Rebekah Heller is a uniquely dynamic solo and collaborative artist. Called “an impressive solo bassoonist” by The New Yorker, she is fiercely committed to expanding the modern repertoire for the bassoon. Her debut solo album of world premiere recordings (featuring five new pieces written with and for her), 100 names, was called “pensive and potent” by The New York Times and her newly-released second album, METAFAGOTE (also entirely made 1up of pieces created with and for her), is receiving wide acclaim. As Artistic Director and bassoonist of the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Rebekah performs all over the world. Not only is she committed to advancing the music of our time, she is deeply engaged in working with younger musicians to continue the ICE-y legacy of fearless exploration and deep collaboration. She is also a committed advocate, through platforms like ICEcommons (a free, crowdsourced index of newly composed music), for underrepresented voices and outrageous experimentation.
When you graduated from your undergraduate program, what were your goals and where did you see yourself headed?
I actually wasn’t so clear on that. I went to Oberlin Conservatory because they had a dual degree program, so I got both a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Bachelor of Music in Bassoon Performance. I really wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be in my life. I liked playing music, but I had a lot of other interests. I was at a crossroads. I was also broke (which many people are after college), so I auditioned for the Fellowship program at the University of Texas at Austin. That was a stipended program – a free masters program plus a stipend to work on things that were really interesting to me, such as commissioning a new piece with a professor, and doing research. I got that fellowship, and that’s a big reason why I decided to continue doing music.
So I spent two years in Austin, then I moved to Chicago where I played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra and freelanced for a year. From there I got into the New World Symphony. I was on a very traditional orchestral track. I played with them from 2005 to 2008. That’s the time when I was flirting with the idea of moving to New York and playing with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). I had visited a few times in New York, but I didn’t have a lot of contacts there yet, so I wasn’t feeling ready to make the move. I won the job as Principal Bassoonist in the Jacksonville Symphony and played with them for one season. Getting a job in an orchestra really made it blatantly clear that that kind of job just didn’t suit me. It gave the courage to move to New York and be broke, bartend, and wait tables while I sought out the collaborators and the music that I wanted to make, which at the time was primarily with ICE.
Why did you decide to leave the orchestral world?
For me it felt really limiting being told on a weekly basis what I was going to play and how I was going to play it. The only agency you have in those situations is over your small piece of the puzzle. I was really interested in collaboration, playing the music of living composers, solo playing, and chamber music playing. It just wasn’t deeply fulfilling for me. I really wanted to be able to choose who I was playing with, what I was playing, and why. It became clear to me that I needed more agency, more excitement, and more connection with the music I was playing.
Do students need to move to New York to make a career in contemporary music?
There are audiences all over the country and all over the world who are hungry for new art and new music. I don’t think it is necessary to move to New York, or even a big city, but it is necessary to find that community and activate it and be active within it. I know a lot of young musicians who are starting new music ensembles in smaller cities across the country and are getting amazing responses from community members who are excited to see really relevant, new work being produced in their hometown. It’s really exciting what is popping up all over the country.
What are your current are your solo projects?
I am in the process of commissioning works for my upcoming album. This will be my third album, and it will be focused on bassoon ensemble as an instrument. My last album has a piece on it, Metafagote by Felipe Lara, for seven bassoons. It can be played live, or I pre-recorded all the tracks so I can play it as a soloist. I actually played that piece with University of Michigan students of Jeff Lyman’s studio during ICE’s residency in October 2018! It was a beautiful concert, and I realized it was a great way for students to dip their toe into the water of extended technique and experimental sound-making in the relative comfort and safety of the group. Not only that, the bassoon choir has an incredible sound. The overtones created by that many bassoons in one room is really strange; it almost sound electronic. I became almost obsessed with that sound, so I am commissioning a set of pieces for that ensemble. I’ll be doing a show to give the world premieres of all these pieces, and the album will come out next year!
What was it like creating your first two albums?
Each album was a slightly different process. Both were entirely made up of pieces written for me and in collaboration with me. They’re pieces that feel like belong to me just as much as the composer, which is really special and that’s what I love most about commissioning. Being able to record these works and memorialize them over time was really exciting.
It was also really scary! I remember listening to the final mixes of both albums, and feeling all of these fears and insecurities about releasing this thing into the world. I was worried about how differently I played those pieces now because my interpretations have evolved since recording them. I had to start thinking of these recordings as photographs – snapshots in time. Those recordings will always exist, but that doesn’t mean that’s the musician I am now. That part of the process was harder than I imagined it would be.
What advice do you have for current students?
Follow your gut. The safest thing you can do is to listen to that deepest part of you that tells you why – why you want to make music, why you want to choose this path. Follow that and let that be your leader, because that’s the only thing that matters in the end.