When most people see their first ballet, they’re transfixed by the action onstage. But when almost-three-year-old Katie Palka went to her first Nutcracker, her dad took her down to see the orchestra pit. “I saw the violins at intermission and said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” she remembers. “‘I want to do that!’
Now 17, Palka did indeed become a violinist. She’s even performing Sunday in Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s “Arabian Nights” concert. But music has become an even bigger part of her life. Palka is an award winning composer, and one of the pieces MYS performs Sunday is one that she wrote herself.
Later, after her fiddle teacher taught her how to use Sibelius composition software, Palka began to transcribe and arrange music she liked, such as the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and to compose her own. By the time Palka reached eighth grade, her violin teacher realized she needed formal instruction in composition. She recommended one of Oregon’s — and America’s — finest composers, Kenji Bunch, who immediately noticed a couple of distinctive qualities.
“One, she’s so inquisitive. She showed up with a list of questions,” he recalled. “Every time I’ve met with her it’s been like that. Second, she’s so creative in an unapologetic way. It’s hard sometimes for students around that age to put their creativity out there in a way that makes them vulnerable. She has never been at all hesitant about that. She has this elaborate creative vision for each project she’s approached.”
That year, Palka was playing violin in the MYSfits, the youth symphony’s chamber orchestra, when the group was performing a composition —not written by a bewigged 18th century male eminence, but by a living, breathing, American woman. The conductor arranged for California’s Gabriela Lena Frank to talk to the students by Skype about what it was like to be a composer.
“I had started to know a few living composers, but I hadn’t been seeing any composers like me,” Palka remembers. She was first woman composer I’d encountered. It was the first time I had a role model, the first time I saw being a composer as a real possibility.”
Bunch, who’s also artistic director of FearNoMusic, turned Palka on to the Portland new music ensemble’s valuable Young Composers Project, which gives promising teenage composers the opportunity to work with professional new music specialists for a year. Palka has completed one new piece of chamber music for each of her three years in the program.
“It was really creatively stimulating because you’re still developing your ability to predict what something you’re envisioning in your head and you write down on paper will actually sound like,” Palka explains. “You can hear what works for those instruments and what doesn’t. And the musicians help us with ideas. For example, maybe I want to evoke an earthquake. Each musician may talk about how to get a rumbling sound on their instrument. A lot of that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. It’s so helpful to hear the music develop throughout the process, as your vision of the piece changes.”
Through YCP, Palka took a master class with Portland composer Ryan Francis. Last fall, she began studying with him individually. “I’ve never had a student come into lessons ready to go with a page full of 15 very specific questions about what she wants to do in the piece,” Francis says. “Normally you have to ferret out what’s this piece about — she comes in with bullet points. She comes in with copious notes, then spends the lesson taking more notes. She takes more notes than any other student I’ve ever seen!”
“I like working with multiple people because you get different kinds of ideas about the same thing — different directions you can take a phrase, about texture, orchestration,” Palka says.” Ryan is a pianist and Kenji is a violist. If you start out as a string player, you tend to focus on melody, whereas pianists think about chords before the melody.”
Palka’s studies with YCP, Bunch and Francis quickly paid creative dividends. “Her command of harmonic language and form has really skyrocketed in the last year,” Francis says.
In 2016, Palka was chosen to participate in the Eugene Symphony’s Ode to the Future project, where she worked with four other young composers to write a piece the orchestra premiered last year. “It was cool to meet other young composers, see what kinds of stuff other composers had done, and to talk about music, since we were all so passionate about it,” she remembers. “It was amazing to collaborate in that way. By incorporating all our ideas into one piece, it became more than any one of us would have created individually.”
The Breathing Earth
Palka got another rare chance to compose for full orchestra when MYS commissioned her to write a new work as part of its season-long programming mirroring the Oregon Symphony’s thematic Sounds of Home series. It included a theme that really spoke to her.
“I’ve always been really interested in environmental issues,” she says about her new work The Breathing Earth, which the orchestra premieres Sunday. “It focuses on our inter-connectedness to the environment as our home, not as a backdrop — on seeing ourselves as part of environment rather than above it. So if we’re harming the environment, we’re harming ourselves. If we’re part of the environment, it’s harder to harm it or exploit it.”
Palka embeds that sense of interconnectedness in the music’s actual structure. Instead of being built around a single prominent melody, The Breathing Earth is composed of a series of hexachords, which Francis recently introduced her to. “The main theme is the chords, created together,” she explains. “Taking one note out of the chord changes the sound, and that mirrors how in the environment, we’re all interconnected beings. No being can be separated out from the whole without changing it.”
The piece starts “In a place of harmony and balance, with us understanding and respecting out connection to the planet,” she says, but grows more dissonant, “exploring the feeling of harm caused when we began to see ourselves as separate and exploit the environment.” While her composition’s tone doesn’t ignore continuing human devastation of the environment, it does musically “reach a place where compassion can affect the environment for good.”
