Portland Opera Puccini

Catching up with: Cascadia composers Dianne Davies and Lisa Neher

An in-depth conversation with the pianist and singer, pairing up for their ‘Cycles of Life’ concerts Feb. 10 & 11 in West Linn.

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Dianne Davies and Lisa Neher rehearsing their "Cycles of Life" program. Photo by Mike Newman.
Dianne Davies and Lisa Neher rehearsing their “Cycles of Life” program. Photo by Mike Newman.

Update: Both performances of this concert are now sold out! Read on, however, to learn more about Davies and Neher.

Today we’d like to introduce you to two more composers of the Oregon School of Composition, both Cascadians and both (like most Cascadians) performer-composers as well as educators: pianist Dianne Davies and mezzo-soprano Lisa Neher. But “introduce” is surely too strong a word. You may have already read about Davies and Neher right here at ArtsWatch, Davies in Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s preview of her Attachments & Detachments show in 2016 and again in Campbell’s 2020 profile of Cascadia’s In Good Hands series, Neher in Bennett Campbell Ferguson’s profile of her pandemic-era solo micro-opera Momentum and again in Lorin Wilkerson’s review of last October’s Evergreen & Oak concert in Oregon Wine Country. And, if you’ve been to a few Cascadia Composers concerts, you’ve probably heard their music.

Their upcoming duo concert, Cycles of Life, is happening February 10 & 11 at a somewhat surprising venue–the West Linn home of Linda Woody, yet another Cascadian. The concert is the latest in the fine Cascadian tradition of partnership spotlight shows. These tend to represent the best of what Cascadia does, the mutual aid aspect of the organization. Consider their various Crazy Jane concerts, or previous duo concerts like founders David Bernstein and Greg Steinke, Ted Clifford and Paul Safar, and so on. Here’s a taste of the duo rehearsing Davies’ Grateful Prayers:

The concert emerged from Davies and Neher working together simply as singer and pianist–one of the oldest partnerships in all of music–and developed into a concert showcasing each other’s unique gifts as performers, composers, personalities. It’ll feature samples of their existing music as well as music they wrote for each other, for this concert. Their compositional styles are distinct but complementary, Davies the maverick church composer, Neher the reluctant opera auteur.

Both composers stand out as excellent text-setters. Davies mostly works with her own texts, when she’s not adapting religious scriptures–as in Grateful Prayers, and her recent The Promised One, composed for and performed at Calvary Chapel Community Church last Christmas. Neher prefers to set poetry by Craig Santos Perez, Felicia Zamora, Bashō, and Lewis Carroll, and has worked extensively with musicologist/poet/librettist Kendra Preston Leonard.

We caught up with Davies and Neher via video and discussed their music, the genesis of their partnership and upcoming concert, and their musical “a-ha” moments. Since Ferguson already got Neher’s “a-ha” on record, we continue with a follow-up “a-ha” moment; that is, we join our story already in progress.

Davies and Neher’s answers have been edited for clarity and flow.

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A-Ha Moments

Lisa Neher: The next step on that journey [after Peter Pan] was in the office of my composition mentor Forrest Pierce, who at the time was teaching at Lewis and Clark College. As an undergrad I was in there asking questions about string writing–not playing a string instrument myself, it took a lot to understand the mechanics of that. It came up very casually, in the process of explaining something for the umpteenth time; he said to me, “you know you’re going to dig into this even more in grad school, Lisa.” And it was the first time that anyone told me this with a complete assumption that of course I was going to go onto grad school. I had been thinking only as far as this degree, music and theater, and someone had already seen that there was this continuation that seemed totally natural. It really changed how I thought of myself. It was such a gift that he gave me. He offered me this vision that this could be a lifelong pursuit.

Dianne Davies: I think it was more of a process. Music was just part of my DNA. It was how I related to the world, how I processed my emotions when I was younger. Having lost my older sister when I was 11, there wasn’t a lot of space to really talk about that in our family. So I went to piano to work out what was going on with me. It was a place of great release. My dad was like, you know, you’re never going to make any money at music, so you need to do something else. So I thought, well, I really like to help people, so I’ll go into psychology. Within the first term, I knew I was so messed up there was no way I was going to help anybody else on this planet Earth.

