Composers Sharon Omens and Bethany Yucuis Borden appeared on my WPRK radio show, Zero Crossings on February 27, to discuss their March 7 concert event, Celebrating Women Who Compose, which took place at the Blue Bamboo Center For The Arts in Winter Park. A reprise of the concert was given on March 17 at Christ Church Unity. Presented by the Central Florida Composers Forum to mark Women’s History Month, the music was written entirely by women composers, most of whom live and work locally. Our conversation ranged from the Holocaust to virtual reality to the changing experience of women composers in a discipline with a sexist history. What follows is an excerpt from an hour-long conversation.
Charlie Griffin: Sharon, tell me about the concert.
Sharon Omens: I’m very excited about it. It’s basically a celebration of women composers. There are four composers who are local and other women composers from the past and present.
I have two pieces on the program. One is called “Whimsical Rhapsody,” for violin and piano. I will be playing the piano with a UCF violin student, Jordan Bicasan. And David Suarez is going to be playing a piece of mine for solo flute. It’s a piece I wrote for my dad, who died two years ago. It’s called “Redemption.” He was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he survived a lot of horrific events. He became a successful businessman and overcame a lot of adversity. I wanted to honor him with this piece. It has a mix of tonal music, but parts of it are very dissonant and intense, because he was an intense individual. It takes you on a journey of his life.
CG: What was that like, growing up with a father who had that experience as part of his psyche?
SO: He was a tough cookie. It was not easy. He was fearful and he was mistrustful. Rightfully so. He was a difficult man to get along with. There were times when he was very passionate and charismatic and present, and there were times when he was very difficult to be with and he would push people out of his life because he couldn’t deal with being close to people. As I got older, I made up my mind to make peace with him. Before he died, I spent quite a bit of time with him and just let him know all the things I was grateful for. We were able to make peace. We sang together the week before he died. I held his hand and we sang Jewish songs together and we both cried. It was a kind of a bond that we had—music. So, I felt very strongly that I wanted to honor him musically.
CG: How was music the nature of your bond?
SO: My father was very musical. He had a beautiful, operatic voice. He never trained it, but he loved to sing, and we used to harmonize. He had a beautiful voice and he was passionate about opera. He listened to La Boheme and Madame Butterfly all the time, and that was when he was able to let all his emotions out. He would sit on the couch with a big towel and cry. Music enabled him to access his emotions. It’s kind of why I got into music therapy as a career. I worked with the developmentally disabled for a while. Primarily, I took an interest in the elderly, and got involved with working with Alzheimer’s patients. Music was a way that they could come out of their shell. It would reconnect them to their childhoods or help them focus.
CG: What was the location where your father experienced the Holocaust?
SO: He has quite a story. He grew up in Warsaw, Poland. He grew up in the ghetto. There was a lot of anti-Semitism, and in 1939 when it really started getting bad, he escaped with his father in an illegal ship. After two months on a ship, they arrived in Palestine, and they got shot at and they had to swim to shore. About three months later, he got a letter from Warsaw that his family had been killed. His mother, his brother, his sister, and a hundred of his relatives. He had a huge family, and they were part of the Warsaw Resistance. A lot of them were hiding in cellars and died of typhoid. It tore my father apart.
CG: He had survivor’s guilt.
SO: Absolutely. In order to honor his family, he had to make something of his life. He was like a bull. So, I admired him, and yet he was so difficult at the same time.
CG: You’re the one left struggling to give him a pass on that stuff, right? You have to have the empathy and the compassion that recognizes what he went through, but that has to be hard, too. I can see that.
SO: My other two sisters, they just burned out. He actually died without saying goodbye to them. They just disowned each other. There was no forgiveness there.
CG: Have you been to Warsaw?
SO: I’ve never been to Warsaw. I’ve been to Israel. I went to high school there.
CG: I happened to be in Warsaw during the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. There was a really powerful set of events and commemorations that were happening at the time. I don’t know if you know this—and this sounds a lot like your father’s stubbornness—but the Poles were determined to rebuild and restore Warsaw brick-by-brick by brick to its pre-war condition so that they effectively undid the damage done by the Nazis, and they were pretty close in 2004. I remember going to the museum there and looking at wartime maps of troop maneuvers, and you could easily see just how impossible their situation was. While I was there, there was this palpable Polish pride in having been resistant the entire time. And nearby, you look at Prague, it was completely untouched because they chose to not resist the Nazis at all. I got to have a conversation with a local, elderly Polish man who was there during the uprising. We were in a main square in the city, and I still get moved by retelling it. He pointed to a building across the street and said, “I watched a Canadian relief supply plane get shot down and explode right there.”
SO: My father actually wrote a book about the Warsaw ghetto and it’s fascinating.
CG: Bethany, how did you get involved with the concert?
Bethany Borden: I met Sharon through the Central Florida Composers Forum a few months ago. When I first joined the Central Florida Composers Forum, I realized very quickly how many different ways you can approach and compose music, and what a variety of talents and skills we have within that group. Sharon and I started working together to plan for this concert, and it’s really worked out because not only have we been working on this event, but we’ve managed to start making music together. We’ve collaborated on a spoken word and piano piece that we’ll do on both concerts, a recitation of a Maya Angelou poem called “Phenomenal Woman.” I got a degree in Music Education from UCF. I was a voice major who also played trumpet in the marching band and other ensembles. I taught music in OCPS for ten years. But in 2013-14, my husband and his friend created a game studio called Outhouse Games. We started with mobile games, and I wrote a piano piece for our first game, Stacker. And that reignited a spark in me that enjoyed creating music. I quit teaching in 2014 to start composing full time. For the concert, I’m presenting a percussion ensemble piece for a virtual reality game, and will include video from the game. I’m using vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. I wanted to take my fundamental background with live instruments and bring that music and style to video games.
CG: Tell me more about Outhouse Games.
BB: Our first three games were mobile games, and what money we made really came from advertising, but the market got really saturated, so now we’re working with virtual reality. We’re working on a VR game, called Ancient Remains, that’s set in ancient Egypt. We have a team of five right now. We have two artists, a programmer, and my husband integrates audio and I write the music. The game is coming out very soon.
CG: A New York Times article from today said that “the popularity of Sony’s Playstation VR surprised even the company. Executives at Sony were cautious about the VR headsets, but after four months of robust sales, the skeptics are converting.” So, it looks like VR is really on the rise. I’m surprised it wasn’t developed faster than it was.
BB: There were some kinks to work out with things like the frame rate. People used to sometimes feel seasick, like when you move quickly, your eyes need to catch up with your brain or vice versa. That’s been eliminated. What we do is we teleport. You press a button and it shows an arc to where you’re going to go, and when you release the button you’re there. The technology has come a very long way in the last three to four years.
CG: Who else is involved with your concert?
SO: Composer and pianist Eric Brook is going to play a piece by Clara Schumann called “Praludium II.” Chan Ji Kim, who is a professor at the Eastern Florida State College, will present selections from a collection of short pieces based on children’s nighttime stories and lullabies, performed by soprano Sarah Cheatham. Soprano and pianist Julie Bateman will perform “Between Worlds” by Anne Marie Davis and “Winter’s Tear” by Jeannie Cotter. Local composer and pianist Rebekah Todia will present two songs: “She Walks In Beauty,” to a poem by Lord Byron, and “The Solitary,” to a poem by Madison J. Cawein. It’s a great program and we’re really proud of it.