Local nonprofit organization Nonsequitur is dedicated to exploring and presenting experimental music and sound, and local flutist Leanna Li Keith has been an integral part of this 16-year-old organization. After serving as one of Nonsequitur’s concert series curator in 2022, Keith now returns as composer, performer, and vocalist to present Rice, Blood, Sugar, a tri-part piece that explores heritage language, particularly from a Chinese American perspective.
Keith will perform on flute and vocals, and is joined by Alina To on violin, Heather Bentley on viola and cello, and Kaley Lane Eaton on piano, banjo, and vocals. The performance is set for September 29, in honor of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which centers on family and ancestral reunion.
Rice, Blood, Sugar was co-created by Keith and poet Jenne Hsien Patrick following their conversations about heritage language.
“Here was something we shared, an experience which is not uncommon for mixed-race people, but typically rare for monoracial peoples,” Keith said. “We immediately were excited about the idea of creating something where we could share our experience with others, but not spell it out for them.”
Keith and Patrick didn’t want to just tell a story, but rather, aimed at creating an immersive experience for audience members. “There’s a huge difference between saying this is what it feels like for me, and making an audience feel the way you do,” Keith explained. “The hope with this work is to have the audience experience our emotional process with heritage language, the frustration, the joys, all of it.”
In Rice, Blood, Sugar, the duo explores the homophones around these three central words, from which Patrick first created poems. “Within them, you could feel the tension of almost being able to respond in the mother tongue, losing it at the last second, or the joy of being understood by another,” Keith said of this poetry.
“I then took the poems and created music with them, either by setting the words to be sung vocally, or by creating music which mirrors the feeling of those words.”
Patrick describes Keith’s process as translation, and Keith agrees. “It feels like she has translated our experiences into poetry, and then I translated the poetry into music,” Keith said. “Translations on top of translations, about translation.”
After Keith finished writing the music, she then met with her fellow musicians. “We actually began rehearsals with a long discussion of each musician’s relationship with language, which turned out, every single player has a complex relationship with language, which ties into family, and ancestry, and beyond,” Keith recalled. “Since there is so much improvisation inherent in Rice, Blood, Sugar, the piece evolves with every rehearsal.”
Keith’s own evolution on the flute has been in motion her entire life. “I’ve been listening to classical music since I was in the womb,” she said. “My mother would place headphones on her belly and had me listening to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky.”
Growing up, Keith couldn’t help admiring sweeping flute solos. “I have a distinct memory of being a toddler and being brought to the symphony hall to hear orchestral works, and to my parents’ mild horror, I would insist on laying on the floor next to the seats to listen with my eyes closed,” she remembered. “Considering they played me classical music every night to sleep, I suppose they should have seen that coming.”
But the special draw of the flute for Keith is multi-faceted. “It’s our oldest instrument as a species,” she said. “There’s a flute called the neanderthal bone flute, which is somewhere around 50,000 years old.”
The sound is entrancing too. “For me, I suppose it’s a combination of the quality of the timbre and the natural potential for virtuosity,” Keith said. “My relationship with my flute has really changed over time, and I’m less interested in how difficult the music sounds and more interested in the way the sound makes me feel.”
Initially, Keith was classically trained as a musician, but then found opportunities to branch out. “I was very lucky, especially in my undergraduate studies, to have been studying with Dr. Christine Erlander Beard, an incredible flutist and piccoloist and international performing artist who encouraged me to explore outside of the canon, to look at newly-written works, and dig into my heritage with traditional Chinese music,” Keith said. “Along the way, I studied dizi, the Chinese bamboo flute, with traveling dizi performer Dr. Jianxuan Xia, as well as shinobue, the Japanese bamboo flute, with the legendary Kaoru Watanabe.”
Then, in 2016, Keith had a revelation that led her into composing. “I had been taking orchestral auditions all over the country, playing the same music by the same dead white men over and over, performing snippets like a machine, that I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t know that if I have to play this music for my career that I will be happy,’” she recalled.
“I had never performed music written by someone who looked like me, and instead of searching for it, I decided to perform my own.”
Keith says she has always had ideas for pieces of music buzzing around in her head. “It wasn’t really until I started thinking about what kind of music I wanted to play as a professional though that I started taking my own composition ideas seriously,” she shared. “My flute performing and composition now work hand-in-hand.”
Specifically, her flute skills improve whenever she strives to reflect a new concept in sound. “I delight in being able to think of a sound-world that I want to live in, and be able to bring it to life,” she said. “I don’t think about where my works stack up in comparison to other composers. I think about my voice, and how I’ve got something unique to my own being to say, and that people genuinely want to hear it.”
Through these compositions, Keith has developed a long-term partnership with the musicians that will join her for Rice, Blood, Sugar. She is co-director of the chamber music ensemble Kin of the Moon, formed in 2017 with Bentley and Eaton, investigating “sonic rituals” and site-specific work.
In the past six years, the trio has premiered over 25 new works together.
“The piece that brought us all together in the first place, Atmokinesis, was conceived by Heather Bentley and featured Kaley Lane Eaton’s electronics, cycled through each element in an ecstatic 20-minute work,” Keith said. “I composed Crow, a chamber piece featuring two taiko drum players, including myself, improvised solos, and no shortage of energy.”
Following the performance of Rice, Blood, Sugar, Keith hopes to rest, but that seems unlikely, as she has multiple new projects in progress. “Kin of the Moon has a show called Cove which is on October 28, which will feature the amazing shadow puppetry of the Shadow Girls Cult,” she said. “I’m also working on finalizing my solo bass flute album, A Body of Breath, which finished recording at Jack Straw earlier this year.”
Rice, Blood, Sugar will be performed on September 29 at The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Avenue North, Seattle.