Our composing community lost a distinctive voice with the passing of Judith Sainte Croix on January 17, 2018. As a composer and a performer, she bridged the world of New York City with the mountains of the West, and ran from the rivers of the South to the canopy of the rain forest. Utilizing indigenous instruments for many of her works, combining electronic and acoustic sounds and layers of rhythm, her music connected to nature and expressed her own evolving transcendental spirituality. Judith was an inspired educator, a generous collaborator, a great supporter of other composers and musicians, and a true friend.
Our friendship began in the late 1980s, when I, a fellow Mid-Westerner transplanted to New York City, decided it would be a good idea to call all the members of the (then-named) Minnesota Composers Forum who lived in NYC to see who we all were. Judith and I hit it off immediately, having not only a Minnesota connection, but sharing the unique experiences of being female composers.
It was decided that the one thing we all COULD do was to meet up and share our work with each other, and the Monthly Salon was born. We would gather at a composer’s apartment each month to share music, food, and camaraderie. Judith was one of the most dedicated hosts. There was one famous salon that Judith hosted that coincided with the annual CMA convention. There were many extra composers and performers in town, and everyone wanted to have the opportunity to meet each other. We all crammed into her tiny one-bedroom apartment. There must have been 80 people in there. Many of us sat on the floor, and at one point Judith was standing in the middle of this sea of composers, singing an excerpt of her opera to a recorded accompaniment. It was thrilling and crazy.
Eventually the salons tapered off, but Judith and I continued to get together and share our music with each other. These get-togethers always included walks or bike rides along the river, and an evolving philosophical dialogue. We called each other queen — she was Queen Judith and I was Queen Kim. I don’t know exactly how that started, but it was very much how we felt about one another. About two years ago, as we were discussing our yet-to-be-performed music, she told me that she was working on getting all of her scores in the best shape possible so that they would be ready to play even if she wasn’t around to hear it. Around the same time, she wrote an article outlining her journey as a composer in Musforum.
My experience of Judith was always very much in the moment, so it is only recently that I have learned more about her life before I knew her. At a recent gathering of close friends, I spoke with Matt Sullivan and Jan Harvick, who shared some additional reminiscences.
“It was Judith’s creativity, warmth, empathy, and hard work ethic that made us good friends and respected colleagues,” Matt Sullivan recalled. “We first met in her new music group, The Sonora Ensemble, in about 1979. I had moved to NYC in the fall of 1978, so it was soon after. All of my perceived hopes about ‘underground NYC’ were realized in that truly avant-garde group. I was new to improvising and even a bit intimidated by the process, having been a much more conservative musician/oboist before meeting her. She made that exploration of sound and the exchange of ideas fun, provocative, democratic, surprising, and rewarding. It was her calming support and insight that made it work for me. Our picture in The Village Voice, with Julius Eastman and C. Bryan Rulon, made me feel that I had really ‘arrived’ as a part of NYC’s alluring downtown music scene, which was so important to my life at that time and to my future and my overall musical development.”
Jan Harvick added, “Judith Sainte-Croix came into my life through her collaborations with my husband, choreographer Mark DeGarmo. She came to his rescue many times not only with great compositions and great professional staging ideas or ideas about sound environment, but with a great attitude as well. When Mark wanted to try out some choreographic ideas inspired by Frida, Walt Whitman, and the eccentric toga-clad brother of Isadora Duncan, Raymond Duncan, on the ‘dance platform’ in the woods surrounding our house in Columbia County, New York, he asked Judith if she was interested in pitching in. She was not a minimalist. She pitched in a LOT! She rented a symphony-standard giant gong and stand and she and [her partner] Marcelo Mella lugged it up and installed it in the woods. An audience of 35 or so, scattered around the property, were delighted, and sometimes scared, by the proximity to this huge sonorous instrument. When they spread out throughout the woods for Part II, on the ‘dance platform’ itself, they were again—and differently—delighted to hear ethereal flute sounds. Judith had installed herself way above their heads on the balcony overlooking the trees.
“She was such a maximalist that she kept the pressure up on herself to deliver excellence all the time. It is not a fair world, and this level of talent, honesty, generosity, spirituality, innovation, faithfulness to the muse, among her many other gifts, it seems to me, should have been rewarded a little more robustly. It shouldn’t have been so hard. I have a lot of CDs I don’t listen to. I try when out of the city to listen to them with focus and in peace. A couple of years ago, I grabbed a CD, put it on, went upstairs to work, was shortly overwhelmed by the power, originality, and beauty of the music, went downstairs to see what it was. It was Judith! She will be reverberating in my house, my mind, and my heart forever. I always thought of her as being 27. She had experience and maturity that you might acquire around that age, but also the energy, freshness, and hopefulness you might still have at that age. I know her spirit will be guiding me as long as I’m around. It helps to turn on her music, but I don’t even have to do that, to imagine and feel her positive guiding light.”
Everyone who knew her experienced Judith’s support and generosity. Whenever and wherever there was a performance of my work, Judith would be there to encourage and appreciate. She made me feel less alone as a composer in the world. Whenever I visited her, she made it a special occasion.
One could not know Judith without knowing her beloved Marcelo Mella, who would not leave her side throughout her short but difficult illness. He and I will be working together to take care of Judith’s music and her legacy. There will be a concert of her work later this year at a date to be announced.
Judith Sainte Croix wrote this lyric “after a euphoric walk on a January day in a Minnesota wood”:
The snow’s a quilt upon the hill
The brilliant air is frozen still
Inspired by something strange and deep
I set out in the day’s crisp thrill.
Stepping spacious among the trees
Their branches of suspended ease
All time is one, mine with the sun
Caressed by light and fragile breeze.
The sweep of white – reason defies
As it dark of season belies.
Across the blue a cardinal streaks
Surprise! Some shiny starlings rise.
A sparrow claims orange berry bough
And vast as song my heart makes now
Crazy leaps in the dazzling wow!
Crazy leaps in the dazzling wow!
I write this on an airplane, which is I think the only place I could write it, up in the sky, away from the earth, suspended in time. I like to think that right now Judith is leaping in the dazzling wow.