Slipping Through Memory: The Music of Elizabeth Brown
As a child growing up on an Alabama agricultural station, composer Elizabeth Brown may not have been able to envision a future life in music for herself, but she could already hear it playing in her head.
As a child growing up on an Alabama agricultural station, composer Elizabeth Brown didn’t envision having a future life in music. If you had stopped her ten-year-old self and asked her, in fact, she probably would have told you she was going to be a veterinarian. There just wasn’t a lot of music in her day-to-day life, and, she says, “I certainly didn’t know there were living composers. This was pre-internet, and the T.V. only got one channel.”
Though Brown didn’t start out with composing aspirations, the music was already forming. “I’ve always had music in my head,” she acknowledges, but “it never occurred to me that I could be a composer before I started writing.”
That writing, however, didn’t begin until she was in her late 20s. Instead, her early career focus was on performance. “I started playing flute in high school. I managed to get to conservatory and then I managed to get to Juilliard and then I started playing professionally in New York. I had a boyfriend at the time who was a choreographer and who asked me to write a piece for his dance company, and I started writing and never stopped.”
Her musical language might most accurately be compared to the vagaries of human memory—often a glimmer of thought expressed in sound that refuses to stay put long enough to grasp. She has a habit of leaving a lot of play in her musical line, particularly when it comes to pitch, and by not clamping down, somehow it often seems that she allows room for the listener to hear so much more.
“It’s as if the ground is not really stable,” she explains. “I’ve been drawn to instruments because they slide and they have this aspect—this kind of inhuman vocal quality of bending and sliding. It’s just what I hear; I don’t know why. That’s what it’s like in my head.”
She then takes that internal soundtrack and adjusts it to fit the real instruments at hand as closely as possible. As an active performer, she can also rely on her own significant chops and a stable of friends and colleagues who support her work to make those sound worlds a reality. And while it can be tricky to meet the demands of both her performing and composing careers, it’s a balancing act she takes pleasure in executing.
“I play too many instruments and they all need practicing and I certainly don’t have time to do it all,” Brown admits. “But I’ve been able to make a living pretty much since I got out of school as a musician in one way or another, and I’m grateful for that. And if I’m too busy, it’s only because I’m too busy doing things I really care about. So when I freak, I just try to remind myself how lucky I am.”