For Kate Soper, the most profound way to read a work of literature is by performing it as music. As a child, she liked to pull a book of poems off the shelf—Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay—and set it on the music stand of her family’s piano. Then she’d sit and play through the poems, turning the pages as though they were sheet music, improvising compositions for piano and voice on the spot. As she grew older, she studied composition at Rice University, going through a Tori (and Joni)–inspired singer-songwriter phase, while at the same time discovering twentieth-century composers like Iannis Xenakis and Luciano Berio. Today, at thirty-six, she continues to put literature on the music stand and to juxtapose pop and avant-garde forms. In an astonishing series of increasingly theatrical works, she explores the intersections of and tensions between speech and song, music and meaning. In 2017, she presented an evening-length work she composed, called Ipsa Dixit, with Wet Ink, the chamber ensemble she performs with. A finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in music, Ipsa Dixit is an improbably funny and moving a piece of experimental opera in which Soper set writings from Lydia Davis, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Freud, Jenny Holzer, and others to music. Soper alternately sings and speaks, declaiming lines “with histrionic conviction” (as she writes in the stage directions), punctuating her delivery with a handheld bell or a sudden glissando from the ensemble. Then, on a proverbial dime, she bursts from speech into breathtakingly sung figures in styles that veer from the operatic to the atonal. As she sings, the virtuosic (and totally deadpan) Wet Ink ensemble trade instruments, perform Socratic dialogues, and stoically play on as Soper literally deconstructs the instruments in their hands. In describing this work, one finds oneself scrambling to qualify these heady characterizations with an assurance that it’s also funny and exhilarating. And moving! Indeed, one of the most impressive elements of Soper’s work is the way she manages to make such serious and rigorously experimental material come across as accessible, witty, and warm. I spoke with Soper in her office in a ninety-four-year-old building overlooking a river and sprawling athletic fields, on the campus of Smith College, in western New England, where she teaches. Her office door is several times thicker than a normal door, and turning its handle felt like opening an airlock or a cargo bay. When I commented on the almost absurd sturdiness of her entryway, she pointed out that it was designed to shut out noise and, more important, shut it in: “We get loud in here.” Her office is the size of a distinguished and elderly dining room, full of old wood and windows, and dominated by a piano at its center. We sat at a small table next to the piano, and a few times during our conversation Soper leaned over and played a brief figure, by way of illustrating, or illuminating, or otherwise enriching the words that she spoke.
I. AN INVISIBLE MAP
THE BELIEVER: When did you start writing music?
KATE SOPER: I would write little pieces on the piano, but I didn’t know anything about notation. I would get a piece of paper and draw circles, then be like, “Mom, play this! I wrote this piece!” and she’d be like, “This isn’t a thing. I don’t know what you’re trying to get me to do.” And then I would write pieces and give them names like “Clowns” or “Bunnies,” you know, and my mom would have to sit there and listen to me play through them. I was probably five or six.
BLVR: Were there lyrics?
KS: No. When I started writing more-advanced material, in middle school and high school, writing songs, I couldn’t write lyrics. It really bothered me. But I would set a ton of poetry [to music]. I would just take books of poetry and put them on the piano and make songs and sing through them. Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay or whatever was kicking around.
BLVR: What is it that you like about setting text?
KS: There’s so much to engage with as a composer. It totally circumvents the blank-page problem. You have this invisible map, all these resources of texture or mood or rhythm. There are musical things in the poem… For me now, I get really excited about something I’m reading, and then I feel really lucky that I can turn that excitement into a long experience of uncovering deeper meanings and contributing to meaning or making my own meaning. It’s some kind of profound experience of reading.
BLVR: I love that image of an invisible map. Why is the map invisible?
KS: I think because you see the poem and there’s no music in it, but you know that there’s potential there and you can turn the corner, and then you discover more about the poem as you go through it. I didn’t do this when I was young, but now I make connections. I’m sure you do this as a reader and writer, too— you’re writing, and then you think, Oh, this other poem relates, or this is like that thing I read from this play that would actually fit in, and then it connects musically; you see the features of the invisible map. It’s a really profound, really pleasurable way to read.
