Composer Bonnie Miksch: Fearless Dreamer

Portland composer and new music ensemble create a powerful recording, and a lasting relationship

In 2009, FearNoMusic violinist Paloma Griffin Hébert sat in the audience at a Cascadia Composers concert to hear her bandmates, pianist Jeffrey Payne and violinist Ines Voglar, play Portland State composer Bonnie Miksch’s Man Dreaming Butterfly Dreaming Man at a Cascadia Composers concert.

“I was transfixed,” recalls Griffin Hébert, who became FNM’s artistic director in 2011, by the “emotional quality of her music. She wears her heart on her sleeve. I am also that way, so naturally I gravitate toward that style.”

FearNoMusic's Griffin, Payne and Nancy Ives.

FearNoMusic’s Griffin Hébert, Payne and Nancy Ives.

After hearing more Miksch music at various concerts, Griffin Hébert resolved to record a CD. Recorded at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, it arrived this month, just in time for Saturday’s release concert at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall. The album and the concert both document a rare and successful musical relationship that’s expanded the artistic horizons of both the composer and the musicians.

Community and Connection

In a way, Miksch was born to be an electronic composer. Her dad was a physicist “who didn’t really understand the arts,” she says — the opposite of her mother, a nurse who sang to Bonnie from the beginning, and encouraged her kids to write poems, plays, design costumes and express themselves creatively during Miksch’s Pittsburgh childhood. She participated in youth orchestras and choirs and music camps, and studied piano and voice briefly and then violin extensively, which won her admission to music school at Syracuse University.

But after taking a composition class at the end of her first year, Miksch gradually began to focus more on creating music than playing it. She’d already written music to a student play in high school and was fascinated by the “logical, analytical aspect” of music theory, maybe a legacy of her father’s scientific orientation, just as her untamed creative spirit flowed from her mother’s example. In graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, she plunged deep into theoretical studies, writing then fashionable dissonant music and then moving into the study of computer music.

Unlike today, when a laptop can provide advanced tools for writing and realizing music, in the early ‘90s, technological limitation forced students to work on their compositions at the university, throwing the computer music students into an impromptu community. Miksch maintains some of those relationships to this day, and vigorously encourages her own students to form creative communities of their own, in part to gain perspective that can boost their creativity.

Bonnie Miksch.

Bonnie Miksch.

After the usual run of post-doctoral teaching gigs, which included frequent travel to and performances at computer music conferences around the world, Miksch arrived at Portland State in 2004. Along with her scholarly research, (including lectures and presentations with titles like “Chord Mutation and Chromatic Sequences in the Music of Chopin” and “Harmonic Abundance in the Fertile Realm of the Electroacoustic”) she’s taught theory, harmony, sight singing, ear training, composition, analysis, and computer music and advises the school’s new music ensemble.

“She’s a great teacher,” says her one-time student Amelia Bierly, a McMinnville based cellist and composer who should know, since she’s now a music teacher herself. “She’s really enthusiastic, really good at responding to questions in ways that make things easy to understand. As a comp teacher, she’s amazing at guiding students on their own journey — not making her students into mini-Bonnies but helping them become their own artist. One indication is that her students don’t really sound like each other.”

“We’ve made PSU a place where students can find their own voices,” Miksch explains. “If they can articulate what they want to do, we can act as mentors to help them improve.”

She also encourages creative risk taking. “She gives permission to young people to try new things instead of only sticking to what they learned in theory class,” Bierly recalls. When a student brings an outlandish idea, “she doesn’t say ’I don’t know if that would work.’ She’d say ’go try that.’” In fact, Miksch encouraged Bierly to try composing in the first place. “She recognized that it was something that fed my soul,” she says.

Bierly also points to another valuable role Miksch plays: “She makes people excited about forming connections and community,” including advising former students who started a new music society after graduation. It’s a way of overcoming the potential for creative isolation made possible by today’s portable technology (which enables students to composer in their apartments) and by the otherwise welcome diversity of interests PSU’s diverse student body brings to their studies. “A lot of them seem to take their music as a very personal thing rather than seeing themselves as part of a collective movement,” Miksch muses. “They compose more in isolation. Students are influenced by intersection of a lot more things, in combining things in interesting ways, like bringing elements of world music or rock, and they’re finding it’s OK to do so.”

