Elizabeth Ogonek Discusses ‘Sleep and Unremembrance’ Which Debuts With ACO This Week

Composer Elizabeth Ogonek
Composer Elizabeth Ogonek

By Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, November 6, 2017

This week the American Composers Orchestra celebrates its 40th anniversary. With a mission to broaden the profile of American classical music previously underrepresented, The ACO has chosen a program of established and up-and-coming American composers. This week, we spoke with Elizabeth Ogonek about the American debut of her work, Sleep and Unremembrance.

ZEALnyc: Let’s talk about the piece that the ACO is going to play this week, ‘Sleep and Unremembrance.’ Give us an overview of your inspiration for the piece.

EO: There were a lot of things at play. I had been living in London at the time, and I had the very good fortune of participating in an educational project that the London Symphony Orchestra does called the Panufnik Composers Scheme.

It is a year-long residency with the orchestra where you get to interact with orchestra members, LSO concert and rehearsal passes and compositional mentors. It was an incredible experience. And out of that came a commission for this larger piece, Sleep and Unremembrance.

The inspiration came from a couple of places. The orchestra was celebrating the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik. I have Polish roots, and he had relocated from Poland to England during his life.

And one of my favorite poets happens to be Wisława Szymborska. I had just taken a trip to Poland with my mom and I came across a book of her poetry. She had just passed away recently. I own like a million of her collections of poetry, but I had never seen this book published in English and it turns out that it is only published in Poland.

It’s an amazing collection because it is her last collection of poetry as she died. The poem that my piece is based on is, I believe, the penultimate poem that she wrote before she passed away. So it had a tremendous amount of foresight. It is clear that she knew that she was passing away, but she was always a very playful poet. She was fascinated by the mundane and the quotidian, and she had a beautiful way of looking back on things using that kind of language. She found the joy and the playfulness in all these past memories.

And so my piece is based on this poem, on the dichotomy or the juxtaposition of knowing that life is coming to an end but, in knowing that, celebrating all those things that have made a life a life.

ZEALnyc: What do you think are your compositional influences, or how would you describe your particular voice?

EO: I think that there is a lot of French influence in my music. I’ve always loved Debussy and Ravel, Dutilleux and Messiaen. Of living composers, I’ve been hugely influenced by Stephen Hartke who was a teacher of mine and a colleague at Oberlin, and by Oliver Nelson. Julian Anderson was another teacher of mine, Kaija Saariaho. I have always been particularly influenced by Ligeti.

And these days, I’ve been listening to a crap load of early music. I’ve been getting into Renaissance compositional techniques and how they translate into my music.

ZEALnyc: What are the particular challenges of being a 21st-century classical composer?

EO: I don’t know if this has so much to do with being a composer or being in the 21st-century, but I think that there is a certain amount of self-knowledge that you have to have. I feel that often those composers who are successful are pigeoned-holed for one thing, and I think that can be really limiting. There is less of a value placed on exploration and continued growth and change, and I’m sure that has to do with marketing and all that sort of stuff. You can market something that you’re familiar with, but if you don’t know what’s coming, how do you know how to market it?

And so I find that is challenging now. I don’t ever want to be the person who writes the same thing twice, or multiple times. That is not a way of putting down those people who do do that, but it’s just where I’m coming from. The composers that I love the most are those composers whose music has changed dramatically over the course of their lives. And I think that is an important part of being an artist and that is an important thing for recognizing and supporting artists.

ZEALnyc: What would you most like to achieve as a composer? 

EO: My goal is always to reach people in some personal way. I think that changes what it means to me at different periods of time. But that is the most important thing to me. That is the most important thing to me as a consumer of art, as someone who reads books, who watches films. I want to be reached. And I think as a composer, I feel that way too.


We also spoke to Derek Bermel, artistic director of American Composers Orchestra, for his thoughts on the work of Elizabeh Ogonek and the 40th anniversary of the ACO.

ZEALnyc: The Mission of American Composers Orchestra is to feature the work of American music. Tell me why that is important.

DB: In the orchestra world, there is, understandably, a heavy skew toward the European repertoire. That repertoire encompasses most of the great tradition from which the orchestra comes. So from early classical through romantic repertoire, that is the meat and potatoes of the orchestra.

But in America here, we have a unique problem being not in the center of that tradition, but having many of our own musical traditions and coming out of our own social structures than say 18th and 19th-century Vienna.

So because of that, Francis Thorne founded the ACO to give American orchestral music more of a voice, and to serve as a catalyst that other orchestras around the country could look to for ideas, for new ways of thinking about programming and for repertoire that they did not know.

When the orchestra was founded in the ’70s, there was a real dearth of American music being performed by orchestras around the country. And I think that ACO did a lot to rectify that to lead the way.

ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel
ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel

ZEALnyc: What was it about Elizabeth Ogonek’s ‘Sleep and Unremembrance’ that prompted you to schedule it on the 40th anniversary concert and gala?

DB: What was exciting about this piece is that she wrote this for the London Symphony, and it hasn’t been played in the U.S.. So we feel lucky to do an American premiere of an up-and-comer, which is right in the ballpark of what we are looking to do.

I met Elizabeth in L.A. probably eight years ago or more. I was struck at how sophisticated a composer she was. How clear her harmonic language was, how sophisticated the counterpoint was, and how the work had a real sound and a real sense of purpose. I made a mental note to follow what she is doing.

We remained in touch and as I became artistic director of the ACO, I said be sure to share your work with me. She let me know about this particular work and we found this place to program it.

ZEALnyc: Given a communications shift in the last twenty years, what is your perspective on the challenges of contemporary music?

DB: Well, I think every field is having problems — and not just arts but other sources of entertainment — like sports. The real crisis seems to me that everyone stays home and watches their computer, sitting online. Maybe Netflix is doing well. But I think this is a crisis for live entertainment because I think that choices of how people spend their time and how they spend their leisure time is changing a lot.

I was heartened because last night I went to Chamber Music of Lincoln Center to hear a concert of Haydn, and it was packed with people of all ages. Noticeably. I think there is a real crisis in this country that people don’t go to see live events any more.

So the way that entertainment, and I don’t mean to lump art into entertainment, but it is a larger problem that people are consuming their activity differently.

That said, I think there are also changes in the demographics of the country. And I think that one of the things that ACO has truly been a leader in is championing the work of composers of color, of women composers because it is part of the larger picture.  I don’t think that ACO needs a medal for that, it’s just that I think that the rest of the orchestral world should catch up.

It is something that I think our orchestra is proud of – our legacy of performing live American composers. Muhal Richard Abrams, who just died, is someone that the ACO can feel proud to have commissioned. I don’t know how many orchestra commissioned him, but we did.

And so we wanted this concert to reflect that balance. That is why Paola’s work and Elizabeth’s work is as important as playing Bernstein and Ellington. These are our new Bernsteins and Ellingtons.

The American Composers Orchestra plays Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center Tuesday November 7th. Click here for more information. ZEALnyc’s Christopher Johnson previews this concert here.


Mark McLaren, ZEALnyc’s Editor-in-Chief, writes frequently about classical music and theater.

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