Leah Sproul Pulatie's range as a composer and performer is nothing short of astonishing. The composer and arranger of a considerable amount of vocal, chamber and theatrical works, not to mention large-scale orchestral pieces as well as music for her voice and acoustic guitar, Pulatie's music and work ethic are sure to inspire. For this edition of Listen Local we speak with Pulatie about her craft, how she overcomes creative blocks and how her love of podcasts figures into her music.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
I live in Waldo (KCMO) and work in Overland Park. I moved here in 2010 to get my doctorate in composition at UMKC Conservatory and just graduated last year. Things are starting to settle in for me as I've just begun regular full-time office work with a local nonprofit. After 5PM, I'm cooking, writing music, playing music with friends, or volunteering with local organizations such as Sigma Alpha Iota, an international women's music fraternity.
You have an extensive list of musical accomplishments, including everything from vocal to orchestral works to solo acoustic. What’s the most enjoyable and/or challenging of these for you?
I began my musical life as a singer and my creative life as a songwriter, so I will always revel in composing for the human voice, be it contemporary classical or folk/pop in style. Large instrumental works for orchestra or band and opera are the most technically and practically challenging works to write because there are so many moving parts. However, those challenges are probably the most rewarding to accomplish.
Describe your creative process. What tools do you use? How do you break through creative blocks?
Pieces tend to come to me in the form of many disparate ideas, both musical and not, that my mind has grouped together for some reason. Writing the piece tends to be figuring out that reason--the connection between these seemingly unrelated things. For example, my dissertation piece (a trumpet concerto for wind ensemble) brought together quotes from Teddy Roosevelt, museum design and wayfinding, astronomy, dinosaurs, and the trumpet. The connection I found in these things was a human fascination and love of the natural world, which is ultimately what I hope is conveyed through the music.
Words and text help me so much in working with such an abstract medium as music. I use words to help me find rhythms, melodies, and also general character and feeling. When I feel blocked I first step away and do something else for a bit--I've learned my subconscious mind is much smarter than me and will often figure things out while I'm not looking. Then, I'll go back to concrete ideas and words to help bring me back to the big picture of the piece. That will help me see any places I can easily fix and places that might need some more time to work themselves out.
I have been experimenting with my process recently, trying to incorporate more improvisation into my work. I love improvising, composing music in real time and being hyper focused and present on my instrument and those playing around me. I am probably more confident walking onstage having no idea what I am about to play than having an entire recital of music memorized and perfected.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by being in nature and learning about science. I also love good stories that make me think deeply about our world. I love listening to podcasts and audio books--I am a very auditory learner, as you might imagine! Podcasts are now so well-crafted and designed they are an art form unto themselves. The good ones give me musical insights into pacing and structure. I also love reading memoirs. They are a good reminder that everyone takes a different path to get to where they are–that capital-S 'Success'–and that I should really just enjoy the journey more.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I just finished reading this book (I never had to read it for class), and I couldn't stop thinking about it once I'd finished. Jane is such a strong feminist character, particularly for her time. She is passionate, introverted, and always true to her personal values. I strongly identified with both her strengths and weaknesses.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This was another book that stuck with me long after finishing it. I had so many conflicting emotions about the narrator and loved the way Ishiguro slowly revealed pieces of the story. I like his book Never Let Me Go as well–he uses a similar unveiling narrative technique that really draws me in.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
I mentioned I liked memoirs–this was one that recently resonated with me deeply. She is full of great advice and stories about being an energetic, creative person throughout her 20s, 30s, and 40s. Poehler writes about being young: "the pressure of 'what are you gonna do?' makes everyone feel like they haven't done anything yet." That line really stuck with me.
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
This book was shown to me by one of my dearest friends in undergrad and changed the way I thought about composing. This book should be called "If You Want to Do Anything Creative". I always come back to it if I am feeling blocked or frustrated with the creative work I'm doing. 3 quarters of a century after publication, Ueland's words remain invigorating and alive! Favorite chapter title: "Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing."
Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen, but particularly the Ang Lee film adaptation
This is my favorite Austen novel and my favorite movie of all time. I even wrote a piece about it! More than any of Austen's other novels, it is a story about women and their relationships to one another from every generational angle. And Emma Thompson (both her acting and her screenplay) is perfection.
Stranger than Fiction
Did I mention I like Emma Thompson? In this film she plays a famous author whose current novel ends up coming to life as she writes it. It's my favorite Will Ferrell movie as well. Actually, the entire cast (Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal) is amazing! The story is surreal, a bit whimsical, and very touching.
Whokill by tUnE-yArDs
Funky percussive folk rockers whose content and rough edges get you just uncomfortable enough to make you think deeper into their songs. LOVE Merril Garbus's intense vocal style.
Who's Feeling Young Now by Punch Brothers
What you'd get if you crossed Bill Monroe with Radiohead. They are a beautiful and brilliant mix of bluegrass and indie rock. They are also just phenomenal musicians—see them live if you can!
Strange Mercy by St. Vincent / Middle Cyclone by Neko Case -
These are two of my favorite contemporary lyricists and songwriters, so I couldn't choose. Listen to Annie Clark of St. Vincent for her artsy guitar shredding, and Neko if you prefer a bit more twang. Both have great pacing and structure.
An American Journey by Charles Ives
This album has a great variety of music from one of my favorite composers, Charles Ives. His songs and orchestral works changed the way I thought about music and inspire me to this day.