SARAH ZIPPERER GASKINS, Composer
A native of Atlanta, GA, Sarah has an active career as a composer and performer. Her works have been commissioned by ensembles including the internationally renowned Mana Saxophone Quartet, and featured on new music concerts and conferences throughout the U.S. Her duet for violin and piano, “8:10 at the Café” was performed at the College Music Society's 2008 National Conference, and she was a National Finalist in MTNA's 2010 Composition Competition. She has presented papers at the New Orleans Music Theory Conference, Florida State's Music Theory Society Forum, the South Central Society for Music Theory, and Music Theory Society Southeast.
Sarah received her DM and MM in composition at Florida State University while studying under Ladislav Kubík and Clifton Callender. She earned a BM in music theory at Furman University while studying under Mark Kilstofte. She has taught music courses at Florida State University, Gardner-Webb University, Furman University, Lewis & Clark College, and Portland Community College.
My composition is inspired by Frederic Chopin's Nocturnes. I have always loved these works, and have been especially moved by Chopin's beautiful melodies and poignant harmonic language. Since I do not intend the piece to be a "homage," I avoid citing any particular Nocturne as a point of departure. In composing this new piece, I have strived to capture some qualities of mood, texture, and harmony that suggest the idea of Chopin and "night music."
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was an English violist and composer of chamber works. Much of her compositional output comes from the first half of her life, as she often felt discouragement from critics about her work, and was undoubtedly battling gender and social norms at the time. Despite this, she become the first female to play in a fully professional orchestra, the first female student of the highly sought-after composition professor Charles Villiers Stanford, and the first female to be commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a prominent arts patron. Clarke’s earlier compositions are often compared with impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel; her harmonies are dense and rich and combined with a rhythmic complexity that can create both dramatic and emotional effects yet atmospheric qualities. Her works from the early 1940s exhibit elements of neoclassicism and often include pentatonic and modal elements. Most of her compositions were written for her friends and colleagues to perform, and so her output is almost entirely comprised of chamber music. Her Sonata for Viola and Piano is one of her most famous works. Though originally composed in 1919 for Coolidge’s composition competition, the score (as the rest of Clarke’s output) was lost and forgotten until its republication in the 1980s. Since then, many violists and cellists have performed and recorded this piece, and there has been some renewed interest in Clarke’s other works.
The sonata, composed in three movements, displays the melodic and harmonic influence of Debussy and Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as Clarke’s ability to successfully navigate large-scale form and create an emotionally rich harmonic landscape. When the piece premiered at the Coolidge competition, it tied for first place with Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano (as the submissions were anonymous, Clarke’s piece was actually thought to have been composed by Bloch). I first encountered the piece as an undergraduate student studying as a viola performance major. I was immediately taken by the lush harmonies and dramatic textures of the first movement, and inspired by the life of the woman who fought to achieve musical recognition despite societal pressures. Though I turned my focus to composition in my third year, I always kept my first impressions of the piece in the back of my mind, hoping I could return to studying the sonata later in life. Some years later in graduate school, I found myself coming back to some of my former viola repertoire for a music theory project. It was during my analytical studies that I “rediscovered” Clarke’s viola sonata, and became even more fascinated by her command of sonata form. My analysis developed into a paper which I presented at several regional music theory conferences in hopes of inspiring other musicians to pursue an interest in Clarke’s life and works.
As more of her works are found, published, recorded, and performed, I have the urge again to share Clarke’s story and compositional talent. As a composer, what better way to do this than to compose an homage to the woman who has inspired my musical career for over a decade. For Portland Piano International’s 2015 Commissioning Project, I propose to write a 6-7 minute single-movement sonata for solo piano. I will use themes from the first movement of Clarke’s viola sonata while emulating her harmonic language as well as incorporating my own as a bridge between our compositions. As this project features selected “Rising Star” pianists in the state, it is fitting that I compose this piece in collaboration with another artist from an Oregon community, as Rebecca Clarke sought to compose works for her colleagues and fellow performers. Though my piano sonata will serve as an homage to the still little-known composer, it will also serve as a link between Clarke and the inspiration for my own musical path from violist to theorist and composer. And if my proposal is selected, this project will enable me to share my journey of discovery of this remarkable woman and possibly inspire other musicians to learn about her life and works.