At the same time I was taking piano lessons, because I wasn’t going to not take music. I was studying with the teacher who took the non-majors, and he said “you need to move up.” And I switched over. Then there’s later things in life–once I got married and had a family my whole career calmed way down. It wasn’t until my kids were in private school and I was playing for all of their events that I thought, “I want to get back to the stage–but how do I do this gracefully?” Because I hadn’t been performing a lot. So I developed a comedy show as a fundraiser for their school. I took on Victor Borge, Liberace, Igudesman & Joo–an eclectic version of my take on all of these different comedians. That was what spurred me to get back onto the stage. After getting married and having a family and things really slowing down on the musical front I went dormant. So coming back out of that, that was the moment where I was like, “this is a lot of fun and I can do whatever I want. I can be funny, I can be serious. I can try this. I can try that.” And I had never seen myself as being that flexible before. That was the turning point.

“Dianne Davies Has Fallen Off Her Bench”

DD: So on one I played the beginning of a Beethoven sonata and I called it a Beethoven Snot-a. Out from between each phrase I would go “ahchoo!” And then I had one tissue up my nose, hanging up my nose, and by the third phrase I had two tissues, one on each side. As I was playing Beethoven, I was looking at the audience and I was flaunting my swinging tissues. And then at the very end of it, I sneezed for the last time and both tissues came flying out. Afterwards, I pick up my tissues and I go to someone in the audience and I hand them the tissues. Like “here, will you take care of this for me?”

It was just–what is funny about this song? What are some of the funny things that happen to us on stage? Page turns? It was about having a lot of fun with all of the horrible things that can happen to us when we’re up there performing.

I don’t have a theater or musical theater background like Lisa does, so I was coaching with Maria Choban at the time. She was very helpful with “now you need to spit this out to be very clear with your diction.” And she worked on my facial expressions. She goes, “we’re going to call you rubber face.” I felt like I had arrived, because I could do a lot with my eyebrows and my eyes. It was really a lot of fun. And I enjoy interaction with the audience. I love going out there and picking on people. 

It’s fun, unnerving people and giving them something they don’t expect. Because “piano recital”–I’m really trying to get away from “piano recital.” I really like more inclusive performances. Like Attachments and Detachments, that was also while coaching with Maria. Telling my story through dance and live art–not just “sit down and listen to a recital.” Too stuffy. When I got back to playing piano, I didn’t want stuffy anymore. I was tired of stuffy, willing to do whatever it took to break down those walls of stuffy.

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Composers & Singers: Let’s craft and implement an action plan to get your dream gigs.”

LN: I like to make things happen. That’s how I’ve built my artistic expression and my career. I talk about that a lot as an artist and as a teacher and educator and coach: the things that feed our artistry, and the things that build a sustainable career in terms of providing the resources we need to make art, and how those can work in tandem.

And it’s OK to note that there might be something that’s bringing in the income but isn’t as artistically satisfying as the passion project, that may or may not be as financially feasible, and that they can all work together in a suit. So I continue to seek out for myself artistic projects that are really, really close to my heart, and to find ways to share those with people–and to apply things like communicating what we do, pitching to audiences and collaborators in the same way that you might pitch a business idea, but in terms of joining into that artistic experience. When everything goes great, that means that the art that we love to make the most is also generating some income back to support the time it takes to make that art. But also not feeling bad if those things diverge a little bit.

A lot of students in my studio are early career folks. They’re maybe done with their degrees, maybe they’ve even had a year or two working on trying to gig or trying to get their compositions out there, and then they hit this wall where there’s a gap where certain skills weren’t taught formally. We need to talk about “how do you pitch” or “how do you communicate what you’re excited about with potential collaborators” and see where the overlap points are and whether we could create something together. And if not, that’s okay too. Whether you’re polishing your five arias in your living room endlessly and never sharing them with someone who might offer you a gig, or sitting at your computer or your piano or your table writing music privately for yourself, hoping someone will secretly somehow discover it–there is always that next step to share what you’re doing and to make an ask.

