Sheila Bristow

Sheila Bristow
Practicing on Organ at
St. David’s Church


Interviewed January 20, 2017 by Alice Taylor, volunteer


Have you had other residencies?

I’ve done some week long workshops – a summer choral composers class at Lehigh University several years ago and three years ago I attended Arts Song Lab, part of the International Song Institute in Vancouver, BC. There, composers get together for instruction and feedback.


Are you a full-time composer?

No, a full time musician.


Any other life roles?

Wife to a singer. That’s a life role (laughing)! And, I have many part-time jobs as a musician so it’s complicated. Lots of juggling.


In general, what influences your work?

I work mostly with singers, both choirs and soloists. I’m a music director in a church and when programming concerts with them I think about text. Working with words and people singing words is where I have gone. I’m working on vocal music now –a song cycle.


Why did you apply to Hypatia-in-the-Woods?

Practically, it’s a place I could drive to and not fly to.  As a composer, most things are focused towards young composers – high school, college, and recent graduates. They don’t necessarily want to see people my age or the age of the professors running it so it’s nice to have a place where there is not an age component.


What did you learn about yourself at Hypatia?

I showed up after a difficult December. In December, I was sick. It’s a stressful time to be a musician – both in my university position and church. And, politically it’s a very stressful year. I brought a lot of anxiety and distraction with me. It took a few days to work on that and clear it out. It’s great to have some hikes in the area and just be in nature. I was glad to come back for week 2 and get a lot more music done.


You have been at Hypatia for two weeks and were not able to be here on the weekends due to your other commitments. Do you wish your time here had been a different length and if so, why?

It would be different at another time of year. Summer is a different time for my energy. I think a third week would be great. I didn’t mind the weekend break, but coming back from my jobs did distract me.


Was there a favorite place in Holly House that you gravitated to?

There are a number of great working spaces here. I love the light at the table. It’s nice to have the reading area in the living room with different furniture. I’ve had my keyboard upstairs. I used all three areas.


Do you have a favorite place on the grounds?

In January, no. It’s muddy. It was beautiful when it was icy, but I haven’t been out much.


What were you most happy to accomplish at Hypatia?

I finished a song that I’ve put off. I finished the needed editing and ended up re-writing a section. It’s better.

Sheila Bristow–composing


What was different about what you hoped to accomplish and what you actually accomplished?

I hoped I would have this great stream of creativity. And, as I said, I showed up with a lot of tension that needed to be dissipated first. I didn’t get the volume of work that I would have liked done, but I started some new pieces. It was great to be able to think about them, do something else, and come back to them on the same day. That’s awesome. And, I finished that song that has been perturbing me for a while. That is good.


When will these songs debut?

This cycle is written for a colleague, Melissa Plagemann, a great mezzo-soprano. Also, a good pianist, a really good musician. I’ve been giving her songs that we have done at faculty recitals at PLU, Pacific Lutheran University. We’re doing a concert together, sponsored by The Wayward Music Series in Seattle. They feature new music. It’s held in the chapel of the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. That will be in April. I’m getting these done, not late but needing to be done. Life comes up. I have two more to do. But, I’ve started them here.


Do you get to play the organ at Pacific Lutheran University?

Sometimes. It’s pretty awesome (laughing happily).


What inspired your work the most during your stay?

One of the good things that came out of going back to my life on the weekend was that I had a lesson with my teacher. It was helpful to bring some fragments I had been working on at Hypatia, get feedback from my teacher, and then come back to get more work done on them. That’s not Hypatia related, but it was helpful to be able to break up the work that way.


When you look back at your experience at Hypatia-in-the-Woods, what memory do you want to keep?

Looking out the window, being able to reflect and think without interruptions. That’s beautiful.


What was the one thing that you wished you’d brought that you left at home?

Umbrella (laughing).


What was one thing you brought that got in your way?

I should have checked my printer details better, but that’s all. Technology.


What three words best describe your experience at Hypatia?

Quiet. Internal. Unfolding.


How would you like the public to respond to the work that you accomplished at Hypatia?

Unfortunately, they are not really seeing my work unless they come to Seattle for the concert. I’ll let Hypatia know about that date.

It was fun to interact with people at yesterday’s recital in Shelton. The recital picks up another part of my life, which is my church musician side. It’s really a lovely organ at St. David’s. It’s a type of organ that I don’t have a lot of time on. Professionally, it was great for me to just practice and remember how to work with this type of instrument. I was happy to offer a concert because I know there are areas where people want more music and there are not a lot of acoustic classical music opportunities. I like to promote that in general and, my instrument in particular. It’s nice to be able to share music appreciation and education.


What advice would you offer to women thinking about applying to Hypatia?

Have a clear project and bring the materials you need. It’s great to have wifi here because I needed to look up a few things on line. If you came and didn’t have a clear idea on what you wanted to do you would spend time ruminating and not getting to it.

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