Noe Valley Voice July-August 2006

Belinda Reynolds: A Musical Portraitist in Noe Valley

By Olivia Boler

Even with the popularity of the Bay Area's Kronos Quartet and the Sunday afternoon classical series at the Noe Valley Ministry, chamber music still has the reputation of appealing just to academics and the high-falootin' set. But Noe Valley resident and composer Belinda Reynolds would like to change that notion with the April release of her new album Cover, by Innova Recordings.

Cover is Reynolds' first CD that is devoted solely to her own music. There are a number of other CDs on which her music is represented, but all of those collections include other composers' works and are performed by a single ensemble, like the award-winning Shock of the Old World by the chamber ensemble American Baroque. For the seven tracks on Cover, several different ensembles perform only Reynolds' compositions.

Reynolds describes her music as "a sound world that is both familiar yet underneath very different from what one would [expect]. Anyone hearing it will feel familiar with it, in that it has melodies and harmonies that are rooted in classical music. But I like to turn it on the edge."

Turning classical music on its edge might be a good definition for the labels used to categorize Reynolds' work. Critics often call it "new classical music" or "post-minimalism." As Joshua Kosmann of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the music on Cover "begins from obvious premises--a repetitive rhythmic groove, a collection of familiar tonal harmonies--but then Reynolds takes them in new directions and the seemingly straightforward turns strange and subversive. Never threatening."

Reynolds agrees with this: "I love playing with perception and how different people can approach my music from different listening angles, so to speak," she says with a smile. "I love playing with textures."

She describes a work she composed for the cello and clarinet called "Dust" that appears on Cover and which she wrote for a 9/11 benefit. "The piece seems simple but is actually daunting to play in that I combine the cello and clarinet notes in such ways that you can't tell which is which." The piece has an ethereal sound to it and reflects the way the tragedy of the day changed everything for many.

Reynolds, 38, has been playing the piano since she was 3--"I don't remember not playing," she says--and composing since she was 6. She grew up in a southern Christian home, and her mother and grandmother taught her to play old-time gospel and boogie-woogie piano. She attended U.C. Berkeley and Yale University, where she was classically trained, although she went through a rock/punk phase--"I played keyboards and bass with some bad garage bands"--and also spent time in India studying music in the 1990s. "You can hear these influences in my music in the way I use driving rhythms, strumming chords, and drones," she says.

When asked who her audience is, Reynolds immediately answers, "Anyone!" and follows up with a thoughtful discourse on how artists should be engaged in their own culture and why classical musicians have struggled to broaden their audience. Because our government does not fund the arts very generously, she explains, composers have had to find patronage through the private sector, mostly in universities.

"New music [becomes] removed from everyday life," she says, and has the reputation of only being understood and appreciated by the well-educated. "That is crazy! I actively work at bringing my music to a variety of audiences, from schools to orchestra halls."

Part of that work comes in the form of teaching. A few years ago, she was a composer-in-residence and master teacher at Starr King Elementary School. She also offers private lessons through her company, HeShe Music (, which she founded with her husband Dan Becker, who is also a composer and on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Reynolds' students have varied backgrounds, and she teaches anything from beginning piano to singing. Additionally, she writes a weekly column for a webzine,, and through her company publishes her music.

And, of course, there are commissions. Most of her commissions come from music ensembles like American Baroque and New Millennium Ensemble. She's part of a collective called Common Sense Composers' Collective, made up of eight members who collaborate with different ensembles to produce new work.

She has many different projects cooking at the moment, including a commission for a string quartet performing this summer at the Park City (Utah) International Music Festival, and for Paul Dresher Ensemble's Electro-Acoustic Band. One area she wants to explore more is composing for television and documentary films.

With this busy schedule and years of fine-tuning, this mom of 21/2-year-old Eleanor has found her compositional stride, and technology is the key. "I improvise every day, and we have a grand piano that is a player piano, but it uses a computer instead of piano rolls," she explains.

Once Eleanor is at preschool for the day, Reynolds loses herself in composing. One fun new project she's working on is called "Custom Made." It allows "regular" folk to commission a new work for themselves by working with Reynolds. The commissioner gets two bound copies of the final piece, signed by Reynolds, and the work is cataloged in the American Music Center library and the Library of Congress. They get to pick the title and, for a limited time, receive exclusive rights to performing the piece. It's kind of like getting to name a star after yourself, or, as Reynolds says, "Think of it as a musical portrait."

Cover, along with other albums featuring Reynolds' work, is available online and at Streetlight Records on 24th Street.