Q&A with Lynne Swanson and Jean Schultz
This season, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra's visual narrative takes a groundbreaking leap by weaving together technology and tradition, a fusion made possible through our collaboration with Traction.
Utilizing artificial intelligence, Traction’s design team crafted quilt patterns that not only celebrate national pride, inclusivity, and optimism but also harmonize these themes into a cohesive visual story. Quilting, selected as our visual language, elegantly connects these thematic threads.
This technological innovation led to a distinctive partnership with quilt artisans Lynne Swanson and Jean Schultz, who were challenged to bring an AI-conceptualized quilt design to life. Their craftsmanship has resulted in a tangible piece that perfectly marries modern digital techniques with the timeless art of quilting.
In the following Q&A, Lynne and Jean delve into their transformative process from digital blueprint to textile art, showcasing how this collaboration symbolizes the blending of past and future in our season's branding.
What inspired you to take on the challenge of translating an AI-generated quilt design into a real quilt?
It was Cam Gnass’s suggestion that a quilter(s) might recreate one of the cool AI quilts that had been generated for the LSO. We, neighbors and fellow quilt makers, thought it would be a fun collaboration to work together on the project, and we took it as a challenge to draft a pattern and find matching fabrics. We found it exciting to take an image with no pattern, and make it into a real quilt.
Can you describe the process of interpreting the digital design into a physical form? Were there any particular challenges you faced?
We toyed with the idea of using a computer program to draft a pattern from the image, but neither of us had done that before. Jean has a projector, so ultimately, we used the projector to enlarge the small photo of the quilt onto large white paper, from which we traced the image to make a 60” x 60” pattern. We drafted the pattern in quarters.
We had to make sure that when we drafted each quarter that it was the same scale as the others.
After we were done with the pattern, we cut out the paper pattern pieces. Then we used those pattern pieces to cut out the fabric, adding a ¼” seam allowance around each piece. Then we were ready to sew!
We divide the quilt in half, then sewed it together to make the whole!
How do you feel traditional quilting techniques and modern technology complement each other in your work?
Neither of us have used “modern technology” in the past in our quilt making, nor do we make art quilts. We agree that the AI-generated patterns were interesting and innovative, but outside the norm of traditional quilt patterns. We think our traditional quilting methods combined nicely with the AI pattern to create a beautiful piece!
What materials and techniques are you using to ensure the quilt accurately reflects the AI-generated design?
We took the LSO brochure with us to the fabric shop to try to match solid cotton fabrics as closely as possible. Based on the quilting represented on the AI image, our quilter (Everyday Modern Quilts) is mimicking the quilting shown in the photo, which is vertical, straight-line quilting, about an inch apart.
Could you share any insights or unexpected discoveries you've made while working on this project?
There were elements of the design that were somewhat challenging to figure out how to do. For instance, we weighed how to create the circles - reverse applique, applique, or pieced - to ensure that they mirrored the image. Ultimately, we used two different techniques and gained some new skills. However, we were aware that the AI isn’t burdened with how to actually construct the quilt from pieces of fabric. Before starting the project, we reviewed all the LSO AI quilts, and chose the one we thought would be most straightforward to create a successful copy.
What does this project represent for you in terms of the future of quilting and artistry in the digital age?
For us we are pleased to have been able to bring the human touch, traditional skills and methods, and innate math skills to replicate the AI image.
Q&A with composer David Biedenbender
Experience a world premiere! Our upcoming MasterWorks performance will mark the debut of David Biedenbender’s trumpet concerto ‘River of Time’. This trumpet concerto will feature our own Principal Trumpet, Neil Mueller! This captivating sixteen-minute composition, divided into three movements – Becoming, Flowing, and Crossing – promises a stirring exploration of music. Discover more about David Biedenbender's creative journey and his unique composition in our Q&A.
Q: The phrase 'River of Time' is a compelling metaphor. Can you share more about how this concept, combined with your reading of Marcus Aurelius, sparked the creative process for your trumpet concerto?
