Life’s Joy and Incense

Adolf Alzuphar

Monday, April 24, 2023

DM R spoke to me about their Hildegard commission in everyday language, with incredible honesty. “The idea that I had was two people who were each married in their [own] respective marriages. They’re longing for each other, but it’s not possible. A virtual affair, shall we say. I picked two of Cavafy’s poems as my libretto. One is ‘Longings,’ which is the name of my Hildegard commission composition, and the other is ‘To Sensual Pleasure.’”

The Hildegard Commission highlights outstanding women and other marginalized genders in the early stages of their composing careers, supporting them with a commission, mentorship, and access to a network of leading working collaborators. 

The winners of the 2022 / 2023 commission focused on sound art exploring the poetry of Constantine P. Cavafy and their compositions were presented at National Sawdust, before being presented at Rockefeller Center in a public sonic installation for the month of April. Like DM R, much of Cavafy’s poetry is committed to truth in selfhood. 

DM R and fellow Hildegard winner Kelley Sheehan at Rockefeller Center for the Hildegard Sonic Installation

“Longings” is sad, and is about “the longings that have passed / without being satisfied,” DM R says. “To Sensual Pleasure” is about “life’s joy and incense” and “capturing pleasure as I wanted it.” Combined, the two complete each other, as a problem and its solution. 

It was clear that truth and experience, whether political or erotic, are central to her compositions. 

For example: their experience of childhood. DM R was born in Colombia, and it was there that she first cultivated a deep appreciation for anime and Rock en Español. A cultural theorist as much as a composer, their deep appreciation for the two comes with a profound understanding, which they have translated into their compositions.

“Anime and Rock en Español are escapism in my music,” DM R tells me, “in a culture where individualism brings both good and bad and isolation makes the practice of community hard.” Sensing that I’d like to hear a bit more, she elaborates. 

“Anime is standing up to the bad guy together and doing the right thing. Take Sailor Moon, for example, who is able to do good without killing.” She laughs as she says this, and then veers to Rock en Español as a tradition of resistance, which represents home. She tells me about singing on the school bus as part of this tradition.

"A cultural theorist as much as a composer, their deep appreciation for the two comes with a profound understanding, which they have translated into their compositions."

For the Hildegard commission, DM R was mentored by Jeffrey Zeigler, a cellist, one of the most versatile of our times, whom she calls Jeff. Her relationship with Jeff was rich. DM R is a trumpet player, so writing for strings sometimes leads her to overwrite the details. DM R has a soft spot for the violin. Her grandfather was a violinist; he passed away when her father was very young and she never met him. She calls it a “violin kind of situation.” Jeff helped with strings and with simplifying compositions. 

DM R associates instruments with people, and when she composes, she thinks of them. When she writes for the cello she thinks of Jeff, her Hildegard Commission mentor, but also of her friend Byron, or her friend Anna—people whose personalities helped her fall in love with the instrument. 

DM R premiering their work at the Hildegard Commission Concert in March 2023

The piece that she composed has a mezzo-soprano and a soprano, two vocalists, bass clarinet, cello, alto flute, and electronics. This was DM R’s first time working with National Sawdust’s Meyer Sound spatial sound system, and she remains deeply impressed with it and wishes to explore it further.

Classical composers have become much less influential to DM R since leaving school, though there are some she cannot do without. She often revisits the works of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Tōru Takemitsu, because their music is special. 

DM R’s compositions have been and continue to be presented by notable artists such as Yarn/ Wire, Alarm Will Sound, and in prestigious venues such as the Boston Conservatory. Despite the accolades, she grounds her work in the independence of her emotions. In her capacity to be free while artistic, one can only feel ecstatic for what her choices will continue to bring.

About Adolf Alzuphar

Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He also contributes to The Brooklyn Rail, and to the LA Review of Books.