The following is an interview with violinist/violist and composer Sarah Wallin Huff, who recently released her debut album, Soul of the Machine, and is currently collaborating on several other projects, including her debut novel, The Kesher Chronicles: Book One. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Huff regarding her pursuits in musical training, her creative process when composing, the various projects being released this year, and more!
Barbra J. Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: We had the pleasure of meeting earlier this year at Brave New World Comics’ first ever Geek Girls’ Night, during which you stunned the crowd with your geek-themed stylings on the violin.When did your interest in music begin?
Sarah Wallin Huff: That’s hard to say. I remember being an overall inquisitive child; I remember musical terms and note values and such being written on the old toddler-flashcards my parents continuously went over with me at home when I was really young; and I remember noodling around on pianos at other people’s houses whenever I got the chance. I totally didn’t know what I was doing, technique-wise, but I liked pressing the keys and making the sounds resonate together, to create different clusters of vibrating colors. I also loved singing along to my favorite records and cassette tapes. So I think I’ve always loved music in various fashions, and my parents supported it to a certain degree. When I entered fourth grade, my school allowed us to join the choir, so I did and had an absolute blast! My school also, very fortunately, had a weekly in-class basic music program with our choir teacher roving around to different schools and classrooms, teaching us songs and basic music understanding. In fifth grade, my school allowed us to pick an instrument to start learning as well. I did NOT want to play an instrument; I was perfectly happy as a singer in the choir. But my dad told me he wanted me to be able to read music, and not just sing by ear, so he made me pick an instrument to play for at least one year. It was an entirely random decision, but I picked violin, only expecting to play it for my required one year. But, lo and behold, during that year, I actually enjoyed myself, so I continued with the orchestra class on my violin through sixth grade.
BD: Did you pursue traditional musical training, and, if so, in what capacity?
SWH: When I graduated elementary school and was moving on to junior high, the school I was to attend only allowed one elective, and I still really wanted to sing in choir AND continue working with my violin. So my parents found a local private violin teacher, with whom I took one-on-one lessons through seventh and eighth grade; at the same time, in school I joined the choir. I studied with two different violin teachers privately (and one other teacher in a regular group setting) during the course of my jr. high and high school years, and that gave me varying, unique perspectives on music and violin technique. I kept studying, practicing, and performing at various student recitals,competitions, and festivals since the start of my private lessons in seventh grade, all throughout high school, and into my college years. I had quite an eclectic training, too. While my teachers, of course, trained me in basic Classical traditions, using both Suzuki and Traditional methods, my family was really into folk and old country music. So I avidly played around with country, bluegrass, and Celtic styles on my own and with friends. I listened to numerous folk style recordings and emulated them in my own playing. During my high school years, I first started learning to improvise by fiddling with an adult folk band, reading off of their basic chord charts. And, during that time, I also started playing regularly with an adult community symphony orchestra. I was really fortunate to have so many real-life opportunities come my way and expand my horizons.
In regard to my composing, any early formal education I received for that was really just an extension of all my violin experiences and my own perpetual experimentations of creating sounds and melodies on violin and piano. But there was one milestone moment that inspired me and revealed to me that I could actually take composition seriously, without question. It was an original work I wrote for my 8th grade choir, with piano accompaniment, composed when I was only thirteen years old: it was the first “real” composition I ever wrote down, shared, and had performed in concert. My choir teacher was so proud of me that she enrolled my piece in the Disneyland Creativity Challenge that year, and it won a finalist position. From that point on, I couldn’t stop writing pieces for voice, piano, violin, and other various instruments. Unfortunately, as supportive as my family was of my music in general, when I’d mentioned at one point desiring to study composition seriously in school, I was told a definite, “No.” Composition was not to be pursued professionally, and that was that. So, the rebel that I am, I continued to compose in secret. I did manage to explore composition in class on the side, during my first semester at college, but it wasn’t until – many years later – I’d transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in finishing my BA that I began to share my work and take real composition lessons with the theory teacher there. After that, I was determined to study further and get my Masters degree in Composition, because that had simply always been my heart’s desire.
