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Composer Libby Rudolph turns music to activism
by Catey Sullivan
2018-10-10

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When composer/vocalist Elizabeth "Libby" Rudolph was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, one of her professors gave her some guidance that changed the shape of her education.

"He told me I was shouldn't write music because I was too female and too emotional," Rudolph said. At the time, Rudolph had been already composing for years, was a veteran of the world-renowned Interlochan Arts Academy and an award-winning tutor in the more-complicated-than-calculus study of musical theory.

She had a ready response for her university advisor: "I told him to go piss up a rope. Then I found a new college."

A few decades out from that exchange, Rudolph is both an acclaimed vocalist and composer. On Oct. 16, the queer-identifying artist is turning over a recital's worth of her own compositions to other vocalists and musicians. Finding Home, Finding Self: The Music of Elizabeth Rudolph begins at 8 p.m. at the Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, 600 W. Fullerton Ave. Proceeds from the deeply personal concert will go to the Chicago Women's Health Center, which since 1975 has worked to provide works to empower women and trans* people with pay-what-you-can-afford, high-quality health care and health education.

"I don't believe it's actually music until somebody performs it," Rudolph told Windy City Times. "It's not music when it's just sitting on a page. I have all these black-and-white notes I've written over the past 40 years, all these pieces that in my mind, aren't really music yet."

Rudolph has been writing songs since 1980, when she was a teenager growing up in tiny New Berlin, Wisconsin. She describes her sound as minimalist, contemporary and classical. She loves Stravinsky, Strauss and big band, loves and hates Wagner and once loved Philip Glass, but "burned out" on his music in high school. Her friends say they can hear jazz in her compositions. She insists she's not good at lyrics ( "I'm not confident writing in English. I am confident writing in music." ).

With degrees in vocal music and composition from Minnesota's prestigious St. Olaf College, Rudolph can deliver Cole Porter and operatic art songs with equal verve, and works regularly with Chicago's Transgressive Opera, New Moon Opera and The Floating Opera Company. Her pieces have been performed and/or recorded by VOX3 collective, Third Eye Theater, and Opera on Tap-Chicago.

"In writing music, I discover myself. Creation is a form of mediation. I need that. We all need that. Now, more than ever, creation is important," Rudolph said. The intersection of art and politics is also paramount, she said.

"It's so important to make things political right now. My dad ( and other conservatives ) like to patronizingly dismiss my concerns by saying that 'politics isn't personal.' But politics is totally personal.

"I have a pre-existing condition and I have to get individual insurance. Before the Affordable Care Act, I couldn't get insurance at any price. Anyone who votes for a candidate who pledges to eliminate the ACA without providing another way for me to get insurance, is voting for me to live in constant fear and stress. That's just one example."

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Rudolph turned the fear and stress toward amping up up her powers of creation.

"I had no comprehension that the conservative movement was so strong. I was absolutely confident Hillary would win. The composition I eventually wrote about it is called 'Sickness.' It's about the sickness that has taken control of our culture.

"It's potent here in the U.S.A., but it's happening all over. Look at Doug Ford in Ontario. Look at what's happening in Poland. Look at Theresa May and Brexit. It's important for artists to express themselves. If we don't say anything now, we might not be able to say anything later," she said.

Rudolph's work also takes on Shakespeare, who gets his own set in the Oct. 16 concert. The segment includes compositions Rudolph set to Richard III's most harrowing monologues: Lady Ann's inconsolable sorrow and rage over the Richard's butchering of her husband and father-in-law, and Queen Margaret's hair-raising, Cassandra-like incantations.

Many of Rudolph's compositions are set to poems penned by her aunt, Appleton Wisconsin-based Julia Ball. "Family Relations," featuring Ball's lyrics, includes "Perfect Fog," a song about Rudolph's grandfather and his decline into Alzheimer's. "The last eight years of his life, it was like he wasn't there. ( The song ) is about the transition between grandpa being grandpa and grandpa being gone," Rudolph said.

The concert also has an instrumental section, where musicians including Meghan Guse, Rachael Long, Samantha Attaguile and Katherine Dalin, will be in the spotlight. Other pieces feature the words of August Strindberg ( 'The Third Night,' two songs with lyrics by Strindberg for bass-baritone, bass clarinet, and piano ) and mezzo soprano/composer/poet Yvonne Strumecki ( 'e Gustaria Hablar,' a song cycle for soprano, violin, and piano ).

Rudolph's queer identity and bisexual orientation shows up in subtle ways in her performances. "I don't know that my sexuality shows up that much in my composition so much as it does in my artistic choices as a performer.

"I can flirt with everybody on stage. It's Off-Loop storefront, so nobody cares," she said. "I always sang boy songs, girl songs. Change the octave and you're fine. I came out in 1994 as a lesbian, but then I realized I still liked men too. So I've identified as bi forever," she said.

"Although," Rudolph added, "somebody recently reprimanded me on the Internet for calling myself that. They said 'bi' enforced the binary and I was actual pansexual. I've had relationships with men, women be people who didn't identify as either gender."

Rudolph's coming the concert is at once performance and a testimony to art as resistance and resilience. "If you're feeling overwhelmed and sad, go home," she said. "Lock the door. Create."

"Finding Home, Finding Self: The Music of Elizabeth Rudolph" is at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, 600 W. Fullerton. Tickets are $15. Proceeds bgo to the Chicago Women's Health Center. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/events/1615725035199317/; ticket info is at findinghomefindingself.brownpapertickets.com/ .


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