II. “I CAME TO LANGUAGE BECAUSE I WANTED TO BE EXPLICIT ABOUT THINGS.”
BLVR: The word composer is used only for what you do, even though it has all these other meanings and connotations: you can buy a composition notebook at Walgreens, for example, or I might compose an email to you—
KS: That’s funny. “As a composer, I make lists.” [Laughter]
BLVR: I guess it’s the same thing with the word writer. But writers aren’t composers, and I was curious about this, so I inevitably ended up at the OED—
KS: [Gently mocking] “Webster’s defines composer as…”
BLVR: So I found out that the word comes from com-, meaning “with,” and poser, which means “to lay down,” laying things down next to each other. And it seems like what you’re doing, in particular with setting poems to music, is a sort of magpie maneuver, assembling and arranging.
KS: I love that. Especially in the bigger projects I’ve been doing lately, I definitely feel like I’m posing things together. Laying them down and making a tableau, in a way, only it’s time-based and not visual.
BLVR: A lot of those bigger projects you mention are about communication and language and expression. You take texts by writers and artists whose work is often also about language and expression. Like Jenny Holzer, for example, who in her work will project a very pithy slogan onto the side of a building. The Holzer line you quote in Ipsa Dixit is itself is about the directness of expression in language. [“I came to language because I wanted to be explicit about things… and it became clear to me that the only way to do it was to use language.”] So I want to know what you feel music’s role is here: is it elaborating language? Or somehow getting at meaning that’s arguably already on the page in the original texts you’re setting?
KS: Well, I think music can help clarify, but it can also reveal how intractable something is, or just how delightfully impossible it actually is to communicate meaning. The Jenny Holzer quote isn’t from any of her works; it’s from an interview. I was just flipping through a book of hers in an exhibition years ago and it really struck me. She’s essentially saying that she decided to start using language in her work because then people understand what you’re doing. And it’s just such a fascinating statement, because it’s still not true—because there’s no real way to truly communicate. Music is very complicated in this regard. It has a very complicated relationship to meaning and communication. Because there’re things that you can signify with music, but it isn’t language. I want to communicate directly, and I want the thing that I’m trying to do to be apparent, but then the language of music, of contemporary music and the music that I write—it’s just not going to be that accessible. If someone heard it and said, “I don’t know what the hell this means,” I can’t even really explain it. So I find myself, when I’m setting text, sometimes caught in this weird nebula of this text, which is ostensibly clear, and music, which is ostensibly mysterious. But they both have their own meaning that is obscure, and putting them together might actually just reveal that we can’t communicate. So that’s something that happens in a lot of my work lately: I’m trying really hard to tell you something, and you know that I’m trying, and you’re getting something out of it, but basically we’re both aware of the fact that that’s not possible. And I think the texts that I feel really drawn to have something of that in them.
BLVR: Poetry would be the perfect example of that idea, because it’s a type of language that’s often intentionally, happily elliptical.
KS: I remember when I was in grad school we were reading a lot of theory, and I was in a [French philosopher Gilles] Deleuze reading group with two musicologists, and that’s even weirder because it’s not poetry—it’s philosophy. And I’d be thinking, This doesn’t make any sense! It was like that Seinfeld episode when Elaine discovers that The New Yorker cartoon actually isn’t funny. But I liked reading it. With poetry, it’s not a linear kind of reading. It’s not like I put these words in order and now I have meaning in the sentence. It’s like here are the words, and here’s this poem, and now I have an impression. And music operates sort of in the same way, but you don’t approach it the same way, because you don’t have the same expectations of it. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you think, like, Oh [plays harmonic figure on piano], that means something, versus [plays dissonant figure on piano] that. So there are some things that are one-to-one, and I like playing with that too.
BLVR: What does the more harmonic thing you played mean?
KS: You’re right; it doesn’t mean anything. [Laughs] Well, I guess what I meant is that a triad—which is like [singing an ascending triad] da-da-da, a consonant block of tonality—has a connotation of oneness or stability or consonance and functionality, and maybe something like what I played after,—which was kind of a dissonant cluster—has a connotation of… if not tension, then just irresolution or lack of center. And juxtaposed, they sound very different. And you could write a whole piece in the second language and not really think about it, or write a whole piece in the first language and not really think about it. But I sometimes like to put those together as just another way of saying, “Yeah, none of these languages are the language. They’re just all things that we use to try to get something across and fail, because that’s what happens.”
