Culture

The three women of Kalamazoo who inspire KSO’s 100-year celebration

The composer of "Traces," the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra's specially commissioned season opener, talks about how music can tell the stories of trailblazers and current events.

Cellist, composer, and music festival organizer Elizabeth Start first met the founder of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Leta Snow, when she was a girl.

“She was on my paper route when I was in like eighth grade. I remember thinking no, that’s a long time ago, how can this be that women?” Start said. “When you’re that age, everything just seems so ancient and stuff.”

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Years later, Start would find out just how much stuff had happened – to women and because of women – by the time Snow got her newspaper delivered by the future cellist of the symphony she founded.

She went from a Kalamazoo area athlete and student with little interest in professional music to being commissioned by the KSO to create a piece marking its 100-year anniversary.

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The KSO’s centennial celebration will feature Start’s composition called “Traces” on Saturday, Oct. 16. It’s both the premiere and the only scheduled performance of the piece, though the theme is so universal that Start hopes other orchestras will perform it.

In an interview with NowKalamazoo at Miller Auditorium before a recent rehearsal, Start said she was inspired by all that transpired over the past century – and three women of Kalamazoo who brought people together, pushed past barriers and smashed glass ceilings, and refused to back down.

“Traces” begins with the woodwinds gently pulling the orchestra together, just like Snow brought musicians to town a hundred years ago.

The second inspiration, Merze Tate, set numerous firsts as a Black woman at Western Michigan University (back when it was called Western State Teachers College), Oxford University, and Harvard University.

Tate was “a scholar, world traveler, journalist, author and disarmament specialist who advised world leaders,” WMU said in a press release announcing the Merze Tate College for exploratory majors last month. “She will become one of the few Black women to have an academic college named after her at a predominantly white institution.”

Start was in awe. “I just couldn’t believe what she accomplished and having taking young women of color around traveling and seeing various sites and historic things in the U.S., I couldn’t fathom at that time how one could do that.”

Lucinda Hinsdale Stone capped off the trio that serve as inspiration for “Traces.” An educator, suffragist, and abolitionist, Stone came to town when her husband was named president of Kalamazoo College.

“She felt that education was very important for women at the time again when it was not that accepted,” Start said. “I believe they were actually run out of town, she and her husband, because they were so progressive.”

It took a couple years to pack all of that into a composition worthy of KSO’s 100th anniversary’s season opening performance. But how to make trailblazing paths into melodies for a full orchestra?

“There’s some spots where, at the beginning, it is very apparent when the woodwinds are pulling together, the oboe starts and brings in the bassoon and clarinet and flute and they all come together and state this theme together. So that’s kind of Leta building the symphony or anybody bringing people together in a concerted effort,” Start said.

What would the patriarchy say about that?

“First it’s kind of quiet with the brass going ‘I don’t know about this’ and interrupting it. And initially the clarinet just keeps lively going along and the theme keeps going and other people play it, but then the brass get more and more insistent and eventually the others have to rise up through that and just kind of smash it,” Start said. “So there’s a big moment where there’s a huge pounding in chords and then we’re kind of suspended and the theme gets started up again.”

Following the interview, NowKalamazoo accompanied Start for the rehearsal, which was led by Musical Director and Conductor Julian Kuerti.

Elizabeth Start during rehearsal of “Traces”, which she composed for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s 100th Anniversary on Oct. 16, 2021. (BEN LANDO/NowKalamazoo)

Start isn’t performing, however. Instead, Start was relishing in the sound that she created and her colleagues were executing. From the dimly lit seats a dozen rows from the stage, turning pages with a flashlight tracking with the score, Start made notes as to when the piece should be more humorous or the brass more mocking of the ultimately triumphant clarinets and oboes.

After a complete rehearsal performance, Kuerti turned to the dark and calls out to “Betsy.” Did she like the faster pace that they began with, he asked, or the more “comfortable tempo” that the orchestra settled into?

The latter, she said, and then met Kuerti backstage to work out any additional changes they wanted.

It seems a pretty amazing opportunity and experience with the KSO asking you to create this piece in honor of their 100th anniversary. How did this come about?

Our previous president and CEO, he had grand plans for the 100th anniversary season, he wanted a commissioned piece on every concert. We didn’t end up with that, we ended up with me and André Previn, which is pretty good company. They did ask me because I was here and people were – I have a lot of supporters in town who have heard my stuff and were working at him.

