The music Olathe-based composer Leslee Wood creates comes from a lifetime of listening, singing and studying how and what makes music work. In addition to being a prolific composer currently pursuing a second master's degree in composition, she is a performer and passionate advocate for contemporary classical music both in Kansas City and internationally. In this interview, Wood describes how she manages to stay creative with a busy schedule, how technology helps her compose and her book, music and movie recommendations.
Please introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
Hello! I live in Olathe with my family and I’m currently working on a PhD in musicology as well as a second Master’s degree in composition at the University of Kansas. I find inspiration in literature, art, and nature. I really love finding opportunities to express natural sounds through music or find sonic evocations of images or stories. I love setting text, so I write a lot of vocal music, but even in my instrumental music, I find that having a text behind the music makes the process more interesting and satisfying for me.
It’s not easy to describe your own music. You live with it so intimately that it’s hard to look from a distance. For me, the composition process is intuitive, so I’m not analyzing or planning my music in an analytical way. That said, I know there are certain intervals and rhythms that pop up again and again in my music. I really gravitate toward close dissonances for their color and interest. But at the same time, I wouldn’t call my music dissonant. I love close harmonies, but dissonance or consonance is a matter of context, and I tend to use harmonies that emphasize the beauty of the dissonance. For rhythms, I find a lot of moments when duple and triple rhythms are juxtaposed, and also moments when the metric stress is moved just off the beat. I think all those tendencies come from my interest in medieval music, where dissonance treatment doesn’t follow the same rules as common-practice music and where rhythmic play is an extremely important element of medieval and early renaissance polyphony.
How long have you been a composer? Who were your earliest creative influences?
I took me a long time to call myself a composer. When I was a kid, my mom directed choirs and would have all us kids singing 4-part harmony around the piano at home. I was the youngest of six, so all my brothers and sisters would take the written parts. I didn’t like doubling up on someone else’s part, so from early on I was improvising new harmonies. As I got older, improvising turned into arranging, and eventually to composing.
My earliest influences were of course those experiences singing with my family. I learned how to use my voice and my ears and I practiced harmony by singing hymns. But from very early, I was fascinated by polyphonic vocal music. One of my sisters had some recordings of English madrigals and Palestrina’s Song of Songs. I had no idea at the time what I was listening to, but I knew I loved it.
If you have one, describe a typical day in your life. When do you compose? What tools do you use – apps, software, etc.?
My days are packed full! I’m a teaching assistant at KU, I’m doing a full load of coursework for my PhD, I am on several boards and am the artistic director of a vocal ensemble, Ignea Strata. At home, I have three young children. With all that, it’s not easy to find a routine for composing! However, I am fortunate to have a very supportive family. My husband is great about working out our schedules so that I can get creative time to myself, so I can sometimes get a long stretch on the weekends for composition.
Lately, I start at the piano with a pencil and a sheet of manuscript paper. My first ideas are usually a mess of scribbles as I work out motives, harmonies or themes, or an initial overall sketch of the work. From scribbles, I move into fleshing out the ideas—still in pencil. Rhythm usually follows pitch for me, so I have my pitches marked clearly in the staves, but the rhythm gets marked above or below the score. Once I’m ready to put it all together, I move to the computer. I have this great program called StaffPad which allows me to write the notation in with a stylus instead of typing it, so the transition from paper to screen doesn’t feel quite so abrupt! I don’t actually move to the full notation programs like Sibelius or Finale until I’m content that the piece is finished and just needs to be cleaned up.
You recently composed music for poems written by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson. What is it about these two poets that inspire you?
Their poetry is so beautiful, so starkly honest and raw. To really answer this question though, I would add some other poets/writers I’ve recently set and a pretty clear pattern emerges: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Willa Cather, Emma Lazarus. I find myself drawn to female poets because their voices and their creative genius amplify the voices of half of the human race. Women’s voices throughout history and still today are too often overlooked, unbelieved and unacknowledged. I think—I hope—we’re living through a watershed moment for recognizing, believing, and supporting women’s voices and experiences. I could talk for days about how beautiful these poets’ work is, how elegant and complex their writing, and how their art touches me personally. All of that is true, but at the end of the day, I am drawn to the works of women because in amplifying their voices, their experiences, and their art, I am amplifying my own.
Talk about your work with KC VITAS, where you serve as composer, performer and on the Board of Directors. What would you like people to know about this organization?
I have worked with KC VITAs since their very first performance and I am privileged to serve as their Composer-in-Residence. In fact, it was working with KC VITAs and Jackson Thomas (Conductor and Artistic Director) that helped me to get the confidence to really own the idea of myself as a composer. KC VITAs is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and is dedicated solely to the performance of music by living composers. It has two main goals: first, to give living composers the opportunity to have their work performed and professionally recorded by a high-level choir and two, to share new music with the community through free concerts.
There undoubtedly exists a bias against new music. Even classical-music lovers tend to be suspicious of contemporary music, assuming that it must be ugly, or shocking, or distasteful. I can promise that nothing is further from the truth. The vocal and choral music being written today is incredibly varied, skillful, interesting, touching, and beautiful. This community really has a treasure in KC VITAs, where you can hear music that is heard no where else in the world!
What inspires you about new classical music in Kansas City?
Kansas City seems to have no limit to its thirst for fine music! When I first moved to the area in 2010, I was amazed to find half-a-dozen fine choirs to audition for, and there are even more today. Coming from another mid-size city that seemed saturated with just one professional choir, one symphonic orchestra, and one chamber orchestra, coming to KC felt like a breath of fresh air!
It’s particularly encouraging that new music groups like KC VITAs and NewEar can thrive here alongside ensembles that perform more standard repertoire. One thing that makes the arts scene here so vital is the fact that it’s a small musical community and many people are involved in a variety of ensembles, so there’s a lot of cooperation and cross-pollination through the arts. It’s really a vibrant community and I’ve been fortunate to find many opportunities both as composer and performer.
Leslee Wood's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
I’m really excited about giving my recommendations, but I limited myself to three of each type. This isn’t a list of favorites exactly, but each selection has impacted me in some way. All of them have stuck with me, even when my tastes change or my interests move in another direction, and they’re all works that I happily recommend to anyone who hasn’t already encountered them.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
This is all Yours by Alt-J
The Avalanche by Sufjan Stevens
Greatest Hits by Simon & Garfunkel