A: I was studying conducting with my friend Kevin Noe, and he used the phrase ‘river of time’ to describe the flow of music through time. It really captured my imagination and became the conceptual thread that pulled together the musical and philosophical ideas that had been floating around in my head without focus. In addition to reading Meditations, I had just finished Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, which is a beautiful book that explores the mysteries of time through the lens of physics, woven together with poetry, philosophy, art, and history. I can’t fully explain it, but the confluence of reading these books at that moment in my life sparked this music—it’s as if this piece is my way of knowing, exploring, and communicating these ideas.
Q: Your musical journey includes experiences in rock, jazz, and even Indian Carnatic music. How have these diverse influences shaped the composition of 'River of Time', especially in terms of its rhythm and melody?
A: I often tell my composition students to “start with something you love.” For me, each piece begins by kind of pulling a single thread of my musical being and seeing what I can weave with it. My own musical background began in the church, with Lutheran hymnody—something Neil and I share—and moved to rock, jazz, and contemporary “classical” music through my experiences performing in my public school music program, garage bands and jazz combos, and eventually studying music in college. I also studied Carnatic music—specifically the mridangam, the south Indian drum—in Mysore, India. To my ear, some of the influences in this piece include French composer Olivier Messiaen, who was also very interested in exploring time through music, as well as some elements of jazz. Miles Davis’ melodic approach is particularly important to me, with the way that his melodies kind of float timelessly above the music, like in his watershed record Kind of Blue. The third movement is influenced by my love of heavy metal. I love the rhythmic intricacy and timbral intensity of bands like Meshuggah, in particular, and I actually hear connections between the rhythmic approach of some heavy metal and Carnatic music. I think there are specific moments when this influence may be somewhat obvious and others where it lurks beneath the surface.
Q: Composing a piece specifically for Neil Mueller must have been an intricate process. How did Neil's style and expertise as a trumpeter influence the final form of 'River of Time'?
A: Over the past few years Neil has become a good friend. We often gather around a campfire in his backyard and share ideas and stories. This concerto grew out of one of those campfire conversations. The foundation for any good collaboration is trust, and I could tell that Neil really trusted me to write him something that would showcase his musicianship—perhaps show off a little—but also explore the full range of his expressivity. He is an extraordinarily thoughtful musician—and person!—and I could tell that this piece had to be more than just a “showpiece” for the trumpet. He wanted to take the audience on a journey with the trumpet as guide. I am also fortunate to have had an ongoing dialogue with him during the compositional process. I would send him drafts, and he would send me back recordings of him playing with some suggestions for how to make it work even better. I think we’ve finally got it just right, and we are excited to share it with you all!
Q: When audiences listen to 'River of Time', what kind of emotional journey or intellectual exploration do you hope they will embark on? Is there a particular reaction or reflection you are aiming to evoke?
A: I want the audience to find their own meaning in the piece—their own journey. I share what the piece means to me to help give a footing, perhaps like a conversation starter, because it can be a somewhat strange experience to hear a piece of music for the very first time—especially with an orchestra, there can be a lot happening!—but I am particularly excited when an audience hears and projects their own story and experiences in a piece. With that said, I think one of the great powers of music is to be a vessel for us to feel, and I want the audience to engage emotionally, not just intellectually with the music—I do want them to be moved: to feel excited and nostalgic, to hear something new, to be wowed by the soloist and the orchestra, to feel like they have been on a journey.
Q: In composing 'River of Time', what were some of the most significant challenges you faced, and how did you navigate them to bring this piece to life?
A: I always find the blank page—the beginning—to be the most daunting part of writing a new piece. It can feel impossible to make something out of nothing, which is why I often turn to other art forms, science, life experiences, etc. for inspiration. I also like to think of the compositional process as if I’m a sculptor. I find it comforting to think that the piece already exists inside some imaginary block of marble—all I must do is chip away at just the right spots to find it. It also helps me to remember that many small actions eventually add up to something much bigger—even though the final barline can feel very distant, I just need to keep taking small steps to get there.