It’s the same thing we’re doing right now. We really care about the music on this program. We think it will be a really wonderful experience. We’re saying “Would you like to come?” Which is a wonderful invitation, but also a confronting invitation because of the fear of “no,” or the fear that someone else’s offering is better or different.

It always comes back to those things. What is it we want to offer? What drives us? What will be most satisfying to you? Where does that overlap with collaborators–which includes an audience. Because those are collaborators too. I think about that from theater: It’s not a play without the audience. We ask “Would you like to join in creating this artistic experience together?” And if it’s not for you, that’s okay. We’re gonna move forward and we’re gonna keep inviting people.

Cycles of Life

DD: In doing a rehearsal for some recording we were gonna do, Lisa, I said, “what do you think about collaborating?” Where I’ve gone recently with music is that processing of emotion. In working with Lisa, I said “I have this group of pieces for piano with poetry that goes with it that’s about different stages of life, what do you think about doing pieces that we’ve written that are about life, or things we’re dealing with, or our perspectives on things as women?” I think it was you, Lisa, you said Robert Schumann wrote that–

LN: Frauen-liebe und Leben

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DD: –yeah, and it was “do we have anything about women’s lives written by women?” We were hearing from men about the lives of women. From my perspective, that’s how I think it got started. What do you think, Lisa?

LN: I love that. I’m thinking back and recalling that gradual genesis of “this is really fun.” It often starts with “this is really fun,” to work with someone. As singers, we’re often asked, “can you make a recording of this or that for some audition or call back or something?” And it always seems like no matter how many recordings you have, there’s one more you need. At one point, I hired Dianne to make a recording with me. And said “wow, this is really fun!” We really make good music together. We have a lot of the same questions and interests, how we’re going to shape things and how we’re going to time things, the dramatic sensibility that Dianne brings. And my entryway came through theater into music.

Frauen-Liebe und Leben is beautiful, but it really is her life through the lens of her romantic relationship with her husband, which is great, but it’s not the only thing. I’m kind of a classic woman of my generation. Myself, and many of my classmates who were women–we were very engaged with our studies, our careers, our passions, and our friend groups. We dated later. I met my husband when I was 29. I feel like the music I am often seeing in the anthologies for my students, and the music that a lot of folks are writing, continues to be really focused on that romantic relationship: “Will they won’t they?”

My music is often about other things. We’re going to be performing with soprano Lindsay Ray Johnson a duet from Kendra Leonard’s and my opera Sense of Self, which is all about a woman athlete and her decision of what to do with a cancer diagnosis. When Kendra and I were writing it, we wanted to create an opera, so we wanted there to be some kind of conflict, but what was a conflict that didn’t make the two female characters enemies? So we talked about “what are the kinds of conflicts that we get into, particularly with our girlfriends?” And it was often when one character was looking for the space and time to process an emotion and the other person wanted to take action. “Rah, rah, let’s go do a 5K for breast cancer” or “do you just need to sit and listen to me while I have emotions?” That’s the conflict in Sense of Self. So in this duet Lindsay’s character is mourning what’s happening to her body and wondering what to do. My character, her coach, is like, “you’re gonna learn all this again. You’re gonna get back on your feet. I’m gonna help you. You can do this.”

And so this divergence is happening. And I think that’s really interesting. That’s the kind of theater making, the kind of music making that I haven’t seen in the repertoire as much as I’d like. So that’s what I write. It’s very much grounded in my experience of what life has been like to be a woman with great friends, but friends we get into arguments with! So I think those pieces and these conversations that Dianne and I have had as artists and as composer-performers, led to what pieces we wanted to share and how we feel that they’re connected.

DD: I had the woman’s life already written out. It’s different stages of life, meeting my husband, marriage. The death of my father, trying to move on after that. Expecting children, kids running around the house, empty nest, and then family getting back together. I was wanting to write some more things for this concert, and we were in Klamath Falls for my youngest college graduation. And next door we have the most noisy neighbors. I didn’t sleep all night. And as I was not able to sleep, I started thinking about all the times in my life when I couldn’t sleep. So I wrote a set of pieces called Sleep Saga, and the first one is called “Monsters.” It’s when I’m five years old and I can’t sleep because there’s a monster in the closet and there’s another one under the bed.

