This edited version originally appeared in UChicago News on 26 February.
Kate Pukinskis loves to sing in choirs, to be on stage with others enveloped by the “crazy, loud sounds” of Beethoven’s Ninth or Verdi’s Requiem. “Choral music comes very naturally to me,” said Pukinskis, a doctoral student in composition in the Department of Music who has sung in professional choirs since she was a child.
“There is great joy in making music with other people—and it’s such a cool thing to use your voice as your instrument and feel it resonate inside your body.”
Pukinskis enjoys crafting that experience for others as she has done with her latest work, Water on the Thirsty Land: Three Songs from the Book of Isaiah, a set of choral pieces for unaccompanied choir that premiered February 28 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, as part of the Quire & Place concert series.
Entitled Sacred Powers of Water, the concert explored water themes and features commentary by Christopher Neill, director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., where the concert will be repeated later this year.
Pukinskis chose three excerpts from Isaiah that use water as metaphors for the divine—as protector, life giver, and strengthener. She realizes them musically, creating moments where words and sounds invoke the comfort of being enveloped in a pool, or the relief that comes when one’s thirst is quenched. She draws inspiration from her carefree childhood in New England, roaming through woods and swimming in ponds. “I remember playing in the water and how insulating that felt,” she said. “Anyone can relate to that protective feeling.”
Seated at the Steinway grand on the top floor of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Pukinskis demonstrates how dissonant chords give way to “comforting sounds” that sit easily in singers’ ranges. She says she used the text’s natural meter to guide her toward points of weight and focus and dispensed with a fixed key signature to allow for freedom of movement. “With contemporary music, for the most part, we’ve stopped writing in keys because things move too often,” Pukinskis said. “If you eliminate the key signature you can do whatever you want.”
Pukinskis grew up in a “singing family,” something essential to her Latvian lineage (on her father’s side). She says she knew she was destined to become a composer when, as a young piano student, she found herself much more interested in the way a piece of music sounded than in practicing it. That hunch was confirmed at a high school summer music program at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute. Pukinskis composed a double woodwind quartet that was performed by her peers at the end of the six-week session. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do,’ ” she said.
Pukinskis went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition from Carnegie Mellon University and sang with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh before enrolling at the University of Chicago, where she has pursued research focusing on Latvian choral music and nationalism. In 2013, she traveled to Latvia to attend the famed Latvian Song and Dance Festival and to meet extended family members for the first time—an experience that profoundly shaped her. “I started to realize that who I was as a composer was partially where I came from, where my roots lie,” Pukinskis said. (One of her previous compositions, entitled Marta Sniegs, orMarch Snow, is a choral piece based on a Latvian poem she found in one of her grandmother’s poetry books.)
“Her composition March Snow is gorgeous—I was so proud of her for composing it,” said Pukinskis’ doctoral advisor Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor in Music and the College. “Kate’s music is heartfelt and lyrical and her passion for life and music are inspiring.”
Pukinskis will have at least one more of her pieces performed at the University before she graduates. Her dissertation, a work for choir and chamber orchestra, is being composed under the guidance of Read Thomas and will be presented as part of Contempo’s “Tomorrow’s Music Today” series next spring.
Pukinskis says although the text for Water on the Thirsty Land comes from the Old Testament, she hopes its appeal will transcend particular religious beliefs and traditions. “You don’t have to be moved by everything in a piece of music or agree with everything that you hear,” she said. “But if you can allow yourself to find meaning in some sonic part of the piece or in the text, then that to me is a sacred experience.”
The Sacred Powers of Water concert also featured the world premiere of Oka Ayasha, with music and words by Chickasaw Indian composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Both shared the program with Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning and Henryk Górecki’s Szeroka Woda (Broad Waters).