Q: You’ve experimented with interactive electronic interfaces and live brain data in your compositions. Did such modern technologies play a role in the creation of 'River of Time', and if so, how?
A: One of my ongoing interests has been using ideas and techniques from electronic music and translating them into an acoustic medium, like the orchestra. I think the influence of technology is most apparent in the third movement, which uses some of these “electronic” sounds and techniques, including delay (echoes) and long glissandi (pitch bends), to make it sound like the music is speeding up or slowing down.
Q: Your third movement, 'Crossing', touches on the concept of time being non-linear. How did you approach this philosophically complex idea musically within the concerto?
A: Using music as vessel to explore non-linear experiences of time is interesting to me, because music is fundamentally a temporal art form. Music can suspend, bend, slow down and speed up our experience of time, and even conjure memory. What I’m trying to do in this movement is to make the audience a little more self-conscious of that process. There are fragments of material from the earlier movements—perhaps memories—but also ways in which the music kind of “bends” or “melts” from one moment to the next. I think some of the sounds may feel familiar from sci-fi and movie soundtracks, but I’m also trying to do something new.
Q: You mentioned a personal moment with your son in relation to the 'Flowing' movement. How do personal experiences typically influence your compositions, and how was this reflected in 'River of Time'?
A: Each piece is in some way a snapshot of who I am and what interests me at that time in my life—I write what I know. The second movement—entitled Flowing—is kind of the emotional core of this piece. It is an exploration of being present in time, and the gently lilting rhythms kind of push and pull at our sense of the downbeat—the present moment. For me, this music stems from the profound joy of being a parent, but it is also tinged with moments of nostalgia and melancholy. In some ways, I think of this music as a love song for my children.
Q: After 'River of Time', what are your future creative plans or projects? Are there new musical territories or concepts you're eager to explore?
A: This is a great question! I’ve been particularly enjoying writing for voice lately. One of my upcoming projects will likely combine voice—a tenor—with a small chamber ensemble and ambisonic sound—an immersive speaker array that surrounds the audience with electronic sound. I plan to combine the acoustic and electronic sound in a setting of text by my friend Robert Fanning, poet and Professor of Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. I don’t know the exact direction for this piece yet, but, when I work with text, I let the text lead me. After wrapping up a few other projects, this one is next on my plate.
Excitement is in the air as we gear up for our upcoming free Family Series event "The Versatile Viola" featuring David Schultz on February 11th at the Holt Public Library! This event marks a great opportunity for enthusiasts of every age to gain personal insights into the classical music realm, directly from one of its most esteemed performers.
David Schultz brings a wealth of experience and a deep love for the viola to the table, offering attendees a glimpse into his exceptional journey in music. Whether you're a budding musician, a seasoned concert-goer, or just curious about classical music, David's stories and expertise are bound to inspire and captivate. Bring your questions and your excitement—this is an all-ages event not to be missed!
Q: As someone with a multifaceted career in conducting, performing, and composing, could you share how each of these roles informs and enriches the others in your musical journey?
A: Each of these roles has given me valuable perspectives that help to inform how I approach each one.
As a conductor, my experience playing viola in orchestras gives me perspective from the musicians’ points of view, informing me of what they want to see and hear from me (as well as what they don’t want from me!); and my experience as a composer helps me to put myself in the shoes of the composer of the score I’m studying and rehearsing, understanding better the decisions they made in their music.
As a violist, my experience as a conductor has helped me to know in greater detail parts in the orchestra other than my own, often because I have conducted the work we are playing before, or have at least studied the score on my own. It helps me to know what is going on around me and what to listen for, which in turn makes me a better orchestral player.
As a composer, my experience playing and conducting has helped to inform my own choices in music I write to make the jobs of the performers easier, from technical considerations to how the music looks on the page.
