“I feel like I’ve been officially indoctrinated as a North-Easterner,” Annika Socolofsky said.
Although she grew up outside of Chicago, her work with Water Music New York has irrevocably strengthened her ties to New York State.
Socolofsky worked with Capital Repertory Theatre and the Albany Symphony Orchestra in composing “Beyond the Pines,” a piece which will premiere at Mabee Farm Historic Site in Rotterdam Junction on July 3.
While her life revolves around mostly classical music — she’s a doctoral candidate at Princeton — she wasn’t raised in a particularly musical household.
“My family is horrendously unmusical,” Socolofsky said, jokingly. But she credits her mother for her giving her an ear for music.
She played classical violin as a kid, although she didn’t love the instrument, she loved the music itself.
“I grew up thinking that classical music was Bach or Beethoven and all these dead white guys. I liked playing it but I didn’t like practicing it. But I loved music, so it was my way into it. Then I heard this concert, The Silk Road Ensemble and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There was this bagpipe concerto and I remember thinking ‘You can’t do that! That’s not classical music,’ Then this lightbulb went on in my head . . . anything can be classical music,” Socolofsky said.
She continued to play the violin, but she began fiddling and playing the Klezmer. In her senior year of high school, she began composing and hasn’t stopped since.
Becoming a part of the Water Music New York series came with a few new compositional challenges.
Growing up outside of Chicago, all Socolofsky learned of the Erie Canal came from the song “Low Bridge,” that children’s choruses tend to learn.
“I wasn’t sure how I would find a way into it being an outsider in some ways but I realized that there were all these themes, all these issues surrounding the Erie Canal: issues of immigration, issues of workers' rights, how quickly the speed of life was changing,” Socolofsky said.
Instead of feeling alienated by the different time period and place than she’d grown up, she found a sense of kinship.
“These are all issues we’re facing today,” Socolofsky said.
In each movement of “Beyond the Pines,” Socolofsky dives into one key issue she found in her research on the making of the Canal that people are also dealing with today.
“There’s a movement about immigration, about working conditions, about the stress on the families (particularly the children), about spirituality, and the changing speed of life,” Socolofsky said.
An actor portraying Charles Steinmetz narrates some of the movements, bringing another piece of Schenectady’s history into the piece. He talks about how immense an achievement the canal is, but he also introduces another character who became important in Socolofsky’s research: Henry David Thoreau.
“Henry David Thoreau was born one week after the construction of the Erie Canal was completed. So he was writing about a lot of these things that people were experiencing at the time,” Socolofsky said.
One of the movements is named after a famous quote from Thoreau’s “Walden”: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
In another movement, Steinmetz loosely quotes Thoreau, singing: “We say we know many things but low we have taken wings. The arts, the sciences, and a thousand appliances, the wind that blows is all anybody knows.”
In her work with Water Music, Socolofsky partnered with Capital Repertory Theatre. Through the Theatre, high schoolers from across the Capital Region will be performing her piece, as well as members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra.
“Beyond the Pines,” is as much about local Erie Canal history as it is about simply appreciating the Canal itself.
“Today everyone is on their smartphones or freaking out about email, and sometimes it’s really nice to take a walk along a river or the Erie Canal and feel connected. I think that’s something people were facing 200 years ago,” Socolofsky said.
Advice to young composers: There’ nothing you can do better than anyone else than be yourself. Just try to sound like yourself.
Musician and composer Angelica Negron sees music as a way into a community.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, music was a big part of her family's celebrations and any sort of get together.
In the past few months, she’s gotten close to the Upstate community by working with the Mohawk Valley Chorus, MVC Kids and the River Valley Ringers.
“Working with them has been amazing. These are two groups I’ve always dreamed of writing for, but I’ve never written for,” Negron said, “As a composer, one of the most gratifying experiences is getting the opportunity to workshop ideas.”
Although she has extensive composing experience - her work has been performed at the Ecstatic Music Festival and the 2016 New York Philharmonic Biennial and she is currently a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center (CUNY) — she was intimidated when she was first asked to compose a piece for Water Music. The piece had to be 30 minutes long, connect with the local history and speak to the community.
“I think that was a little overwhelming at first, but as soon as I started visiting Amsterdam, meeting the potential collaborators, I fell in love with the community and also I got a lot of inspiration from them,” Negron said.
Working with a children’s choir and a bell choir fit perfectly with Negron’s composition style.
Her pieces are often described as quirky, surprising and mesmerizing.
“I’m really interested in discovering new sounds that I haven’t heard from instruments that aren’t traditional instruments,” Negron said.
Her goal is to recontextualize domestic sounds, like train whistles or wind chimes.
“So that it brings a new life to them. It seems sort of familiar to the listener but it still retains a certain mystery where you can’t really figure out where the sound came from,” Negron said.
To do this she uses bells, music makers, toys, accordions and robotic instruments. At other concerts, she’s even used vegetables to create music through a synth tool called Ototo.
One such instrument that will take center stage for her Water Music piece, “Mapping,” is a water synth.
“I’m literally playing water to trigger some sounds that I have recorded on my computer and a lot of these sounds actually come from Amsterdam,” Negron said.
The water synth uses a synthesizer and a sampler to turn these vases filled with colorful water into acoustic sounds. The vases filled with water are connected to a synthesizer through alligator clips and the synthesizer is then used as a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) controller to manipulate some of the sounds Negron collected from Amsterdam.
The sounds of Amsterdam come from a few of Negron’s visits Upstate -she’s based in Brooklyn - and from a few workshops with MVC choirs.
The workshops and rehearsals also served as inspirations for Negron’s piece. Even though she’d never lived in the area and was raised hundreds of miles away, Negron found an immense sense of commonality between Amsterdam residents and herself.
“I felt really at home when I was visiting Amsterdam,” Negron said.
Thus her piece is a repertoire of things that connect people, both geographically and in time.
“Each movement has something that can be mapped to other places,” Negron said. Some of these include stories, places, buildings and people.
It’s a very melodic piece, with a few haunting parts to it. When she met with Amsterdam’s historian, Robert von Hasseln, they discussed the history of the canal in the city as well as a few ghost stories.
“I think it’s a piece that’s very melodic and accessible but it also retains a sense of mystery,” Negron said.
The piece premieres in Amsterdam at Riverlink Park on July 4.
Advice to young composers: I spent a lot of years trying to write music that looked good on paper. As a young composer, follow your voice. Try to go all the way exploring that rather than take detours into what you think other people want to hear.