Composer Interview: David Ludwig

By Erik Petersons on September 27, 2018

David Ludwig is a composer and chair of the composition faculty at the Curtis Institute. PCMS has presented his works numerous times over the years, and a concert during our opening week showcases three of his pieces. We took time to connect with David to hear his thoughts about this program, particularly the world premiere of The Anchoress—a monodrama that imagines the life of a medieval mystic, merging the sounds of ancient and modern worlds to explore issues of faith, isolation, and social power.

Erik Petersons: What can you tell us about this new song cycle that will be performed by the PRISM Quartet, Piffaro, and soprano Hyunah Yu? What do you hope to communicate through this work?

David Ludwig: Anchorites were Christians who lived in a state of permanent confinement in a quest for spiritual perfection. This practice grew in popularity in late medieval Europe, particularly among women, who had most limited options for self-expression. Katie Ford (who wrote the text for The Anchoress) writes: “The anchoritic life is one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living. However, an anchoress was not a part of a monastic community. Instead, she lived in an enclosed cell, an ‘anchorhold,’ attached to a church. She had one small window through which to speak to townspeople coming to her for guidance. Her daily life resembled a prayerful funereal rite. She has withdrawn and chosen a form of death, which, in the eyes of the Church, transformed her into a ‘living saint.”

My goal is to bring this character into light with music, depicting her visions and innate mysticism. Does the anchoress feel this intense alienation? Is she compelled to withdrawal from the world in order to comment upon it? Or is her desire for a hermitage inspired by feeling too much connection to society and a desire to withdraw to search for deeper meaning, away from distraction?

The austere anchoritic lifestyle feels extreme from my modern vantage point, yet its larger goals of solace and meaning are deeply relevant to me as a person living in a distracted digital life. The artistic elements of this project address this conflict directly: the “found” poetry of Ford’s anchoress, the human voice, instruments of the ancient Renaissance wind consort, and the modern saxophone quartet all contrast in different ways. Within these contrasting elements I can explore issues of ancient and modern, spiritual and temporal, and the slowness I need to create and contemplate amid the constant “busy” that I—and just about everyone I know—feel acutely.

EP: How has your composing developed and what were some of the challenges in finding your own voice? Where do you turn for inspiration?

DL: Some of my earliest memories involve making music and telling stories. When I was pretty young, I developed an interest in writing plays but continued to study music and compose on my own. Eventually, I came to understand that writing plays and writing music are in many ways the same pursuit; instead of words, I had sounds as a composer, instead of actors, there were musicians to write for. By the time I was finished with high school I had decided to commit my life to writing music to share my stories and a message of what's important to me. The Anchoress is a merging of my work with words and music. Katie Ford has created a remarkable text from the point of view of a medieval anchorite, and setting it has been so exciting for me.

EP: How would you encourage audiences to listen to new music?

DL: We forget sometimes that music exists on a continuum in the same way that art and literature does. Whoever you are and whatever your taste is, there is music that will appeal to you, as well as music that will provoke you that you may not be compelled by at first. So though it’s trite, the idea of an open mind is so important in everything we take in when it comes to any art. There is effort there, but the rewards of new discovery are so meaningful and significant—for me I love concerts of new music because of the excitement of experiences I know I’ll have. I may not love everything I hear (certainly on a first listen), but then I’m going for the experience first and foremost—and to engage with what’s happening in the music.

EP: You have written works for close friends and even your wife, violinist Bella Hristova. What is the collaborative process like when writing for people you know well?

DL: Writing for friends (and my wife!) has been very important to my creative life and career. Bella has been a great inspiration to me in every way, and I feel so lucky to be around this amazing person who plays violin with such authority and commitment every day.

I always imagine the performer I’m writing for when I’m composing a new piece, and then naturally knowing that person well makes a big difference. The challenge of course is to write a piece that both fits as if you were their tailor, but that can be worn by many other performers after—in other words to make space in the work for other performers to make their own. And I’ll say that I’ve learned more from my friends and colleagues than any other group of people; being inculcated into the world of instrumentalists is extremely important for composers, just as playwrights should understand what it means to be an actor.

David Ludwig’s works will be performed on Wednesday, October 17 at 7:30 pm at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. For tickets and information, visit the concert page. For more information about Mr. Ludwig, visit his website.