Lisa Bielawa, composer & vocalist
"a dynamic and innovative composer" - The Boston Globe
"the formal sophistication and lyrical richness of Bielawa’s music go deep" - The New Yorker
"prodigious gift for mingling persuasive melodicism with organic experimentation" - Time Out New York
"one of the most brilliant and unforgettable new scores I’ve heard in years" - San Francisco Chronicle
Composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa is a Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition. She takes inspiration for her work from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. Gramophone reports, “Bielawa is gaining gale force as a composer, churning out impeccably groomed works that at once evoke the layered precision of Vermeer and the conscious recklessness of Jackson Pollock.” Her music has been described as “ruminative, pointillistic and harmonically slightly tart,” by The New York Times, and “fluid and arresting ... at once dramatic and probing,” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She is the recipient of the 2017 Music Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a William Randolph Hearst Visiting Artist Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society for 2018.
Bielawa has established herself as one of today’s leading composers and performers, who consistently executes work that incorporates community-making as part of its artistic vision. She has created music for public spaces in Lower Manhattan, the banks of the Tiber River in Rome, and on the sites of former airfields in Berlin in San Francisco; she has composed and produced a twelve-episode, made-for-TV opera that features over 350 musicians and was filmed in locations across the country; she was a co-founder in 1997 of the MATA Festival which continues to support young composers; and for five years she was the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, bringing the chorus to the NY PHIL BIENNIAL and introducing the young performers to the music of today through numerous premieres and commissions of leading composers.
In an article which branded Bielawa a “fire starter,” New Music Box reported, “It’s difficult to stand anywhere near composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa and not feel energized by proximity. . . An extrovert to the core, Bielawa acknowledges that her highly social nature has taken her in some specific directions both as a composer and as a musical citizen. Community building and close collaboration with performing artists is often central to her compositional process.”
Bielawa received a 2018 Los Angeles Area Emmy nomination for her unprecedented, made-for-TV-and-online opera Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser, created with librettist Erik Ehn and director Charles Otte. The groundbreaking opera was filmed in twelve parts at locations across the country – Alcatraz Island, a monastery on the Hudson River, a studio in Downtown LA, an abandoned train station in Oakland, and the California Redwoods – and features numerous leading soloists and ensembles in support of its core cast, including soprano Deborah Voigt, Kronos Quartet, violinist Jennifer Koh, San Francisco Girls Chorus, cellist Joshua Roman, Alarm Will Sound, PRISM Saxophone Quartet, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), and many others. All twelve episodes were broadcast on KCETLink’s Emmy Award-winning arts and culture series Artbound, as well as online for free, on-demand streaming. The Los Angeles Times called Vireo an opera, “unlike any you have seen before, in content and in form,” and San Francisco Classical Voice described it as, “poetic and fantastical, visually stunning and relentlessly abstract.” Vireo was produced as part of Bielawa’s artist residency at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California and in partnership with KCETLink and Single Cel.
In February 2019, Vireo was released as a two CD + DVD box set on Orange Mountain Music, featuring all of the music and episodes. It is coming to the stage as VIREO LIVE, a hybrid film-opera 90-minute experience, incorporating video projection elements from the film with live performance, which will be workshopped at The New School in 2020.
Bielawa became the inaugural Composer-in-Residence and Chief Curator at the new Philip Glass Institute (PGI) at The New School’s College of the Performing Arts in 2019. The PGI is a landmark partnership between The New School, the Philip Glass Ensemble (PGE), and Bielawa, who has been the vocalist with the Ensemble since 1992. Building on Glass’ enduring contributions to modern culture, the PGI offers students, faculty, and the public the opportunity to immerse themselves in his compositions, other important artists within his circle, and the work of the iconic PGE.
