In celebration of 91Classical's Local Composers Month, we posed six questions to some of Nashville's classical music creators. We'll kick off our Six Questions series with composer Robbie Lynn Hunsinger. Hunsinger spent much of her life working as a professional classical oboist, and is now also known for her multimedia, interactive work that fuses music and technology.
How would you describe your compositional style?
I would have to describe my style as eclectic. I write graphic scores, text-based scores, traditionally noted scores and looser improvisational structures, My instrumentations include acoustic instruments, electronics, unaltered natural sound, spoken and sung text, live sampling, colored lights, projections and robotics.
Eyepiece is a graphic score with line drawings of 12 eyes organized into a circle. Each instrumentalist picks one eye to interpret and they begin tutti. Without warning, one player cues the others to immediately shift to another image. The drawings are rather emotional and the mix of such varied musical expressions are quite effective. Often my multimedia compositions have notated motives and rhythms but also involve playing off of projected imagery. CatBird includes animal print notes in snow with a telephone wire staff. Instead of players strictly responding to the video, in Catbird the instrumentalists actually move the video forward when they play and the video stops when they are silent. Their volume is the play button. I also have composed large traditionally notated multimedia chamber music with sound reactive visuals as well as recital pieces based on jazz forms with a main tune and variations.
What do you love about being a composer in Nashville?
I was a solo artist at the SoundCrawl Festival several years ago performing my original chamber music and multimedia work. I was doing too much as usual - using Wii game controllers, audience participation pieces, sound activated visuals, playing 5 horns, working all kinds of midi, audio tech, pedals and interactive robotics. I was really nervous but as we let the house in, but I soon realized it was full of my colleagues and friends. It was amazing to see so many musicians, artists and tech friends in the audience. I have found Nashville to be a very open, welcoming and accepting community of musicians, artists, makers and technologists. Metro Arts Nashville is one of the most progressive and impressive arts organizations in the country and they have been a tremendous support. I have rarely felt anyone treat me differently or express a lack of confidence in my abilities because I am female, queer, self-taught in many areas, or older than many of my colleagues. Nashville has been an encouraging and very open-minded environment for me to put down roots and grow artistically.
What are you working on writing now?
I just got into a new studio and have pulled out my electronics. I have been working on controlling the color and fading of LED lights with my oboe, using a tiny micro-controller to sense volume and pitch. I'm also trying out a wireless network system for the Arduino. Both of these techniques could really open up my performance and installation work.
Regarding composition, I am finishing "Conversations with Cranes," a Puffin Foundation supported project that I have worked on for several years now. It turns out that the Suona (Chinese oboe) is a perfect duet partner for the Sandhill Crane calls I recorded. It matches pitch and timbre very closely. One section in this piece also features an otherworldly march created entirely of sandhill crane and other marsh bird calls. Later on, I plan to create an interactive installation based on this composition.
Which composer do you wish was better known?
I really like Tania Leon's work. Her work has a visceral energy with beautiful tonalities and she is also working with important sociopolitical issues. In addition, I wish historic and contemporary women composers were better known. I was a professional classical oboist for much of my life working in Atlanta, New York and Chicago. During something like 30 years of playing symphonies, chamber music, operas and ballet, I performed maybe two compositions by female composers. I used to joke, "It is just so sad that women didn't know how to compose," knowing full well that they had been composing all along but that their work had been hidden. We have lost so much music and important creative work by women through the ages, and I am so glad that there are more contemporary women composers being performed now. My hope is that historic female masters will continue to be discovered as well.
Your work is known for being immersive and interactive. What do you hope audiences take away from experiencing your concerts and installations?
My hope is that somehow the audience will resonate with the content and experience of my work. This is a mysterious realm for sure. I connect deeply with my compositions and installations and rely heavily on inspiration. I try to let the projects lead me rather than imposing a structure on the creative process. It is sometimes a nerve wracking path to take, but the rewards are that these projects can come alive in surprising and meaningful ways. There is a spark of shared experience that can catch fire between the composer and the audience, and that is my hope.
You’re working in two mediums— classical composition and technology— in which women are underrepresented. What advice would you give to young female composers who want to follow your lead?
I would encourage young female composers and technologist to reach out and find your people. There are tech groups right here in Nashville that are incredibly open to all ages, genders and races. Middle Tennessee Robotic Arts Society is one of these. I have a group, Nashville Creative Code Project that will be having regular meetings again soon (at my new studio). Regarding composition, I encourage you to trust your own instincts and also take advantage of our local resources such as 91Classical, Celine Thackston's chatterbird ensemble and Kelly Corcoran's Intersection. How lucky we are in Nashville to have a classical music station and two amazing women at the leading edge of contemporary chamber music. I encourage you to speak to players and conductors and feel free to reach out to me anytime. I would be very interested to hear about your projects and ideas. Multimedia composition and performance are such rich and rewarding mediums - and the tech is fascinating!
You can reach Robbie (and hear some of her music) on her website.
Local Composers Month is supported by the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University.