BD: When did you decide to pursue music as a profession, and how did you begin this journey?
SWH: I wasn’t ever really sure what my profession was going to be, until I was in my twenties and already well into my personal projects, allowing my network of contacts to drive my work forward. When I was a senior in high school, I actually considered pursuing my literary writing as a career, while playing violin on the side. But Kay Pech, the woman who would become my long-time mentor and friend, sat me down at one point during my senior year of high school and told me that if I majored in music I could get free violin lessons with her at the college where she was teaching at the time. She told me that she would love to have me as a student, and I honestly didn’t have any better plans, so that’s what I did! Kay Pech was my private violin teacher every week for the next ten years after that moment — and she has remained my friend and colleague to this day. She turned my violin playing and fascination with music into a directed and effective passion. She taught me not only technique and history, and more, but the real-world basics of contracting music for gigs and events as well as maintaining a network of contacts – the “cold hard”business side of music, that is; she got me started as a music teacher, too, and constantly encouraged me to further my education and experience wherever and whenever I could. Without her, I truly would not be half the musician (or person) that I am today.
For the teaching and performance aspects of my career, getting that started was really simply a matter of learning to say, “Yes,”to every opportunity that came my way, beginning as early as the middle of my high school years; thereby expanding my practical experiences and my network of contacts over the years to come. I was still composing music, and I regularly strove to have my work performed by myself and my contacts any chance I could. I was really quite obstinate when it came to my art! All of my various college and performance tour experiences were hugely instrumental in building my confidence, experiences, and network, too. As I grew in confidence, I was more willing to share what I do with everyone I came in contact, and it just blossomed from there, and continues to do so. Makes life a grand adventure!
BD: Can you take us through your artistic process of composing a song or album? From where do you find your inspiration?
SWH: Every one of my compositions is a different journey, though they all have certain elements in common. I most often decide first what instrumental and/or vocal forces I’m writing for. Lately, I’ve been asked or commissioned to compose work for specific people, so that part is usually fairly easy to decide. Once I know who and what I’m writing for… well, each instrument or group of instruments has a certain, innate, unique character that further guides my thinking. Beyond that, what I feel like I’m doing when I compose is uncovering a pre-existing work of art – that is, I feel as though the piece has already existed in the waves of consciousness and experience, and I’m simply uncovering it for the first time. Or, I feel as though I’m sculpting a figure out of rock – that, as I expose the “nose,”then the “eyes,”the entire figure starts to emerge and become clear, and I just build off of what I see and sense emerging. My creative process is embedded in colors of sound, textures and audible patterns, and various rhythmic grooves… and there’s a time factor to such creation, too, because the human ear and mind can only perceive the patterns within the frame of passing time. That adds another intriguing element to this kind of work – the pacing and the flow, the sensations of tension and release, the structure, playing with the listener’s unconscious memory of previous phrases, etc… All this is very abstract, I realize, but that’s what I love about composition! Taking the abstract and bringing it to life within the flow of time and human memory, culture, and instinct.
Practically speaking, I achieve these notions by way of various techniques I’ve picked up and observed/studied and toyed with over the years. I start with an idea – a motive. (The simpler it is, the better; the more I can play around with it and tweak it, in styles of variation.) Then I look at the structure of the notes that make up that motive, and allow the process to unfurl from there. Sometimes, I have a definite melody that I use and work from, and I’ll created unusual harmonies from that melody that take the listener to unexpected and lush harmonic worlds; other times I have nothing but an abstract structure of patterns that I can break down into a series of ratios, which I can then evolve mathematically. It really just depends on the blossoming character and inherent nature of the piece. But, regardless, my personal style and fascination is to take these “lifeless”structures and patterns and watch as they weave together to form an organic tapestry of beauty. A piece of mine may or may not be especially “singable”in the traditional sense of the word, but I like to think that everything I write has some kind of organic texture or feel to it, unique to each piece. I really seem to build off of my love affair with Nature — my admiration for patterns like fractals and such: the complex, quantum/mathematical structures that underly all the organic, evolving beauty of the universe we see around us.
