Michelle Ross' New Piece: "The Whale Song"
Written for and recorded by cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, the work includes a prologue and three movements
The new EP was released on February 11, 2022, and was accompanied by a video by Lembit Beecher. The work originated from New-York based violinist and composer Michelle Ross' own improvisations and explorations with a cello. It begins with a chant inspired by Hildegard Von Bingen, telling a story of a whale and monks.
The Violin Channel recently discussed the new piece with Ross.
"In 2019, Saeunn and I were talking about the intersection of improvisation and composition, and I was specifically sharing with Saeunn that I was struggling to 'let go' of my improvisations and write for instruments/performers other than myself," Michelle told The Violin Channel. "To this, Saeunn replied, 'Well, then write me a piece! That way you can’t play it yourself!' What began as a supportive idea from a good friend, resulted in a convergence of my artistic identities and opened up a deeper portal into my compositional language."
"Saeunn is from Iceland, and so I wanted to incorporate an element of folklore into her piece. While I was improvising on a cello, a myth came to me: of a whale swallowing monks, and the monks chanting from within."
"Improvisation is a huge part of my process, and so I borrowed a cello and began exploring the instrument. It was like discovering music for the first time. I was struck by the magnified response from small things that I would do naturally on the violin: subtly adjusting my finger pressure, or shifting the angle of the bow on the string, would reveal a spectrum of fundamentals and expression.
"Guided by an almost-haphazard-freedom that comes from approaching an instrument that is not your own, I encountered sounds that pushed my imagination — everything from guttural sighs to bright exuberant gestures. I then spent weeks with a fragment of a Hildegard Von Bingen chant, allowing pieces of it to permeate my own musical language — like the eternal swirling and transmutation of a chant that might happen over centuries. A chant inspired by this fragment begins the piece, and weaves itself in and out throughout the work until the final utterance."
"Collaboration is one of the most important things for me as a musician. My goal as a composer is always to communicate my intention as clearly as possible, and this is inextricably linked to the performer. Saeunn and I met many times on zoom, playing through the piece as I wrote it. I hand-write my manuscripts and aim to incorporate also her personal imprint on the musical text itself. When we were in the studio recording the work, I guided Saeunn through an improvised cadenza. Lembit Beecher, who animated the film, and I had a very collaborative process as well — it was an honor to have a fellow composer who I admire so much spend months with my score and bring my concept to life visually with so much care and imagination."
"The greatest gift for a composer is the infinite variety of responses that listeners can have — and all I could ever hope for would be that you listen with an open heart (and good headphones!). May The Whale Song, Saeunn’s beautiful performance, and Lembit’s incredible animation, connect to your spirit and linger in your imagination!"