Composer and UI Grad Erin Gee Wins the Rome Prize
BY JAMES MOORE
Erin Gee hopes to have some of her recordings available by spring 2008.
Okay, I’m going to admit to you right up front that classical music intimidates the Shostakovich out of me. I could pretend I’m cool as a cucumber with a square head of lettuce on my shoulders, but the awful truth is when I was a kid, classical music felt like the antiseptic couch my friend’s mom wrapped in clear plastic to preserve its luster and protect it from the likes of us.
When I heard my best girl’s best girl had won the Rome Prize for musical composition, my eyebrows climbed Pike’s pique. Each year, 30 select souls are chosen by jury from disciplines such as architecture, visual arts, literature, musical composition, cross-pollinating with each other and visiting scholars and adepts.
Sponsored by the American Academy in Rome, this program began in 1894 and was chartered by an Act of Congress in 1904. High on Janiculum Hill, named in honor of Janus, the Roman two-faced god, ruler of transitions and door-hinges (“January” and “janitor” are etymological descendants), beautiful hearts and minds in splendorous digs bathe in the rarified cultural ethos of Rome and create masterpieces. All expenses paid, a generous stipend, a year to complete your work, all from a perch overlooking the ancient city—not a bad gig any way you slice it.
What kind of person wins such a thing as this?
The first time I hear a recording of Erin Gee, I am transfixed. Sumptuous, vulnerable, improvisational-sounding vocalizations flow forth interspersed with whistles, hisses, and tongue-noises, childlike but in no way childish, ethereal, incandescent, captivating. It does the same thing Beethoven’s Pathetique does to me—lifts your spirit while gently collapsing your soul.
Gee’s creations have names like Mouthpiece 1, Mouthpiece Remix, Mouthpiece for Ensemble, Mouthpiece IX Part 1 (recorded with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna). The power is in their absolute intimacy. Think of the most beautiful butterfly you’ve ever seen, imagine you’re riding it bareback till it lights on some extraordinary nectar-filled flower swaying gently in the life-giving sunlight. Or better still, imagine learning a whole new language, one that simply by hearing, not even understanding, elevates your being.
Erin Gee was born in St. Luis Obispo, California, and moved with her family to Fairfield when she was eight years old. From the earliest age, she was an eager student of the piano. At eighteen she went to Iowa City on a full scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in piano performance followed a master’s in musical composition. For the last six years she’s been living in Graz, Austria, and planning to finish her doctorate before relocating to Rome this fall. (Her Ph.D. has to do with “international phonetic alphabet and a linguistic approach to the notation of certain vocal styles.”)
Gee has performed Mouthpieces on three continents—in the United States, Europe, and Japan, earning much acclaim along the way. In addition to the Rome Prize, she has won the Impuls award, Austrian Government Grant, SKE Prize, the Pelzer Award from the University of Iowa, support from the Jerome Foundation, and the Look & Listen Festival Prize. In 2005, she was a guest artist at the Akiyoshidai International Art Village near Yamaguchi, Japan. Mouthpiece VIII was commissioned for the Mozart Anniversary 2006 and performed at the Radiokulturhaus in Vienna. Other works of Gee’s have been showcased in New York, Dublin, Serbia, Croatia, Germany, and elsewhere.
She informs me Mouthpieces evolved from primordial Vedic sounds into its own living, breathing language through improvisation, interactive listening, and applied understanding. Early influences range from world music, particularly African, to Scottish alternative rockers the Cocteau Twins. I ask about Laurie Anderson, feeling a kindred sisterhood between the two articulate, fearless, and visionary artists. Turns out Anderson’s body of work didn’t come to Gee’s attention till her own style was quite developed. Mind you, Gee’s compositional milieu is more in the realm of substratified non-lexical vocables, a kind of speaking in tongues, if you will, which evokes a rich emotional patois in the heart of the listener. She may approach her compositions in a pianistic way due to her background, but her creations are wholly something else.
What about the new opera, Sleep Towards Sound: An Opera in Four Acts? It was Erin and brother Colin, a gifted actor/acrobat and former principle clown in Cirque du Soleil, who submitted the proposal that was open to all American composers. Will it be Mouthpiece-ian, I ask?
“I’ll definitely be incorporating some of the vocal styles I’ve been using,” explains Erin. “There will be four female singers, mezzo soprani, and they will be singing in this Mouthpiece style. So there will not be any words. The only person who will be speaking words is Colin. To what extent those will be understandable is yet to be seen.” It will be 60 minutes. The four acts have already been settled upon. She’s looking forward to working with leading scholars in the field of the modern Grammelot technique and applying this to her opera.
Did she say “Grammelot”?
No, we’re not talking JFK and Jackie O. Grammelot relates to the 16th century Commedia dell’arte (“comedy of humors”), which was a popular form of improvisational outdoor theater in Italy. Wikipedia calls it a term for a style of language in satirical theater, a gibberish with macaronic and onomatopoeic elements used in association with pantomime and mimicry. But here’s my favorite part: some claim Grammelot to be a specific universal language, akin to Lingua franca, devised to give performers safety from censorship. (Lord knows, we need that more than ever these days. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dario Fo, the Italian playright who popularized this style in the ’60s, was denied a U.S. visa for years after the powers that be felt one of his plays was disrespectful to Lyndon Johnson.) Once you hear Gee’s work, you’ll see what a natural extension this will be.
Granted, talking about it is like doing a radio show called What’s Yours is Mime. I mean, would you rather eat a strawberry dipped in chocolate or talk about it? Maybe that’s Gee’s secret. This acclaimed composer has developed her own superfluid lingua that speaks directly to the heart using the best of what’s come before as a springboard.
Like many of those at the top of their field, Gee makes it look so simple. Her gift makes me believe in the power of the Butterfly Effect—not Madame Butterfly, the one about the movement of a butterfly’s wing affecting weather patterns on the other side of the world—and the fact that I can’t believe I find myself eagerly awaiting the completion of a new opera.
Listen to a feature on Erin Gee on KRUU-LP 100.1 FM on June 15 at 11 a.m. You can stream the program at www.kruufm.com.
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