I have composed a string quartet, titled Sacrum Creaturae, Latin for sacred animals…you are going to hear wolves, birds, and dolphins…incorporating the sounds of nature…

William Neil

Pianist, Composer

We took a moment with composer William Neil, we talked about new music, the Stringwood Chamber Music Festival, creativity during covid, the Artaria String Quartet, “deep listening” skills, and where people can find out more.

William Neil 00:47
My name is William Neil. I was born actually in Pontiac, Michigan. I’m Midwestern. I’ve been passionate about composing music ever since I was 14. My father was, in the 50s, a record salesman, classical music record salesman. Think of that. That’s times gone now. But he had a collection of 1,000 or more classical records. And I grew up listening to that and I just fell in love with classical music. Learned to play the piano, guitar, classical guitar and just love composing music.

Brent Hanifl 01:27
Yeah, that is an interesting job, you know, just going around delivering music. Could be a fun thing we should be doing now.

William Neil 01:33
Think of that, yes.

Brent Hanifl 01:34
So, you’re premiering a new piece of music at the String Wood Chamber Music Festival. Can you tell us about that project?

William Neil 01:40
Yes, this is an incredible piece of music that I’ve collaborated on with the Artaria String Quartet. I’ve composed a string quartet, entitled Sacrum Creaturae, Latin for Sacred Creatures. And you’re going to hear an incredible string quartet, wolves, birds, and dolphins. This is the culmination of work I’ve been doing as a composer incorporating the sounds of nature. And after all, there is a symphony in the chirp of a cricket, I like to say. So, taking real sounds of creatures, processing that sound in my studio, and blending it with live musical composition has been a project that I’ve been working on for a good 10 years now. It’s all about making music from natural sounds. So this piece, which was commissioned by Artaria incorporates three movements. Incorporating the sound of wolves in the first movement. The first movement is entitled Canis Lupis, which is Latin for wolves, Nocturne. The second movement, is Delphines, Latin for dolphins, and 21 birds. The 21 birds actually are birds of this region, Upper Mississippi Fly Zone. I worked with Henry Whitehead at the Eagle Bluff Environmental Center. Got his recommendation on the birds that are endangered here in the driftless. So I was able to obtain these bird calls, and work these sounds, and they comprise the third movement. This is the first time I brought all these creatures together in one piece. Its going to be premiered in the right place, in this beautiful region of Minnesota. The Spring Wood Festival is actually in residence at the Eagle Bluff Environmental Center. So all the students are immersed in the beauty of the forest there. So they’re going to be hearing birds, you know, while they’re studying. So the piece will be premiered on August 18th at 7pm at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Lanesboro. So all this work will be focused in this one evening. And I can’t wait to hear how the Quartet sounds with these beautiful creatures.

Brent Hanifl 04:28
Wow, it sounds very intensive. It sounds playful. It sounds like a lot of key components that are coming together. Sounds like a lot of planning for you.

William Neil 04:36
It’s been probably five years in the works.

Brent Hanifl 04:39
Wow. So, I’m sure there was some disruption with COVID in between playing this. I’m sure you’re excited to get this piece out. But you know, you had a hiatus probably during COVID. How was that experience for you? Was it, in some ways, allowed you to work or was it devastating for you?

William Neil 04:55
Well, it was devastating because this premiere was actually slated for last year at this time. So, suddenly, we were all excited about it, and then nothing. But I was actually grateful for the time because I was able to review the piece and actually make some revisions. I had a chance to engage with the Eagle Bluff Environmental Center, and do a little more research with the birds of this region and actually it informed. Let me just be honest with you, you know, a composer works in a studio, you know, nature has informed my music composition since I moved to the Driftless. For you know, 20 years ago. But when you’re composing, ultimately, you’re in your studio, you’re sequestered, and, yes, you’re using your imagination. However, this time, I had a break, we had postponed the premiere, and I took the opportunity to actually go visit the Eagle Bluff Center and take a bird walk, several bird walks. And what I heard in the forest, in the canopy, was extraordinary. You know, hearing birds with audio files online is one thing, but to be out in nature and experiencing. So that walk caused me to rethink the last movement. And what you’re going to hear in August is the result of that experience. It’s always a fascinating process to have nature inform your music, and then have your imagination then sort of rework nature, and the rendering of sound. You know, I don’t look at working with sound of birds and wolves and dolphins as a scientific study, it’s more about capturing the essence of their sound and making it into something musical.

