When Pamela Stein takes the stage, she’s totally fearless. Being a professional performer and composer is more than a full-time job—it’s a lifestyle.
Over the years, Pamela has performed all over the world, specializing in new and traditional works in a variety of genres. With her newest project, Your Music Bus, she’s working with young composers across the country, offering them access to great musicians, who will help them shape the future of their work. When she’s not working with young composers, she’s launching an opera, which will portray the challenges of fellow women artists through history.
A long-time IVY member, Pamela sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about what it takes to be a professional performer and who inspires her.
Pamela Stein is an IVY Member. Connect and collaborate with her here.
IVY: Do you think composers think differently from most people?
I think that being a composer has definitely helped me be a better performer of new music. I can see a piece and know what the composer is trying to say. For example, maybe the composer didn’t write in the dynamics, but I know what dynamics he or she wants. Being a composer definitely helps in understanding the composer’s intention, when there’s not a historic precedent.
IVY: What is it like to be a professional performer?
It’s awesome and also not awesome. I get to do what I love, but also I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. You have to be willing to work hard all the time and constantly push for the next thing and constantly create your own opportunities. A lot of the projects I have done have been things I have started from the ground up.
If you want to go to school and earn money and get a job, being a performer is not for you. It’s more like the startup world. You have to be willing to put in a lot of time and not see the returns for a long time. I’ve done that, and I still continue to do that. At this point, I work mostly through word of mouth or through projects from other colleagues. But it’s taken a lot of time and a lot of work to get to this point in my career.
IVY: Why did you decide to be a performer?
I wouldn’t fit doing anything else. I’ve done other things with my life: office jobs, more “normal” careers, and I was definitely deeply unhappy. I did all of those jobs as a means to an end—it was a way for me to make money so that I could ultimately do the things I really loved doing, like performing. But really when I looked at my life, these jobs drained so much of my life force that they weren’t worth it. So, I restructured and figured out how to make performing my focus.
It’s just how I’m most comfortable. (Laughs) I have zero stage fright—I’m just completely comfortable in front of people and performing. I feel not an ounce of inhibition. I really love acting and the challenge of doing really difficult music, and it’s just something that’s very natural for me.
IVY: How do you view your relationship with the audience?
I don’t even really think about the audience when I’m performing—I exist in my own space. I live by the philosophy that I am not doing something for judgment. I have to do all I can to tell the best story I can and be really honest about doing so. I’m really in the moment with whatever piece I’m doing. People are either going to get it or not.
IVY: When did you discover that you wanted to be a composer?
I was composing from the time I was in middle school. I composed through half of college, and then I stopped. I was performing a lot of new music by contemporary composers then, and I think that was fulfilling my need to create something new. After I stopped, I didn’t compose for a really long time, probably about 10 years.
Then, in 2013—not too long after I joined IVY, actually—I went through some major changes in my life, and for a variety of reasons, I suddenly felt like I had a story to tell. So, I started writing again in a very non-committal way. I would write pieces and not necessarily finish them because I didn’t have any infrastructure to do anything with them. Then I did a concert with IVY at the DiMenna Center. Very rarely do I get a chance to perform my own work, but IVY suggested I perform something that I was writing. It was the first event in a really long time that gave me an impetus to finish writing my music and get people together and make it happen.
IVY: Why did you start Your Music Bus?
Students across the board have challenges in getting recordings of their works, and quality recordings are so, so important for composers and their careers.
Beyond that, students are also writing music and never interacting with performers to discuss it. There’s no dialogue for feedback or experimentation, which is so key for good new music. So composers are often discouraged from experimenting, which isn’t the best thing for forwarding one’s career. That’s how we found the need for Your Music Bus.
So, I co-founded this project with my partners, composers Lisa Bielawa and Aaron Jay Kernis. We offer students of composition the chance to hear their pieces, to see what works and doesn’t, before their final recording. The services that we offer are so manifold — we have many different things that we do; depending on the needs of the school, program, or students , we can easily customize our offering. We are not just limited to recordings and interactions with performers, but also master classes, workshops, and full residencies. It’s kind of an all-around composer education workshop, and we always hire top-notch contemporary music performers as a way to keep costs down for schools.
IVY: You’ve started your new venture, Stone Mason Projects, with the goal of launching a new opera about the challenges facing fellow women artists throughout history. What inspired the project?
I read the diaries of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel—Viennese socialite who was married to composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel—and felt very connected to her for a very long time.
She was very brilliant and talented and was a composer, but she lived in a time, when it was not acceptable for a woman to have a career as a musician. So, instead, she just became the muse of all these really great artists. She was able to be an artist through all these relationships with artists, but then they were really tumultuous relationships because she didn’t want to love them, she just wanted to be them.
I’ve definitely experienced something like what she felt in my own life. I’m fortunate that I now live in very different time, and I’m able to do really whatever I want and not have it be a controversy. But, I do feel very feminist about the ways that women are looked at as “different” in the workplace, in society, and in music. The composition world is still very much inhabited by a lot of old white guys. There are some music competitions, where a woman hasn’t been selected in decades.
IVY: Can you talk about literary figures that inspired the project?
Edna Pontellier from Chopin’s The Awakening is kind of an archetype for women discovering their identities as artists. Because she lived in a time when women existed only in very finite roles as wives and mothers, she didn’t even know at first why she was so discontent. Her will to do something more with her life didn’t make sense in that context, and ultimately lead to a tragic ending for her. But for her, being an artist and discovering her inner identity was synonymous with freedom, in every sense of the word. The work I’m creating is all about this kind of internal discovery and path to freedom. These days, it doesn’t have to have such a tragic end for us, thankfully!
IVY: If you could give advice to young performers, what would you say?
The same advice that I would tell anyone—create your own opportunities. Nobody is going to come looking for you. You have to do it yourself, and if you feel like you have something to say, then say it! Don’t wait for a position; don’t wait for an ensemble to ask you. Just do it. Also, it’s so important to do projects that you believe in. Don’t force things. Don’t make artificial art.
IVY: What message do you want to send out to IVY members?
I want to get people involved with my projects. Visit the website of Stone Mason Projects (www.stonemasonprojects.org), Your Music Bus (www.yourmusicbus.org) and my personal website (www.pamelastein.net). Come to some performances. Stone Mason’s inaugural performance is taking place on November 12th at the National Opera Center, and features an entire program of contemporary women composers, including the three composers behind the opera. If what I’m doing speaks to you, let’s talk about how you can become involved!
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