You said it was two-and-a-half to three years ago when you began. Was it delayed at all by the pandemic or is that how long it takes to compose a piece?

It didn’t really take me that long to compose it. But to think about what I wanted to do, that was the part that takes some time. And we just set it with a schedule where I think I signed the contract in December 2018 and then the score of the final piece was due May 1, 2019. And so I hit that deadline and then the parts were due May 1, 2020. That’s actually a lot of work, getting the parts all done for all the instruments and making sure that they’re all good and readable and page turns work. With transposing instruments you have to make sure that it transposed right and they have all they need to make it work.

It’s funny, I did the parts when the pandemic hit, because I remember thinking ‘well, I guess I got a week or two here with nothing to do so I’ll just focus on getting these things done and slam them out’. It’s funny, Jessica [Mallow, KSO executive director] asked me last night how long it took me to actually write it and I think once I figured out what I was doing and started actually writing it was probably two, three months. But I really wanted to honor [KSO founder] Leta Snow and other important women in Kalamazoo history, but do it in a way that took the ideas of them as opposed to represent them in music.

Assuming that many of our readers appreciate the beauty of your art but are not aficionados, can you tell us about your piece – what you intend our ears and soul to hear and feel?

The themes represent – initially we have Leta Snow bringing people together for the symphony, because that’s what she did. She brought people to town for other jobs and they’d play in the symphony. And so the idea of gathering people together and bringing forces together, that happens at the beginning. And then we have a theme which encounters different types of obstacles – there’s some heckling, there’s some crushing blows in the brass and percussion. And the theme in various ways gets around and subverts those and basically ends up convincing the opposition to come along and join at the end of the piece.

The name “Traces”, where did you draw that from?

I was looking at these women being trailblazers and so I was thinking of paths and things like that. I looked through my thesaurus and found “traces” which is defined as a beaten path and also evidence of something that’s passed by before.

One of the inspirations was Merze Tate, who a few weeks ago WMU honored by naming a college after her. So it is a timely performance of your piece. Who are some of the other inspirations and how did you choose them?

Well of course Leta Snow founded the symphony. And I can’t believe I actually knew her. I remember telling my mother she was on my paper route when I was in like eight grade. I remember thinking no, that’s a long time ago, how can this be that women. She was old for sure. When you’re that age, everything just seems so ancient and stuff.

I thought Merze Tate because I just couldn’t believe what she accomplished and having taking young women of color around traveling and seeing various sites and historic things in the U.S., I couldn’t fathom at that time how one could do that. And of course being the first African American woman to graduate from the university. And I also know Sonya Bernard-Hollins who runs the Merze Tate Explorers and continues on in that spirit.

And then Lucinda Hinsdale Stone. I grew up in town here, my father taught at Kalamazoo College, I knew of the Stones and how she taught men and women together, she felt that education was very important for women at the time again when it was not that accepted. I believe they were actually run out of town, she and her husband, because they were so progressive. I believe she was also the founder of the Ladies Library Association which was initially just like a library in town that people could actually get books and read.

All three of them being people that are really impressive for what they’ve accomplished.

After this interview, I will accompany you to the rehearsal. I am wondering, for me, is there one specific thing that I should keep an ear out for, that I can say ‘this means, either reflecting on a characteristic or individual that inspired it’? What’s something personal, a favorite part of this?

I don’t know if I have a favorite. There’s some spots where, at the beginning, it is very apparent when the woodwinds are pulling together, the oboe starts and brings in the bassoon and clarinet and flute and they all come together and state this theme together. So that’s kind of Leta building the symphony or anybody bringing people together in a concerted effort. And then the clarinet states a theme that is pretty much the theme that goes through the rest of the piece.

And that theme gets interrupted, first it’s kind of quiet with the brass going ‘I don’t know about this’ and interrupting it. And initially the clarinet just keeps lively going along and the theme keeps going and other people play it, but then the brass get more and more insistent and eventually the others have to rise up through that and just kind of smash it. So there’s a big moment where there’s a huge pounding in chords and then we’re kind of suspended and the theme gets started up again.

You’re from Kalamazoo originally so I am wondering if there are any personal inspirations that have taken you to where you are today – or any specific obstacles that you’ve had to crash through, maybe there’s a bit of autobiography in this composition as well?

