Interview with composer Sarah Bassingthwaighte

Philharmonia Northwest is thrilled to be giving the world premiere of Sarah Bassingthwaighte’s new piece Sleeping in the Forest on November 18, 2018. More information about that concert can be found HERE.

PNW: What is your origin story?/What brought you to music as your career?

SB: Like so many people, I started piano lessons when I was really young (4 years old). When I was 6, I already fancied myself a composer. I wrote a song called “The Ten Little Chickens’”, and another called “My First Piece,” I think. I was so proud of this little piece until, sadly, a few years later, I discovered that I had simply memorized this piece from one of my piano books and then forgotten where it came from! I console myself with the knowledge that imitation is where many of us begin. I started playing flute when I was 9. As a high school senior, I was completely stumped with the question of what I wanted to go into in college, and sort of fell into a music major at Indiana University. Now, 4 degrees later, I’m pretty sure I want to become a professional musician when I grow up. I’ve always done both composing and performing, and the two definitely complement each other.

PNW: Who/what are your inspirations for composition? Any favorite composers past or present?

SB: I listen to music almost every moment that I’m not playing or composing it. I enjoy music from many different genres and countries and time periods: Stravinsky, Crumb, Pärt, and Chopin some days, other days Puerto Rican Hip Hop, Icelandic rock, Brazilian Choros, and a lot of Brit AltPop. I also played bass guitar in punk/rock bands for more than a decade, which was super fun. I find lots of great musical ideas in all of these different genres that inspire my composing: I’ll hear a really interesting play between the guitar and bass or an interesting rhythm and find a way to do something like them in my classical pieces. In the piece for this concert, Sleeping in the Forest, I took inspiration from Regina Spektor, Chopin, Prokofiev, Glen Hansard, and others.

I also find inspiration in non-musical ways. I like to spend time outside, especially in the mountains or by the water. Sometimes I think about the “rhythm” of life in these places – the time between events, the relationships between living things, the motion of the trees or the water, the shape of rocks or hillsides, the colors of the trees or the lichen. I also love oil painting, and have collaborated in composing with oil painters – I’ve learned a lot about how to really be sensitive to color, form, texture, light, and movement. In some ways, composing is very visual to me, or at least, a very sensory experience.

PNW: You are in the Ecco Ensemble, The Sound Ensemble and Windsong Classical Trio, so you seem to enjoy chamber music. What is it about small group playing that you enjoy vs. large ensemble?

Ecco Chamber Ensemble

SB: I love the drama, excitement, and energy of large ensembles, like Philharmonia Northwest. I also love the strong community in these groups. Smaller ensembles are a different experience in many/most ways: usually, each part is independent (no one is doubling your part), you have a large say in what music will be performed, you can make musical decisions together and play with quite a bit of flexibility and nuance, and you are very strongly connected (including eye contact) with the other players. Chamber music is also very portable – you can play in a home, or in an auditorium, or on a boat. I’ve played a lot of pretty interesting places, including on top of a hot tub for a wedding, on a sailboat, at watersheds, on ferries. I also love composing for chamber groups, especially because of their ability to be flexible, expressive, and creative on the fly.

PNW: Do you have a favorite musical memory?

SB: I feel like I have thousands of fond musical memories. One of my fondest actually happened during the composing of this piece: I was on a sailing trip of the Strait of Georgia, anchored in a remote lagoon in the fjordlands, when an owl started calling from a nearby mountaintop. After a few minutes, another owl answered. After another 10 minutes, I took out my flute and found their pitches, and started imitating their calls. The three of us called back and forth for maybe 20 minutes. If you listen carefully at the end of Sleeping in the Forest, you’ll hear the first owl call, followed shortly by the second owl.

Among my favorite musical experiences are actually my failures, of which I am proud to say I have had many. The reason that I treasure these is that they teach me not to take myself too seriously, and to really just love the music and the opportunity to play and share it, and do it the best I can. I really enjoy playing and listening to music more when I can experience the expression, the sounds, the colors, the interplay, instead of being overly concerned about whether I’ve done everything exactly correctly. But then again, I spend a LOT of time working on performance technique or compositional ideas until I’m happy with them, and I value quality very much. Just not to the exclusion of joy.

PNW: What are your interests outside of music?

SB: Playing with my teacup poodle, Tessa, and spending time with my amazing son, Izzy. I also treasure my time with my friends and family. Traveling, either to remote places in nature or to far-away places that show me a different culture, and both at the same time if possible. I love painting, writing, dancing, and backpacking, skiing, bicycling, racquetball. Learning new languages is fun, and trying new things is always on my list. I don’t have much talent at reading fiction, but love to read non-fiction books. And I get an odd amount of pleasure out of doing house construction projects. Probably because it is something so tangible, where music floats away on the wind almost as soon as it appears.

PNW: BONUS QUESTION! How do you pronounce your last name?

SB: Bass – ing – th (as in “think”) – wait

It’s an old English word that means clearing in the woods. Bass=clearing, waite=woods