Gaudeamus nominee Annika Socolofsky: ‘All the fun lies in those messy moments between the notes’

Composer-vocalist Annika Socolofsky is one of the four nominees for the Gaudeamus Award 2021. Two years ago this prize for young composers was won by Kelley Sheehan; last year’s competition was postponed due to corona. Socolofsky’s work will be featured during several concerts, but she also composed a new piece for the accordion/clarinet duo Zöllner-Roche especially for the festival. On Sunday 11 September the winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2021 will be announced.

‘Donnacha Dennehy, one of my mentors, encouraged me to take part in the Gaudeamus competition’, says Annika Socolofsky (1990). ‘I look forward to making live music again with fellow musicians in a concert context. For this to be my first experience back during the pandemic feels like fasting for a year and a half, and then dining at the most wonderful restaurant. As excited I am to be performing again myself, I really look forward to taking in as many concerts as I can, experiencing the premieres by my fellow nominees.’

Annika Scolofsky (c) Nadine Dyskant-Miller

COMPOSER-PERFORMER

You are both a composer and a performer, how do you see the relationship between the two?

‘For me, there is no way to un-link them. I don’t think of myself as a composer and a performer, but as a composer-performer. When I’m composing, I’m always thinking about how the music will feel in the body of the performer – what the gestures will feel like, how the energy of the piece will build and dissipate in a manner that feels natural and satisfying to play, what the dialogue will feel like between performers. I’m constantly moving around, conducting, walking, trying to get the music into my physical being, so I know it will feel natural and rewarding to perform, even if I’m not performing it myself.’

‘When I’m performing, I can’t turn off my composer mind. No two performances are alike. I’m always improvising micro variations and micro inflections that respond to the other performers, or the resonance of the hall in real time. I love being flexible and composing in-the-moment like that. You get to feed off the energy and ideas of the musicians you’re performing with. It’s an exhilarating and collaborative way of composing that I don’t get to experience when writing alone in my studio.’ 

Annika Socolofsky: ‘When I’m performing, I can’t turn off my composer mind.’

On your website you describe yourself as an avant folk vocalist who explores corners and colours of the voice frequently deemed to be “untrained” and not “classical.” How are we to understand this?

‘I feel like I sing in all the ways that classical vocalists are told not to: I belt a lot (kind of a curated, musical shout), I do death-metal style growls, I explore types of vibrato that are not classical, I’ll use a microphone so I can produce sound that wouldn’t normally project through a concert hall in an acoustic setting, and I gravitate really strongly to the music that lies between the notes in folk music.’

‘This between-the-note music is a whole world of ornamentation, inflection, gesture, and swells that folk music lives for, but is often excluded from modern day classical vocal practice. I live for those messy moments between the notes. That is where the fun, the joy, the emotional connection lies for me.’

DOLLY PARTON

In this respect you often refer to Dolly Parton. What makes her so special?

‘The link between me and Dolly is those moments between the notes I’ve just mentioned. Dolly Parton is one of the greatest composers of all time, in my opinion. She’s written thousands of incredible songs that tell women’s stories. But not only is she a wonderful composer, she also approaches her vocal technique from a deeply compositional mind-set. If you take a recording of hers and hone in on a single vocal phrase and zoom in ever more closely, you will find the most spectacular density of vocal inflection, ornamentation, and nuance.’

‘But what’s so amazing to me is not the density or the nuance per se. It’s how this gorgeous web of inflections serves such a natural and powerful purpose within the larger line and the larger story of the song. Dolly’s moments-between-the-notes hit me straight in the heart. They are these pangs of emotion so small, but so powerful that I find myself breathless. Those moments mean the world to me. – I’ve been working on my Dolly Parton impersonation for years, and would be happy to demonstrate some examples of this live.’*

DEFYING SOCIETAL DEFINITIONS OF WOMANHOOD

You will perform ‘Don’t Say a Word’ in the Gaudeamus festival, which addresses the feminist issue. It strikes me that even in 2021 the theme of female composers still touches upon an open nerve. What’s your take on this?

‘I couldn’t agree with your article more: “women composers” is NOT a theme! Especially as a queer woman, I often find this kind of concert themes problematic. They try to draw some kind of sense of “universal womanhood” out of what is essentially lazy programming. Personally, I don’t feel that there IS any such thing as universal womanhood (aside from the fact that we all experience misogyny of various varieties).’

‘As a queer woman, my experience with my gender and sexuality is extraordinarily different from the one society tries to model for me. I’m constantly fighting against society’s definition of womanhood so that I can un-become the things I was taught to be that disagree with who I truly am.’

Annika Socolofsky: ‘Dolly Parton is one of the greatest composers of all time.’

‘And that’s where my piece Don’t say a word comes in. It’s part of a larger song cycle (soon to be released on CD) of feminist rager-lullabies for a new queer era. Lullabies are a centuries-old way of conditioning children with “morals” and societal expectations that are not only sexist, but also deeply homophobic. So I took these old texts from lullabies and nursery rhymes and re-set them to new music, changed the words, altered the meaning so that I could re-tell those lessons in a way that reflects the many facets of my identity.’

‘A cool thing about lullabies is that they’re the only performing space we have as vocalists where there’s no audience. When you’re singing a lullaby to a young child, they’re mostly taking in the musical aspects of the vocal line. It’s not until they are older that they really start processing the words. So mothers singing lullabies to their children are granted this safe performing space, where you can essentially sing the words and thoughts that are not safe to share in society.’

DISTURBING LULLABIES

‘This is why, throughout history and across cultures, you can find so many lullabies with texts that are deeply disturbing. For example, the English language lullaby Rockabye Baby is about a baby falling to the ground from a tree. Or, there is this Sephardic lullaby, Una madre comió asado (“A mother roasts her child”). The mother sings of an invading army, and her plan to roast her child before the soldiers arrive, to save it from a worse fate.’

‘That’s dark. But in society, women are not allowed to express the darkness of motherhood, they’re not allowed to show anger, they’re not allowed to deviate from society’s definition of womanhood. As musicologist Andrew Petitt puts it, “lullabies are the space to sing the unsung, to say the unsayable. You’re alone. Nobody is listening.” So you can express feelings that are inacceptable in society.’

Don’t say a word is one such lullaby, which explores the text of Hush little baby, followed by an unexpected turn in the original lyrics. It also explores the word “hush” in great detail. “Hush” is an interesting word in that it can be aggressive and silencing, but also calming and loving.

Which of your pieces are you proud of most?

‘Wow, that’s really hard to answer. I have to say I am most proud of the pieces that manage to capture that Dolly Parton sense of heart-pangs. I compose so that I can hopefully connect with people the way Dolly Parton has connected with me through her music. So I’m most proud of the pieces that have managed to do that.’

On Friday 10 September at 21.30 CET I will moderate a meet & greet with the four nominees in TivoliVredenburg

*In our talk I took up Annika on her promise to impersonate Dolly Parton; it was captured on video.

On 12 September Annika Socolofsky was declared winner of the Gaudeamus Award 2021

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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