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The work of Dawn K. Williams encompasses avant-garde composition and the performance of opera and concert music. She has written works for chamber ensembles, solo instruments and voice, orchestra, and electronic and film music. Her sung repertoire ranges from Mozart, Puccini, and Brahms to world premières.

As a composer, she has a great interest in the full capabilities of an instrument. “It’s amazing what a huge number of sounds any one instrument can make,” she says. Her works often feature extended techniques and special effects; in addition to traditional sounds, she is fascinated by the diversity of sounds and timbres available from non-standard methods of playing. Her performers may speak into a woodwind or brass mouthpiece; rap the body of an instrument such as a piano or cello; sing with a combination of voiced and unvoiced sounds; perform inside the piano or with piano preparation; make music from household objects such as typewriters, kitchen equipment, or toys; or other techniques.

She often allows the performer to determine one or more musical elements—such as tempos, dynamics, rhythms, or the order of movements—within parameters she specifies. The result is that the same piece can have a very different effect from one performance to another: “it makes things more interesting,” she says. Especially being a performer herself, she has a great respect for performers, and feels that “they should be a part of the creative process.”

She is intrigued by tuning systems alternative to the equal-tempered system, and by the idea of a pitch continuum rather than regular divisions of the octave, both of which provide potentially unlimited pitches. In some of her musical gestures, pitch is less important than the overall effect of the figure, such as in her voice and ethnic drum duet Kamu Balni and her vocal solo Tesserae. She also makes use of the three-dimensional space on a stage or throughout a concert hall (as in her audience-participation pieces Impulse and Surge, which also provide guaranteed variations in pitch, rhythm, and dynamics).

Her interest in sound variety means that her musicians often perform outside their own instruments; even traditional sounds or instruments are sometimes used in unusual ways. For instance, the drummers in Nunya also shout; the Sikya vocalist also plays rattles or shakers; the Poèmes d’Amour pianist also plays wind chimes or cowbells, and never touches the piano keyboard itself; the cellist in Kiji no plays entirely harmonics, and so is always higher than the voice. Her pianists are likely to perform inside the piano by plucking, strumming, or striking the strings, or by moving the hands over the strings in a circular or wavy pattern; these methods appear in works including Poèmes d’Amour and Senet. In some of her solo pieces, the music depicts separate dramatic characters, such as in her vocal solos Pyat' Pesen and Baïlèro or her cello solo Water.

Most of her vocal works may be performed by any voice type, and some are sung without any accompaniment. In some pieces, the performer sings into an external device, such as a piano and a paper bag in Poèmes d’Amour; in her vocal solo Baïlèro, the use of a megaphone, positioned both forward and backward, creates echoes to portray a mountainous setting. The Tesserae vocalist not only sings into objects such as a metal can and a cardboard canister, but also bangs a can, stomps, and snaps fingers.

She has a great interest in languages—“if I weren’t a musician, I’d be a linguist”—and seeks out texts in a variety of languages for her vocal works: she has pieces in Russian, Japanese, ancient Egyptian, Pima, and Auvergnat, among others. She is captivated by the almost musical interplay of sounds within a language, and writes her own translations and transliterations for her concert programs. In some of her vocal works, such as Huwuld Nyui (for medium-low voice and two percussionists) and her vocal solos Baïlèro and Pascha Nostrum, the sung text is comprised partly or entirely of phonemes derived from rearranging the sounds of the original text, forming altogether new sounds.

In addition to languages, some of her compositions contain other influences of world music, such as authentic drumming patterns in her works for African drums; approximations of traditional Japanese modes in Kiji no; and the use of Native American vocables in Sikya, for solo voice. Her love of animals and the natural world appears in all of these pieces, as well as in other works such as Pyat' Pesen and Huwuld Nyui.

The visual impact of her scores themselves is often distinctive, and she frequently invents notation (“I kind of have to, for the kind of music I write,” she says). For example, she uses her own graphic notations in Aset (for speaker and prepared piano), her vocal solo Tesserae, and Senet (for medium-low voice and piano). Spatial notation appears in works including Kiji no, Pyat' Pesen, Baïlèro, and Pascha Nostrum. In addition, many of her scores are unmetered. The result is that her scores tend to be artistic visually as well as musically, and often have a unique look to them, different for different pieces.

She studied composition with Frederick A. Fox, Claude Baker, and Wayne Peterson. (She was in a lesson with the latter when he received the call that he had won the Pulitzer Prize: “the high point of my semester,” she says.) Further areas of study were done with composers John Eaton, Eugene O’Brien, Jeffrey Hass, James Aikman, and John Muehleisen. Influences on her current work include George Crumb, Luciano Berio, and John Cage. Even so, she strives to make her work distinct from that of other composers—and to make each new piece different from her previous compositions.

As a singer, her voice quality is that of the rare operatic contralto—naturally rich and dark, especially in the lower register—but is also capable of brighter and lighter tone colors. She likens her voice to a clarinet or viola, and sings with various timbres as suggested by the music. Her favorite tessitura to sing in is her lower register (her “chalumeau register,” as she calls it). She easily sings notes too low for many other female singers; in fact, she prefers the term “mezzo-contralto” to “mezzo-soprano” partly for that reason.

Trained in the Italian bel canto technique, she also performs a breadth of extended vocal techniques, allowing her to sing avant-garde music as well as opera and lieder. She enjoys the variety of repertoire, tone colors, and sounds afforded by these diverse types of music. She has sung in operas ranging from Donizetti and Verdi to Berg and Orrego-Salas; her recitals may consist of standard repertoire, new music, or a combination. Her pitch memory enables her to sing unaccompanied for long stretches; she has even sung unaccompanied recitals.

Her extended techniques include vibrato control, ranging from straight tone through tremolo; changing the tone color, such as by altering the mouth position, or by singing nasally or extra-darkly; singing while inhaling or exhaling, or breathily; Sprechstimme and Sprechgesang; among others. “It’s natural enough to do special effects,” she says. “The basic technique is the same, regardless of the repertoire.” Many of these effects appear in her compositions for voice.

A key facet to her performance is her love of drama and acting. Through her vocal and facial expression and gestures, she works not only to present the music itself, but also to convey the persona behind it as multi-dimensionally as possible: “A lot of vocal music is about the person who’s supposedly singing,” she says. “And it’s fun, besides!” In both opera and recital, she considers carefully her interpretation of each character, and fine-tunes her acting from one performance to the next (“performing is always a work-in-progress”). In abstract works, she interprets the music itself rather than a particular character, but still strives to connect with the audience: “no matter what type of music it is, performance is always putting on a show,” she says.

She has worked with stage directors including James Lucas, David Morelock, and Giorgio Tozzi, and conductors including Robert Porco, Roger Wesby, Michael Butterman, and Patricia Corbin. Her vocal studies were done with soprano Colette Rice and mezzo-soprano DeVera Thomas (second generation Virginia Zeani). Her singing is inspired by mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Larmore and Jan DeGaetani, and by avant-garde vocalists Cathy Berberian and Joan La Barbara.

She is active in other creative areas as well: “I love all things artistic,” she says. She performs in concert as a pianist, and as a dancer on the opera stage; she is also a theatrical makeup artist, graphic designer, calligrapher, and pastry chef. She has been a winner and finalist in national photography contests and a finalist in a national art contest, and her artwork appears on published book covers.