Bost Sandberg, Lisa 3

Community, Collaboration and Innovation: A Conversation with Lisa Bost-Sandberg

K: When did you know the flute was the instrument for you?

L: I started piano lessons when I was four years old and then flute in fifth grade as part of the school band program. The next year, I also decided to pick up electric bass for jazz band. I played all three seriously through high school, but the flute was my primary pretty much as soon as it was in my hands.

K: Your career is made up of so many things – flutist, composer, improviser, educator, volunteer/service to professional organizations like NFA, music publishing company owner/operator.  Was this your plan when you were an undergraduate flute student?

L: There have been many surprises in my life—I have said more than once that things have not gone according to plan, and I’m so thankful for it! I was a very focused and committed student, and during my undergrad I was definitely paying attention to those around me in order to learn more about the various paths in our field. Part of why I was drawn to the idea of teaching college was because this path includes varied components that I find engaging. At that point, composing music wasn’t even on my radar, let alone self-publishing or the extent to which I would become involved in new music as an individual and through organizations.

I became aware of the National Flute Association at a young age, as I started attending conventions while I was in high school. When I was a freshman at The University of Iowa I helped organize the Iowa Flute Festival, and Angeleita Floyd told Tadeu Coelho, my professor, “We need her on the Board of the NFA in ten years!” In right about ten years I became quite involved with the New Music Advisory Committee, and then other commitments including a term on the Board of Directors and now as Assistant Secretary followed, so I’d say that Angeleita called that one!

K: How did you discover the improvising and composing pieces?

L: It is amazing how the right people can walk into our paths at just the right time. I was an undergrad at The University of Iowa and was friends with Evan Mazunik, a great pianist-composer-improviser. He had been telling me about his Soundpainting ensemble and encouraging me to join. Soundpainting is a type of improvisation led by an individual using a language of hand and body gestures. I was apprehensive, but he continued to mention it every now and then.

One day I was helping Evan’s roommate, a jazz saxophonist, try out different flutes, as he was in the market for a doubling instrument. Evan walked in holding an end-blown wooden flute of some sort and simply said, “let’s play.” In that moment, I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed a flute, we improvised as a duo for about ten minutes, and I said “I’ll see you at your next Soundpainting rehearsal.” I was immediately hooked.

That same summer, Robert Dick was moving to Iowa City to serve as the visiting flute professor for the next year. When he came to town to look for a place to live, I helped out by driving him around a bit, and I quickly learned that we would all be expected to improvise as part of our study with him. The timing of this certainly helped encourage me, plus I tend to lean in when a new challenge is put in front of me.

So—I not only joined the Soundpainting ensemble and was improvising as part of my flute practice, but that year I also took an intro to jazz improv class. Even though jazz hasn’t been a strong part of my path, it was a very valuable experience and an opportunity that I am so glad that I took advantage of.

I decided to pursue my Master’s at New York University due in large part to the fact that I wanted to continue my studies with Robert Dick, and he taught there after his year at The University of Iowa. During my time in NYC, I improvised in many different settings, and even included a flute/piano duo improvisation with none other than Evan Mazunik on my Master of Arts recital. I enjoyed some great gigs improvising as part of multimedia installations developed by composers I was friends with, and I really enjoyed digging into music in this new way.

I started composing during this same period, thanks to a few aptly-timed events. Most significantly, I was preparing a program of all unaccompanied works, and Robert said that what the program really needed was something with my name on it—whether I improvised, composed, or arranged a piece. First, I considered arranging a piece for alto flute because I love the instrument and feel that it needs more repertoire, but I don’t often get that excited about arrangements because I would rather hear music written expressly for the instrument. I debated improvising, but at that point I wasn’t yet certain about performing a completely solo improv. This left me with composition, and I decided to try.

I showed up at a flute lesson with a few phrases sketched out—things that I had improvised and written down. I played it for Robert, and he said, “Good. Keep going!” I brought more to my next lesson. We went through it, he turned the page and saw the sketchy notes for the next phrase, and said something like, “Yes—that’s what comes next. Keep going.”

By the third lesson, I was beside myself. Robert is very sincere and supportive, but he maintains high standards and is direct. I believe I said something along the lines of, “I know you want me to compose and are trying to be encouraging, but if I’m doing this, I want it to be good, so I need your feedback about how to improve it!” His expression was one of pure entertainment, and he said that, if there were major issues, we would be constructively working through steps to make improvements. That wasn’t the case. We had just talked about one or two quite small details in that lesson—and so I went home, and I kept going.

