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An Interview with Rebekah Heller, renowned contemporary bassoon soloist, curator & educator

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

"I've devoted much of my career to playing the music of living composers. The music that's created today. And I think one of the biggest differences, or one of the things that sets it apart, the music that I play is music of your time, the music of my's our music. So I think there is something we can innately understand about it, if we allow ourselves to get past what we've been taught."

- Rebekah Heller

We had the wonderful chance to interview Rebekah Heller in New York on 9/19/20 via Zoom conference call in September!

Rebekah Heller is considered one of the top bassoonists in the world, and is a uniquely dynamic soloist, collaborative artist, improviser, curator, and educator. Called "an impressive solo bassoonist" by The New Yorker, she is fiercely committed to expanding the modern repertoire for the bassoon. She has a deep passion for commissioning and performing new music, coupled with her expertise as a pedagogue, organizational dreamer, fundraiser, and conscientious curator, all of which make her uniquely positioned to guide early-career artists and arts organizations who are seeking to forge their own way.

Rebekah has joined the faculty of the College of Performing Arts (CoPA) and The Mannes School of Music at The New School in the fall of 2019.

She leads a bassoon studio there, and is thrilled to be teaching bassoon students at the Mannes School of Music, including a new course focused on Contemporary Repertoire and Techniques for all Mannes instrumentalists.

To listen to the entire audio interview, please scroll down to the bottom of this blog.

For more information about Rebekah Heller, including her background, projects, and videos, please make sure to visit her profile page.

BB: What got you started with the bassoon?

Rebekah: One of the reasons I chose the bassoon when I was 9 years old, is because there were so few people playing it! My mother was a flutist. She was always talking about how many flute players there were, and how competitive it was, and I was a little rebellious kid that was like, I want to play something that nobody else played!

BB: Did you play any other instruments before that?

Rebekah: I started playing the piano, very poorly, when I was 5, because my big brothers did. But you know, piano is a very solitary pursuit, and I did not like practicing nearly enough to get good at it. My mother had been a flute player, never professionally but she was quite good, and my brothers played brass instruments, and so the wind family felt kind of natural. Because I wanted to play something nobody else played, my mother helped guide me to the oboe or the bassoon. My best friend at the time wanted to play the oboe, so I was like, "Sure, I'll take that one!" I had no idea what it sounded like, and I had no idea what it was. I'm from a really small town, and it was kind of wild to think they even had a bassoon in the school district, and it was this behemoth, plastic thing, from probably World War II. And my band director was so excited, he was like, "What?! You want to play that??" I was immediately placed in the high school orchestras, at age 9, thrown in well above my depth, just because I was the only one.

BB: What was it like playing bassoon for the first time?

Rebekah: It was pretty wild. This was before the internet existed, and I remember my mother and I spent at least an hour trying to figure out how to put it together. There was no instruction manual and my band teacher didn't even know! It came with this horrible plastic reed, and, I put it all together, and I put the reed on, and I just started honking away. I was able to play 'Mary had a Little Lamb' and I remember my entire face, just vibrating wildly, like it was going to fall off. And it was so cool! It made such a loud sound, and I remember my brothers saying "Ewww...that's so ugly!" But anything that made them mad, I was super into! So it felt really out of control, but it felt really powerful and strong, and it was like "Oh, this is kind of cool."

BB: said it was a plastic reed that came with it?

Rebekah: It was a plastic reed. I played on that for a couple of months until I found a teacher who could give me some real reeds.

BB: I noticed the music you play is really different from a lot of bassoonists. How would you describe that type of music?

Rebekah: You know, that's a great question. I've devoted much of my career to playing the music of living composers. Music that's created today. And I think one of the biggest differences, or one of the things that sets it apart the most, is that unlike playing Bach or Beethoven (which I also love to play), is that it’s the music of my time, and of your's our music. Because of that, I think there is something we can innately understand about it, if we allow ourselves to get past what we've been taught...which is that certain sounds are ugly, or certain music is weird. ...Younger kids, in elementary school, experience all music with such curious and open ears! I think we're taught over time that this is the way classical music is supposed to sound like.

