Our Featured Composer
I am very excited to introduce you all to the wonderful flutist and composer Pamela Sklar. Pamela has had an extraordinary career performing with the likes of Dave Brubeck and touring as a soloist with the ever popular Claude Bolling, just to name a few. We are honored that Pamela composed her work, Third Eye, for Eight Strings & a Whistle.
While she might not, I still do remember the first time I met Pamela. It was on a Metro-North train to Bronxville, shortly after I had graduated from college. I was on my way to my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, to perform on a concert of flute music that had been organized by my former teacher, Gerardo Levy. I was with Gerardo and a few other people who were performing on that program, and Pamela was on the same train. What I don’t remember is if she was playing on that concert with us, or if she just happened to be on the same train that day –– Funny, you’d think I’d remember the concert instead! I was struck by Pamela’s down-to-earthedness. She seemed so centered, curious about everything, open minded and confident in a way that was a pleasure to be around. Pamela and I have crossed paths many times since then, but I don’t think we really had our first substantive conversation until about ten years ago, when we were performing together on another concert of all flute music. Pamela and Matt toured for many years together with the New York Ragtime Orchestra in Maine and Japan and she knew about Eight Strings & a Whistle. I think by the time we started really talking at that concert in 2008, there was an established rapport between us. Shortly thereafter, Pamela starting coming to our annual concerts at the Tenri Cultural Institute. She has been such an enthusiastic supporter of our work and when we talk about what it is we are all trying to achieve musically, she still reminds me of that first time I met her on that Metro-North train.
Pamela’s Third Eye was completed and sent to us in December, 2017. Since Eight Strings & a Whistle was formed, we have been very lucky that so many composers have written such wonderful works for us. But Pamela is a FLUTIST, and for me personally, her wanting to compose for us was a very welcome addition to our repertoire. Third Eye interweaves the viola and the cello with the colors of the flute in a way that I love so much, creating a painting of tremendous beauty and spirituality with sound. We premiered Third Eye in March of this year at Bronx Community College. We plan on more performances next season – we’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Pamela – “La Reine” Musicalement, Flutistiquement, Jazzistiquement et Amicalement – as Claude Bolling so beautifully put it!
Suzanne: What drew you to composing? Can you describe how you sought to develop as a composer while maintaining a career as a flutist?
Pamela: I loved making up colorful characters and playing music as a kid. I was drawn to composing basically the same way that I just had to write stories as a child; about comic book characters I invented (Sky King, Onion Lad, for example), and the same way I just had to play the flute. I never studied composition formally but I did write some brief piano pieces during childhood, a flute duet later, and a brass quintet in college.
I was a performance major at Mannes College of Music in New York, and was very focused on my flute playing during the early part of my career. Composing was not a priority at that time. I came back to it in about 2009, when a colleague of mine heard something I'd attempted and told me that I should compose. He was forming a new composer-performer group and invited me to write a work for it. His best advice was, "Don't judge. Just write." He was sharing with me what his teacher had told him.
I began developing further as a composer while maintaining a career as a flutist without much particular planning or thought, actually. I always understood from childhood that I would be a musician, so writing for colleagues and groups is a natural extension of playing for me. Also, I've always loved playing chamber music, and I equally love composing for small ensembles.
Suzanne: What is your process and how has it changed as you have matured?
Pamela: For me, the composing process is aided by having specific people or themes in mind. A particular instrument and player, or a nature theme such as a setting, a climate, or element, for example, give me a mood, a feeling, impressions, imagery, and/or a dynamic. These integrate and enable me to combine energy, rhythm, tempo, pitch and colors which involve synesthesia. This whole process gives me greater musical detail and direction. I feel as though I’m maturing through – or almost maturing! – because of my writing! In any case, using some of what I learned in music theory classes and from what I hear and have written earlier changes some of my writing, but I’m not certain the process itself has changed much, if at all.
Suzanne: You and I started talking about you writing a piece for Eight Strings & a Whistle a few years ago, and then we revisited the idea this past Fall. How did you come up with the material for Third Eye? Can you describe your process a little bit in terms of how Third Eye came into the world and what inspires the musical ideas you choose to explore in your work?
Pamela: Third Eye was something of a distilled version of what I feel from the three of you when you play together, as well as the way your energy connects when you communicate verbally. You share a very focused, pure blend with a spiritual link. So, in terms of a theme/material I wanted to write something spiritual – something felt but not seen physically: like a third eye. I was practicing one day and suddenly just started playing a rush of notes. I quickly recorded them and realized this was the introduction, which needed to begin with flute. The realization of the title took longer than creating some of the music.
Suzanne: When I hear you play and listen to your recordings, I am struck by the variety of influences that both color your playing and your composing. You are such a versatile artist. While this is an interview about your work as a composer, I’d be curious to know who some of your greatest influences have been both as a flutist and as a composer. I would guess that the two sides of you come together often. Would you say that there is overlap in terms of how the various people you have worked with as a flutist throughout your career have influenced you as a composer?
