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Alyssum, for harp and string quartet (2014)

Alyssum, named after the hardy flowering plant, was composed as a tribute to the composer’s mother.

Quick Facts

  • Composer's life: Born in London, raised in New Zealand, based in New York City
  • Work completed: 2014
  • First performance: Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, February 18, 2014, Mivos String Quartet with Sivan Magen, harp
  • First performance by BSO players: Haldan Martinson and Lucia Lin, violins; Steven O. Laraia, viola; Alexandre Lecarme, cello, and Jessica Zhou, harp, for a BSO NOW streaming concert, December 2020/January 2021 recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston

Even in an era of stylistic multiplicity, Leila Adu-Gilmore is a remarkable musical polymath. As a composer of classical music, she writes for traditional instruments and voice, for chamber ensembles and for orchestra; current projects include a solo piano piece and an opera. At the same time, she’s active in some half-a-dozen other projects as a composer and improvising vocal and electronic musician, creating music influenced by avant-garde experimental trends, hip-hop, jazz, pop, and several international traditions. Her collaborators come from a few different countries and, like the composer, are fluent in multiple musical languages.

Adu-Gilmore is herself international. Born in London to a New Zealand mother and Ghanaian father, she grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, from an early age. She studied piano extensively and also took up bassoon, clarinet, and electric guitar. She has also studied voice, and singing is the center of her performance practice.

Adu studied at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, graduating with honors, and began to establish a thriving professional career as a performer and composer. She was already a seasoned professional by the time she applied to Princeton University to earn her doctorate, attracted by the school’s longstanding reputation in both traditional and electronic music. She worked with the composer Steven Mackey as well as with the eminent Ghanaian musicology scholar and theorist Kofi Agawu. Having earned her Ph.D., Adu-Gilmore now complements her creative career as an assistant professor of music technology at New York University. She is also a published scholar and writer on musical subjects and has presented her research at conferences in the UK, China, New Zealand, and France.

Leila Adu-Gilmore has released several solo albums as performer/composer, most recently 2020’s four-song EP Flowers, Or Die, along with projects with many and diverse recording/performing partners. As a singer of others’ music, one claim to fame is an appearance with the popular alt-funk band Luscious Jackson on The Late Show with David Letterman. As a composer of fully notated music, she has written for such prominent ensembles Bang on a Can, the Brentano String Quartet, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and has been a featured composer at the Ojai Festival. As composer-in-residence with Orchestra Wellington (NZ), she was vocal soloist in the world premiere of her Blessings as Rain Fall in 2015. With Sō Percussion, she sang the premiere of her Smash Division for voice and percussion at Princeton University.

Deeply committed to social progress, Adu-Gilmore taught music at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility for Musicambia – Music as Social Change in Incarcerated Communities. She is also on the board of directors of the first designated record label for current and former incarcerated people, Die Jim Crow Records. Much of Adu-Gilmore’s music, including her own song lyrics, confronts and examines oppression, displacement, poverty, and other social challenges throughout the world. As an international artist with African and New Zealand heritage, she embraces a cultural and musical stylistic continuum that, as a composer and performer, she has transformed via her personal perspective and voice.

Adu-Gilmore’s Alyssum is a tribute to the composer’s mother, Alison Gilmore, but like the composer herself the piece inhabits many dimensions. The title, as she explains in her own program note, is the name of a flowering plant that one can see as tiny individual flowers or as masses of vibrating shades of white. The plant’s hardy nature suggested resilience in the face of difficult circumstances, which she related to her mother’s upbringing in New Zealand. The idea of shifting perspective, individual to collective, is reflected in the music, with the harp as a sharply defined sound that’s refracted into ensemble via the string quartet. The piece as a whole can be heard as being in three big parts. The first is defined by the harp’s sharply but unpredictably rhythmic opening, which is picked up in the quartet as pizzicato notes. After a brief harp cadenza, the quartet comes into its own sound, identified by glissandos, in a middle section suggesting instability and the fear of loss. The final part brings underlying pulsing harmonies that recall an introspective Caetano Veloso performance of the (usually highly energetic) mariachi song “Cucurrucucú Paloma.” At one and the same time these final minutes suggest both a coming-together and an expansive release.

Reproduced below is Leila Adu-Gilmore’s own program note for Alyssum, written at the time of the work’s premiere by the Mivos String Quartet and harpist Sivan Magen, for whom the piece was composed.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.

Leila Adu-Gilmore on Alyssum:

If anyone was ever deserving of a piece of being written in their honour, it is my Mum. Of course, like most mothers, she took care of my needs and went through, in our case, a particularly horrid birth process. Aside from that, my mother seems to have befallen many a tragedy; her spirit, however, rather than being dampened by this, has remained strong, calm and relatively light-hearted! Of late, since an earthquake destroyed the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, in which she still lives by the sea, we found recently that she has had increasing brain damage, possibly due to Alzheimer’s. Mum’s darkly sharp wit interpreted me writing this piece for her now, as being whilst she was still “compus mentus.” In fact, she is right—I wanted to write this while she could fully appreciate it, though she loves music and new arts so much that I imagine she will get a good bit of life enjoyment out of it yet. “Alyssum” is the plant that grows in rocky beds and is often added as a starry, white filler to a store bought bouquet: it sounds like her name and hardy and beautiful are qualities that suit her.

Mum sent me an email with a YouTube video of a scene from Pedro Almadóvar’s film Talk to Her where Caetano Veloso sings ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’: at the same time, I had been really getting into Antonio Jobim.

Therefore, upon finding our shared love of bossanova, I decided to add the theme of common tones to my cantus firmus, as well as harmonies descending by semi-tone and bossa rhythms, especially in the final section. The high A could show my mother’s enduring spirit. You can hear her initials, Alison Barbara Gilmore, as a theme. There are also themes of waves, pools and waterfalls, as she loves nature, especially the sea. Thanks to Sivan Magen and Mivos String Quartet for indulging me in this gift to my Mum!

—Leila Adu-Gilmore, 2014