Interview by Maria Nockin, Review By Dave Saemann
A Chat with Violinist Leslee Smucker
By Maria Nockin
Leslee Smucker, who holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from University of Colorado, is an active performer, collaborator, and teacher. Because of her interest in combining different arts, she has been involved in the creation of many inter-art projects. Her program, Personae, is based on rarely heard music composed by poet Ezra Pound. The 37th Annual Meeting of the T. S. Eliot Society premiered Personae at the Auditorium Teatro della Clarisse in Rapallo, Italy. Currently, Smucker’s recording of Personae is available on the Gega New label and at Naxos Direct.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Goshen, Indiana.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes. My dad plays trumpet and is a composer. My sister and brother are also very musically talented, although they both have different careers. My extended family members are also musically and artistically talented.
When did you become interested in music as a career?
Music has been inherently connected to my identity. Occasionally, I considered doing something else because I wanted to be practical, but nothing felt right and I’m a nicer person when I am playing a lot.
Who were your most important teachers?
Two teachers I had in Goshen, Lon Sherer and Solomia Soroka, were important in developing my musical sense, and then Carolyn Stuart at the University of Southern Florida was so important in really solidifying, and in some cases reshaping, my technique. Carolyn and Monica Germino were a part of my introduction to new music. Harumi Rhodes at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) has been so important for the past few years, both musically and in helping me navigate my doctoral program. As far as academic professors are concerned, Carlo Caballero at CU Boulder has been very important in helping me develop my writing.
Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?
I’m always in awe of Jean Cocteau. To me, he was an example of an ultimate artist and collaborator. His circle of friends was incredible, and I find his work to be brilliant across genres. It pushed boundaries then, and still ruffles some feathers.
Who are some of your favorite composers?
There are so many new composers right now that are doing really exciting things. I really love Kaija Saariaho. Everything she composes is incredibly thoughtful, intricate, and moving. The textures and colors she imagines create her own sound world that draws in both performers and audiences. I’m also a fan of Messiaen, Stravinsky, and Luciano Berio.
How did you choose the music and poetry on this disc?
It was an ever-evolving program. The live version was different from the disc. It showed a bit of a different angle to the overall concept because of the visual elements I incorporated. On the album, I chose works that I thought reflected the unique relationship between words or poetry and music. Everything also had to work well on a recording.
What can you tell us about Pound and his music that is not in the recording booklet?
I just wrote a chapter for the Edinburgh Ezra Pound Companion to the Arts entitled “Renaissance Man: Ezra Pound’s Search for a Contemporary Color Palette.” In it, I talk about the relationships between Pound’s musical transcriptions of ancient works such as the Duc de Bourgogne’s Madame from the 15th century, and poetic works such as his “Homage Sextus Propertius,” in which he established his own procedures across medium boundary lines. I theorize that the techniques he used in these pastiches crossed over into his original works and created a cohesive color palette apart from the medium.
What do you especially like about his music?
He just let his whims fly as an artist. He learned mensural notation and read from chansonniers for the transcriptions, but when it came time to compose, he just did what he wanted—and the result is wild!
What do you like best about teaching?
I love to help others to find what interests them. Sometimes practicing disguises itself as being tedious or boring, but when students realize that practice makes them able to communicate effectively, that is an excellent moment.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I want to give students the structure and tools to be independent, creative, and thoughtful.
What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?
This month I will be a fellow at the Barnes Ensemble in Philadelphia. This is a great program that incorporates new music performances. I will be with 19 other fellows and the JACK Quartet at the Barnes Foundation. I’ll also be playing in Boulder, Colorado, at the Dairy Center for the Arts, in a project I’m doing with dance and film. In the second semester of the academic year I will be visiting faculty at University of South Florida for a few weeks as a sabbatical replacement for Carolyn Stuart.
What do you expect to be doing five years from now?
For me, part of being a musician and an artist requires keeping my future open. It’s scary, but I find that if I have my eyes open for anything, I have more of a chance to discover interesting projects, jobs, and connections. I want to keep making things that mean something to at least one other person.
Who made the violin you play?
Mark Norfleet from Ann Arbor made it in 1980; I think it was originally a modern Baroque instrument that was converted into a modern violin. It’s a superb companion. I love it because it has a wide range and a multiplicity of possibilities for color.
Do you also play the viola?
I play the viola like a violinist. I’d like to learn more viola, but as of now I’m really just a violinist playing a viola.
Do you have any recordings out besides Personae?
Personae is my first album. I did some other recordings here and there, but nothing like this full album.
How much modern technology do you use in your work?
I think I have found a portable system that will allow me to incorporate electronics and video into my performances. I use one foot pedal to trigger the video and electronics, and another foot pedal to turn the pages on my iPad if I’m using music. It’s something I have to practice!
How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?
