Interview with Composer Gwendolyn Przyjazna

Gwendolyn Przyjazna [pshi-YAH-znah] is the 17 year old composer of “Concertina for violin and strings”, which was performed by the Young Peoples Chamber Orchestra in May of this year. The performance was the first public performance of any of Gwendolyn’s work and, in addition, was the public debut performance of the Redwood Violin.

Gwendolyn also wrote the background music to many of the videos documenting the making of the Redwood Violin. I asked Gwen about herself and her musical influences

Visit Gwen’s website

AC:  Where do you go to school – assuming you do –  and what grade are you in?
GP: I’ve just finished 11th grade and have been homeschooled all my life.

AC:  What instrument/s do you play?
GP:  I play the cello, the piano, and a little guitar.

AC:  Who is your teacher and how long have you been with them?
GP:  I’ve been studying cello with Maureen Caisse since the Summer of 2018. My mother is my piano teacher.

AC:  When did you know that you wanted to become a composer?
GP:  The first time I seriously considered composing as a career path was last Summer, after attending a joy-filled, mind-opening virtual composition workshop sponsored by the Jacobs School of Music, called the Music Creators Academy.  I went on to study privately with two of the faculty members: Dr. Benjamin Taylor and Dr. Joseph Sowa. I received wonderful insights from them as I began to search for my own voice, after a year of imitating my favorite Classical and Romantic composers for fun. Though at first I had thought of composers as recluses hunched over their desks or pianos 24/7, waiting for the muse to strike, I began to understand how much they interacted with other musicians and had rich, well-rounded lives that inspired their art. When I realized that, the prospect of being a composer appealed to me.

AC:  What music groups do you play with?

GP:  This past year, the 2020-21 Season, I played in two of the Santa Rosa Symphony Youth Ensembles: The Young People’s Chamber Orchestra (YPCO) and the Youth Orchestra (YO). I will be auditioning again for those groups later this Summer for the upcoming season.

AC:  Are you primarily interested in Classical music or are you interested in other genres? 

GP:  Since I joined the Santa Rosa Youth Ensembles, classical music has taken up most of my time and attention, but I’m naturally curious about almost every musical genre as I believe there is value to be found in all music if I listen openly. 

When I was very little, I remember being drawn to [my mother’s CD] jazz collection and also Motown. I loved Aretha Franklin, and my mother laughs remembering that I would sing along without knowing what any of the lyrics meant at age 2. I heard music from and influenced by other parts of the world as well, especially Korea, where my maternal grandmother is from, and Poland, my father’s home country. When I was young, my mother introduced me to Sheila Chandra, a British Indian singer and songwriter whose music is a fusion of Indian, English and Irish musical traditions. I was instantly spellbound. I’ve always had an affinity for Indian music, and that seems to keep finding its way back to me. A few years ago I was in a children’s choir that sang largely world music, including Russian, Croatian, Western African, and Indian. And I just finished participating in a workshop for alternative cello techniques and approach, and Indian fusion really came into play.

My interest in classical music, and in learning an instrument, began in 2015 — the year I turned 11. [My mother] showed me a documentary of the 9th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition and talked to me about the extraordinary musicianship, passion and discipline of the performers. The documentary was special to her and she had recorded it when it was broadcast back in 1993 and was able to attend performances of some of the finalists on their tours the following year. Hearing her talk about it and seeing the contestants’ dedication, I finally understood the joy and thrill of music. Then she told me that two more recent Van Cliburn winners, Olga Kern and Nobuyuki Tsujii, were performing at the Green Music Center within two weeks of one another that same month and asked if I wanted to go. In that moment, she put the prospect of studying music to me again, and I finally determined that I wanted to learn the piano and study music under her tutelage. My cello journey began shortly thereafter.

At first, I focused on the piano primarily, but I progressed much more quickly at the cello as I felt more natural ease with it. Piano lessons tapered off as I dedicated a great deal of time and energy to the cello. In 2018, I graduated from my first cello teacher to her teacher and simultaneously auditioned for and got into the Santa Rosa Aspirante Youth Orchestra. Earlier that year my mother had shown me videos of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and Nathan Chan, their former principal cellist, with the idea of getting me interested in auditioning for the Santa Rosa Youth Ensembles and perhaps auditioning for SFSYO one day. After getting into the Aspirante, experiencing the joys of it and rising to the challenges it sometimes presented, I knew I had fallen in love with the cello.