These are actually autobiographical too, because in fifth grade there was this foursome, Deanna and Ricky, Jessie and me. Ricky and Deanna were a couple, they had given each other rings and they were saved for each other, but I can’t sleep because I like Ricky too. Just fun things. Like the night before my wedding, my mom is still doing some sewing on the bridesmaid’s dresses and I am just about to strangle her and I’m asking “How can she procrastinate like this?”

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They’re really funny. I put a lot of acting notes in there for Lisa because I knew she could do it. I had seen her perform before and not only was I taken by Lisa’s voice, but she embodies the character of whatever she’s singing about. So it was really fun to know I was working on this for someone who could do all of this, all of the theater and drama that goes with it. So it’s super exciting to bring that to fruition for Lisa–for her, not for anybody else. It was for Lisa.

On poetry and text-setting

LN: We will be doing the world premiere of Lewis Carroll’s How doth the little Crocodile, which is a vocal duet with piano. We’re also doing the first public performance of I Think of You, a special song which my mother commissioned for me after my grandmother died. My mom and I were two of a very small cadre of people giving in-home elder care and hospice care to my grandma in her last few years of life. We’re Irish American, so my mom wanted a piece that was written in the Irish folk style. It’s very interesting for me as someone with a masters degree in composition who is trained to “find your own voice,” to really set all that aside in terms of the ivory tower qualities and write in an idiom of strophic song, verse-chorus. In some ways it’s one of the more personal and vulnerable pieces for me as a composer and a singer, because I think with the more complex music comes some amount of protection or comfort. And I don’t often write my own lyrics.

DD: I want to comment on Lisa’s piece. It’s called I Think of You for Patricia Marie. I usually sing the pieces I’m accompanying and I’m not a great singer by any means but I do it to really understand where things fit together. The first time I played this and sang it through, I was in tears by the end. And I thought, “I’m so glad I did this now and not in the performance so I’m not just balling.” I’d have to get the tissues out and do my snot-a tissue routine. I mean, I just really felt it. It was so personal. It’s not my grandma, but I really felt the way you put the lyrics together was so touching. Really, really touching.

LN: Thank you! That means a lot because because it is very vulnerable for me, I usually go and get Lewis Carroll, or fantastic poets like Kendra Preston Leonard. Craig Sanchez Perez is the author of The Sonnet at the Edge of the Reef. Much of his work deals with the climate crisis and he is a fantastic poet, so I feel the pressure!

On compositional methods

LN: As someone who loves melody, and common practice chord progressions or pop chord progressions–that delicious surprise, the turn of the music that you weren’t expecting–I’m very much playing in the realm of expectations and surprise. If I’m going to write I-IV-V-I, I do feel some of that impulse to earn it. To earn something that is so simple and so direct. I don’t want it to be brushed aside.

In my master’s program at University of Kansas we talked a lot about when that delicious combination was the most exciting, interesting, beautiful, surprising version of that, and when it might fall into something that was trite. We actually do have a limited number of pieces to deal with. So then what’s the most interesting combination? You can try them out, guess and check–I do a lot of guess and check in my writing. You’ll see a lot of arrows going “this could happen or this could happen or this could” and I’ll make five or six different versions, like a tree. My dissertation is on Gabriela Lena Frank’s chamber music, and another thing that inspires me a lot as I’m writing is she gets amazing mileage out of the twelve chromatic notes. Those combinations in neat combos can do all kinds of things. So when I start to get down the rabbit hole of being a more academic, snobby, and less interesting and genuine version of myself, I go back and I’m reminded of how many combinations you can get out of those materials.

DD: I wanted to comment on Lisa there–when you hear her music, I don’t hear anything snobby. It’s always so–I guess the right word is delicious. I was just telling her the other day, I love the choreography she’s given me. Not necessarily for me, just the pieces that she’s written with the accompaniments that the choreography is just so fun to work with. It’s so fluid and graceful. I found that really fun with her music.