BLVR: I’m so glad that you added philosophy to poetry as an example of language that tries to connect and acknowledges its failure to connect. It seems to me that philosophy is the main source that you draw on in your music, aside from poetry, but philosophy’s stated goal is on the opposite end of the spectrum from poetry’s—it wants to be as precise and logical and rigorous as possible, and yet it runs into the same problems of expression.
KS: Aristotle is a good example, because his project is like, I’m gonna just methodically lay out what the nature of existence is. So of course it gets crazy because he’s trying to methodically construct his argument, beginning with point number 1, then 1a, then 1a through f, and then 2… but he’s actually talking about something that’s ungraspable. So it almost gives me the same feeling as poetry in a way, except he’s trying to communicate it differently. There’s reasoning involved. But essentially it’s also this feeling of: we’re trying to find some way to get rid of the filter between wordless contemplation of being human and expressing it. But in every way it’s just this interesting failure.
III. “ONLY THE WORDS THEMSELVES MEAN WHAT THEY SAY”
BLVR: Before I encountered your work, if you’d asked me what the role of language in music was, I think I would have answered in terms of narrative: a song tells a story. But your work seems to make arguments.
KS: I think it depends. I mean, in the setting of Aristotle’s Rhetoric that I did, what I tried to do was have half of the piece be like, We’re gonna talk about Aristotle’s Rhetoric and try to find literal ways to just demonstrate these rhetorical devices. And then the second half of the piece I wanted to write—to compose a rhetorical speech. I was thinking of rhetoric in the abstract, asking myself: What are some unassailable things that happen in music? So I thought of triads, and then of twelve-tone music, which is this particular serial structure—just things that are really like: there’s a right answer to this. And I don’t normally compose with either of those things in mind. So that was this abstract idea of rhetoric, followed by this speech that I kind of crib from Aristotle, which was a rhetorical speech on the subject of why rhetoric is good. But it gets to a point where the music kind of winds down and the singing winds down and the singer is just saying—and Aristotle says this, too—None of this should matter; really, it’s just about truth. But as Aristotle says, you can’t really hope to get truth across at all if you don’t use some rhetorical devices, if you don’t think about the way to get it across. In other words, if you’re telling the truth, people should believe you, but they won’t if you don’t say it in the right way. And it’s not quite the same with music, because there’s no way to just say something in music. But that’s something I was trying to make the crux of that piece.
BLVR: There’s another aspect of this idea, which is the tension between the instruments and your voice. I’m thinking of a piece of yours for two saxophones, OTOTOI, which seems to personify the saxophones explicitly as voices. Or “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say” [the second movement from Ipsa Dixit, which uses text from three Lydia Davis stories], where the flutist is literally speaking into the flute. I feel pleasantly confused by the tension in your work between actual, literal language on the one hand and this personification of an instrument on the other.
KS: That’s a great question. Earlier you said something about how you think of language and music as being related to narrative. I was thinking that actually that’s sort of more relevant to me in some of my nonvocal pieces, because I think I tend to think about things in literary terms even if there’s no literature involved. I have some chamber pieces that are a little odd, but to me they make sense in kind of a novelistic way, but since you’re not using language, it doesn’t really make sense… It’s interesting that you bring up OTOTOI—actually, that’s the only instrumental piece I’ve written in the last few years. The name comes from this wild cry from Cassandra in [Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy] Agamemnon. She hears the voice of Apollo telling her these terrible prophecies that are about to occur, and no one believes her—so the idea of voice was running through that very strongly.
BLVR: When you have a personified instrument, there’s a way in which that instrument is speaking, but not in language.
KS: Yeah, well, I think about that a lot. I think about the difference between singing and speaking, and I think about the difference between the singer and instrumentalists, and I use all of those things. I think it might be related to the fact that I started singing kind of late. Like, I was a singer-songwriter, and I was singing as a kid, but I just never thought I would actually be singing concert music in front of people. So I have this healthy skepticism about the singing voice, from my composer’s point of view, that I nourished well into my mid-to-late twenties, before I started really taking singing seriously. And, you know, we’re all actually humans, doing physical stuff onstage. There’s a tendency to dehumanize the instrumentalist, because it’s like: Well, that’s the violin, and that’s a clarinet, and that’s the soprano. Well, no, that’s Josh and that’s Alex and that’s Kate.
BLVR: That seems to connect to the turn in your work toward theatricality. When did that happen?