AC:  What music are you listening to these days? 
GP:  I’m currently listening to a lot of different genres. Classical by far dominates my everyday, largely because of my passion for cello and orchestra, which traditionally center on the classical canon. I am currently exploring some 20th Century music, such as Prokofiev and Ravel, as well as living composers like John Adams and Caroline Shaw. I love Shaw’s album “Orange”, performed by the Attacca Quartet. I was first introduced to her when the YPCO played her piece, Entr’acte, at the beginning of 2020 (my first year there), and as another young American woman who loves to write for strings, I am fascinated by her work. My composition teachers are suggesting I listen to and study the scores for contemporary works for band/wind ensemble, as I told them I want to learn to write for that ensemble type.

On the pop side, I started listening to Dodie Clark and Billie Eilish this past year, whose lyrics are so relatable and whose harmonies are so impeccable and beautiful. And, I’ve been revisiting nostalgic favorites that I used to hear on the radio, from Bruno Mars to Ed Sheeran. (Because of lockdown, I’m rarely in a car anymore, which I miss.) 

Jacob Collier, who doesn’t confine himself to any one genre, definitely deserves a mention. I admire his versatility, quick-mindedness, and fun, engaging way of looking at theory as well as his brilliant songwriting. He relates these abstract concepts in theory such as chord types to emotions that we all feel, and is completely unpretentious in the way he looks at them and loves to add a dash of humor to whatever he’s doing.

Hear Gwendolyns Concertina for Violin and Strings

AC:  The YPCO debuted your Concertina for Violin and Strings in May. What were your inspirations or references for the music, and what did you find most challenging about writing it? Have you had any of your other compositions performed before?

GP:  The main material for the Concertina popped into my head out of nowhere one morning in April of 2020. The bright, optimistic spirit of the music was such a contrast to where I was emotionally at the time. The pandemic had just hit, and the shock, fear, and sadness that came along with it cast dark clouds in my life, but when I heard the main theme in my head, it was like the sun breaking through, shining a light into that darkness. While I had no blueprint for the musical form before writing the Concertina, I could clearly hear the influence of 18th Century music, and parts of the accompaniment recalled J. S. Bach.

I originally heard the Concertina as a sonata movement for viola and piano, and writing it down was a relatively quick and easy process for me. If anything was challenging, it was arranging the piece for solo violin and string orchestra in the Fall per Aaron Westman’s commission. Suddenly, I was dealing with five instruments in the accompaniment instead of one. Sometimes I wanted the violin to soar above them, and sometimes I wanted it to sing soulfully in the middle. It took a lot of experimentation to figure out when and where. 

The Concertina was my first work to be performed! It was a little startling the first time I heard real musicians play a composition of mine. Digital instrument samples can sound as impressive as you’re willing to pay for, but there is really no substitute for human expressiveness, and I feel that Aedan and the YPCO took the Concertina to a level of beauty I had never imagined before.

AC:  The music for the Redwood Violin videos was your first commissioned piece. Had you ever considered working on that sort of applied music before and what did you learn from doing it?

The Redwood Violin theme
The Redwood Violin background music

GP:  I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to write media music for someone so early on in my musical journey, and so it rarely crossed my mind. When I started writing for the Redwood Violin videos, however, creating a theme tune and background loops was not entirely foreign to me — Some years back, I had been doing the same thing for short iMovie projects I was making. But, after a couple years of writing almost exclusively classical concert music, it took some effort to switch back into media music mode. I laughed at how rhapsodic some of my early efforts came out. Through trial and error, I learned to give myself clear limits and work with only two or three instruments and a handful of chords. I learned that lower-pitched instruments were less conspicuous than higher-pitches ones, and pizzicato (plucked) strings distracted less from the videos than did arco (bowed). The piano became my go-to because it could produce a soft, steady, repetitive stream of notes (After all, it has centuries of history as an accompanying instrument.) 

In short, my biggest takeaway from the experience of composing for the Redwood Violin videos is that less is more!

AC:  If you were to write a piece about our county, as part of the Redwood Violin Project, what aspect of the county would you take as inspiration? 

GP: I would probably write something inspired by the scenery. My father and I have been hiking and visiting parks around Sonoma County since we moved here in 2012, and both my parents and I take our cameras everywhere. My love for our county is very visual.

Andrew Carruthers , Gwendolyn and Aedan Seaver, soloist for the Concertina. With the Redwood Violin.

Andrew Carruthers and Gwendolyn at the Phoenix Theatre, Petaluma, for recording the Concertina