BD: You recently released your debut album, Soul of the Machine. How would you describe the concept of the album, and what style or styles of music do you feel that it encompasses?
SWH: Soul of the Machine is very much a musical exploration of my processes that I mentioned above. It’s definitely “modern Classical”(I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can embrace that label); that patterns and structure, or abstract mathematical principles, can combine with human consciousness and culture to further evolve these sound waves into an architecture of multi-faceted beauty. All of the pieces represented on the album (except for “Courage Triptych”; I’ll explain in a bit) were constructed using some sort of pattern-based evolution of ideas. It’s just so fascinating to me to see what comes out as a result of these inner workings of patterns – I don’t always know what to expect in the end, and, oftentimes, the final result is even more amazing than what I originally expected!
Every time someone listens to or performs these works, it is likely (I hope) they will continue to discover new sounds and structures, woven deep within the texture of these lines of music. So, it’s not “easy”music, per se. But it’s not ugly either. It’s a bit brainy, perhaps, but there is a surface beauty to it that can be accessed immediately, if the listener is willing to open themselves to it.I like to write “deep”music, music that will last and be studied and enjoyed for years to come, music that always has something to offer no matter how many times you look at it or hear it.
Funny story about “Courage Triptych”: We decided to add that one only toward the very end of the process of assembling the album. I originally wrote two of its movements (“A Garden Prayer”and “Valiance”) when I was only 18. They were two of my very first really solid compositions, completed in my first year of college. I had later combined them with “Broken Innocence,”five or so years after that, to create the three movement piece it is today. But because it’s such an early work of mine, I was really afraid it wouldn’t gel well with all of my newer – definitely more complex – works on the album. But “Courage Triptych”has always been one of my husband’s favorite pieces of mine, and he REALLY wanted me to at least show it to Parma Recordings to get their opinion on perhaps including it. After sending the scores along for their advice, they resoundingly agreed with Hubby that it should be included. And I’m actually really glad it was. As Parma had originally surmised, “Courage Triptych”presents a neat counterpoint to the whole concept of the other works, and paints a wonderful overarching story of journey and identity. I actually grew to appreciate “Courage Triptych”much more than I have in the past, after hearing it performed by professionals and hearing it in the context of the entire album. It gained a new life in my mind.
BD: In addition to Soul of the Machine, you have also composed and recorded a full album of musical responses to Jorge Armenteros’novel, The Book of I, which is due for release this November. What intrigued you about this project, and how do you feel that your musical responses complement the source material?
SWH: Well, at first, I wasn’t sure at all what this collaboration would entail or how much I’d end up falling in love with the project! Jorge simply emailed me out of the blue one day and proposed the idea of my writing music as an emotional and psychological response to his novel. And, seeing how I always try to say “Yes”to everything possible – especially if it’s a brand new experience for me – I just dove in and said I’d do it. Jorge told me that he really liked the way I write for strings, that he loved the sound of the violin, and that he wanted my music to be strings-focused and very Classically oriented. That’s right up my alley, so I got really excited about it as we talked it over! When Jorge sent me a copy of his novel, The Book of I, reading through it I began to see many, many wonderful instances where certain composition techniques would go hand in hand with the deep and complex themes of his book. I found that he weaves his words together in much a similar way that I like to weave and layer sound. And that made me even more excited! I wound up composing 45 minutes of new music, for various combinations of string orchestra and percussion, in only four months. Jorge’s writing made it easy for me, because I felt right at home painting colors of sound in mimicry to his abstract and thoughtful writing. I’m really grateful that Jorge gave me freedom to compose as I desired, too; he wasn’t especially demanding of any precise theme or descriptive scene, which opened up all sorts of more broad and overarching possibilities for me to play with.
