CONCERT PREVIEW: What Water Knows: Q&A with Andrew Stiefel

by Maggie Molloy

From Monet to Mendelssohn, Van Gogh to Wagner, Dickinson to Debussy, artists across history and across artistic media have long been inspired by the beauty and majesty of the sea. For many artists, water is a muse—for some, it is the very essence of music itself.


In few cities is this truer than in Seattle. As Pacific Northwesterners, we look to the Sound, sea, rivers, and streams for food and water, comfort and relaxation, inspiration and even transportation. In Seattle, we awake and fall asleep to the gentle swooshing of Sound—and our lives are shaped and smoothed by its sparkling presence.

Water is also the inspiration behind Sound of Late’s newest music project: What Water Knows. This Friday, the Portland and Seattle-based new music ensemble presents a unique, cross-disciplinary concert program which ebbs and flows between music and poetry.

The shimmering, ocean-inspired music of composers Emily Doolittle, Nicole Portley, Bright Sheng, and Toru Takemitsu will be featured alongside music and poetry of marine biologists and commercial fishers.

We caught up with Sound of Late’s executive director and violist Andrew Stiefel to find out more about their latest musical endeavor:


Second Inversion: What makes What Water Knows such a unique and inspiring concert program?

Andrew Stiefel: I’m really excited about our collaboration with members of the Fisher Poets Gathering, an annual meeting in Astoria, Oregon where people connected to the commercial fishing industry gather to share poetry and music.

SI: What makes music a strong medium for portraying the sounds of water?

AS: Without water, life as we know it would not exist, so it’s no surprise that artists working in different mediums have chosen to use water as a symbol in their work. Rather than portraying the sounds of water, the music and poetry on this program explore multifaceted human relationships with water through narrative and metaphor.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of studying and performing this music?

AS: The spoken word reflects a myriad of experiences. From each poet, composer or musician, we get a glimpse into an intimate moment of life that we can’t access any other way.

The four pieces we’re performing each engage with the concert’s theme in a completely different way: Takemitsu’s music is evocative of place and form; Sheng draws on Chinese folk traditions and poetry; Doolittle’s piece is the result of a collaboration with marine biologists who were studying whale songs; and Portley, a fisheries biologist and composer, explores memory and her genealogical history in her piece.

It has been incredibly rewarding to discover unexpected connections between the composers we’ve chosen to feature and the poetry and music of members of the maritime community.

SI: This concert features music of contemporary composers alongside the music and poetry of marine biologists and commercial fishers. What do you find most inspiring or compelling about collaborating with these people from different fields?

AS: It has been so inspiring to listen to the poetry and prose of people who foster a deep respect for and care about the sea and the life in it. When we performed this concert in Bellingham this past weekend, the first half of the program featured poetry and readings by the Fisher Poets. Listening to the music on the second half of the program was a richer experience as a result, as certain musical moments recalled fragments of stories, ideas, and poetry from the first half.

For me, it is rare to attend a new music event (or a classical music event, for that matter) where you leave feeling like you have learned something new about a range of human experience that you were not aware of before. This program fosters that exchange and makes that understanding real.
SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audiences will gain from it?

AS: We’re inviting different members from the Fisher Poet’s Gathering to share their work on each concert, so every concert is a little different – I can’t wait to hear what Mary Garvey, David Kessler and Chris Roe will present on our program this weekend! We want our audience to leave feeling inspired to create something themselves. One of my favorite aspects of this concert is that it explores our deep connection with art, whether we profess to be professional artists or choose to pursue our craft alongside another career.


What Water Knows is this Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m. at the Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union, Seattle. There will be another performance on Thursday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Headwaters Theatre in Portland, Oregon. For tickets and more information, please click here.