Inspiring Stories

Inspiring Stories: Alice Shields’ Electronic Opera

Alice Shields is considered a pioneer of electronic music. Her celebrated operas and other musical works bring together Western and non-Western forms of classical music and theater, such as the Noh Theater of Japan and the Bharata Natyam dance-drama of India. Her pieces have been performed all around the globe to critical acclaim. 

During the pandemic, Alice became a member of the Senior Planet community by participating in online fitness offerings like Tai Chi, Feldenkrais and Yoga, which she found helpful, both physically and psychologically. This month, we caught up with Alice to talk about her music and the role technology plays in her life as a working composer. 

You are considered a pioneer of electronic music. What led you to working in this genre? 

I am one of the first women to be able to receive the training for a classical composer, which was, in the 1960s, newly available in a few American universities. The misogyny of the time was still devastating, and I was often ignored at Columbia University while pursuing my doctorate degree. But through luck, I became the student and assistant of the composer Vladimir Ussachevsky, the head of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. The Center was somewhat off-campus, and therefore shielded. At the Center I was free from the musical conformity and misogyny of the other music professors.  

Vladimir Ussachevky encouraged me and other composition students at the Center not to conform, but to explore our musical individuality. I immediately found that I could create the wildest things I could imagine by using the analogue electronic music equipment at the Center. And I never looked back.   

Here is Alice’s piece Kyrielle, performed by violinist Noémie Saintandré: 

What role does technology play in your work? 

In the 21st century composers who have to write down their music for it to be performed by other live musicians can hardly avoid using digital notation programs. Younger musicians are often very surprised, even shocked, to see a musical score in calligraphy, written by hand, in ink. Although I learned to write my master scores in ink in the late 1960s, by the 1980s when digital notation software became available, I like almost all other classical composers of my generation shifted to digital notation. 

Beyond digital notation software, electronic music technology allows me to create sounds which cannot be produced by live musicians and singers. I electronically transform recorded sounds and voices, intensifying the emotional and dramatic possibilities.  

Music is… the art of emotions.

In your opinion, why is music important for personal expression? 

Human beings in virtually all cultures and all times have created music. Music appears to be part of our genetic heritage. It seems to serve many functions, including the expression and sharing of emotions, and the strengthening of social cohesion. All the arts share these functions to some degree, but music is often said to be specifically the art of emotions.   

Attention, music lovers! Visit here for details and info on the next Open Mic on August 8 and enjoy musical performances by your peers via Zoom. 

What does Senior Planet’s motto “Aging with Attitude” mean to you? 

“Attitude,” to me, means action. I believe throughout our lives we should participate more and more in what interests us. 

To listen to more of Alice’s work, you can visit her website, YouTube, Soundcloud or Vimeo pages. 

 Photo: Rashida DeVore

Pam Hugi is Senior Planet’s Community and Advocacy Manager. Based in Brooklyn, she is a contributing writer for this site.


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