One of Miksch’s primary community connectors is Crazy Jane Composers, the organization of women composers she co-founded in 2011, whose annual concerts have showcased some of state’s freshest contemporary classical music, including her own and that of Portland composer Susan Alexjander. “Bonnie just by her presence is such a leader,” Alexjander says. “She’s very inspirational.” In her music, too, “she walks between the worlds,” Alexjander continues. As both performer and composer, “she’s just fearless. I don’t know where she gets that chutzpah, yet she’s so kind and humble. She’s very grounded in her being and herself.”

Sensual Complexity

Fearlessness also pervades Miksch’s own music making. Over the last two decades, her music has been performed locally by groups such as Portland Vocal Consort, Beta Collide, FearNoMusic, at many Cascadia Composers concerts, and at various conferences, symposia and universities around the world. She’s composed for choir, chamber ensemble, even didgeridoo, and of course digital, electronic or electro-acoustic media, often paired with live performer, usually Miksch herself, singing and/or slinging a laptop. Her awards include Oregon Music Teachers Association 2011 composer of the year.

Much of Miksch’s music displays a fascinating and unusual mixture of complexity (a hallmark of late 20th century academic music that often makes the compositions less immediately accessible to non-academic listeners) and emotional expressiveness — what she calls “sensual complexity.”

“One of my great weaknesses and strengths is having a lot of different elements happening independently and together at the same time,” Miksch explains. “There are lots of layers, a lot going on. I like creating a texture that’s rich and enveloping. I like things overlapping in similar registers. I don’t think of them as competing but as coexisting.

Miksch performing at a Crazy Jane concert.

Miksch performing at a Crazy Jane concert.

“I think of my music as unraveling rather than pushing, but I’m very fond of climaxes. I’m fond of making a musical shape that’s obvious to the listener — a balance between giving them something new and giving their ear something to understand. I don’t like abrupt stops and starts. I love transitions so much. I create opportunities to write them all the time, and one of the ways I create that opportunity is combining things that are really different from each other, which gives me the opportunity to make those things work together.” It’s the same e pluribus unum philosophy that energizes her teaching — open mindedness to variety, and cooperation among diverse elements.

Miksch’s analytical/theoretical strategies are complemented by a source that arises from a very different place. “I have been using dreams for years” for creative inspiration, she explains. Lucid dreams have brought Miksch some  profound experiences “in the hypnogogic state between waking and dreaming,” she says. “The music is a way for me to share… not the information, but the feelings” she experiences. She hastens to add that listeners don’t need to have had such experiences in order to feel and understand the music it helps inspire. “I want my music to be intimate, to invite people to listen deeper, to connect more to themselves,” she says. “When you’re open and consent to going deeper, you can have a very sensual experience with music.”

Somewhere I Have Never Traveled

The sensuality of Miksch’s music comes out most obviously when she performs it herself, usually with some kind of electroacoustic accompaniment as she has at Crazy Jane concerts. But since coming to Oregon, Miksch has been writing more and more acoustic chamber music, and that’s mainly because of her fruitful relationship with the veteran Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic. Its percussionist Joel Bluestone (a fellow PSU prof) played a solo percussion piece she wrote for him in 2008, which led to further collaborations with the group.

FearNoMusic.

FearNoMusic.

The relationship with FNM helped spark a change in Miksch’s music, which since college had been dominated by composition for computer — a “playground” that allows composers to create textures as rich as any orchestra, without the expense and logistical challenges of enlisting an orchestra. Miksch credits computer composition with helping her develop her ear for timbre and texture (her natural inclination toward melodicism meant “I didn’t need anyone to teach me how to sustain a melody,” she notes). “But relationships are more important to me than my grand visions of what I’d like to write,“ she says, and her close artistic connections to the musicians of FNM has drawn her to write more for their strings, percussion and piano.

“My world has shifted since coming to Portland,” Miksch explains. “This project is no electronics —all chamber music. It feels a little strange being in both worlds at the same time. But working with really high level performers like FearNoMusic, where the string are the core, suits me really well. Writing for strings comes really naturally for me.”