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When I’m going into a piece, I’m just trying to emulate the sound of something that I see. I’ve written some rainforest animal sets for piano, and I did the pink toe tarantula, the Golden lion tamarin, and I’m just trying to emulate the sound of their movement. I’m not even caring about a key, I’m not even really too worried about the chords. I do know that I gravitate a lot towards augmented and diminished chords and quartals. I love those. I coach with Lisa Marsh in composition, and she’ll ask me, “what key are you in?” I’m like, “I don’t know, I just love the sound.”

And then The Grateful Prayers that I composed during the pandemic, I was just looking for where do we all find comfort, support? Where’s our faith? What do we look to for encouragement? And so I took the major religions and put them to music. I did the one for the Jewish culture, titled “Dayenu,” which means “it is enough.” It’s said at each of their Passover meals, meaning whatever God did, even if it was just this, that was enough. So I listened to tons of Jewish music and came up with that. And then when I did meditation, I listened to whatever I could of Hindu and Buddhist music to give me ideas. I just wanted to emulate that sound, and I wasn’t really thinking very academically about it.

I don’t have a composition degree. I compose because I enjoy it. I just go for it. I think if I think too hard about anything, I have a tendency to overthink and shut myself down. If I’m thinking really technically about something, nothing happens. I just go, you know what, I don’t have a composition degree and I don’t have to make anybody proud of me and I don’t have to look good. I’m just going to enjoy this and do it and that’s it. Hopefully it resonates with people and they enjoy it.

What would you ask each other?

DD: Like what I would ask Lisa? Hmm. I don’t think this is really answering your question, but I guess a question I would have for Lisa is “what pieces do we want to write now for each other for the next show? Where is it that we want to go? What is it that we want to do with this?”

LN: That’s a great question. OK, cool. That gives me time to think of my question! So if this concert is about the lives that we’ve experienced as women, different stages and different experiences, I’m sure there’s more to say about that–but also what other topics or focal points might we want to explore? I was immediately thinking, especially hearing you talk about your rainforest pieces, about how we both are very interested in animals. That’s one place that I wonder about exploring. And I think all your pieces on this concert, you are setting your own poetry, right?

DD: Well, I kind of adapted ideas when I was researching religious texts. I took some stuff from the Quran for the Islamic one, but I morphed it myself. It’s interesting, this opposite side of the story–I haven’t been very confident to take someone else’s poetry and put it to music. I don’t know if I could do it. I need to try.

LN: You’re such a gifted text setter that it really makes me curious, what you would do. When I’m given a poem by a colleague, especially if it’s already been published and set, sometimes I have to come up with really creative ideas–because I can’t just change the word to fit the music. All this text setting you do on your own work is so amazing. It makes me really excited to see what you might do with another poet’s work.

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I’m curious to know–what impact would you like to make through your music making in the next five years, Dianne?

DD: I think I got the first real glimpse of it this December, in writing the musical, The Promised One, for my church. We had about 30 characters in this musical, I wrote the lines and the original music except for one piece, and then used a lot of Christmas carols. It was this bonding effect, that people came together to create this art that I had made. And it’s now a very special connection we have that we didn’t have before. And I played on 89.9 FM to share my arrangements of the Chopin with Christmas carols and then Debussy with French carols. I took the C# minor posthumous nocturne and put it with “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.” So it’s minor and it’s got a lot of zal–that’s the Polish word for the emotional content in Chopin’s music.

It was my first time on live radio, and I was inwardly petrified, outwardly confident. It was like, I know I’m going to play some wrong notes and things aren’t going to be perfect, but what is it that I want to accomplish? I want to speak. I want to share. I want to share this musical moment. And two ladies came up to me afterwards. One lady said, “This time of the year is so stressful for me. I struggle with so much anxiety. But after I listened to you play, I just knew that everything is going to be OK.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, that is what I want to have happen.” And then another lady said “that second one you played was just so sad, I just cried in my seat, it was what I needed. I feel better now.” That’s what this is all about. That’s what I want my music to do now. Five years, the day before I die, that’s what I want.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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