Lisa Bielawa’s music is frequently performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. Her work has recently been premiered at the NY PHIL BIENNIAL, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, SHIFT Festival, Town Hall Seattle, Naumburg Orchestral Concerts Summer Series in New York’s Central Park, National Sawdust, Le Poisson Rouge, among many other major venues. Orchestras that have championed her music include the The Knights, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, American Composers Orchestra, and the Orlando Philharmonic; she has also written for the combined forces of The Knights, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Premieres of her work have been commissioned and presented by leading ensembles and organizations including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Miami String Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, Seattle Chamber Music Society, American Guild of Organists, American Pianists Association, California Music Center, Akademiska Sångföreningen (Helsinki), Paul Dresher Ensemble, SOLI Chamber Ensemble, the Washington and PRISM Saxophone Quartets, Ensemble Variances (commissioned by Radio France), and more.
Bielawa is currently at work on concertos for violinist Jennifer Koh and cellist Joshua Roman and an orchestral song cycle for mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, which form a trilogy of works inspired by the American voices she discovered during her time in 2018 as a fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. The song cycle for Rubin, Centuries in the Hours, takes its text from a collection of diaries by American women of the 18th-20th centuries whose life circumstances rendered them historically invisible, and will be premiered by ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra) in September 2019. The concerto for Koh, titled Sanctuary, will have its world premiere in January 2020 with the Orlando Philharmonic and is co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, American Composers Orchestra, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Bielawa is also at work on a commission from the Cathedral Choral Society that marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which will be premiered at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC in March 2020.
In addition to performing as the vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble, Bielawa performs in many of her own works as well as the music of John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Michael Gordon, and others. She will have her second curatorial residency as a performer/composer at Zorn’s venue The Stone in March 2020. She recently made her orchestral conducting debut leading the Mannes String Orchestra in a special presentation by the Philip Glass Institute featuring her music, music by Jon Gibson and David T. Little, and Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3.
Bielawa’s music can be found outside the concert hall as well, with two major works written for performance in public spaces. Chance Encounter is a piece comprising songs and arias constructed of speech overheard in transient public spaces, which was premiered by soprano Susan Narucki and The Knights in Lower Manhattan's Seward Park. A project of Creative Capital, the 35-minute work for roving soprano and chamber ensemble has since been performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, in Vancouver, Venice, and in Rome on the banks of the Tiber River in partnership with urban placemaker Robert Hammond, a founder of The High Line in New York. Bielawa’s latest work for performance in public places is Airfield Broadcasts, a massive 60-minute work for hundreds of musicians that premiered on the tarmac of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin (Tempelhof Broadcast, May 2013) and was also performed at Crissy Field in San Francisco (Crissy Broadcast, October 2013). Bielawa turns these former airfields into vast musical canvases, as professional, amateur and student musicians execute a spatial symphony. Students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts have also performed sections from Airfield Broadcasts.
In addition to the release of the complete opera Vireo (Orange Mountain Music), Bielawa’s My Outstretched Hand for the San Francisco Girls Chorus and The Knights will also be released in 2019 (Supertrain Records). Her discography includes The Lay of the Love (Innova), “Opening: Forest” from Vireo on the album Final Answer performed by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Kronos Quartet (Orange Mountain Music); A Handful of World (Tzadik); The Trojan Women on a disc entitled First Takes (TROY); Hildegurls: Electric Ordo Virtutum, (Innova); The Trojan Women in a version for string quartet performed by the Miami String Quartet on The NYFA Collection (Innova); In medias res (BMOP/sound), a double- disc set of Bielawa’s solo and orchestral works; the world premiere recording of Chance Encounter (Orange Mountain Music), and Elegy-Portrait on pianist Bruce Levingston’s album, Heart Shadow (Sono Luminus).
Born in San Francisco into a musical family, Lisa Bielawa played the violin and piano, sang, and wrote music from early childhood. She moved to New York two weeks after receiving her B.A. in Literature in 1990 from Yale University, and became an active participant in New York musical life.
Photo by Carlin Ma