The American music pioneer Annika Socolofsky (1990) has won the Gaudeamus Award 2021. The young composer-performer received our prestigious incentive prize for young music pioneers on Sunday 12 September during the final concert by Black Page Orchestra of Gaudeamus 2021 in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
“Everything in this interview will circle back to Dolly Parton,” Socolofsky warns in the beginning of our talk. Not that she ends up mentioning the country singer all that much in the end – and her music certainly sounds nothing like Parton’s – but the vocal techniques of the Queen of Nashville are a huge inspiration to Socolofsky: “If you really zoom in on even just a single phrase of hers, there are all these twists and curves and melismas and dips and swells – oh my gosh, her swells! She makes Boulez look tame, in terms of how controlled her dynamics are.”
Socolofsky herself is a singer too, which she discovered only halfway through her education as a composer. “There was a situation where I had written a piece for another vocalist but she got too busy. Eventually I just needed the piece performed and my teacher was egging me on to sing it myself.” She kept stalling, until ultimately there was no other solution – and she ended up loving the experience. “I thought: wow, I need to do this all the time. This needs to be the way that I make music now.”
Her own voice is the central focal point in her piece Don’t Say A Word. The piece is a part of a cycle of what she calls ‘feminist rager lullabies’, that aim to rewrite traditional children’s nursery rhymes that often have harmful, sexist and backwards lyrical content. The piece is a free flowing exploration of the many possible meanings and phrasings of the word ‘hush’: “‘Hush’ can be a very comforting word; don’t worry, everything’s gonna be OK. But it can also be silencing, denying someone the chance to share what they need to share with the world.” The punch line of the piece is: “Hush now, baby, don’t say a word. Now it’s time for the women’s turn.” “It plays with the idea of silence and being silenced. And then asserting that there’s still a lot of space that needs to be created for women in the world.”
Socolofsky’s emotive music is all about emotion and communication and as a singer and composer she tries to draw on what she calls ’embodied knowledge’; the instinctive approach to music that particularly singers have, since they use their own body as their instrument. As one of her main influences in this, she mentions Donnacha Dennehy’s piece for the Irish sean-nós singer Iarla O’Lionaird, Grá agus Bás. Her own music is equally indebted to folk music: she plays the fiddle, is well versed in Scottish and Jewish folk music. She combines the melodic material from those musical world with an intense focus on microscopic timbral details.
“I mean, I love a lot of spectral music in abstract. But what I really love is composers who are able to embody this sense of detail to timbre and resonance in a way that is personal and direct. Grisey is fascinating in abstract to me, but I don’t love his music. It doesn’t get me all excited and giddy, you know? But playing the fiddle does. Singing does. Hearing Donnacha’s music does.”