Coming back to the influences I hear in your work, I hear the ethereal and spiritual drawn from Middle Eastern and American Indian senses of tonality, but I also hear influences in other works, which seem to draw from other parts of the world. And then, there are of course the distinctly American Jazz works – and I can hear how you draw from all of these to various degrees to create a whole. How do you work with this, how does it come together for you?
Pamela: Thank you, Suzanne. I believe I have more than two sides, which come together for me in ways that change and are like different traits of one bigger thing –– almost like contributing strands of inherited DNA. It’s all music: styles, rhythms, instruments and grooves. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I never thought about any of these styles as being different from one another! Again, this all goes back to my childhood and coming from a musical family. My brothers both played keyboard in fantastic rock bands which rehearsed at our house, and I also heard a lot of other music they listened to such as the WHO, BB King, Zombies, Wilson Pickett, The Doors, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Kinks, etc. My parents had Classical music playing on the radio in the morning and evening, and they took us to orchestra concerts. I also had a well-known violinist cousin whose recordings we listened to. All of these styles were just like different dialects of the same language to me.
Working with musicians such as Larry Coryell, Bob Mintzer and Don Sebesky at different times influenced my improvising more than my writing. My greatest musical influences in general are equally my favorite composers and performers which are rather random stylistically and genre-wise. Classically they include Prokofiev, Verdi, Faure, film composers Bernard Hermann and John Williams. Non-classical musicians/bands range from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Motown groups, Moody Blues and Hubert Laws (with whom I performed while touring with Claude Bolling). I love Native American flute sounds and Middle Eastern music, but these ancient cultures themselves are what fascinate me; many Native American tribes were very spiritual and connected with nature and animals, and their artistic and colorful styles, personal beliefs and philosophies offer us much to learn from. Likewise, Ancient Egyptian architecture, ornaments, symbolic ritual objects and fashion are compelling to me and I have great respect for some of their rulers who advocated for peace. So, I’ve drawn much musical inspiration from them.
Suzanne: What is your view of music being composed in our lifetime?
Pamela: I like a lot of different styles and I want to listen to more contemporary music.
Suzanne: One of the questions (usually the last one) we ask many of our featured composers is if they have any advice for composers who are trying to get started. I remember a conversation you and I had a very long time ago about our careers, or rather it was more about the stuff in our careers that motivates and excites us. You made a comment about how important it is to grow – I think you even said something to the effect of, “as long as you are doing something to help you grow/get better, then whatever it is that you are doing is worth the time and effort.” It’s clear to me that this is the way you have lived your life in music. What more specific advice in that vein would you give to a composer who is just getting started with that part of their life?
Pamela: I can only say that we’re wired to like, to need, to do –– or not do –– very specific things. So, if you want to be a composer (a musician, actually) then do what you must to follow your path. Find a way (or create it!) to continue growing, move forward; learn more about the instruments or voices you want to write for; make connections with others who are playing and writing –– younger or older. For depth and balance, take in historical references like dance, visual art, architecture, museums and read about places and events. (My favorite genre is historical fiction.) Also try to travel and be exposed to other cultures, even if briefly.
I completely had to do what I’m doing and never felt that it was a choice. It was a path, which lead me. This path was and still is very difficult at times. There have been sacrifices along the way, but I absolutely needed to persevere. If you must do something you truly believe in, then you must be certain that it’s right for you. Keep stretching and learning and growing. You must live in that world and take chances.
Pamela Sklar’s compositions are performed in concerts, workshops, schools, on broadcasts and themed programs in the New York area and elsewhere, including the National Flute Association Convention in Chicago and the International Double Reed Society Conference in New York City, both in 2014. Her two original recordings A Native American-Jazz Tribute and Silver Pharaoh received high praise from American Record Guide, Jazz Weekly and several Flute publications, among others. Her quartet Chains of Love, based on a poem by Cervantes, was premiered in Madrid in 2017 and received its American premiere in New York City in early 2018. A copy of her score of Spell 166 for five flutes and organ is included in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Pamela has been awarded seed grants for performances and a recording from New York Women Composers for her duo 2Flutes with Laura Falzon. New York-area ensembles that have premiered and/or performed Pamela’s music include Threeds, Englewinds, Double Entendre, Eight Strings & a Whistle, Northern Westchester Flutes, Women in Music and the Ramapo Valley Chamber Ensemble.
Pamela’s performance highlights include international tours as flute soloist with Claude Bolling, concerts with Dave Brubeck, Alan Hovhaness, Pulitzer Prize winner Karel Husa, TV appearances with tenor Andrea Bocelli, performances in orchestras for the GRAMMY Awards, jingles, films and recordings for many other artists including Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga and Paul Simon.
Pamela received her Bachelor’s degree with honors in performance from the Mannes College of Music. She has studied with John Wummer, Samuel Baron and Karl Kraber.
Upcoming performances include an original premiere for a Flute Gala tribute by the Hoff-Barthelson Music School and a program of original music by one of her bands Intuition Quartet. Upcoming recordings include 2Flutes’ debut Tapestry, and two more recordings of mostly original music by her two bands.
For more information, please visit www.pamelasklar.com.