I titled the piece Diandya and premiered it on that recital as planned. It was extremely well-received, remains one of my most-played pieces, and when I told Robert, “I have to keep doing this,” he said, “Yes, you do.”  

I was surprised by how immediately I was a “composer.” My composer friends were not at all surprised, they were just glad that I was writing music. Part of what drew me to the University of North Texas for my doctorate was the possibility to do a related field in composition. However, I went there with no certainty that the composition area would accept me into the program—I’d heard that it wasn’t overly common for performance majors to be accepted to pursue composition as their related field, and I was prepared to choose either contemporary music or theory instead. When I received word, I was told that I was unanimously accepted, but they were encouraging me to broaden my work and write for something other than woodwinds, as I had some flute works and a sonata for alto saxophone and piano at that point. We were on the same page—my answer was “Yes! I have plans to write for trombone ensemble!”

K: I love how four members of the flute family are present in some of the photos on your website. How did you get started with low flutes, in particular? This might be an unfair question, but…do you have a favorite flute to play? This might be kind of like asking parents which child they like best.

L: I actually got started playing alto flute when I was young—in high school! My band director said something to the choir director, who also played flute, about how I had a big, rich low register, and she off-handedly said “You should play alto flute.” I hadn’t heard of it before, so I asked my flute teacher, who happened to own one, and I loved the sound. I started researching to learn more about the instrument and the repertoire, and my parents decided to get me one. Through high school I played it in solo and ensemble contests, in flute ensemble at a summer festival I went to, and even occasionally in jazz band (including a big solo on Four Brothers one year).

My work on alto flute continued and developed through the years. I researched it for my senior honors project at The University of Iowa, including contacting Theobald Böhm’s great-grandson, Ludwig, about the music that Böhm wrote and arranged for the instrument. This work later became a lecture-recital that I presented at several universities. I have written and commissioned music for the alto flute, and this will continue throughout my career.

Picking up the bass flute was a natural extension of this, but I’ve also done a lot of piccolo work over the years. There was a period of time that I had many orchestral gigs on piccolo; as much as I appreciated this because the call-backs meant that I played well, I always laughed a little and thought, “But I’m the low flutes girl!”

You are right that picking a favorite flute is sort of like picking a favorite child…but to some extent I feel like the alto is really my “voice.”

K: How did your love of contemporary music develop?

L: I was always excited about the idea of a brand-new piece of music that no one had played or heard. From wet ink to workshopping to premiere—I first got to dive into this world during my undergrad, and working with composers became a constant in my life. I also have a “Density 21.5 changed my life” story from high school, and I love the classics of the contemporary repertoire. The Berio Sequenza has been a deep dive for me that started with a research paper in an advanced theory class my senior year at Iowa. I have had the opportunity to play chamber works from Feldman to Babbitt to Glass to Murail. I love that students at the Paris Conservatory had the “new music” experience with Concours pieces such as those by Enescu and Jolivet, and that the Bach Partita was once contemporary. Good music has the vibrancy of the present, regardless of when it was written, and I feel a commitment to the music of today to help find great pieces that will become part of the repertoire.

K: I love how your collaborations are listed prominently on your website. None of us can do it alone, yet not everyone is willing to go out into the world in search of others with which to collaborate. It seems like this is a skill that we can learn to do better.  Is this something that you emphasize with your teaching of flutists and composers?

This is an interesting question, because I actually feel like I work alone a lot—quite possibly more than most. I perform solo programs regularly. Between practicing and composing I have a lot of alone time, and I just generally tend to be independent in my approach to things. That being said, I feel very strongly about my community, and I really enjoy the chance to explore new directions with collaborators.

I do emphasize this in my teaching, because community is at the heart of our field. We see this clearly when a student is learning how to work with a collaborative pianist, a woodwind quintet, or a conductor and orchestra (whether in the section or out front as a soloist), and also when a composer gets to work directly with a performer to develop a piece. I emphasize collaboration in performing with electronics, as I like to approach it as chamber playing. Granted, sometimes this means that you have the least flexible chamber partner ever, but you will make better music if you feel like you are working in tandem rather than trying to stay on point.

However, “collaboration” is real in other ways, too. How are you connecting with your audience members? A performance is a shared experience—you are all in it together, and I think having this mindset can be very meaningful. How are you bringing in the composer and realizing their musical intention as authentically as possible for the audience? As a composer, how are you collaborating with the performer based on what you put on the page? Do they have what they need to realize your vision via the combination of detail and flexibility and context that you have provided? It is so important to remember that the musical experience is about a much wider circle than just the performer’s on-stage execution.

