Since 1995, Michelle DiBucci has been teaching music studies to actors at Juilliard—three years after she joined the faculty and four years after she got her master’s in composition here. In a way she was coming full circle. Michelle, who grew up in Pittsburgh and got her bachelor’s in music composition at Carnegie Mellon, started her life in the arts as an actor and came to composing through the theater. This spring, she will teach Music Studies to the actors as well as the Music Theory and Analysis course 20th-Century Music and Beyond.
A busy composer outside Juilliard, Michelle has two big premieres on the horizon. In November, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival will give the New York premiere of Basetrack, a multimedia theatrical experience that tells the story of the Marines in Afghanistan that was conceived by her husband, faculty member Edward Bilous (M.M. ’80, D.M.A. ’84, composition). And in February 2015, her full-length ballet Der Tod und die Malerin will premiere at Ballet im Revier, Germany. Scored for chamber orchestra, electronics, and five singers, the ballet is based on the life and work of the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon. Michelle also has composition residencies including the Dry Opera Company, São Paulo, Brazil; Banff Centre, Canada; Musiktheater im Revier, Germany; Carnegie Mellon; the University of California at Santa Barbara; and the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
Since this is the technology issue, tell us what role technology plays in your work and your teaching—and how that role has changed.
It’s impossible for me to think about creating music without technology. While I do my best to keep up with the continuous flow of new technology, I don’t feel compelled to buy more devices or software to accomplish my creative goals. Recently, I have felt the strongest benefit from using Skype. Two of my collaborators are in Los Angeles and the other in Germany. In the past, I would have needed to travel by plane only to attend a few meetings. Now, most of my out-of-town meetings are done online in the comfort of my own home.
In your opinion, can/should technology shape music?
Absolutely! Technology has always shaped music. It provides a new palette of colors, inspires new ways of composing and conceiving sound and helps to organize material and ideas. Unfortunately, I’ve met many young artists who don’t have any experience with performance technology and are therefore missing out on many creative and professional opportunities. I believe it’s the obligation of any school to make sure students graduate with an understanding of how technology is redefining the world of the creative and performing arts.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician?
I’ve played and made music as long as I can remember. When I was 16 and acting in a high school production of the play Woyzseck, by Georg Büchner, the director recommended I listen to the opera Wozzeck by Alan Berg and bang!—I heard my calling.
What teacher or mentor most inspired you when you were growing up?
I am fortunate that all of my composition teachers have been great mentors, yet the person that most inspired me as a young person was the playwright Leon Katz. He gave me very practical advice when I was 19 that I have always tried to follow: Manage your career the same way a chef manages her stovetop. Always have a project that’s boiling, a project simmering, a project that’s warming up, and a project on the back burner, and never linger with any pot too long! This advice has served me quite well.
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying?
Growing up in a nonmusical family where the radio was the main source of music I found refuge in my four beloved LPs, which I played a thousand times over: 1) Debussy Nocturnes conducted by Stokowski, 2) Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 conducted by Max Goberman, 3) Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, and 4) Meet the Beatles. I also had a nice collection of 45s that I kept in a shocking-pink record carrier. This always accompanied me when visiting friends so we could dance. The songs that stand out in my memory are “Dizzy,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Sugar Sugar,” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Once I became a teenager, my record collection—and my knowledge of music—grew significantly, leading up to Wozzeck.
What is the strangest/most memorable job you’ve had?
Strangest: being a zombie in George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead. I was in high school and needed to begin work at 3 a.m. My mother, who drove me to the set, was not pleased about this. Before shooting, I was covered in blue-gray makeup and then asked to attack another actor and eat his intestines.
Most memorable: performing as a speaker in Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II conducted by Berio at Avery Fisher Hall. Aside from speaking, I needed to sing a short, exposed passage at the end of the work while, out of a subdued wall of dissonance, the flute introduces my phrase amid several other overlapping sequences. In the dress rehearsal, I was off on my starting pitch and Berio had to stop the rehearsal to correct me. It was one of those, “Oh let me just die here right now” moments. For the performance, my clothes were soaked through with anxiety sweat. But I nailed it—well, I think I did. The whole episode seemed to happen in slooow moootion with lots of reverb-verb-verb…
What nonmusic pursuits are you passionate about?
I love cooking, especially cooking for people and sharing a meal. I got my start from my Italian grandmother, who never referred to a written recipe. I only wish I had more time to do it!
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
Everything except the prices. Sadly, artists can no longer afford to live here, which is already starting to shift the dynamic of this great place.
What might people be surprised to know about you?
I don’t have a smartphone.