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The Chamber Music of Emily Doolittle

The Chamber Music of Emily Doolittle

: Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

The music of Emily Doolittle bridges two sonic worlds: that of the concert hall, instruments and human performers; and that of the wilderness and its creatures.

PICTURE: Emily Doolittle; photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis

By Paul Schiavo

Doolittle, an associate professor of composition at Cornish College, writes music about birds, animals and other aspects of the natural world. But she also composes with them—collaboratively, in a sense—incorporating their sounds into her compositions. The result is work that is poetic and enchanting, sophisticated yet imbued with something of the purity of nature.

Seattle audiences will have an opportunity to experience Doolittle’s diverse musical realm on Sunday, February 24, when Cornish College presents a concert of her music performed by the Seattle Chamber Players, pianists Oksana Ezhokina and Cristina Valdes, soprano Maria Mannisto and other prominent Seattle musicians. The event takes place at PONCHO Concert Hall, beginning at 7pm.

All eight compositions on the program reflect Doolittle’s deep feeling for the natural world. Some evoke that world poetically. Sorex, a piece for piano four-hands, paints a musical portrait of a much-maligned animal, the shrew. (The work’s title is the genus name of this small mammal.) Doolittle considers the shrew’s bad reputation undeserved. “It’s actually a wonderful animal,” she says, “with a very feisty, lively character. That’s what I’ve tried to capture in Sorex.”

Similarly, Four Pieces About Water, for an ensemble of nine players, conveys the mutable substance of its title in different states—running, frozen, etc.—through the medium of instrumental music.

Other works use written texts as a portal to the natural world. All Spring is a group of five pieces based on nature-inspired verses by Canadian poet Rae Crossman. A Short Slow Life, originally scored for soprano and orchestra but performed in a new version for voice and ten instruments, sets a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. Like many of Bishop’s works, it tells of human affairs, alluding to love and loss. But it places its spare story in a landscape close to nature, where houses, barns and churches nestle amid willows and elms “along the dark seam of the river.”

While these compositions treat nature in an essentially abstract manner, others incorporate concretely the sounds of birds and animals. Such sounds are especially important to Doolittle. She has studied extensively the musical properties of birdsong, particularly with regard to using these as compositional material, and has explored the role of birdsong and animal sounds in music throughout history and in different cultures. Her doctoral dissertation, at Princeton University, considered whether we can consider animal songs to be music in the same way as our own. Last year she completed a residency at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, where she researched the song of the musician wren.

Birdsong plays a prominent role in Doolittle’s music. “I find it fascinating,” the composer observes, “to hear and organize sounds that are chosen by minds that are in some ways similar to ours but in other ways are very different.” The upcoming concert at PONCHO Theater includes Music for Magpies, a piece for solo flute that is based on songs of two real and three imaginary birds.

Falling Still, for oboe and three strings, was inspired by hearing birdsong with the noise of wind, rain or other ambient sounds in the background. “I got thinking about the contrast between those different kinds of natural sounds” Doolittle explains, “and how they can interact.” In Falling Still, the oboe plays a warm, continuous melodic line, while the strings play a repeating but varied set of chords that colors the oboe part while pursuing its own path.

Bird sounds of a different sort figure in Why the Parrot Repeats Human Words. Scored for narrator, clarinet, viola and percussion, this piece is based on a Thai folk tale.

Doolittle does not limit herself to birds when borrowing sounds from nature. Social Sounds from Whales at Night, for oboe and tape, uses electronically processed vocalizations of humpback and sperm whales.

Doolittle uses sounds from nature to musical ends, but not only that. “In my pieces based on animal sounds,” she states, “I hope listeners will become curious about new musical materials and ideas. But I also hope they will become more curious about the natural world and think about these animals and the lives they lead.”


Paul Schiavo is program annotator for the Seattle Symphony and writes frequently about classical music for a number of publications.

The Chamber Music of Emily Doolittle is scheduled for PONCHO Concert Hall on the Cornish College of the Arts campus on Sunday, February 24th at 7:00 pm. Tickets: $20 general; $15 seniors; $10 students and Cornish alumni.


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