Queeries for composer/soprano Kristin Norderval

Kristin Norderval has come a long way from the received expectations of what sopranos should do.

“I remember singing Frasquita in ‘Carmen’ in Sarasota,” she told the New York Times in 2001 (“Downtown Divas Expand Their Horizons.”)  ”I couldn’t bear the end of the opera, passively watching Carmen become a victim. I always wanted to run out on stage and yell: ‘There he is. Call the cops.’… I pulled back from this repertory also because I wanted to have more of a hand in shaping the artistic product, to work in a collaborative way with people who wanted to hear my opinion.”

Today Norderval is as much a composer as a vocalist.  She specializes in electro-acoustic music and many of her works have a social-political bent and are collaborative stage works.   Yet at least half of her recordings are performances of music written for her by composer colleagues, including Anne LeBaron and Matthew Rosenblum, to name a few.

What are you working on these days?
I’m finishing an electronic score for an upcoming dance performances by jill sigman/thinkdance at the 92nd St Y on March 11-13, and a new chamber work that will be premiered by Ensemble Pi at Cooper Union on March 19th.

What’s a typical workday for you?
Unfortunately more email and administrative work than I would like!   I tend to divide my days – either I’m making music (composing and rehearsing) or I’m focusing on administrative tasks, applications and grant writing. Either way it’s a lot of time on the computer, since the majority of my music involves electronics.  I try to get in regular vocal practice.  On my breaks I love to go for walks in Inwood Park, which is one of my favorite spots in the city.

Technology is a big part of my work.  My music often involves combining electronics and live audio processing with acoustic instrumentals or vocals. I enjoy experimenting with different programs, but I work primarily with Max/MSP because of the flexibility it allows.

How much do you travel for your work? Do you find it stimulating or a hassle?
I travel a fair amount. I’ve been dividing my time between Oslo and New York for the last few years, so there’s a lot of back and forth to Norway, and I’ve been fortunate to have projects and collaborations in other places as well. I do enjoy traveling, especially when it’s connected to work. It’s a great way to see new places and get to know local artists.

Have you ever experienced discrimination in the music business because of your sexuality?
It’s hard to distinguish between sex discrimination and discrimination based on sexual orientation. They’re both linked to prescribed roles for women, roles that are very conservatively hetero-normative. It was difficult when I was primarily earning my living as a soprano soloist, because I didn’t identify with the kind of persona I was expected to project, or with the types of characters that were delegated to my voice type. I just didn’t do a very good job of playing dumb and sexy, or sweet or girlish.  In as much as that was in demand I suppose I was discriminated against. It wasn’t a conflict between heterosexual and lesbian sexuality though, it was a conflict with the stereotyped portrayal of women in opera in general. The gender roles in opera are fairly limited and there’s very little repertoire yet that reflects a feminist sensibility, let alone one that’s radical or queer!

As a composer, there are other issues, mostly having to do with networking. Things have improved greatly in the last 20 years, but it’s still a given that almost all of what music students learn is the work of male composers, and what is programmed by institutions – orchestras, chamber music ensembles, etc – is still largely works by men. There are fewer examples of women composers so people don’t necessarily have that in mind as a possibility. The discrimination comes not so much from anything malicious, but more from just not being thought about. Guys ask their friends to make music with them, without necessarily reflecting on how most of those friends are men. But I think the increase of female composer-performers and the increased access to technology that allows self-publishing has helped get more and more work of women out there and that really helps.  And I have to say that I have received a lot of support from other women in music, so maybe it evens out.

Are you single or coupled?
Happily coupled.

Do you give PDAs (public displays of affection)?

What’s on your bed table?
Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals”

Do you watch TV?
I’ve never owned a TV. I watch news shows on my computer.  I’m a big fan of Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman and Grit TV‘s Laura Flanders.  During the Egyptian protests in these last weeks I was fascinated to follow events live on Al Jazeera English on YouTube.

Is there a relationship between your sexuality and your creativity?
I’m sure there is.

What’s the gayest musical thing you’ve ever done?
Hard to say. If I’m singing one of my works without words, it may be a very sensual love song in my mind, and hopefully the emotions of love and eros will come through, but will it be heard as lesbian? I don’t know. When I set text, however, my choices of material reflect both my politics and my identity. This last decade has seen a lot more political texts than love songs, but I recently set a paragraph from Monique Wittig’s “The Lesbian Body” as part of a DVD project called “Sounding Out!” a compilation of works by 6 lesbian/queer composers on Everglade.  That’s fairly overt.

Who was your most influential teacher and why?
As a vocalist, Don Stenberg.  For composition, Pauline Oliveros.  They both modeled superb musicianship, attention to detail, risk-taking, openness and loving kindness.  I feel very fortunate to have had these teachers who were also mentors.  And I’ve been very pleased to be a mentor to a couple of younger female composers.

Was coming out tough or a pleasure? Sudden or gradual?
It’s so long ago, it’s hard to remember!  My first coming out was to my mother, when I was still a teenager.  She thought it would be a phase.  It’s been a long phase.

Previously on MyBigGayEars:

Concert review: Kristin Norderval at iEAR

5 Responses to “Queeries for composer/soprano Kristin Norderval”

  1. Una Nakamura says:

    Kristen, I like the flavor of your profile, your photos, responses to questions…it really gives me a sense of who you are and what you are about. Thanks for sharing it with DL. Una

  2. Thanks Una, It was a pleasure to have the discourse with Jody. Thanks for reading!

  3. Happy to read this! Good to get caught up on what you’re doing, and to have some earlier info filled in.

  4. Kristin,

    Enjoyed reading the interview, especially the bits about not identifying with operatic stereotypes. Great photos, too!

  5. I enjoyed this interview, but I’m missing something. Maybe between the EARS or maybe not. Although I read all the references to Zyban and other medications…and thought some of the juxtapositions were funny, I still don’t know why they are here. Kristin, I too forget I’m gay and female because I don’t FEEL the prejudice. Partly from living on Cape Cod, but also because I’m so darned busy musically if I were to have wider avanues, I’d blow up!

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