Behind the Scenes with Katherine Altizer


Choral Arts: You’re knowledgeable in so many facets of the musical world, and we are so excited to boost our film viewing experience through your upcoming talk, Film Music and Sound. Can you tell us about your current professional pursuits?

Katherine Altizer: I am an educator, researcher, and pianist working toward my PhD in Musicology at Indiana University in Bloomington, where I’m writing a dissertation on animals and music. I have loved teaching a range of classes at IU, including Women Musicians, Film Music, Music and Nature, Intro to Music, and a pro-seminar in music history for graduate students, and I am very excited to start a new adventure in the fall as Visiting Instructor of Music at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Choral Arts: What album, recording, or artist are you listening to most right now?

Katherine Altizer: I’ve been watching and listening to Lulu Wang’s The Farewell on repeat. The acting is amazing, there are many laugh-aloud moments, and I love multigenerational family stories that center women and questions about the nature of home. The story focuses on Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American writer, and her family as they come to terms with the news that their beloved Nai Nai, Billi’s paternal grandmother, has terminal cancer. The movie is filled to bursting with beautiful music, and the score, both the fantastic new compositions by Alex Weston and the perfect borrowed tunes, really leans into film music’s ability to communicate the inner lives of characters. The main themes treat Mykal Kilgore’s voice like a solo instrument, beautiful vocables sung in falsetto, set against strings; the result is that you get all the symbolism associated with the human voice in a film score—a musical manifestation of a character’s voice—combined with the more semiotically open approach of a wordless instrument. I love how each melodic line in “The Lie” ends on a little leap, a yearning ascent that leaves you feeling aspirational and restless, somewhat like Billi. The choirs are also scored with vocables, and in one interview Weston talks about how the choir communicates the idea of community as well as plays on the simultaneous drama and mundanity of family life; whereas a choir is often used to create theatrical moments, the wordlessness of a choir singing “doo doo doo” makes highly dramatic visual and narrative moments seem almost funny.   There’s a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” by Elayna Boynton at the end that never fails to bring me to tears.

Choral Arts: Tell us about a moment of connection or transformation through music.

Katherine Altizer: On New Year’s Eve I played piano in a barn at Upland’s PEAK Sanctuary, Indiana’s first farmed animal sanctuary, as one segment of an all-day live-streamed telethon fundraiser. I played calm night music— Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner, nocturnes, “The Sussex Mummer’s Carol” by the self-identified “meat shunner” Percy Grainger —as my time slot was in the evening, I assumed everyone would be ready for bedtime. I wouldn’t be thrilled if someone started blasting “Flight of the Bumblebee” while I’m trying to relax before bed,  but when William the goat started to headbang, I realized some goats enjoy getting rowdy at slumber parties. Throughout the concert, Brandi, a Gloucestershire Old Spots pig who, like her siblings Isaac and Erica, adored belly scratches, snoozed behind me, nestled in warm straw, draped with baby blue and red fleece blankets. In my dissertation I’m interested in the potential of sanctuaries to create musical knowledge about farmed animals that has nothing to do with animal agriculture, that reimagines our relationships with farmed animals to value enjoyment of life, happiness, and compassion. Nothing about the experience was ideal by most musical standards, as it was twenty-eight degrees and the WiFi signal kept going out, but playing music in the presence of Brandi and friends, while raising money for an organization I believe in, is an experience I wouldn’t trade for any concert hall in the world.

Join Katherine Altizer to take a deep dive into a scene from a modern classic at our upcoming virtual subscriber experience, Film Music and Sound, on Tuesday, June 15 at 7:00 pm ET.