KS: Well, I always loved the theater and I actually did some theater stuff when I was a kid, too: I wrote music for school plays, and we had a great director who was also working in a community theater, and he hired me when I was fifteen to write music for this piece, my first professional paying gig.
BLVR: What show was that?
KS: It was called Inverted Pyramid. It was about an unlikely friendship between a gay man and a Jewish woman, and then she ends up getting cancer. So it’s kind of sad but it’s funny because there were some racy moments, and I learned what a glory hole was, and they had this sex-toy reference… My grandma came, and I was like, “Uh, did you like the music I wrote for the Holocaust Museum, Grandma?” But as far as theatricality in my music goes, I think the first theatrical moment probably was that flute duo that you mentioned [“Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say”]. I still remember that premiere. I had written and performed a few other pieces for voice, but there’s something about that piece that is theatrical. I think it has to do with this idea that one of the differences between music and theater is this awareness of people versus instruments. So the flutist—you’re more aware of her, those interactions between us, and then just the fact that there’s some spoken material and the fact that there’s some emotional and body-language stuff that has to be part of it. I’d never done anything like that before. I performed it in February of my last semester, at a gradschool concert. And no one had ever seen me do anything like that. I just remember it being really nerve-wracking. You lay yourself bare with that piece, very much. I performed it and—I don’t know if you saw that much of it, but the ending kind of has this—did you watch the whole thing or just the first movement?
BLVR: I can’t remember. What happens?
KS: It ends with this: [singing] huh-tch huh-tch huh-tch.
KS: So I thought that was gonna be hilarious, because like it’s like, Ooh, it starts again?! So I thought people would be chuckling, but you could have heard a pin drop. My heart was beating so loudly, I thought they could probably hear it… But the whole twelve minutes of the piece, I was performing it, but I was also like, Here I am, in front of all these dudes I know, wondering how everyone likes it. It was… odd. And then, you know, people clapped; I guess they liked it. But I did feel like that was a change for me as a performer. And as a composer, turning toward that idea of theatricality.
IV. A KATE SOPER JOINT
BLVR: When people try to describe your work, they’ll often discuss language and speech and all the elements we’ve been talking about, but then frequently they’ll jump in to reiterate: “It’s also super funny! It’s not all philosophy!”
KS: It’s not as pretentious as it sounds!
BLVR: Right. And it seems like maybe that begins with that moment, in that grad-school recital, where you’re kind of expecting a laugh. How do you get from there to a work like [2014 opera/theater piece] Here Be Sirens, where, at least on the recording I watched, you can hear the audience cracking up again and again?
KS: I don’t like the diva persona. I’m not comfortable with it, because it’s not something that I ever aspired to, or thought I could inhabit. And there’s nothing more disarming than telling a joke—especially a joke at your own expense. For me, a lot of the humor in Sirens, and even in the flute duo, or any of the other stuff, has this—if not slapstick element, then this element that’s like, We’re laughing together. You’re laughing with me, or kind of at me. We’re laughing at the situation. I think it kind of relates to the idea that the audience and I together are engaged in the fact of being unable to communicate, but we know that. Maybe at the most basic it’s just me trying to warm up the crowd. But I think it makes me feel better: if someone is laughing, they’re engaged in some way. That’s how you really know someone understands what you’re saying: they’re laughing at your joke.
BLVR: Opera is something that historically has bridged these two worlds we’re talking about—musical composition and theater— but you don’t call your works operas, right?
KS: Well, they often are called operas because now opera is becoming an interesting catchall term. A lot of people are interested in theatricality, in these blurred lines. It’s just more convenient to call it opera; there’s not a great alternative. I don’t think that anything I’m doing is connected to grand opera, which has theatrical elements but which really is about the music. It doesn’t seem to be about the language. You can’t understand the singers, so it’s not the same as seeing a play or a musical. I think opera at this point can mean anything with a voice present and a theatrical awareness of the scenario. So that definition fits a lot of stuff in it, including a lot of stuff I do, but I don’t really worry about how to classify my, my… joints, because someone else will probably do that for me.
BLVR: Joints is a good word for them.
KS: Yeah, right. “A Kate Soper joint.”
V. THE LIZARD-BRAIN CONNECTION
BLVR: My experience of new music is often that it’s intellectually challenging but I don’t always come out of it with an emotional rush the way I might seeing a singer-songwriter perform, for example. I wonder how you approach that sort of Romantic idea of art and emotion in your work.