K: Where does the inspiration come from when you’re composing? I am in awe of people who excel in this area. I am not one of them. 

L: My roots in improvisation are significant in my compositional work. Some pieces, like Diandya, literally come out of improvising and editing phrases. Other times I’ll develop materials through improvisational processes. I definitely tend to be at the piano or have a flute in hand when I work, playing and listening and seeing where it takes me.

Personally, I don’t tend to gravitate toward more overt realizations of themes. Sometimes extra-musical ideas do become part of the process like in my flute quartet, Starling. Elizabeth Robinson, the commissioner, and I had a great conversation about her interests and projects at the time, and it led me down a path that ultimately made sense for the piece.

I try to stay very rooted in sound—I’m on a quest to go deeper into exploring what I hear, what it means to me, and ways to bring it forward. I feel that I have stayed very true to myself through my compositions, but that I have more work I want to do to keep developing my compositional voice.

K: What’s your favorite part of working on a commission?  What is the least favorite part?

L: I like the very initial stages, when I’m getting to think more abstractly through ideas, and I like finding that double bar. Composing is hard. When I write a piece, I hit points and even long stretches where I feel like I’m never going to finish—and like nothing is okay in the world. Then I finish it, and I generally feel ready to dive right into the next piece. I do tend to be in reflection mode about the piece I just finished (and I generally won’t know exactly what I think of it for a while), but I’m also energized about the next project. It is an interesting and challenging cycle.

I’ve had such excellent commissioners—musicians who are so thoughtful and dedicated to the piece and their work—which makes the process so rewarding. To get to hear a solid premiere, and then also how the piece evolves as the musician really gets to know it and make it their own is just a wonderful experience. I’m selective about what I take on because I just don’t have as much time to write as I would like, but some people are really hard to say no to…and we’re back to the topic of collaboration!

K: What type of commissioning and/or performing opportunity would you like that you haven’t had yet?

L: Oh…good question! I definitely want to write more with electronics. Strikingly for piccolo and fixed media, commissioned by Claudia Anderson for her Glass Ceilings project, is my first finished piece with electronics (I have a piece for piano and interactive electronics that has been back-burnered for a long time). I enjoyed exploring the possibilities of the sound world, and I want to dig into this further.

I also would like to write more chamber music. Pierrot ensemble intrigues me, woodwind quintet, definitely more music including percussion…

Performance-wise, right now I have a huge stack of music on my wish-list, and I just really want to dig through it, think about programming, and map out some upcoming projects!

K: What advice do you have for young musicians who are hoping to have a career in music?

Work to develop resilience. Strength. Self-confidence. Adversity is part of life; we don’t have to be happy about it, and we certainly don’t need to seek it out. However, we have everything to gain by knowing that we have the ability to sit with and to move through discomfort and disquiet, to tackle challenges, and to take care of ourselves on various levels. Building an existence in which we know we can withstand anything is an existence in which we can also be happy and find meaning.

Look inward. Work hard, but as you do so, think about who you are and what is important to you. Work to discover this as much as you develop your skills as a musician. There are as many paths in this field as there are people, and I think it can be easy for people to feel trapped by the traditional trajectories and markers of achievement. Many of the “stable” career paths in music are not what they once were, but there are more and more ways to leverage your individuality; to collaborate, teach, promote your work, create products, establish meaningful organizations, etc. It is not only okay to be who you are and find your own way, but it is what our field needs the most.

K: What are a few fun facts about you that most people don’t know?

L: I JUST ORDERED A BAROQUE FLUTE! The UND Flute Studio bought one last year. I HAVE to have one to be a good teacher, right?!

I’m pretty good with tools and taking care of things that need to be done around the house. Most recently, I changed out a breaker. I also have some training in instrument repair and have a small workbench set up in my office at UND.

I have a particularly large freshman class this year (six majors and one minor), and they have recently taken to calling me “teacher.” This started after they decided that my husband, who is the saxophone professor at UND, is “teacher-in-law.” As first I didn’t think the concept worked, but I have wrapped my head around it and find it rather charming.

I grew up in Montana, but I’ve never been on snow skis. I do want to take up cross-country skiing someday. I’m Norwegian, so I’m convinced that it is in me.

K: Is there anything that you’re extra passionate about right now that you’d like to share?

My family and students won’t be surprised by this answer. Right now I am particularly committed to my running. I flirted with being a runner off and on (mostly off!) since high school, then in 2015 I ran a couple of 5Ks. I had it in mind to go for a 10K someday, but the pandemic gave me the idea and the opportunity to go bigger and train for a half marathon in 2020, and I continued running consistently through the summer of 2021.