Downloads and streaming are easy and make music more accessible, but, I still like the idea of a program booklet and a listening experience that is one cohesive thing. With downloads, you can skip the program booklet or pick and choose pieces, not knowing that they are meant to be with each other, which rather defeats the full concept of the programming on my album. Maybe it is my art background, but I also want to hold the book or booklet in my hands, feel the paper or whatever it is written on, and read it in person. Music is so intangible and abstract that sometimes it’s nice to have a physical reminder of that experience or sound. I can do without the actual disc. People probably put them in their computers right away anyway, so it is just a dated delivery method, but I don’t know what the new listening mode is yet. I want to present an album as one cohesive listening experience, even if it doesn’t come in a package. Perhaps by the time I produce my next album I’ll have it figured out.
Do you ever have time for a private life?
Yes! I think relaxing and having fun is important. What’s the point of working hard if you can’t take a break and just enjoy life sometimes? My husband, Michael, is a computer programmer here in Boulder.
Do you have any interesting hobbies such as cooking, painting, or reading in three alphabets?
I really like cooking. I am making my way through the Tartine Cookbook right now. It’s one reason I started running again. I also was an art minor in school, so I make jewelry, prints, watercolors, and some other paintings. Next, I want to learn encaustic painting.
What kind of music do you listen to for relaxation?
I like records. I like the physical nature of a record, and we have a great set-up. Other than a lot of classical recordings, I have a lot of tango, French singers such as Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, and occasionally cool things such as Radiohead, Pink Martini, and TV on the Radio. I also like going to a used record shop and picking up something I’ve never heard of.
Do you have a humorous or otherwise interesting story to tell us?
I lived in Senegal, Africa, for three months in college, and one day my host family bought a lamb and put him in the courtyard. They named it, gave it baths, and I would play with it in the yard. I guess it didn’t occur to me what the lamb was for, but I treated it like a pet. It was not.
PERSONAE • Leslee Smucker (vn) • GEGA 32 (55:00)
ANTHEIL Printemps. BOUGOGNE (arr. Pound) Madame trop vos me spremes. POUND Fiddle Music: First Suite. Sestina: Altaforte. Al Poco Giorno. ANDRIESSEN Raadsels. Xenia. MERZ Sestina (after Pound). FAIDIT (arr. Pound) Plainte pour la Mort du roi Richard Coeur de Lion. KESIKLI The Logical Conclusion. SAARIAHO Nocturne. CONVITORTIO (arr. Pound) Tu soi nel fiore della sua bellezza
This is a wonderful album. Violinist Leslee Smucker has produced a program around poet Ezra Pound’s works for solo violin. They were written for his partner, Olga Rudge. The contents of the recital all are arranged in tercets, each containing a work by Pound and a stanza from a lovely poem by Jesse Nathan, recited by the violinist’s sister Lana Smucker. The poem is entitled “Persona,” and ends with the telling line, “Words are children, words our mother.” The same sentiment can be applied to the music on this album. Its title, Personae, is taken from the title of Pound’s first successful book of poetry. I have very little use for Pound as a poet. Even his translations, such as “The Seafarer,” which generally are held in high regard, seem overwrought to me. I think Pound’s greatest literary accomplishment was editing T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I must admit to a certain bias in this regard. I think the most important 20th-century American poets are Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. My Harvard English professors would be horrified, but that’s my opinion. In addition to being a savvy program maker, Leslee Smucker is a wonderful violinist. I strongly recommend her videos of several of the works on Personae. On YouTube you can find her performances of J. P. Merz’s Sestina (after Pound) and Egemen Kesikli’s The Logical Conclusion. Smucker’s web site contains a video of Kaija Saariaho’s Nocturne. You also may find there, as a testament to Smucker’s virtuosity, a splendid rendition on viola of Henri Vieuxtemps’s Capriccio “Homage to Paganini.” Smucker’s Personae represents its own world, seducing the listener into its sources of contemplation and reverie.
George Antheil’s Printemps, also written for Olga Rudge, has a long, sinuous line that illustrates the season’s fertility. Pound’s First Suite of Fiddle Music has a middle section redolent of medieval dance music. The work is an impressive testimony to Pound’s range as a composer. Louis Andriessen’s Raadsels, or “Riddles,” encompasses several moods with point and elegance. Its enticements perhaps owe something to his period of study with Luciano Berio. Pound’s Sestina: Altaforte possesses an angularity and cryptic quality that seem a reflection of Modernist poetry. Merz’s piece, apparently with recorded accompaniment, is eerie and haunting. Pound’s transcription of the Lament for the Death of King Richard the Lionhearted is a work of genuine empathy and pathos. Kesikli’s piece has an Ivesian feeling of experimentation. Al Poco Giorno, with a title taken from Dante, is a late work of Pound’s with considerable sublimity. It includes an Italian Baroque element in the violin’s figurations. Kaija Saaraiaho’s Nocturne was written in response to the death of the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. It is an expression of genuine pain. Andriessen’s Xenia opens with an avant-garde take on the sarabande. Its last movement, “Song,” is an intriguing interweaving of evocative melody with words by Rimbaud sung by the violinist.
The CD’s sound engineering is excellent. Personae is a bewitching collection carefully chosen to elicit the poetic qualities in music and words. I found it captivating from the first time I heard it, and now at my fifth listening it strikes me as even more meaningful. I believe it stimulates the hearer to think of the genesis of music and poetic speech, and for this quality must be highly recommended. Dave Saemann