mark Campbell), received its staged premiere with the Curtis Opera Theater in January 2016 and will also be featured on Fort Worth Opera's Frontiers showcase in May 2016.

Rene was commissioned, along with librettist Jason Kim, by Washington National Opera/American Opera Initiative Program for their chamber opera, An American Man, which premiered at the Kennedy Center in November 2014. She has also received commissions and performances from ensembles including the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, the Dover Quartet, the Rock School of Dance, and the Pennsylvania Ballet. In 2015, Rene was invited to participate in Festival d‘Aix en Provence’s Opera in Creation “Reflection” Workshop and served on the Theory/Composition faculty for Luzerne Music Center. Rene has also held residencies at the artist colonies Yaddo and Virginia Center for Creative Arts.

Rene currently holds the Edward B. Garrigues Fellowship at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studies with David Ludwig. Past teachers include Jennifer Higdon, Richard Danielpour, Steve Rouse, and Brandon Goff.  She earned an MM in Music Composition at the University of Louisville as a Moritz von Bomhard Fellow and holds degrees from MediaTech Institute and Rhodes College.