KS: I feel very skeptical of it, because I’m so uncomfortably aware of how music can pull your heartstrings. I have this weird mix of being aware of music’s tricks, being interested in the neurological effects of emotion, and then being kind of sentimental and susceptible: like I can read all the Aristotle I want and I’ll still tear up at some stupid Sex and the City episode. So those things together just make me feel like I can’t really trust music or emotion. But then I want to communicate emotion. I think when I stopped doing the singer-songwriter thing, I wanted a little more privacy in my content and just felt like it’s important to be sincere. It can be hard to be sincere in songwriting. I mean, I’ve felt deeply emotional about new music, but I also have been exposed to it so much that I probably hear different things than you hear. I think that’s sort of inevitable. And I think about emotional trajectories in my work and these operas, or whatever they are, because I’m aware that in order for them to operate—not for them to be popular, but simply for them to work—you have to feel an emotional connection to the characters.
BLVR: In Ipsa Dixit, I found the exchange between Socrates and Crito to be totally affecting.
KS: Oh yeah?
BLVR: But I shouldn’t have! I mean, I was surprised that I did.
KS: It’s interesting; I always revise things a lot, and Ian [Antonio, the Wet Ink ensemble’s percussionist] and I were working on that a lot, and then we put it aside for a couple years. And then we were working on it again last year, to make it part of Ipsa Dixit. The section where we’re walking up and down the marimba, that’s a big part of the exchange, and just last December, the week we were premiering it, I was like, Something about this isn’t quite working. I said, Oh, what we had been doing was literally [speaking in a measured, half-musical declamatory mode], “Why’d you come so early?” Like playing and speaking at the same time. But that was kind of stiffening us, and we weren’t able to make eye contact. So I was like, “Let’s just say it, and then we’ll play it.” And it really changed things, and kind of spookified it. But that’s Plato’s scenario. It’s a very tense and horrible situation: these two best friends, and one of them is on death row, and the other one is there to get him out of there, but probably already knows that it’s not going to work. So, yeah, I’m glad that you felt that way, but I think that’s probably because we were talking—we weren’t singing, so there’s more of an ability to actually feel the words, and the music was sparse. It didn’t interfere too much. So that was basically me just using normal human things to create an emotional scenario. It’s more like a little play with music.
BLVR: That’s so counterintuitive to me: the less operatic you make the piece, the more emotionally affecting it becomes.
KS: I think this is the thing about opera. I was doing Tristan and Isolde with my students the other day, and the prelude to that opera is the most… I can’t listen to that opera without crying, because [Wagner] weaves this music from the prelude through it, but no one is singing in the prelude. He created the most effective, emotionally laden, harmonic progression and orchestration in combination with the idea of the love story. I don’t really feel that way when they’re all just singing at each other in that opera, because I don’t know what they’re saying. I used to sit in dress rehearsals when I was doing sound design and be openly weeping because there’s just something about people talking to each other that was even deeper than when I would see the production onstage, because the more proximate you are to real emotion, the more you feel—it’s that neurochemical thing. And an opera singer singing is the least proximate you can be, in a way. I think that’s why I like singer-songwriters: they have this vulnerability, and you can understand the words, and they’re singing about themselves. I think when I have a really emotional moment, I usually turn to speech, and I let the music cut out a little bit, because I don’t think music is really good at utterly sincere emotion, somehow.
BLVR: The spoken word has quicker access to sincerity of emotion.
KS: It’s interesting, because music has really quick access. It’s got a lizard-brain connection to emotion, but you can just push a button and it occurs, and that makes me nervous. So with speech it’s more about actually feeling it, or relating to it.
BLVR: It sounds like for you communication is ultimately impossible, or always fails in some way. And yet you return again and again in your work to this idea of the emotional and intellectual potential of communication. Is that your philosophy, that communication is both crucial and ultimately impossible?
KS: I don’t know if it’s even a philosophy. It becomes really personal. I’m an introverted person who has always been a bookworm. It’s difficult to connect, or it’s so much easier to observe. So sometimes I feel weirdly comfortable onstage, because it’s a kind of protected environment. Like nothing can happen to you, you’re in control of all of the communication, but you can let yourself be more vulnerable in that way or really try to connect. So I wouldn’t frame it as a philosophy but just say that it’s a reality that I find it very difficult to know how to express myself in a way that I can be sure is authentic. But I really want to.