Written by Michael Cyrs.

There are perks to playing music as a group. On top of taking cues and performing, you learn fundamental relationship lessons. Remember how you’d sulk about how horrible your college roommate was at doing the dishes, only to realize later on that you hadn’t once cleaned the bathroom the whole time you were griping about the kitchen? Suddenly you recognize that a balance was struck. It works the same in ensembles. Any band who has been together for five or more years can tell you all about give and take. You may want to take a section an octave higher than the composer had written, and they’ll let you do it as long as a healthy trust has been established between you.

Los Angeles-based Jerome Fund awardee Leaha Maria Villareal talks about this with tranquility in her voice. She composes music for Hotel Elefant, an ensemble that takes on the difficult task of representing music from living composers. “‘Modern Music’ is already solidified,” she explains. “There’s a canon for it, but it hasn’t yet included works that are being written today. So, how do we support the contemporary music of our colleagues?” Now in their sixth season, the ensemble’s ability to work fluidly together is expressed deeply just by hearing Villareal discuss it. What goes hand in hand with the give and take of a musical relationship is a freedom to ask one another to do things for you.

For instance, in her piece “The Bell for Waking_The Bell for Sleep,” Villareal takes inspiration from a Samuel Beckett play entitled Happy Days. The main characters’ lives begin and end with bell sounds that signal the beginning and end of days. There’s a drama to their plight that’s echoed in the music. Droning cello tones underscore a backdrop of weeping violins. “I wanted to write from the perspective of the woman in the play, and try to recreate that unease.” To do this, Villareal uses the fourth interval between parts, which are notoriously difficult to tune. “They’re not very virtuosic parts, but the group can decide how fast or slow they’re going to take a certain section.” Boldly, she’s letting the piece take on different behaviors through different players. “I love the moment where I take it to a performer because that’s the whole point! I’ve created something for other people.”

Another piece that’s open to interpretation is “Piano Trio I.” It begins with rollicking piano and violin parts that build intensity over two minutes. Then, a brief silence enters before a mourning string section. Before you know it, the piece has stopped again, and minimalist piano chords permeate the spaces between the emptiness. Before its final moments, the piece has paused six total times. Each of these silences introduces new stillness and content.

The intention behind the piece is much more serious and personal than the previous assessment suggests: “The first movement is about being in a car accident. The second is in a hospital. That’s why there’s so much vibrato and empty space.” As it were, Villareal is honored and eager to hear how different peoples’ reactions are. One person might find peace in between the notes although another might hear the ghosts of those who have passed on, speaking and living through Villareal’s delicate compositions.

Pieces like “Piano Trio I” come not only from personal experience, but from works of literature that Villareal grew up with. You can find proof of this simply by reading her song titles. “The Bell for Waking” is evocative in words alone, but she’s also called pieces “Dark Matter” and “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

“I love titles. They usually help me inform the piece or come to realize something about it,” she explains. The JFund commissioned piece is one such composition that’s taken inspiration from poetry. Behind the production is a relationship Villareal has made not only musically, but on a deep interpersonal level.

“Crossing the Rubicon” is a piece that will appear during Hotel Elefant’s seventh season. The core team behind the scenes is Villareal and playwright Adara Meyers, who have been working together since 2013. Although it will eventually involve 12 musicians, the piece is blossoming into something beyond mere collaboration. Meyers and Villareal are not only friends, but both are in similar stages of life. Meyers was recently pursuing a degree, and Villareal is currently seeking a doctorate at USC.

Based on the fragments of Heraclitus, “Crossing the Rubicon” will detail a character that’s also at a turning point in life. Using her background in writing and poetry, Meyers is choosing different pieces of Heraclitus’ work that surround the notion of a crossroads. In turn, Villareal is developing musical ideas that will represent their character. It’s an abstract way to construct a piece of classical music, but Villareal’s explanation is nothing if not enthusiastic: “We’re gonna have this character literally standing at this crossroads deciding how to move forward with their life. I’m excited to see how the audience will interpret the words.”

The pair have been down this road before. In 2014’s “Never Not,” a vocal performance from Vanessa Langer imbues Villareal’s composition. The lyrics were written by Meyers, but Villareal had input behind the intended meaning. Since then, their collaborative spirit has taken deep roots, and it’s charging the commission with an extra creative spark. “I was really shocked and pleased to get the grant. It’s nice to have JFund in my corner, saying ‘go ahead.’”

Even though the Villareal/Meyers team is pulling the strings at the moment, “Crossing the Rubicon” will eventually flourish and include the entire team behind Hotel Elefant. This extension of kindness and quality work is something you see in close relationships between friends, lovers, and family. However, the bonds between musicians and artists are also a force to be reckoned with. As Villareal extends this opportunity to the players in Hotel Elefant, she’ll certainly be able to reap some of the reward as well. “Getting the whole team on stage is a goal that we’ve had for a long time, and now we’re finally able.”