The first track I composed was “I Know What Death Sounds Like.”There’s a line in the book where the main character speaks of knowing what death sounds like, with its “angular melodic twists”: “It’s like a leitmotif; it keeps coming back to my mind.”So, once I developed my “Death Leitmotif,”it became a constant, incessant motive that I managed to weave throughout the entire 45 minutes in various fashions and in various musical contexts. I did similarly with various other themes — like creating a motive for the bland, frustrating Whiteness of the character’s mind; or the confusion of a fit of schizophrenia (imagine several themes from the album, all converging together at once); and the musical equivalent of the calming oneness of Water. There are also larger themes that recur (and have their foremost place in their own tracks) for a few of the essential characters: “Sweet Camila”is the love interest and probably the most melodic and stable track of the album; “Phillipy is Fragmented,”musically recreating the logical yet disjunct and troubled nature of the character of Phillipy; and “Her Majesty’s”theme — a musical sensation like something I’d give to a wicked Queen of Hearts-style character: rambunctious, annoying, dangerous, arrogant… The theme is very dance-like, like an aggressive, dark waltz… I’m also immensely proud of the opening track, “Faces in Foam.”This track musically describes two of the people our main character has seen greet Death by way of the Cliff by the sea. One is a woman of exotic North African appearance (so her theme is very much rooted in traditional North African music). The second is Lucio, a little boy who is accidentally pushed off of the Cliff. Lucio’s face haunts our main character’s paintings; he paints the boy in a “diaphanous light,”as in an angelic, Renaissance style. Lucio is also described with Greek features. So, for Lucio’s theme (the second half of “Faces in Foam”) I started with an ancient Greek style of writing, which then opens up into a Renaissance-era contrapuntal version of that Greek melody. “Lucio himself”sings lyrics from a classic Marian hymn of the same time period, hauntingly performed in this recording by an excellent countertenor.
The actual liner notes I’ve written for the album, detailing the tracks and their specific connection to the book, can be found here. My music for “The Book of I” is some of my favorite stuff I’ve written so far, and working on this project really bolstered my confidence and excitement as a composer!
BD: As you are obviously not busy enough releasing two albums in one year, you also recently published your first novel, The Kesher Chronicles: Book One, which is the first in a sci-fi trilogy. How would you describe The Kesher Chronicles, and what made this series such a personal project for you?
SWH: I can’t help that I’m just so in love with this sci-fi series! I originally started writing “Pursuit of Truth”(Kesher Part 1) the summer before I started high school. I had been writing shorter, novella style stories from as early as age… I don’t know, 11 or so? Some of those stories were murder mysteries, some were fantastical sci-fi; all were an indulgence of imagination! Entering that first year of high school, when I was fourteen, was quite a transitional period in my life. I was struggling to figure out who I was, and where my life was going. On top of that, I’m sad to say that my life at home was not the most balanced or healthy, and I had tremendous psychological burdens I carried and wrestled with everyday. So, diving into this unique futuristic realm, in which The Kesher Chronicles takes place, was, in many ways, my method of escape and release from real life. It provided even more escape than my music did, because, in this fantastical world, I didn’t have to be myself, I could follow the adventures of these characters I created and mold their world in any way I wanted. I think having the opportunity to write this saga is partly what gave me the drive to get up every day and face its challenges.
As I had mentioned earlier, I wasn’t sure whether my music or my writing would end up being the main thrust of my professional life, but, after all these years – twenty years, to be exact – I’ve noticed that my logical layering and pattern-oriented thinking that guides my composition also comes through strongly in the basic construction of my stories, especially as they become more and more complex as they go along. Every detail relates to something else, every subplot has a greater purpose that it ties into later in the overarching story. So, I’ve learned that whether I’m writing a musical composition or the next book in the Kesher saga, I’m still me, and my mind is just enjoying its intellectual exploration of the universe in these various ways.