After a challenging year including an injury, migraines from the heat, and minimal running for several months due to schedule, I decided to enlist a coach last May, and it was one of the best decisions I have made. I like the physical and mental challenges of endurance running, and it makes such a difference to have a customized plan plus someone to talk to and learn from. Everything makes sense in my training, and I can tell that I’m moving the needle with each week of work that I put in. I’m currently training for a 10K in May, then will get to run a beautiful half marathon in Montana a few weeks later.

Of course, this commitment to running does great things for my flute playing and overall well-being. Making it a priority makes sense in every way, and I’m grateful to have it in my life.  

K:  For more information, please click here.

Dr. Lisa Bost-Sandberg – Biography

A distinctive and eloquent voice in the music of today, Lisa Bost-Sandberg is described by renowned musician Robert Dick as “…one of the important composer-performers of her generation…[her] interpretations are infused with deep musicality, questing intelligence and a joyous spirit.” Deeply committed to contemporary music as well as its rich roots in the classical repertoire, Bost-Sandberg is known as an engaging flutist/composer/improviser, a dynamic presenter of workshops and lectures, and an impactful teacher. 

In demand as a soloist and chamber musician, she has toured internationally, performing her own music and that of others at new music festivals (SEAMUS, EMM, Pixilerations, Spark, and SCI), National Flute Association conventions, and guest appearances at dozens of universities. Recent engagements include performing as a featured flutist-composer on the New York Flute Club’s “Solo Flute Spectacular” concert and serving as the guest artist for the Utah Flute Festival and the Seattle Flute Society Horsfall Competition. She is the bass flutist for the virtual film premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Oxygen for 12 flutes, presented by Carnegie Hall, and she has recorded on the Albany, Cantaloupe, GIA, and North Texas Jazz labels. 

Many of her appearances involve her career as a performer-composer and contemporary music specialist, including presentations such as “In Pursuit: Creating Your Path in the Arts,” “From Performer to Composer,” and “Tackling a Contemporary Composition.” She has a long-standing duo collaboration with pianist Éva Polgár. Their programming is focused on adventurous and stunning 20th- and 21st-century repertoire from around the world, from important historical works such as Boulez’s extraordinary Sonatine to new works written for them such as Asha Srinivasan’s Utthishta. Her solo and chamber projects often span the eras, featuring traditional repertoire alongside her pieces and other recent compositions. She has appeared as a concerto soloist on several occasions and currently performs as principal flute of the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra. 

Bost-Sandberg’s compositions have been performed at major conferences and festivals across the United States and abroad, including the Society of Composers, American Trombone Workshop, World Saxophone Congress, North American Saxophone Alliance, National Flute Association, and the Music by Women Festival. Recent projects include Starling for flute quartet, commissioned by Elizabeth Robinson, and Strikingly for piccolo and fixed media, commissioned by Claudia Anderson as part of her “Glass Ceilings” commission and performance project. Chroma, a multimedia collaboration with artist and commissioner Marjorie Schlossman, is the subject of a short film by Mary Trunk and Caren McCaleb. Bost-Sandberg’s works have been recognized as prize-winners and finalists in composition competitions of the National Flute Association, the Flute New Music Consortium, and the American Trombone Workshop. She is honored to be the 2023 North Dakota Music Teachers Association Commissioned Composer and is writing a solo piano work to be premiered in June. 

Committed to her musical community, she serves on the Schmitt Music Flute Gallery Advisory Board and is a Voting Member of the International Music Camp Corporation. Currently serving as Assistant Secretary of the National Flute Association, she recently completed a term on the Board of Directors and previously chaired the New Music Advisory Committee, which provided a unique opportunity to forward the commissioning projects and new music initiatives of a major organization with an impressive and deep commissioning history. 

Bost-Sandberg has taught masterclasses, given presentations, and led workshops at numerous institutions and festivals. She is the Teaching Assistant Professor of flute and music entrepreneurship at the University of North Dakota, teaches at the International Music Camp, and coaches for the Northern Valley Youth Symphony. A Montana native, she received her Doctor of Musical Arts degree in flute performance with a related field in composition from the University of North Texas as a recipient of the prestigious Masters and Doctoral Fellowship. She is also a graduate of New York University (Master of Arts) and The University of Iowa (Bachelor of Music).

  1. Cynthia Thomas

    She has been outstanding since she was a child. Her first paid gig was for our wedding ❤️

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