Concert Preview: Claudia Hinsdale Senior Recital

“Oh what is holiness?” asks contemporary poet Mary Oliver in “The Fawn.” In contemplating nature as the divine, we might ask ourselves how we spiritually connect to the world around us when listening to fourth year Oberlin TIMARA student composer Claudia Hinsdale’s senior recital on April 25. When Hinsdale sings, her voice settles like a reverent hymn. Each listener’s mind, body, and soul should come into alignment when witnessing the composer’s music. When was the last time we felt akin to something larger, greater? Is there something sacred in the natural environment around us? Perhaps these are questions the artist has contemplated herself in rural Ohio over the past four years, and will answer during her program on Sunday at 8:30 pm underneath Mudd ramp at the Mary Church Terrell Main Library.

Hinsdale wanted her concert to take place outside. Due to Covid19, Oberlin Conservatory’s  performance guidelines severely limit indoor audience members. Performing outdoors, Hinsdale said, will add a social energy to her music, and combat the isolation she’s felt the past year preparing for this moment. She also chose Mudd over a venue like the Bandstand in Tappan square since the “feel” there is more intimate — secluded even though it’s in a public space. 

In addition to some varying sets of transitional improv, Hinsdale’s recital will feature about fifteen original pieces. The musician will use a minimal set up, just a midi controller with pre-recorded tracks to accompany her amplified voice. As an electroacoustic musician, much of her music is made from a computer with software synthesizers and midi keyboards. In addition to looped vocals, guitar, and piano, Hinsdale also has an affinity for incorporating field recordings into her work: “They’re mostly of outdoor sounds, like pulling weeds… also lots of water.”

Hinsdale will add a visual component to her recital. With the help of computer science major Kiera Saltz, the musician will project two large “video patches” onto the sides of the library. The video patches will be controlled live by Kiera, altering the textures, colors, and lighting design to match the ambience of each piece as the recital progresses. The video installations also speak to Hinsdale’s desire to include visually interactive elements in her performances. She thinks about music kinesthetically as much as sonically, and especially with voice as her favorite medium, the body speaks to Hinsdale as an instrument in and of itself. “Movement reflects my work to a degree. I won’t say I’ll be dancing or anything like that, but you might find me lying on the floor for a few minutes,” she said with a laugh.

Save for one song produced by TIMARA fourth year Phoebe Mapes-Frances, and another featuring Mapes-Frances and individual conservatory major Diana Gruber, everything has been created solely by Hinsdale. This might be expected for a senior composition recital, but so much of the musician’s time at Oberlin has been spent working on music with others. Whether it’s vocal chamber music, an organismal sound installation for  contemporary dance, or working with Professor Gregory Ristow on a modern interpretation of Allegri’s Misereri Mei, collaboration is at the core of Hinsdale’s work. When asked about her support from the department as a whole, Hinsdale couldn’t speak highly enough about TIMARA. She said she was “shocked and surprised at the sheer amount of experience in all sorts of different fields and practices” that she’s gained in four years. Upon graduating, Hinsdale feels not only as a performer, but as a holistic “working artist.”

Finney Chapel, November 16th 2019, Kaleidosonic Music Festival: a 50 year celebration of Oberlin Conservatory’s TIMARA department. Pictured: Gregory Ristow conducting The Oberlin College Choir performing Claudia Hinsdale’s Joy (variation on Allegri’s Miserere).

The subtleties of Hinsdale’s music, allude to a larger philosophy. When asked in a recent interview what famous musicians inspire her work, she admits she can never authentically answer that question: “I try really hard to draw parallels between myself and other artists, like ‘hm, maybe my art sounds like this, this, or this.’” But for Hinsdale, this almost never works. One might call her a visionary — a musician whose music can’t easily be held in comparison to someone else’s work. What makes her compositions so distinctive? 

“My music is a summation of the environment around me at the time, not the artists who are far away from me. There’s so much going on right here, around me… and it’s probably saying something to me.. so why don’t I try to figure out what it is?”

More than anything, Hinsdale wants her music to have an emotional impact on her audience. “If I can help a listener connect to their own feelings, environment, or experience some sort of gratitude or awe, I think that’s my ultimate goal.” While the composer’s oeuvre certainly includes elements of choral music, along with electronic and pop, there’s something uniquely prophetic and mythical within each verse — Hinsdale’s ambient music reaches toward the past, present, and future all at once. In fact, when the performer reflects on her time at Oberlin, she describes her upcoming recital as representing a cyclical journey.

She’s come full circle. Upon arriving at Oberlin, Hinsdale thought she had to “fundamentally change” her creative process to one that fit the standards of an academic institution. Yet over the years, that fear couldn’t be further from the truth. Hinsdale gained confidence through the support of her peers in the TIMARA department, and also the remarkably “affirming” and exploratory mentorship from professors Tom Lopez (’89), Ami Dang (’06), and Aurie Hsu (’96). To Hinsdale, this recital feels like what her incoming freshman-self would want to have her most intimate work center-stage and worthy of an audience. “I’ve realized that the work I make — work I’m drawn to make — does have value, and that no one else is doing the same thing.”

Intentionally leaving her setlist and any specific details about her program a mystery, we are left to imagine what Hinsdale will present on April 25. 

After our conversation, I recalled the feeling I had after her junior recital in 2019. Walking home, I tried to remember the last time I had been creative, the last time I’d gone on a walk, the last time I’d prayed. Something had bloomed in my chest watching Hinsdale sing with her eyes lifted towards the sky. Echoes still hung in the air as the dust had settled from that evening, the welcome sound of her voice filling the far stretches of my imagination. I wondered in those moments if I could recall the budding blossoms of spring, the twitter of birdsong, or even what it felt like to create for the sake of joy. 

Oh what is holiness?

One can only envision what new meditations Hinsdale might leave her audience with now.

Watch the livestream here.

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