One of the reasons I've decided to build my career around the music of living composers is because I love to be a part of the creation process. I like to work side-by-side with the composer to create new works, whether it is solo works, or works with my chamber ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, because I think that is such an exciting and creative part about being a musician. In all of the solo pieces that I've commissioned, there's a huge part of my playing, my style, my sound, and my artistic ideas in them, and that's really satisfying. When I first became aware of Pascal Gallois, the French bassoonist who commissioned so much repertoire, it was super eye-opening. We all owe him a huge debt. He gave us the Berio Sequenza XII, Dai Fujikura’s The Voice and so many more seminal works. I think that the more performers and repertoire that younger bassoonists can be exposed to, the better!

Your website is such an awesome idea because it allows people to see the myriad performance and career paths that you can have, and how different they can look. And I think that's really exciting for younger players, to have someone to look up to, to see themselves in someone else, and to say, "Oh, ok!... this is something I can visualize now."

BB: You've tried to go on the more contemporary side, as most people when they think of bassoon, they think about Bach and other classical you mention. I just think it's cool how contemporary music is also really exciting.

Rebekah: One of the things I find really interesting, and I'm sure you've come across this looking at different bassoon repertoire and what's available, is that in the baroque era, especially with Bach, especially with Vivaldi, especially with Telemann, there are these crazy virtuosic bassoon parts. Very soloistic, very difficult, and this is on a baroque bassoon — which had 3 keys versus 23! A lot of incredible technique was required to play those pieces. And then, in the classical and romantic eras, composers kind of forgot about the bassoon as a solo instrument. It got shelved. We don't have a Schumann Sonata, we don't have a Beethoven Concerto, we don't have any of these rich, meaty pieces that a lot of the other wind instruments got. Fast forward, and now we're catching up to where we were in the baroque era. Composers and listeners and performers are excited about what a rich solo instrument the bassoon actually is.

BB: Do you have any funny bassoon videos from over the years that you'd like to share?

Rebekah: Oh, I'm sure that I do! I've had the normal terrifying a reed that wasn't reamed properly once — actually, it was more than once — came off the bocal and into my mouth, or it's fallen down to the floor! That type of thing has happened more than my fair share.

BB: Do you have a favorite piece of music for the bassoon?

Rebekah: That's so hard...I think I've really come to love every piece as I'm working on it. But the thing I come back to, on a daily basis, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, is the Bach Cello Suites. I play them every day. They're my etudes, they're my solo pieces, they're my meditation, they're my home base, they're my technique, they're my sound. It is my lifelong goal to record them all...but I feel I need a few more decades of life experience and playing before I'm ready to release that into the world. Or maybe a year, who knows! But for me, they're some of my favorite pieces of music to play on the planet.

BB: I noticed that you are a part of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), can you tell us a little bit about that and what it's like?

Rebekah: International Contemporary Ensemble is a collective of creative artists who have been making music together since about 2001. It's our 20th year anniversary coming up! I've been with the group since about 2008, and I've had sort of a winding path to get there. The group started at Oberlin College, which is where I went to school. I knew everyone in the ensemble, but I couldn't see myself following that career path. I didn’t see a lot of bassoonists making a living in new music, and I didn’t know of a lot of the repertoire. Most of all, I really needed to make money! So I went to grad school and committed to an orchestral path (which felt safest at the time). I was in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, I was in the New World Symphony, then I got a job as Principal Bassoonist of the Jacksonville Symphony (2008-2009), which was incredible, and I had an amazing time down there! But it also allowed me to understand what i always deeply knew, and didn't really let myself know, which was that playing in an orchestra was not a fulfilling career path for me. I love it, it's so much fun, but to do that day after day, year after year, and have no agency over what music you play, who you play it with, the kind of music you play, just wasn’t for me. I'm a soloist, and a chamber musician, and I much prefer making that kind of music more often. So having the opportunity to play in that orchestra gave me a chance to release that dream, which was someone else's dream...and have the courage to move to New York and to do what I needed to do, to play with this amazing group, the International Contemporary Ensemble. I was broke! I waited tables, and I worked at holiday markets, and did lots of odd jobs. But I was happy doing them, because it allowed me the freedom to really start committing to this group of people and a new artistic life.