Brent Hanifl 06:57
So when looking into this project, you know, I found that the string quartet you’re working with really commits itself to working with living composers, regional ones, national reputations. Why is that important?

William Neil 07:08
Well because I’m a living composer. You know, actually, this ensemble Artaria has promoted and pioneered premieres ever since they were founded. Ray Shows is their first violinist and their leader. And he is so enthusiastic about working with living composers. You know, it’s the music of our time. And a composer is somebody who trains people to listen. So having a composer write a piece for you, as a musician, here. You know you’re performing something new, but then the same time you’re helping your audience listen to the music, it’s about their life now. And so they’ve done this and you know, regional is great because composers you meet them face to face, or you know, the composers in this region are writing about life here. As I mentioned, being in nature and the Driftless has been quite an experience through the years here. And I just love it when that influence shows up in my music. And this is a great example of that.

Brent Hanifl 08:18
Another participatory experience where I’m sure people are ready for, you’ll have a symposium on deep listening skills. Can you tell us about that experience, and maybe what participants should expect?

William Neil 08:30
Yeah, well, I’m excited about that. That is something that I pioneered recently, actually, late last year, I was a composer in residence at the Badlands National Park. And I was there for a full month. And the idea is you, you’re there, absorbing the beautiful nature of the Badlands. And you’re then writing a piece. And so I actually composed a piece, My Prairie Music for orchestra, I composed there. But part of the deal is when you’re in residence, you’ve got to present something to the local school kids. So and they were locked down, unfortunately. This is September of last year. So I actually had a virtual meeting with them. However, we’re talking about students that were from the reservation, the Rose Sioux Reservation there near the Badlands, and local kids. And so my project deep listening involves me going around with my micro tape recorder and recording sounds in nature that I experienced there. And you know, with the prairie in the Badlands very often the sound is the wind. But the nature there is, wherever you go nature is extraordinary. It’s a unique signature of what goes on there. So there were birds and the most exciting thing I recorded was during hike on the way back from this hour hike into the Badlands, Deer Haven Park. I walked down this path, paused, looked at the horizon and heard this rattle. This very aggressive rattle. Didn’t see the rattlesnake, but I heard it. And I recorded.

Brent Hanifl 10:25
Oh, wow.

William Neil 10:25
So I took it back to the kids. And the deep listening involves me taking these recordings talking about sound, and moving the sound back and forth electronically. Putting two sounds together, a bird in the wind, and seeing if they can then listen very closely and tell me what they hear. And so as soon as I played the rattlesnake, everybody, all the hands went up. And we spent the next 15 minutes on rattlesnake stories, the kids experienced. So it’s, you know, part of their life there and for me, it was this incredible wake up call that you know, the sound of nature is there for a purpose to warn you to protect creatures. Anyway, so that, I wanted to take that deep listening idea, the sounds that I’m bringing to the concert, the sound of the dolphins, the wolves, the birds and create games, and listening to develop listening skills for the students at the Chamber Music Festival, in the symposium. So I’m looking forward to that. That’s deep listening.

Brent Hanifl 11:35
Just what you’ve shared here has been, you know, hearing about the Chamber Music Festival, your new piece, this kind of intensive sort of deep listening component. It’s pretty exciting. And actually, if people want to find out more, what’s the best avenue for them to go to is their website, or tickets, or?

William Neil 11:51
I think they should go to the String Wood Festival site. So that’s stringwood.com. All one word, lowercase. You’ll land there, you’ll see everything about the festival, you’ll see our concert. Actually there are two concerts. There’s one the week before on the 11th and the concert involving my piece on the 18th. And you’ll get to know about the Artaria String Quartet as well, which is behind this wonderful Chamber Music Festival.

Amy Gabay 12:23
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