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Kinetic Celebrates Women’s History Month with a World Premiere

Composer Nicky Sohn's "Home" will premiere during Kinetic Ensemble's program titled Her Story.
Composer Nicky Sohn's "Home" will premiere during Kinetic Ensemble's program titled Her Story. Photo by Julia Gang
It's no secret that throughout history, many stories about women were written by men.

But this Women’s History Month, Kinetic Ensemble will present a musical program showcasing works by a lineup of all-female composers, including “Home,” a music and dance piece developed by Kinetic’s current composer-in-residence Nicky Sohn, Kinetic violinist Mary Grace Johnson, and guest choreographer Kayla Collymore.

The piece, which will premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 3, at The MATCH during Her Story, was inspired by a series of interviews the trio conducted with graduates of The Women’s Home, a Montrose-based rehabilitation and support facility for women struggling with addiction.

The origin of the project, however, dates back to 2020.

As fellows in the DACAMERA Young Artist Program, Sohn and Johnson were tasked with creating a community project that was both meaningful to the artists and engaged with an underserved Houston population. Certain that they wanted to work with a community centered around women, Johnson reached out to The Women’s Home and went on to run an online music workshop for their residents.

The experience and the stories the women shared inspired Sohn to write a small chamber piece, “Fresh Breath of Hope,” for violin and piano.

But for Sohn, it wasn’t enough.

“I really wanted to work with The Women’s Home even further, especially with the graduates who have [felt] the impact from The Women’s Home to change their life,” says Sohn.

She and Johnson brought the project to Kinetic’s artistic director, Natalie Lin Douglas, who added it to Kinetic’s 2022-2023 season, where it will premiere alongside Amy Beach’s String Quartet in One Movement and Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas for string orchestra.
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Violinist Mary Grace Johnson will perform during the world premiere of "Home," a piece written to her strengths.
Photo by Natalie Gaynor
After interviewing three graduates of The Women’s Home, Sohn found that they each “embraced their past, because the past is something that you can’t change,” and that their stories all contained a common message.

“Something that [the graduates] all had in common, the message they had in common, is that the next chapter is up to you. You get to write your own next chapter and what you came from is not the most defining thing about yourself,” says Sohn.

It’s a message that resonated with Sohn on a personal level, too.

“As freelance musicians, our lives are just filled with uncertainties,” says Sohn, who describes 2022 as a “big transitional year” for herself and Johnson, who both completed their coursework in the doctoral program at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

“We have to be pioneers with what we want to do, what we want to be, and so hearing these stories I, of course, felt that this was something that I could learn from personally.”

The stories Sohn heard from The Women’s Home graduates resulted in “Home,” a 20-minute interdisciplinary piece written for violin and string orchestra that evokes the legendary Phoenix, a mythological creature that represents death and rebirth. But Sohn admits that sitting down to start writing was more than a little nerve-wracking.

“The very first measure I was definitely freaking out a lot,” says Sohn with a laugh.

“It’s such a vulnerable thing that they did,” adds Sohn. “I really wanted to make sure that I was giving them the honor and the respect that they deserve for the stories that they shared.”

Though she sometimes tries to work outside musical ideas into her compositions, with “Home” Sohn says she purposefully tried to move away from extramusical influences in order to discover her own personal musical voice.
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Kayla Collymore provides choreography for the interdisciplinary work "Home."
Photo by Tati Vice
“This whole process has been an interesting process in learning my own self, too, because hearing these women talk about how important it is to really trust yourself, that it’s you that needs to push yourself to get to the next step – that was exactly it for me too writing-wise.”

Still, Sohn stresses that collaboration is woven throughout the creation of “Home,” from its initial inspiration, drawn from the graduates of The Women’s Home, to her close work with Johnson to develop a part that would showcase the violinist’s strength as a player.

The collaborative process extends to Sohn’s work with Kinetic’s ensemble, too.

“I feel like composing is already such an isolated process that whenever I can get any extra help or any extra inspiration from the musicians who are actually physically going to play the music, it’s always very helpful for me,” says Sohn.

Being named Kinetic’s first composer-in-residence has afforded Sohn the opportunity to work with the ensemble throughout the season and get to know each player’s strengths as well as how the ensemble works together, which Sohn describes as “very, very different” and “fascinating.”

“It is a conductorless group, so the way that they work is super organic,” says Sohn. “It’s not just that the first violinist talks and everyone obeys. Everyone has an opinion, everyone can talk during the rehearsal, so the music-making process is really alive.”

Sohn recalls working with the ensemble during rehearsals for “What Happens If Pipes Burst?” – the composer’s reflection on Winter Storm Uri, written for string orchestra, that premiered last year – saying that the experience taught her a valuable lesson.

“I learned that there isn’t just one way to play my music, and there isn’t just one right way to play my music,” says Sohn.
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Kinetic Ensemble has a history of presenting music and dance works, such as their program Bodies in Motion, presented by Kinetic, Musiqa and Open Dance Project.
Photo by Lynn Lane
“They had so many cool ways to interpret my work that it was honestly very difficult for me to decide which was the best,” adds Sohn. “So, at the end, I just said, ‘What do you guys think,’” says Sohn with a laugh. “’I love all of this.’”

After past experiences working on several ballet pieces, including with companies such as the Stuttgart Ballet and New York City Ballet, Sohn also calls working with choreographers one of her favorite things to do.

“Music is pretty much the most abstract version of art, but when dance is created my music immediately becomes something physical, something more visual, and so seeing the choreographers and dancers transform my music into movement…It’s magical,” says Sohn.

The addition of Collymore’s choreography, made for three dancers, further enhances the meaning of the project in a way, Sohn says, that even words can’t.

“We usually have to write a program note about what the music is about and explaining what music is about in words, it’s actually a very tricky thing,” says Sohn. “It’s a very delicate thing to handle, but as soon as there’s a dancer, as soon as there is movement, people can understand it so much more personally and closely.”

In looking back on the creation of "Home," Sohn says one of the most important lessons she learned was about community.

“Talking to the graduates from The Women’s Home I really realized how important it is to have a community that supports you and that’s there for you,” says Sohn. “Working with Mary Grace, Kayla and the Women’s Home, I was even more reminded that it’s not just about me. It’s about the community. It’s about how we come up with all of this together.”

Kinetic Ensemble’s Her Story is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 3, at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, please visit $30 (with $10 student tickets available at the door).
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.