On the Nature of Earth and Grief

How Andrea Reinkemeyer’s music evokes the natural world—and her own soul

Andrea Reinkemeyer. Photo by Frank Miller.
Composer Andrea Reinkemeyer. Photo by Frank Miller.

Seven hundred miles off the Pacific Northwest coast, there is a fault in the Earth’s crust. Scientists believe that eventually, it will cause the Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake, which is expected to create a tsunami and decimate numerous communities west of the I-5 corridor.

Cascadia is the kind of disaster that many people probably read about in The New Yorker—which traumatized readers in 2015 when it published Kathryn Schulz’s article The Really Big One—then shrugged and said, “That’s way too depressing to think about.” Yet composer Andrea Reinkemeyer found herself meditating on Cascadia as she completed her 2020 chamber opera Triptych: Three Disasters, which is about a trio of Oregon crises.

“The first one is the Tillamook Burn, the second one is the Vanport Flood and then the third one is the future Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake—and each of them have very different kinds of music,” says Reinkemeyer. “I was trying to connect emotionally with where we are, making the best of what I could while we were in COVID-land.”

One of the things that defines Reinkemeyer’s music is that it isn’t daunted by nature—even when nature is at its most disgusting, frightening and overwhelming. She’s a chameleon who can convey the gloom of a dismal winter or a fascinatingly grotesque insect transformation, finding discordant grace where other composers would flinch.

Reinkemeyer grew up in Troutdale, Oregon. “My mom always had All Classical on,” she says. “My sister listened to hair bands. Then by the time I was in high school, I was listening to lots of alternative music. Nirvana and REM, those were the bands that were really big right around the time when I was in high school.”

From disparate influences emerged a diverse career that landed Reinkemeyer somewhere between 89.9 and Kurt Cobain. Classical greats like Chopin inform her work, but she also likes to disturb and disrupt with pieces like Saturation, a composition for piano and soprano saxophone that musically recreates her dying mother’s breathing.

The galaxy of sounds and feelings in Reinkemeyer’s music—which includes Water Sings Fire, a piece inspired by the feminist writer Leigh Bardugo that will be performed by the Eugene Symphony on October 21—can be intimidating to navigate. I needed help, so I asked her to pick five pieces that I could study to map her maturation as an artist. As I listened, I discovered a composer who looks to the horizon, but also gazes within, translating private pains and passions into exquisite works.

Andrea Reinkemeyer. Photo by Jeff Kennell.
Reinkemeyer at work. Photo by Jeff Kennell.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Reinkemeyer about the five pieces she chose, each of which illustrates a defining moment in her life as a composer and a human being. Here is what she had to say.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Wild Silk (2009)

Making music out of the life cycle of the Luna Moth, Reinkemeyer composed the first piece that she feels met all of her goals. 

“So there’s kind of three main stages of the Luna moth’s cycle: egg to caterpillar and then the pupae and then the adult moth. Those are the three big sections of the piece. The performers who commissioned it were a saxophonist, a percussionist and a pianist, and the percussionist said, ‘We’re going on tour with this. I want a piece that has instruments that can be found in any high school.’ So I was giving myself limitations.”

“[In one section] I was thinking about the spinning of the cocoon. My imagination took me to the glockenspiel since it has a sparkly sound. I used tiny brass mallets to get a delicate sound out of the glockenspiel, and at that point, the piano moves to a more pitched sound. The thing that caught my attention about the adult moth is that it doesn’t actually have a mouth, so it can’t nourish itself. It really has to propagate the species, so the whole thing is about finding a date.”

Wrought Iron (2012)

Reinkemeyer’s musical ode to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in New York was commissioned by the Albany (NY) Symphony. It was also influenced by the sights and sounds of Thailand, where she was living at the time.

“When you sit down to write a new piece, you’re like, ‘What have I done a lot of? What do I not have enough of?’ When I sat down to write that piece, I said, ‘I don’t have a lot of effervescent, fun, light pieces,’ and so I really wanted to do that. I was also living overseas and I didn’t really have a musical community at the time. There’s all this beautiful, shimmery stuff around you [in Thailand]…sparkles on clothing and things like that all the time, and so I was loving all the color all around me and wanted to bring that into my music.”

Saturation (2017)

Several of Reinkemeyer’s pieces reflect on the death of her mother, Linda. Saturation’s abrupt shifts in style capture the fragmented nature of Reinkemeyer’s life at the time.

“My mother had become very ill, and so I was having to stay in the hospital with her. I was always finding myself having to shift gears—having to be one thing for students and having to be one thing for my family and something else for my mom. The sounds right at the end of the air coming through the saxophone, those are there because I was listening to my mother on life support. It was just a completely unfiltered piece that I wrote. I had this deadline, but also, I was basically just trying to get through the day. It is a piece that is still difficult for me to listen to because it does bring me back to that time.”

From the Cycles of Eternity (2017)

Writing for treble vocal ensemble, Reinkemeyer set the words of the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century Black poet Henrietta Cordelia Ray to music. From the Cycles of Eternity, which is split into three songs, is also reminiscent of Eric Whitacre’s haunting choral compositions, but Reinkemeyer notes significant differences between their respective works.

“It’s funny—funny is the wrong word for it—but I started work by writing that third song first, which is probably why everything kind of relates backwards to it. And it was written just before all this stuff happened with my mom, so in some ways, it was almost like preparation for it. It was premiered right after she was in the hospital for the first time, and it was the first premiere that she hadn’t been able to go to.”

“[Henrietta Cordelia Ray] conveys beauty and big questions, but of course she had experience with racism, too. I was trying to capture that complexity in my setting of her words, because in addition to things that are really big and beautiful, there’s this underlying question of, ‘How can we make this better?’ And I think I wanted to bring that out.”

“I know a lot of [Whitacre’s] music just because it’s hard to be a musician and not come across his music, but I actually have never sat down with any of his scores to study them. I think my piece has a little bit more traditional harmony and counterpoint than his work. It’s a good comparison, I guess, because he is a very good and gifted composer.”

In the Speaking Silence (2018)

Reinkemeyer’s contribution to the album Donut Robot draws its lyrics from Christina Rossetti’s poem Echo. It also includes the rhythmic pattern of a refrain from Philip P. Bliss’ hymn It is Well With My Soul, which Reinkemeyer included in honor of her mother, who loved hymns. 

“I had always loved Echo, so that was always there from the beginning. I had tried to set it for choir many times…but I had never come up with the right notes for it. To have this separation from a person that you love, they’re always kind of an echo of who they were. There’s kind of an echo built into the hymn as well—that’s how those two things melded together in my brain.”

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About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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