Q: You’ve had the opportunity to work with both professional orchestras and youth ensembles. What unique challenges and joys come with mentoring young musicians, and how does it compare to working with seasoned professionals?
A: These days I primarily conduct community orchestras made up of adult amateur musicians (though many of whom are very good players!), and while it is not exactly the same as youth symphonies there are many similarities. In any piece, the difficulties inherent in the music are the same for any ensemble, professional or amateur; however, a professional ensemble is able to overcome those difficulties much faster, whereas it takes more time with a less experienced group, and many pieces are simply out of reach. That makes programming especially challenging. I try to come up with programming that challenges the orchestra to work hard and improve over time, but is within their ability to give a satisfying performance - very difficult to achieve, especially when there is a wide range of experience and ability between the musicians.
However, there is a joy in working with non-professional musicians that is different from that of professionals. With youth orchestras, it is a delight to see the excitement on the students’ faces when they are just discovering an incredible piece of music for the first time. And with community orchestras, though many players are more experienced with the repertoire, there is a communal sense of happiness in that everyone is there solely for their love of playing. However, this is not to discredit professional musicians’ passion for music in any way - my professional colleagues of course bring a strong love of music to their work, and that love coupled with incredible talent produces remarkable performances.
Q: Your work with the Dexter Community Orchestra and other ensembles involves community engagement. How important do you believe it is for orchestras to connect with their local communities, and what impact does it have on both musicians and audiences?
A: Community engagement is paramount to the success of any musical ensemble, professional or amateur. Recruiting musicians, building an audience, efficient management, fundraising, collaborations with guest artists and other organizations - all of these are essential to a group’s development, and they start by interacting with the community. Classical music can sometimes be seen as stuffy, insular, and elitist, and I think it is important to engage with the audience to tear down those barriers and make it a welcoming experience for everyone. I like to speak with audience members at concerts, hearing what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they might want to see and hear in the future. I try to stay in contact with other arts organizations in the community, support them, and make plans for collaboration when possible. I reach out to businesses and community leaders, not just for donations and sponsorships, but to see how the orchestra might help them, and how we might better the community together. The end result is a community of supporters invested in the success of the orchestra where everyone, musicians and audience, feels a sense of ownership, pride, and belonging.
Q: Music education plays a crucial role in your career, including conducting high school orchestras. How do you think music education contributes to young musicians’ personal growth, beyond musical skills?
A: I just read an article from the BBC the other day where “a new study claims that ‘practicing and reading music may help sustain good memory and the ability to solve complex tasks.’” (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-68105868). This is absolutely true! Learning an instrument does so much good for the mind, both in youth and adults. Playing music in school helps to develop so many crucial skills relevant in any endeavor - executive functioning, concentration, planning, meeting goals, listening, teamwork, fine motor skills.. the list could go on and on, and this doesn’t even touch on the positive emotional mental health benefits. Music should be a critical component of every students’ education, regardless of what professional field they eventually pursue. Some of the brightest people I know are the musicians in my community orchestras, many of whom studied music in their youth, went on to do something else professionally, but kept their love of music and are able to continue playing in community ensembles, many of them well into their golden years.
Q: Many young musicians aspire to have diverse careers like yours. What advice would you give to emerging artists looking to pursue conducting, performing, and composing simultaneously?
A: First and foremost, practice your instrument. Learn it to the best of your ability, under the guidance of a supportive teacher. Play as much as you can in many different ensembles, and get to know the musicians and leaders. Network with other musicians - you never know when a random person you’ve worked with before will present you with a new opportunity.
If you want to compose, write as much as you can, and make it a habit. Don’t worry if what you write is “good” or not; the more you write, the more you will develop your craft. Write music for your friends and have them play it for you, then ask for their critical feedback.
