Beth Wiemann uses technology to create electronic music full of
texture and tone
Beth Wiemann says that composing a
piece of music is like solving a puzzle.
The final product comes to the listener as an integrated whole, a
collection of sounds built one upon the other to create a unified
message. But if that music was deconstructed piece by piece, it would be
revealed as stunningly complex.
"I'm attracted to the sound aspect of problem solving," Wiemann says.
Wiemann, an assistant professor of music at The University of Maine, has
been composing classical music for more than 20 years. She also is a
But most recently, it's her electronic musical compositions,
incorporating computer-generated sounds with the music of a live
performer, that have received critical acclaim. Her works have been
performed in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.; in
England, Cuba and elsewhere by orchestras, ensembles and singers. Her
compositions have won awards from the Colorado New Music Festival,
American Women Composers, Marimolin and the Orvis Foundation. This
summer, she has a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative
Wiemann describes her work as abstract and full of texture with
tone-color combinations. She admits that it is not conventional, but she
does not consider it experimental.
She uses electronic sounds to construct a "sound environment" in which
live performers adjust and interact. The electronic sounds, she
explains, perform the same function as the supporting instruments in a
full acoustic composition.
"Young composers have to learn the building blocks of
traditional music. If they don't have a good foundation in
traditional music, they wind up spending a lot of time trying to
make electronic music sound traditional."
— Beth Weimann
Wiemann did not begin composing
electronically until the early 1990s, when new technologies made it more
accessible. Electronic composing was part of her required coursework at
Oberlin College and Princeton University.
"When I was studying, the technology at that time was not ‘real time' —
you had to wait a long time to hear what you had done. It was not
gratifying. When the software became desktop publishing-style, and you
could hear what you had done right away, I got back into it," she says.
Wiemann uses sampling, digital signal processing and notation programs
to generate electronic sounds. That technology has enabled her to direct
her creative energies in a rapidly developing field that is pushing the
boundaries of contemporary music.
It may start with a single sound. A bird's call. A harmony. A line from
a poem. For Wiemann, these are the building blocks for what becomes a
"It's trial and error," Wiemann says of the composing process. "I
assemble sounds and piece them together in a problem-solving way. I
don't go into the process with the shape of a piece set to go."
Wiemann often accepts commissions. She says that working at UMaine,
where many members of the faculty are performers, has provided
additional opportunities for her music to reach audiences.
For instance, in 1998 she wrote Swan Song for associate professor of
music and violinist Anatole Wieck, who requested a piece using bird
calls. She also produced Italy for UMaine's Women in the Curriculum
program, a song premiered by soprano Nancy Ogle that set the poetry of
English professor Constance Hunting to music.
Other commissioned works include Moose Next 5 Miles, premiered by the
Howlin' Winds Flute Choir at the National Flute Convention in Arizona,
So Suave and An Immorality for the Composers Ensemble at the Dartington
Festival in England, and Logic and the Magic Flute for the New York
Currently, Wiemann is working on compositions for students at the Asa
Adams Elementary School in Orono, Maine, requested by music teacher Jan
Smith. Wiemann also is writing an opera at the request of Ron Singer of
Wiemann says that when she is immersed in the composing process, she
doesn't try to "guess" what her listeners will like.
"If you are a composer, you have to write for yourself. It's nice if the
listeners appreciate what I do, but that's a secondary issue. I'm more
concerned with if the performers enjoy doing it," Wiemann says.
Susan Narucki, a Grammy Award-winning soprano from New York, has
performed Wiemann's work in the U.S. and abroad. Night Thought for voice
and piano was selected for recording by Narucki and Alan Feinberg for
Americus Records in 2001. Narucki also will record Poem and Postlude for
tape, voice and clarinet in spring 2003.
"The way Beth sets poems for the voice is fantastic. She's imaginative,
very moving and witty. She picks texts I love and makes the poems live,"
"Every single time I perform her work, people want to know who wrote the
pieces. There is something in her work that people are responding to.
She has a very fresh approach — modern but accessible. She's a voice for
Wiemann credits much of her effectiveness as an electronic composer to
her early training in traditional classical music. Today, her
compositions are still split nearly evenly between electronic music and
more traditional acoustic pieces.
Wiemann, who was in high school when she decided she wanted to be a
composer, received a Ph.D. at Princeton. There, she was one of just
three students accepted to study composition, and one of the few who
both composed and performed music.
Wiemann has been at UMaine for the past five years, where she teaches
clarinet, orchestration, tonal counterpoint, 20th-century musical
techniques, composition and graduate-level theory seminars. She
continues to perform, and has been the principal clarinetist for the
Bangor Symphony Orchestra.
This spring, Wiemann toured with the Empyrean Ensemble on the West
Coast, performing a concerto written for her by David Rakowski, her
husband and a professor at Brandeis. Previously, she has premiered works
in the Fellows Concert Series of the American Academy in Rome, and
recorded pieces by Robert Ceely of the New England Conservatory and Ross
Bauer of the University of California at Davis.
She premiered her work for clarinet and tape, Canto Compleanno, at the
Spring in Havana 2000 Festival in Cuba.
Wiemann strikes a delicate balance as teacher, performer and composer.
During the academic year, she devotes about two-thirds of her time to
teaching and one-third to playing clarinet. She uses vacation time to
focus on her compositions.
And she expects her students to exhibit similar dedication. For most of
the young artists, composition is not their specialty. But many are
intrigued by contemporary classical music techniques. She also teaches
her students that a basic understanding of composition is necessary.
"If you want to be a good musician, you have to think about the music on
the page and how it's related to how it's performed.
"In my composition class, students write regularly and plan toward four
medium pieces. They learn to know how all the little bits need to fit
into the larger piece," Wiemann says.
It's her way of helping her students learn how to put their own puzzles
by Gladys Ganiel
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