“I got this sense that the music represents the earth in a timeless way,” says MYS music director Raul Gomez. “There’s an almost cosmic feel to her piece in the way it treats time, while at the same time the music often has the heartbeat of the earth. It’s an exploration in sound of what I imagine to be vast expanses — a large scale painting of a very beautiful and diverse terrain, with different peaks and valleys and some stillness to it. As the piece goes along it builds up into a large climax.” Gomez says it complements the main work on the program, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular Sheherazade. “They’re both almost cinematic music.”
Palka wanted her music to make a big statement. “When choosing an idea for the piece, I knew it was the biggest opportunity I’ve had to say something, so I wanted to say something meaningful,” Palka explains. “Rather just writing a piece that sounds pretty or has interesting notes, I wanted it to encourage people to think deeply and ask hard questions and move towards solutions.”
New Generations, New Music
The concert also includes another new Oregon composition, Olam, which Paloma Griffin Hebert, the FearNoMusic violinist who also directs MYS’s Vivaldi Strings, commissioned from Corvallis composer/violinist Jayanthi Joseph. “One of my priorities has always been to promote and empower young musicians, and to give voice to living composers. If they happen to be students, even better,” Gomez says. “In the context of a youth orchestra, we have to perform the masterworks of the literature, but they also need to grow up with the idea that music is alive. All music was new at some point and it’s important for the kids to understand that’s still the case. We want them to value the idea that their peers, classmates and friends have the talent and ability to create, not just re-create. And by performing their music, we’re also giving them opportunity of being heard.”
The MYS students responded well to the new music. “They’ve been super-supportive and really proud that we’re doing something new and literally creating something together,” Gomez says. “Katie is the main voice, but they’re also helping bring the piece to life. They’re treating it with the same respect they have for Rimsky.”
All the MYS musicians will benefit from performing Palka’s piece, says Bunch, who played in Portland Youth Philharmonic before going on to national acclaim as a composer in New York and now back in Portland.
“Bravo to Raul for having that kind of trust in and respect for the students to hand them the keys like that,” he says. “It means a lot to play a piece by one of your colleagues, to know this person is a member of the orchestra. It’s extremely powerful for everyone — fellow students in orchestra, parents, teachers — to see a that 17-year-old girl can write orchestral music, to see that that’s what a composer looks like. It’s not just the traditional canon of old masters. It’s young people of every race and gender. That’s empowering for all students.”
Working with brand new music also helps develop the players’ skills. “To learn a new piece from scratch, with no recordings and no fingerings — each part has to be built up from nothing,” Bunch explains. “It’s an invaluable experience for a young orchestral musician to get that kind of training early on.”
And it’s especially helpful for Palka as she begins to consider her options after high school, say both Francis and Bunch, who studied at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and won acclaim in the city’s rich new music scene before returning to their Portland hometown.
“All of us composers who want to break into orchestral writing face such a chicken-or- egg thing,” Bunch explains. “In order to have your orchestral work programmed or performed, you have to submit an example of your orchestral work. To come out of high school with this in your portfolio and a performance is just really such an asset.”
“She has a strong chance of getting into the top programs in the country,” Ryan declares. “A large part of that is having an orchestral piece in her portfolio when she applies for college. It’s a tremendous advantage over kids who haven’t had the opportunity to do that.”
Palka’s promise is being recognized beyond Oregon. This year, she was selected as one of five Fellows for the 2017/2018 Luna Composition Lab, an all-female, musical mentor program at New York’s Kaufman Music Center that “aims to provide leadership, training, encouragement and performance opportunities for young, rising composers in a male-dominated field.” She’ll get to study with top female composers and have her music performed in various New York venues.
“I’m looking forward to working with composers who’ve faced the same challenges of not having a lot of role models, your work being taken less seriously and not having peers who are young women,” Palka says. “Most times if I’m in group of 20 composers, maybe two or three of them will be women. It’s not easy to find peers that way.”
Her selection attests to Palka’s progress and promise. “It’s been really amazing to see her grow from this kid with a lot of interesting ideas into a sophisticated composer who knows what she’s doing and is literate in contemporary music,” Bunch says. “This Luna opportunity to work with that group of composers is testament to how much she’s grown and how advanced she is already.”
Palka’s success makes it a little likelier that the next time a little girl goes to a concert and gazes into the orchestra pit, maybe she’ll see the violinists playing music written by a young woman, just like her.
Metropolitan Youth Symphony performs Katie Palka’s The Breathing Earth as part of its “Arabian Nights” program at 7:30 pm March 4, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets: $11 – $40. 503-239-4566. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/Oregon Live.