Conducting is tricky to pursue because a conductor’s “instrument” is the orchestra, and it’s difficult to arrange for a group of musicians to play for you when you have no experience. There are many workshops and seminars where aspiring conductors can get experience on the podium, but these can often be expensive. The first orchestra I ever conducted was in undergrad - I asked a handful of friends and colleagues if they would form a small orchestra and give a concert, and I bribed them with pizza! From that experience I was able to compile some video footage, and I used that to apply to other schools and workshops, starting me on my long journey of becoming a conductor. I also had many mentors along the way. Try to meet conductors, ask if you can attend their rehearsals. Watch and learn, and take lessons if they are offered.
Build strong time management skills. I can’t manage my life without careful planning. I need to schedule times for individual activities like practicing, studying, etc. and I treat them like commitments I can’t miss. Otherwise it’s easy to let those things fall by the wayside.
And this may sound a bit pessimistic, but learn to manage your expectations, and be ready to be flexible and adapt to what comes your way. Music is a horribly competitive field, and while you can find many opportunities in it, there are just so many people who want to do the same thing as you, and not enough good paying jobs to sustain everyone. But if you’re willing to stick it out for the long run and put in the work, it can be a very rewarding pursuit. When I look at how my career has developed over the last twenty years, while not everything has happened as I might have initially planned, I still wouldn’t change anything from how it went, because it led me to what I’m doing right now, which I truly love.
Q: You’re involved in contemporary music with ConTempus Initiative. What role do you see modern classical music playing in captivating and engaging younger generations in the world of orchestral music?
A: I actually haven’t played with ConTempus Initiative in a while (I should probably remove them from my bio), but I am still actively engaged with new music and living composers in all of my professional endeavors. I think it’s important to see the orchestra not just as a museum for the great works of the past, but as a living ensemble that continues to evolve and thrive through premiering new pieces of music as well. Art is often a product of its time, and though we can keep older works alive in performance and learn from what those composers wanted to express about their experience of the world, we need to continue to produce new music that reflects the unique aspects of the current day. In particular, I see technology playing an increasingly important role in music and how we experience it, and I think young people are especially adept at dealing with the rapid changes in tech and applying it to art. I think if orchestras can learn to adapt to the changing technological landscape, there will be great opportunities to welcome new generations of listeners, composers, and performers into this ever evolving orchestral tradition.
Q: Looking ahead, do you have any upcoming musical projects or endeavors that you are excited about that you would like to share with us?
A: So many exciting projects on my horizon! Each of my three community orchestras have concerts in March with fun programs. Dexter Community Orchestra is presenting an all-American program on March 3, featuring a local harmonica player, Peter “Madcat” Ruth, in what should be a thrilling outside-the-box type of concert. Mason Symphony, my orchestra closest to Lansing, will be playing a concert on March 9 featuring Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, as well as a very talented student bassoonist, Alec Jachalke from Okemos High School. Finally, the Livingston Symphony Orchestra is giving a St. Patrick’s Day concert on March 17 that will feature traditional Irish music paired with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
An event I’m especially looking forward to later this year will be Dexter Community Orchestra’s May 5 concert. Dexter is where I live, so I feel especially connected to the community there. Titled “Bi-Centennial Celebrations,” the concert will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the founding of Dexter, as well as the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestra has commissioned a brand new work from local composer Evan Chambers to honor the history and beauty of Dexter, and we are forming a large chorus to present the Beethoven in its entirety.
Q: Finally, as we look forward to our Family Series event titled “The Versatile Viola,” what can families and young music enthusiasts expect from this special event, and what message do you hope to convey about the viola and classical music?
A: The viola is a beautiful instrument, and is often overshadowed by other string instruments. I want to give it some love and show how it has its own special characteristics (it’s not a “big violin!”), but also works beautifully in tandem with other string instruments. I’ll be playing a few short solo pieces to demonstrate the viola’s versatility, and will also touch on the role the viola plays in the orchestra. All throughout I’ll talk about my own musical journey and the role the viola has played in it. Above all I hope everyone who attends will have fun and will walk away feeling a greater love for music. For those who don’t play an instrument yet, I hope they will be inspired to start learning one, and for those that do, I hope they will be inspired to keep practicing!