Composer Barbara White has decades of experience in concert music and interdisciplinary collaboration—specifically, dance and video. She is also an active clarinetist, an insightful scholar and a devoted teacher.
Many of White’s works, including Life in the Castle and Repeat After Me (formerly Repetition Compulsion), have been presented with live dance. More recently, she has been making video works both independently and collaboratively. Black Air is a forty-minute “choreography for camera” on Dante’s telling of the story of Paolo and Francesca, conceived and directed by the composer, with choreography contributed by Terry Araujo and music performed by Synergy Vocals. Gather / Shed / Lift is a trilogy created in collaboration with filmmaker Alison Crocetta, to be performed with live music scored for flute, viola, harp and percussion. Lift was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva, the other two films by janus.
Recent and current work embraces the theater of the concert stage. In 2009, at the invitation of percussionist Dominic Donato, White undertook a series of works for solo tamtam entitled Nothing Doing. Some of these are ritualistic, others conceptual; some are not quite intended to be performed. Soon after entering into the world of the gong, White began to study the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). The chance (or not) meeting of the gong and the shakuhachi led to an evening-length performance, Desire Lines, directed by Mark DeChiazza, wherein White performed clarinet alongside Dominic Donato’s gong and Ralph Samuelson’s shakuhachi. Incorporating video, spoken word, movement and White’s own moving images, Desire Lines explores the intersection between contemplative and creative practices. The program as a whole prizes stillness, silence, and nuance, honoring the richness that can emerge from focusing on simple materials; it also seeks mindfulness through humor, paradox, and the unexpected.
March 2012 saw the première of Weakness, a one-act opera for which White wrote the libretto as well as the music; Kate Weare provided choreography for dancers Leslie Kraus and Douglas Gillespie, and Mark DeChiazza served as director. The opera is based on a Celtic story, known as “The Curse of Macha” or the “Weakness of the Ulstermen,” which White learned from shamanic practitioner, author and storyteller Tom Cowan. Weakness uses words, song and movement equally to explore the mysterious and elusive aspects of the myth. More recently, White has begun to research and participate in the rich and lively musical culture of Cape Breton (Nova Scotia, Canada), and she serves as a member of the Board of Kitchen Rackets, an organization supporting live local music in the St. Peter’s area. As a faculty member at Kitchen Rackets’ 2013 Music Camp on the Canal, White and guitarist Charles MacDonald premiered her newly composed “St. Peter’s Pennies,” a lament, reel, and riff in honor of the then recently decommissioned Canadian one-cent coin. As Fork and Spoon, White and MacDonald continue to perform regularly and to create a repertoire that mixes White’s clarinets and compositional designs with MacDonald’s deep Cape Breton roots.
White is Professor of Music at Princeton, where she has been teaching since 1998. As a composition teacher and dissertation advisor, she aims to listen receptively to young composers’ ideas and to cultivate an attention both open-minded and rigorous. In addition to teaching the standard and essential fare of music theory and composition, White has developed a number of courses and seminars on wide ranging topics, including “outsider music”; interculturalism and exoticism; autobiography and masquerade; and a freshman seminar, “Silence, Noise, Sound, and Music: Everyday Experience And/As Art.” In Spring 2012 she hosted Riley Lee in her graduate seminar concerning composing for shakuhachi, which culminated in a full concert of premieres, and in Fall 2013 she and musicologist Wendy Heller offered a new course, “Drama Queens: Voicing Women (and Men) On Stage.”
Born in Boston in 1965, White was educated at Harvard/Radcliffe (A.B.) and the University of Pittsburgh (M.A., Ph.D.). Honors and awards include a Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (most recently an Academy Award in Music), and a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2012, White was one of three winners of Small World Coffee’s “Joe to Go” Photo Contest conducted on Twitter.
White has received commissions from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York New Music Ensemble, Boston Musica Viva, the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, the Fromm Foundation, and the Koussevitzky Foundation. Recent and upcoming performances include the Aspen Music Festival, Speculum Musicae, New Millennium Ensemble, Zeltsman Marimba Festival, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Boston Musica Viva, Dinosaur Annex, Boston Cecilia, Earplay, and the Chameleon Arts Ensemble.
White has performed her clarinet works with the Fromm Foundation Contemporary Music Series at Harvard, Frente de Danza Independiente (Quito, Ecuador), and the Florida International Festival of New Music, as well as on her first solo CD, When the Smoke Clears. A second CD, Apocryphal Stories, was released in 2004 and a third My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon, in 2011. Both Apocryphal Stories and I can now see the moon are published by Albany Records, as is the 2012 CD recording of White’s opera Weakness. Again featuring White’s playing, this latest CD includes a “bonus track” of Tom Cowan performing his original version of the story of Macha, which forms the underpinning for White’s opera.
White’s scholarly writings concern the relationship between musical “nuts and bolts” and cultural context, focusing on such matters as the coordination between sound and movement and the relationship between creative activity and everyday life, as well as the impact on music of gender, listening, and spirituality. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mickey Mouse” considers synchronization in music-dance and music-film relationships. “Without Walls of the Mind,” for an upcoming anthology, considers the ways in which interdisciplinary artists represent traumatic experience onstage and poses a relationship between the shatteredness of the traumatized psyche and the expansiveness of “Buddha Mind.” An ongoing series for Open Space Magazine called “I Am Not Making This Up” muses on the relationship between life and art, juxtaposing musical observations with informal recollections of everyday moments. For example, “In Search of Silence” (2008) considers the elusiveness and preciousness of quiet, both within and outside music; and the most recent, “Days, Numbered,” marvels at the gifts of everyday experience and ponders the points of contact between the arts, professionalism, and ethics . Other articles have been published in Cambridge Opera Journal, Opera Quarterly, Intercultural Music, Indiana Theory Review,and the American Assembly’s Creative Campus.
In addition to being a prolific composer of chamber music, composer Barbara White has a long-standing interest in collaborative and interdisciplinary work, specifically in working with dance. In addition, she is an idiosyncratic clarinetist and is increasingly active as a video artist. The evening-length theatrical performance, Desire Lines, places music for solo gong, clarinet, and bamboo flute alongside video, movement and onstage ceremony. Weakness, created in 2012, is an opera that retells the Celtic story known as “The Curse of Macha” through words, song, sound, and movement. Recent performances have been presented by the Aspen Music Festival, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, Earplay, Lontano, Eighth Blackbird, janus, and the Chameleon Arts Ensemble. Honors and awards include a Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship. Her fourth solo CD, a recording of the opera Weakness, was released on Albany Records in 2013. White’s scholarly writings address such matters as the coordination between sound and image; the relationship between creative activity and everyday life; as well as the impact on music of gender, listening, and spirituality. In 1998, she joined the faculty of the Princeton University Music Department, where she is now Professor.