So, how would I describe The Kesher Chronicles? My hubby calls them “Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings,”and that’s a really good description, I think! I started out expecting it to be a trilogy, but as I continue writing Part 3 now, I realize I’m definitely going to need at least a fourth book, maybe even a fifth and sixth… So we’ll see how long this goes on!
Part 1 starts off simply enough, detailing the journey that a twelve year old girl must make when her mother is targeted by the dystopian future government of America as a national threat for her public views on restoring old, pre-“century of tyranny”-freedoms. But, during this adventure, Janice – our young protagonist – begins to discover more about her family’s past, its role in the birth of an underground movement circulating among the poorest of the nation and threatening to topple the current regime, and a plot from another nation to disrupt the powers of the surrounding World Alliance via the complex systems left in place during America’s dystopian period. This new nation – the Island of Artemisia – has emerged from a troubled, conflict-ridden past, and a proud and desperate society emerged, with its own original language and culture made to set them apart from the rest of the World, which they feel had abandoned them. (You can imagine what fun I’ve had developing this new language and envisioning Artemisia’s rich culture!)
Kesher Part 2 (“Questions of Love”) actually takes place on this Island — in the northern, forested village of Hiskitan — twenty-three years after the first book. Janice is now an adult with a family of her own, and what was set in motion is revived by those who survived the events at the end of Part 1. We see a dramatic change come about in America’s governing systems, while Janice’s enemies seek revenge against her both at home and abroad. We are introduced to another emerging ruling class during the course of Part 2: the Universal Federation and their colonies, Lunarius and the controversial Marsania. Meanwhile, in Hiskitan, we discover a mysterious local Temple and are introduced to the Artemisian religion of Bezrahnian; at the same time, one of our protagonists begins to question his lifelong understanding of his own deity, Kol-Kesher. Indeed, he begins to question the meaning of his own existence after a startling, inexplicable event transforms his being from then on…
Part 3 (“Rivalry of Power”) takes place sixteen years after Part 2 and focuses on the journey of one of Janice’s now-grown daughters, Amanda — who is dabbling in the science behind a form of inter-dimensional observation and travel. A jealous scientific-political rival of hers attacks her one night, and Amanda inadvertently finds herself lost in Artemisia’s past without the memory of who she is or where she is from. Alongside these adventures, Janice and her family strive to uncover Amanda’s secrets during their search for her in the present, only to run into her dangerous political rivals — who have their roots in a long-abandoned Colony of self-conscious, self-evolving robots called the ROSAC… Part 3 further explores how all these powers and people are connected: a corrupt Universal Federation bent on destroying worlds; a dangerous new form of government on Earth making shady deals with the UF; the seeds of a ROSAC revolution growing; time travel… And throughout all this we begin to see who Kol-Kesher and his-her rival, Bezrah, really are and what they want with the human race…
It’s just been (and continues to be) a lot of fun to work on these carefully nested stories, and I am so happy to have finally begun sharing them with the public!
BD: Are there any additional projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
SWH: I’ve got always got something going on, haha! Right now, I have two really solid compositional projects I’m intent on finishing. One is a piece for “Cell Phones and Instrumental Ensemble”… It promises to be quite hilarious, yet still complex and intriguing! More of a modern “statement”piece, I think.
The other is a song cycle for soprano that I first started back in 2008: I wrote a work for soprano, cello, flute, and piano called “Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie”(you can listen to it here: http://sjwallin.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/03-fair-katrinelje-and-pif-paf-poltrie.mp3). It’s a musical setting of the Brothers Grimm tale by the same name. Three years later I finished another Brothers Grimm song for violin and soprano, “The Old Beggar-Woman”(http://sjwallin.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/2_the-old-beggar-woman_clip.mp3). So my ultimate goal is to set five other Brothers Grimm tales for soprano and various instrumentations, rotating the piano, violin, cello, and flute around in different combinations for each song. Once I’ve got that done, I want to see about creating another album, featuring this Brothers Grimm song cycle as well as another popular song of mine — for soprano, women’s chorus, string orchestra, piano, english horn, and soprano recorder — that I finished in 2013, called “Of Roses and Lilies,”based on portions of the Song of Solomon.
