INTERVIEW: Cristina Lord

Composer Cristina Lord comes to her work with a wide open mind and sensibility.  In this conversation with EiO Co-Founder Jason Cady, she discusses her interest in electronic music, pop songs, and in using text to tell stories.  Her Flash Opera ‘Pledge Drive’ will be featured in three performances at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6, 2017.

CADY: I enjoyed your piece “Life on Mars” and it made me wonder if you came out of a pop background or a more classical one.

LORD: My training was mostly in classical music but in the past couple years I really got into electronic music. I made an album that was basically me learning how to use Logic. That’s what “Life on Mars” is from: this album of experimenting with things on the program. That was really fun.

Since then, I moved onto Max MSP and I joined the laptop ensemble at CSU Long Beach where I did my masters. It’s a quartet and we write exclusively on Max and perform the pieces live. I’m very intrigued by electronic music. It appeals to the perfectionist side of my personality because I can control every sound. You can do things that live performers can’t do.

CADY: In addition to the academic electronic music do you have an interest in pop music?

LORD: Yeah, definitely. I actually did my master’s thesis on popular influence in classical music. I discussed composers who have approached this issue of the divide between the two realms in various ways because I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that there are these two distinct camps: you’re either a pop artist or a classical composer. Why do we need to have this distinction? Why can’t we just be musicians or artists who create music?

With my own music I like to breach this divide. With the opera I wrote for you guys some of that pop side came out and I learned to embrace this aspect of my musical personality. I basically just see music as music. I’m interested in making music that appeals to a lot of people, not necessarily in a commercial way but in an accessible way.

CADY: Which artists did you discuss in your thesis?

LORD: Jacob TV’s opera The News. Steve Reich’s rock band influence in some of his music. Alvin Lucier’s, Nothing is Real. Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle Craigslistlieder. I talked about quite a few pieces. I wanted to cover different approaches to this problem. Either taking media directly, like Lucier using “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in the teapot, or taking instrumentation like Steve Reich using electric guitars and drums.

CADY: Since you also sing have you done anything that’s singer/songwriter-ish?

LORD: Sometimes I sing and play electronics or the piano as a quasi-pop artist, but I don’t know if I would call myself a singer/songwriter. I usually do solo voice and electronics, just because I either want to be a pianist in some other capacity or sing with electronics.

Cristina Lord. Photo courtesy the artist.

CADY: Let’s get to your opera. It’s a hilarious story by Patty Marx called Pledge Drive about the author fundraising money to support her lazy lifestyle. The first thing I noticed was you use a big opera voice in the opening for a comic effect.

LORD: Yeah, it’s supposed to be over the top and ridiculous. The idea is that it’s opening with a cadenza. It’s her chance to show off and be the center of attention which leads nicely into “You were just listening to an uninterrupted hour of Patty.”

CADY: And the flute tends to be flamboyant which seems to be taking off from that initial idea.

LORD: Overall the piece is pretty flamboyant, but the flute definitely gets to show off and take on this role that the opening has of this showy nature and providing fills and accents and doubling where necessary to maintain this level of something ridiculous.

CADY: Are there any other ways you portray humor in the music?

LORD: I have a lot of shifts that happen musically. I was thinking of it as waiting room music. This repeating jazzy interlude comes back throughout and ties the piece together. Between that we have these exaggerated emotional sections. For example, when the soprano sings “as of three years ago Patty was totally dependent on parental funding.” The emotional shifts are over the top to make it clear that it’s sarcastic. It’s supposed to be fun and we’re not taking it too seriously.

It starts off tonal, and then decays into a more chaotic texture. There’s a section where she’s at an ATM. At that point I change from something that’s happy-go-lucky and innocent to something that’s falling apart until we get to the climax which is “Patty will blow you” which I thought was the darkest part of the text. It’s like, “Whoa! How serious is this?” It seems like everything is falling apart in Patty’s life and I wanted the music to reflect this. From there, there’s a shift back to this waiting room vibe as we close off the piece, but this time it’s deconstructed into something that is not nearly as innocent to reflect this loss of innocence that Patty experiences.

CADY: One of the reasons I find the story funny is because I can relate to it since it pokes fun of flaky creative types. Do you identify with the story?

LORD: Yeah a lot of us can relate to that. A lot of artist types like to hear ourselves talk, and being an artist or a composer comes with a certain level of privilege. It’s not really the most lucrative profession.

CADY: How did you compose the opera?

LORD: First, I spent a lot of time with the libretto, read it out loud a lot and tried to decipher the emotional content and any deeper meaning I could find within the text. After I had a trajectory in mind, I started playing around with some ideas. I wrote it pretty linearly. I started where the text started. And I just went straight through. I knew the climax was going to be at “Patty will blow you” and that it would deteriorate until there. I wanted some motifs to occur throughout but at the same time I wanted it to feel more through-composed and go through these different shifts. I spent some time with each part playing around with different ideas and seeing what went with the emotional content the best. It started as a piano vocal score and I orchestrated it from there. The cadenza I added at the end, so that opening part I actually wrote at the end.

CADY: Did the story inspire you to try new things?

LORD: I’ve written a lot for voice but I had never done an opera, so thinking about the theatrics was new, and really inspiring for me. I enjoy collaborating with artists, dancers, film and video techs, but I’m not used to doing theater which is exciting and interesting. I tried to keep in mind how it would look and what the singers would be doing.