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Central Standard

Striving To Give Audiences Goosebumps, Kansas Composer Releases First Record

File photo by Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Composer Ingrid Stölzel is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas."

Classical music doesn’t have to be an intellectual exercise. For composer Ingrid Stölzel, it's an accomplishment when the audience feels goosebumps.

“It’s such an amazing thing we can experience when listening to music. It’s just a physical reaction to what we’re experiencing,” Stölzel told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “It’s a phenomenal thing.”

Stölzel is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas School of Music. Her first commercial album, “The Gorgeous Nothings,” was released last month. It shares its title with a book of Emily Dickinson’s unpublished envelope poems.

Credit New Directions
A collection of Emily Dickinson's envelope poems, 'The Gorgeous Nothings,' was published by New Directions in 2013.

“I stole it from Emily Dickinson,” Stölzel said. “For her, the way she thinks of those words together, everything — the sunset, wheels of birds, the seasons — these are things that happen all the time. They’re ‘nothings’ but they’re gorgeous and they make up life.”

Stölzel, who was raised in Germany, discovered American poets such as Dickinson and Walt Whitman as an adult after moving to the United States. Dickinson's creative process stood out.

“At times, she just grabbed whatever she could find. And often it was envelopes,” said Stölzel. “She’d write down thoughts. They’re not completed poems, per se, they’re fragments. Really it was quite inspiring.”

One song from the new album, “In This Short Life,” contains lyrics sourced from one of Dickinson’s envelope poems and sung by Kansas City soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson. The song repeats a line twice, with a slight variation by replacing the word “only” with “merely.” It’s a reference to how Dickinson’s poems would often include synonyms and crossed-out words.

Though she works in a different medium, Stölzel finds creative similarities between sound and the written word.

“If you look at my sketches and the notes that I put on staff paper, (you can see) I cross things out. I write different variations on something. I often have 10 different endings to a piece of music,” Stölzel said. “(The envelope poems) gave me a bit more freedom in interpreting her words. These are not published poems, they’re fragments.”


Stölzel started to hone her creative process while being raised in a household that valued music.

“My father was a singer,” said Stölzel. “We had a music room in the house.”

At an early age, Stölzel would play classical works such as Mozart and Haydn at her piano. Her first foray into composition began when she would revamp how the pieces ended.

“I think there was something just creative about it. Not that I think I’m better than Mozart, but I wanted (the music) to go somewhere else,” Stölzel said. “And so I let myself just improvise at the piano. It’s still a way for me to find inspiration today.”

While Stölzel values the classics such as Mozart, she firmly believes in the power and relevancy of contemporary music.

“Whenever I go to a contemporary art museum, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, there’s lines out the door. People wanting to see contemporary art, things that are created in our time,” said Stölzel. “I feel like it is the same with music. It speaks, in a way, to our time. And if we’re lucky, it will transcend our time like many amazing pieces have done in the past.”

Listen to the full conversation here.

Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR’s Central Standard. Reach out to him at coy@kcur.org.