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  • Writer's pictureDan Perttu

The Muse in Music: "Fishing for Like Souls"

By, Dan Perttu

For this week on the “Muse in Music” blog, I am interviewing clarinetist and composer Nancy Williams. Nancy and I met on Facebook, and I wanted to interview her in particular because she is both an active performer and a composer. I wanted to hear her perspectives from these different angles, and I thought the readers of this blog might be interested in this too.

As with all of my guests, I start by asking about why people love to do what they do in music. The answers, while they are often on a similar theme, always have interesting variations.

Dan: Why do you love performing? What inspires you about what you do as a clarinetist?

Nancy: Performing is one of the ways I get in touch with my core self; I communicate my deepest feelings and thoughts through my clarinet. A lot of things inspire me. Sometimes I practice just because I'm curious to see just how good I can make my tone that day. So, in that instance, I'm inspired by the challenge of creating the most beautiful sound I can. Sometimes, I'm inspired by the meditative quality of warm-ups. When it comes to performing, though, I'm most inspired by the audience. I love programming and anticipating the audience's reaction to each piece and then experiencing their energy when they hear it. Performances are an opportunity to share a journey with others and to get in touch with our humanity. Education is also an inspiration for me. I love helping students find their voice. Often something will happen in my studio which helps my own performing or gets me to see a piece through someone else's eyes. Then I can't wait to perform that piece again!

Dan: Other people I have interviewed on this blog have said that they love communicating with audiences, which is a great perspective on this. What I particularly like about your answer is how you see performances as an opportunity “to share a journey with others and to get in touch with our humanity.” This seems to go even deeper than communicating. Communicating is wonderful, of course, but sharing a journey is what deep memories are made of. That’s quite an ideal to aspire to.

So, aspirations and inspiration are closely related too. What music inspires you as a clarinetist? And, What contemporary music inspires you?

Nancy: I love music that makes me feel something: the make-your-heart-sing quality of a soaring melody, a cheeky compositional technique that makes me laugh, harmonies that make me uncomfortable, a stomach-dropping unexpected chord change or change in direction, the ache of a poignant piece, or the thrill of a technical masterpiece. I don't think contemporary music is any different. It's got to make me feel something; there has to be something I can convey to the audience. I know that's generic, but the best pieces in every style have this aspect to it.

Dan: I really appreciate your descriptions of the different reactions that music can evoke. These are all wonderful sensations when we willingly subject ourselves to them. That said, it’s a good thing these feelings occur within the safe context of art! So, digging a little deeper, do you have preferences for certain aesthetic orientations or styles in new music? What does this imply for your programming and for your audiences?

Nancy: I have eclectic tastes and enjoy diversity. If I have any preferences, it's that the music be worth my time. For example, if the extended techniques are so difficult and obscure that it takes more effort on my part than the amount of satisfaction I get mastering and performing it, I'm not likely to program it again. Don't get me wrong; I love challenging literature! I, and most other performers I know, only have so much time to practice.

After a recent concert, an audience member told me they loved the programming and couldn't believe the concert was over. That's what I'm going for - for the audience to be present (mindful) the entire time, for us to be a part of an experience together. By learning a quality piece of new literature, even if I don't like the style, I create a relationship with it that helps me to grow as a musician. I believe it's important to educate the audience, as well, so I always speak about anything potentially challenging from a listening stand-point. They will be able to understand and appreciate the music more when I reveal my personal connection to it. Even if I don't love it, I can at least appreciate some part of it. People are like that, too! How many times do you find yourself becoming friends with someone you didn't initially like very much? The more exposure you had to them, the more you understood them and recognized more common ground than you initially realized. That's why I always choose at least one piece that will stretch the audience's comfort zone. Lutoslawski was once quoted as equating composing with "fishing for like souls," and I think the same is true of performing. As a performer, though, that means I have to recognize that there are a lot of different "souls" in the audience, and it's my job to find a way to connect with them.

Dan: What a great quote from Lutoslawski! Composing is indeed fishing for like souls! Finding people to perform your music is also very much fishing for like souls. So, on the subject of composing, I understand you are also a composer. What inspires you as a composer? What kind of music do you like to write, for what instrumentation, etc.?

Nancy: This inspirational aspect is what drew me to your blog. I'm relatively new to composing, but I'm finding so much inspiration that my list of "to-compose" works is quite long! I'm inspired by people, for one. If I'm writing a piece for someone who is a friend, that person's personality and the way I feel about them is my impetus. Growing up in the Great Plains, I'm also deeply connected to the land. The "scarcity" of the landscape forces you to bring something to it. You have to make an effort to notice things like wildflowers hidden in the grass or the sound of the wind. It's not a landscape that immediately hits you with its beauty. Consequently, I've paid attention to the natural beauty around me wherever I've lived, and I frequently draw on that for my compositions. I think it's because of this connection with the earth that I particularly love folk songs and dances. Just like in performing, I draw on how something/someone makes me feel when I'm composing.

I enjoy writing for wind instruments the most, although I've recently started composing art songs. I have always preferred the earthy sound of wind instruments, especially reeds. I found composing for a reed quintet particularly satisfying. Wind instruments are technically flexible as well and can produce a lot of fun extended techniques, so that's an added bonus. I sang and played piano a lot when as a young girl, which is why I suppose I'm drawn to art songs right now. I'm composing one now, and next on my list are pieces for clarinet choir, sax/clarinet duet, and young band as well as additional wind band works and art songs. It's important to choose mediums you can get performed, particularly when you live in a geographically-isolated area. Limiting factors are the price you pay for getting to hear your music performed live. Being at live performances of my pieces is critical at this point of my career; I need to know what works or doesn't work for performers as well as to be present to gauge audience reaction. For example, if what I've written sounds great on midi, but sounds very different with live musicians, I've got to figure out what's been lost in translation and how to make myself clearer. Plus, being able to work with musicians before a premiere is especially revealing. The audience is what it's all about, though, and I want to see and feel their reaction in addition to hearing their comments.

Even though my rural location has some drawbacks, I get a great deal of satisfaction exposing patrons, and particularly young musicians, to composition as a career and to new music. Had I met a female composer when I was younger, my own career may have turned out differently.

Dan: Thanks for your thoughtful and interesting comments about composition. Can I ask you further about your remark about a female composer role model? Might you have gone into composition earlier? Did the lack of a female composer role model hold you back from pursuing your compositional aspirations, and if so, can you explain why that was? I’m sure there are a lot of people who would be very interested to hear about your experience.

Nancy: I'll never know what could or would have been different had I been exposed to a female role model. Additional factors to my late start in the field may have been my undergraduate school not having a composition degree available and simply not being exposed to composition or to many composers at all when I was younger. I do know that I didn't even consider composition to be a viable career option for myself. I had zero aspirations. Had I met a composer who was more like me, maybe that interaction would have planted a seed. This is why I value being a role model now. Unless young people see composers who are like themselves, they may not realize that career is an option. Locally, there has been an increase in number and exposure of Native American composers, but none of those, that I'm aware of, are women either. I may actually be the only female composer in the region, so I feel an obligation to get out into the community, particularly the schools. Even if I never inspire a young girl to become a composer, I'm helping to establish composition as a legitimate career for women in all of the students' minds. Subconsciously, that makes a difference.

Dan: What fascinating perspectives! I am curious to hear if anyone else can relate to what Nancy said. Please feel free to comment on this blog. In any case, thanks to Nancy Williams for joining me on this post on the Muse in Music blog. Please visit her website at!

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