There may be some. When I was growing up I actually didn’t go into music initially because my senior year in high school I was third chair in the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony because the first chair was Tony Ross who is now principal of Minnesota Orchestra and won a bronze medal in the Tchaikovsky competition. And then Jeff Butler who is in the Houston Symphony. So we just had amazing cellos those few years. I was a straight A student and a track star and I just thought ‘why would I pursue the thing that I’m already third at in Kalamazoo?’ I didn’t go into it but then I found out that all I wanted to do was play.

I recently was thinking back to my first teacher, Muriel Matthews, principal cellist of the symphony back in the 60s and early 70s. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time but when I think back to her she was just this amazing warm kind of flamboyant British woman who was just so embracing of my playing. Unfortunately, they moved away after I studied with her for maybe two years. But I think back to her, and of course I played in the junior symphony so Julius Stulberg, who was conducting my first year. And then there was Herb Butler who was also very inspirational.

But it’s funny I didn’t start writing music until I was in my 20s. And so really the person whose fault that is, I used to tell him, was somebody whose class I took. It was in 20th Century compositional techniques. Basically he added in units and you didn’t have to take a final on that unit if you had written a piece on it. So if you wrote a piece every week you didn’t have to take a final. And I’m like ‘well, it doesn’t have to be any good, I just have to show that I understand the techniques.’ About half way through the semester he basically called me out and said ‘you know, you really ought to think about studying composition.’

So you didn’t have to take the final?

I didn’t have to take the final! And I started doing composition.

“Traces” was inspired by individuals but you focused on some themes, so it wasn’t about them necessarily but characteristics. Collectivism and community, the perseverance, and just not backing down – and, when needed, rising up. Much has happened over the past 100 years, that’s where you drew a lot of it from. But you said there was a bit of modernity that you wanted to build into it as well. If you had to compose a second piece, looking at now going forward, who would be the inspiration for that modern struggle, and what would be the obstacles to overcome?

A lot of the same stuff is there. We’re only beginning to really talk about and name all of the sorts of suppression and opposition that many people have to live with and continue to. So I think that those themes are still there very much. I did write a piece during the COVID shut down that was premiered a couple Mondays ago in Chicago on their Ear Taxi Festival.And that was very much about what we experienced. Everything was churning along and going great and then everything just boom, stopped. And then we had lots of anxiety, but time to appreciate beauty of the world. I wrote it initially for a quartet, and I had written it in June of 2020, and it actually ends with an ‘I can’t breathe’ theme that just kind of crushes everything and just of ends. And it also was using a theme coming from Hildegard, “O Edificacio”, out of her “O Jerusalem” and so I was thinking here we are, we create this edifice, and it just dies and we try to bring it back but then at the end you’re actually stating that ‘O edifice’ theme with this slamming ‘I can’t breathe’ rhythm just kind of almost railing against the edifice at that point. And that’s where it ended. But I expanded it for this larger ensemble that premiered a couple weeks ago. And there is this hope that comes out at the end, I couldn’t leave that piece the way it was last summer. I had to have some hope going forward from it.

You’re a member of the International Alliance for Women in Music and leadership of the Kalamazoo Federation of Musicians, the local union. So the safe assumption is that there has been strides locally and nationally regarding worker rights and equality in music, but what still remains to be done on those fronts?

Certainly, people especially with the way it’s so easy to get ahold of music now, the more rights for people who are on recordings. And something that I noticedand that we are not involved with unfortunately very well, the union we tend to work with collective bargaining things. So like here – and by the way, Jessica is wonderful, we are thrilled she came here – but there’s an awful lot of young players in bands and stuff that just…I have heard stories about how they play clubs and bars and sometimes they’re not even getting paid and sometimes they are actually being told ‘well how many people are you going to bring in?’ before they’ll hire them. I don’t know how much that is happening here, but it seems that an awful lot of people are just, it’s that exposure thing, and it’s really hard to organize that. There actually is something called “fair trade music” that is doing well in places like Seattle and Portland and stuff like that, where an establishment that can be labeled “fair trade” and that means that they treat musicians well, pay them well, and have good conditions.

But there are so many people just looking to get a chance to play that it’s really kind of hard to get a handle on that. It would be nice to see that, just kind of more respect for – there’s an awful lot of, that I’ve run into all my life, that ‘oh you’re doing what you love so why would you expect to be paid for it?’ And sometimes you are doing what you love but on the other hand you might not want to play that piece right here right now, so that probably would be nice to have just more attention to that. It’s an intellectual product and the people are playing, it’s a lot of skill, a lot of work goes into being able to do what they are doing.

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