I've been lucky enough to have played all over the world; tours in Europe, Asia, and South America, playing chamber music and as a soloist. I’m lucky enough to have been involved in hundreds, if not close to a thousand by now, world premieres.

Bringing new pieces into the world is something that we're really committed to, and highlighting the music of underrepresented composers: Black composers, composers of color, composers from parts of the world that haven’t historically been celebrated. For much of history, in contemporary classical music, the focus in the States and in Europe has been on the music of white European men. We decided as a group that enough people were doing that, we needed to do something different. Playing in this ensemble has been formative for me — for my career as an artist, and as a bassoonist — and has shaped the musician that I've become. The artists in the Ensemble are so virtuosic, and so committed, and so joyful, and so fully present in every note—that that's really what drew me in, and I was like "Ok, this is it, this is the thing."

I was also on the staff of the organization for a decade, most recently as co-artistic director, and recently stepped down to spend more time on my craft, teaching at Mannes School of Music, and guest appearances.

BB: I also noticed on your website, fantastic website by the way, that you give a lot of lectures as well, and one of the interesting ones is "conscientious curation." I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that?

Rebekah: Yeah, this is something I'm really interested in, and I love talking about it, especially with younger artists and performers. I find that one of the things many people don't think about a lot is…’what does it mean to have the kind of power to decide what gets played on a stage?’

That's a position of incredible power and privilege. And with that power comes a lot of responsibility. I think that isn't intuitive at first. It's crucial to look at that power, and ask yourself what factors are involved. What community am I in? What space am I presenting the concert in? How can I present something that feels relevant in the community? Who are the composers? How are we making the pieces? How are we inviting the audience into the process as much as we possibly can? How does this process affect the people in the community and the careers of those particular artists?

I think it's important to acknowledge that when you have the power of a platform — which is curation — whether it's your senior recital, or whether it's at Lincoln Center, it is a statement. It's not a neutral act. To understand all the complexities behind that is the first step in saying, “how do I conscientiously engage with the art of curation”? It can’t simply be: "What's my favorite piece?” Or "I really like to play this piece"..."

BB: The Ensemble Evolution...can you tell us a little bit about that?

Rebekah: Sure! Ensemble Evolution is a summer intensive program for artists towards the beginning of their careers, who are interested in socially conscious art-making, and in blurring the lines between composer / performer, or what you might call generative artists. The program began in partnership with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in 2017, and in 2020, we moved to The New School, in NYC, for a virtual intensive.

Evolution is an amazing space for artists to find a community with one another — artists who are interested not only in their craft, in excelling and becoming better practitioners, but also in finding and creating community with one another, and in expanding their own view of their artistic practice.

Art-making at its best is a socially conscious act… at Ensemble Evolution we ask, ‘how do you place yourself, as an artist, within the fabric of our society?’ And ‘what is a socially engaged, and a socially conscious artist? What does that mean to you?

For people who are really curious about that, and really engaged in social justice and racial justice work, and want to combine all of those parts of themselves, it's a really incredible program, and a way for people to build the community that will support them their entire careers. I see it as a launching ground for relationships that will define a new generation of artists. Already, from the first few years of Evolution, we're seeing duos and trios forming, we're seeing composer collectives forming, we're seeing concerts featuring alums supporting one another in different cities to promote one another’s work and to create concert series together.

Although it’s quite competitive to get in, we worked really hard on making the program tuition-free, so that cost won’t be a barrier to entry for anyone.

BB: Any other thoughts or ideas that you think younger bassoonists would benefit from?

Rebekah: One of the things that I love about being a bassoonist, and one of the things I really cherished about going to school with other bassoonists, is the community that’s created. Bassoonists are generally really chill! And we're social. And I've arguably learned more from my fellow bassoonists than from any one teacher I've ever had. Just making reeds together, playing together, is so rich!

Inspired by that, I'm starting a bassoon ensemble commissioning project.

We need a whole repertoire of work for bassoon choir, right??

I think it’s a really amazing opportunity for bassoonists to get to play more together, and continue to learn from one another.

And before I go...a huge shout out to the bassooning giants on whose shoulders I stand: my teacher, Kristin Wolfe Jensen, my idol, Judith LeClaire, and, of course, Pascal.

To listen to the full interview with Rebekah, please clik below:

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