I’m also currently in the process of redoing a digitally rendered recording of my 2008 concerto for 6-string electric violin, chamber orchestra, and electronic instruments: “Leviathan of the Ancient Deep.”(The old demos can be heard here: http://sarahwallinhuff.com/2013/03/03/leviathan-concerto-demos-complete). The opportunity hasn’t yet come up to perform that work live – it does require a pretty massive setup – but in polishing up a quality recording of the digital orchestra background and my performance of the solo part on my electric violin, I hope to soon release a new self-produced recording of it that will inspire groups to actually perform it, and later record it, live. It’s been really fun to go back and look again at my work with that piece, touching up things here and there in the writing, since I’ve grown after I first completed it… I really can’t wait to hear it done with real musicians someday! In that same vein, I recently uncovered sketches I had once made many years ago for a second concerto for electric violin and orchestra. One of these days, I’d like to continue work on that new piece, too, and try to finish that up.
And, of course — I’m currently about two-thirds done with Kesher Part 3! I am SO excited to see that book finished up, and then to start work on Part 4… I’m eager to watch where these plots of humanity’s future lead…
BD: Being that we focus on all things geek at Fanboy Comics, would you care to “geek out”with us about your favorite geeky fandoms?
SWH: Absolutely! I am such a nerd! Some of my most passionate loves in geekdom include:
-American McGee’s Alice (and the sequel, “Madness Returns”)… LOVED playing these games!!!
-Doctor Who (I adore David Tennant’s Doctor the most, of course, and I am eager to see Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, but the entire 50 year mythos is just absolutely amazing to me; I love all the rich detail!)
– Star Trek DS9
– Star Wars (especially, the Clone Wars series): I love the tortured character of Anakin Skywalker and his inevitable descent to the Dark Side…it’s the cookies, you know…
– My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic. I am an unashamed Brony/Pegasister! Again, it’s the quality of the overarching mythology of the characters, their surroundings, and their history that attracts me to the series! And —if you love John de Lancie’s “Q”character from Star Trek —you have to see him voice-act the character of Discord in MLP. It’s just like “Q”but in the Ponies-verse! Likewise, the anti-hero Princess Luna/Nightmare Moon holds a lot of attraction for me. Besides that, I am just so impressed with the show’s quality of art, acting, dialogue, and consistency.
– I recently also started (and am almost finished) reading though the first volume (20 issues) of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,”and I absolutely love it! Again, the art, the characters, the detailed story and environments…all of it is just great!
What else do I love?… Pokemon (Pikachu and Jiggly Puff are two of my favorites! I’m a sucker for cute faces and cheeky confidence.); the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series (loved Bear McCreary’s music for it, too); Firefly (cancelled too soon!); Game of Thrones; Ghostbusters – the original movies and the comics; Magic: the Gathering (I play a Blue Deck, augmented with some White and Black); Hearthstone (online WoW card game: I enjoy playing as both the Mage and the Warlock); Minecraft (Guess what? I’m in the process of building a Minecraft edition of Hiskitan, the featured Artemisian village in “Kesher Part 2”! I’ve already got a rocking “Temple of Bezrah”built, with lots more sites from the books to come!). And, even though it’s not science fiction, I am in complete love with the “Cosmos”series – both the original hosted by Carl Sagan, and the recent reboot with Neil Degrasse Tyson … Other than that, I pretty much love anything else to do with dragons, spirituality/mythology, or magic, or technology, time travel, robots….
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about your work?
SWH: The best way to keep up with what I’ve got going on is to visit and subscribe to my website. I also have a Facebook page that I keep updated regularly.