“The way she writes for strings is so wonderful,” violinist Griffin Hébert agrees. “She comes to all of our concerts and knows us all so deeply as performers, she knows how to showcase our abilities and give us a lot of interpretive liberty.”

Their personal closeness accentuates the collaborators’ musical affinity. “I’m drawn to the melodic nature of her music, yet it’s also harmonically complex,” Griffin Hébert explains. “It’s extremely emotional music to play.” Her desire to record Miksch’s music turned into an unexpectedly tumultuous five year process. Her successor as AD, Kenji Bunch, continued to support the project, which reached fruition this month after various setbacks, and thanks in part to support from a Kickstarter campaign and the invaluable Portland arts patroness Ronnie Lacroute.

Image1Miksch’s uninhibited emotional expressivity really shines on the new CD — another example of the fearlessness that everyone interviewed for this story admires about her. “The music on this album is dreamy and ethereal but so romantic in a 21st century sense,” Griffin Hébert says. “It’s so beautifully melodic, but there’s a lot of rhythmic fluidity and freedom. While it’s traditional in structure, it’s still new sounding.”

The lush opening track, Song of Sanshin, takes off from a traditional Korean tune and evokes the sense of spirituality in much of Miksch’s music. “My intent was to instill in the music a reverence for mountains, mysticism, and the inner longing of the soul,” she writes in the liner notes. “Mountains suggest journey, perhaps solitary, but with a sense of connection to all who have traveled the same still path.”

Miksch says she feels most drawn to Asian music’s emphasis on melody and less linear sense of time. The album’s Man dreaming butterfly dreaming man, the composition that first piqued Griffin Hébert’s interest, is a sonic rendering of a Chinese Taoist philosopher’s statement. 

Commissioned by FNM, the music and title of the album’s five-movement title track, one of the most compelling musical statements I’ve heard from an Oregon composer in the 21st century, evinces the Miksch’s fearlessness and dream-inspired creativity. “I always find myself ‘in a state of vibration’ preceding any conscious exit and these waves propel my mind into a heightened state of anticipation,” Miksch writes. “The first barrier is fear and its manifestation as a loathsome ‘Dweller on the threshold.’  Once fear has been overcome, there is seemingly no limit to what we can experience in the great beyond… I have had experiences as a diaphanous being ‘in a body of blue stars,’ as a sexual depraved creature without ethical limits, and as a witness to the golden light of pure love,” each experience represented by one of the movements, which glow with the kind of sensuous beauty many listeners worried had disappeared from contemporary classical music.

“I like to try and write passages that transport, that take the listener places,” Miksch says. “I think I succeeded with the ending. The dance goes into this very ecstatic thing, to a sacred place at the end of the dance.”

Voglar and Belgique play the premiere of MIksch's 'Somewhere Like You, My Darling.'

Voglar and Belgique play the premiere of Miksch’s ‘Somewhere Like You, My Darling.’

The album’s other track, Somewhere like you, my darling, reveals the intimacy of Miksch’s relationship with these musician friends. Commissioned by FNM violist Jöel Belgique in 2013 for his wife Inés Voglar’s birthday, it wound up being a portrait of them as a couple. “I found I couldn’t separate the concept of Joël and Inés as a couple from my image of them as artistic partners,” Miksch writes. “[In] our deepest intimate relationships, the way the other enables a way of being that changes our very relationship with ourselves and our sense of what is possible in this world.”

You could say the same about Miksch’s relationship with FearNoMusic, which has emboldened her to venture somewhere she’d seldom traveled (acoustic chamber music) and also allowed the group to develop an unprecedented creative partnership.

“How many times I’ve wanted to contact a composer, to have a meal with them and talk to them about their music,” Griffin Hébert says. “I get to do that here. Bonnie was there for every single one of the recordings done in Kaul over the last couple of years. She was in the [recording] booth when I was playing. I feel close to Bonnie as a musician and as a person. I think there’s something special a performer can bring not only to music written in this time the two live in, but especially when you have a personal relationship with the composer.”

FearNoMusic plays music by Bonnie Miksch Saturday, February 13 at 7:30 pm at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, Room 75, 1620 SW Park Avenue, Portland. Tickets are available online. The CD will be available for purchase at the show, or by download.

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