Present Music: Amanda Schoofs does it all
Amanda Schoofs fits Present Music’s 30th anniversary concert perfectly. Artistic director Kevin Stalheim designed the Around 30 program around the idea of involving 30 artists around 30 years of age mash-up artistic disciplines.
Schoofs is 30. She’s local. She is a composer, a vocalist and a visual artist. She’s accustomed to working with dancers. So her involvement in Around 30, set for Saturday night at Turner Hall, feels inevitable.
Schoofs composed Acedia for the occasion. She will perform it with dancer Laura Murphy; guest percussionist Seth Warren-Crow; and Present Music’s Eric Segnitz on viola.
Schoofs met Murphy when they were both undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Schoofs finished her BFA in composition and a BA in voice at UWM in 2005, then went to Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., for her MA in composition. Murphy, best known around here for her work with Wild Space Dance, took off for Europe for a few years. They’re both back, now, Murphy with Wild Space and Schoofs teaching in the UWM music department. Collaboration was a natural for them.
“I talked with Laura about what the piece means and gave her a couple of movement ideas,” Schoofs said, in an interview Thursday. “She used them as the basis for her own choreography.”
Schoofs’ music ranges widely in mood, sound world and media. Acedia, which can range from eight to 12 minutes because its rhythm is proportional and its time scale flexible, is entirely acoustic and natural. Which is not to say conventional.
During the interview, she put a few pages of the score on the table: Staff lines but no bar lines, note heads without stems, boxes with verbal instructions for the percussionist, especially on extracting the desired sounds from a set of traditional Indian bells. Warren-Crow will play those bells and a trapset, which we all know from jazz and rock. Schoofs designates an unconventional tuning for the viola and sometimes indicates microtones. Dissonant tritones and minor seconds abound in the vocal line, as does the vocal fry, a sort of croak generated by moving air over relaxed vocal chords just slowly enough to avoid a full tone. She also sings while inhaling.
“I love the fragility of sound,” she said, in a wholly normal and lovely speaking voice. “I like giving people sounds to play and sing that they can kind of control but which also kind of control them.”
Believe it or not, Acedia began with a tune.
“I walk around singing all the time,” she said. “Acedia is based on a fragment I wrote down last summer. I wanted to sing something melodic and simple.”
Still, Acedia is not about development of a tune.
“With Acedia, I’m thinking of an overall arc of intensity, with violent percussion interruptions,” Schoofs said. “I think in timbres, and I organize structure by changes in timbre. I think about a palette of sound. I limit it to a few main colors and mix them to create new sounds, and I think in terms of density.”
Painters think that way. Schoofs said that the Acedia score, with its staff lines and instructions, departs from her usual practice. Typically, she puts paintings in front of her musicians.
“I used to start with paintings and translate them into traditional notation,” Schoofs said. “When I was at Mills, I had a death in the family and didn’t have time to do that before my lesson, so I took the painting in. My teacher, Joëlle Léandre, freaked out. She knew exactly what I was trying to convey musically.”
Since then, Schoofs has cut out the middle man, as it were. She supplements her paintings with a bit of notation as needed, but mainly she lets the imagery drive the sound.
“Density of hue indicates the density of the sound,” she said. “Texture can show so much more about timbre than than instructions in a score can. I’ve had excellent success with the pigment on the page and the shape of the mark.”
“The entire score is a painting,” she said.
Where did all this come from?
“I had a magical childhood, I was exposed to all kinds of sounds,” she said.
Schoofs grew up on an 80-acre farm near Kewaskum, Wis. Her parents frowned on TV and video games, and sent her outside to play with her cousins. Bird songs, the sounds of animals, the wind in the trees were not lost on her. She knew she inhabited a special place, in more ways than one.
“My family homesteaded the farm in 1862,” Schoofs said. “I’d go up to the attic and hunt for treasures. I found my great-great grandfather’s German birth certificate.”
Schoofs’ mother taught piano and played for the church choir. Amanda’s appetite for music was voracious from the start. Her mother said she had to wait until first grade to start piano lessons. Amanda, at 5, got out the piano books when her mother was gone and taught herself to play.
“I learned four-part harmony from standing on the piano bench next to my mother at choir rehearsals,” she said. “I started singing solos when I was very young, I sang in high school and started composing in high school. I paid for my first guitar with money I earned tending pigs at the Washington County Fair.”
She studied music theory and composition at UW-Washington County with Peter Gibeau, but assumed she’d be a piano major. Severe tendinitis and carpal tunnel surgery sidelined her at 19 and changed her course. After two years at UW-WC, she transferred to UWM. The impact teacher there was William Heinrichs.
“He knew set theory and serial techniques and encouraged me to explore,” she said. “He opened my paradigm.”
But she didn’t really find herself until she took a painting into her composition lesson at Mills College and discovered that it was also a score.
“That blew my mind,” she said. “That’s when I found myself.”
Concert and Ticket Information: Around 30 begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 3, at Turner Hall Ballroom.
Best $35 – front half of the main floor – SOLD OUT; Good $25 – back half of the main floor – available; Bargain $15 – balcony, availalbe. Students tickets are half price, by phone or at the door.
Turner Hall Ballroom Box Office Phone sales: (414) 286-3663 Saturday, March 3 from noon until 5:30 p.m. At the Door: Saturday, March 3 from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
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