Carolyn O’Brien: Making Music as Tactile as Possible

Chicago-based composer Carolyn O’Brien’s path to becoming a composer wasn’t a typical one. She taught in public schools for ten years before she took her first composition lesson at 32, disappointed with the contemporary music repertoire for public school students and imagining she might create music for that medium. She’s now is a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University

Written By

Ellen McSweeney

Carolyn O'Brien

Carolyn O’Brien

Chicago-based composer Carolyn O’Brien’s path to becoming a composer wasn’t a typical one. She studied viola, piano, and French horn as a child, trained as a music educator, and taught in public schools for ten years. When she took her first composition lesson at 32, she was disappointed with the contemporary music repertoire for public school students and imagined she might create music for that medium. Now, O’Brien is a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and known in the community for her humor, irreverence, and the quality of exploration and play that she brings to her process. Upcoming projects include works for Spektral Quartet, Axiom Brass, A/B Duo, and Bent Frequency, as well as people outside of new music such as Scott Carter Thunes—a former electric bassist for Frank Zappa—and Tristan Bruns, a tap dancer from Chicago. When I caught up with O’Brien recently, she had just returned from a five-week residency at the MacDowell Colony.

EM: Going from a doctoral program in composition to a multi-disciplinary colony is a major shift. What was it like to be in that environment?

CO: It was inspiring! Everybody there was truly curious in ways I haven’t seen in a long time. I think removing myself from a homogenous group of artists in my own discipline led to a freer, less stressful environment. It was a life-affirming experience. I realized that, yes, indeed I deserve to be here. Yes, indeed, I’m on the right path. I’m glad I bet the farm to quit my job and be a composer.

MacDowell’s nurturing environment got me out of that “only composer” world and made me start thinking: there are other ways I can use my music off the concert stage. I was inspired by playwrights, authors, visual artists, and filmmakers, and speaking to them about my work made me re-contextualize how I see myself. I realized that my voice is valid and it means something to people outside of composing—in fact, it might mean a hell of a lot more to them than it does to people inside. Being around people at the top of their particular but different fields, and have them appreciate what I’m doing, meant more to me than any composition lesson I’d ever had.

I’m a really different person since I went there. My insecurities have diminished a great deal. Before I had this constant Greek Chorus of No in my mind that has since been shut down. Now I’m rebelling against those guys in togas! They don’t know what’s cool! At MacDowell, I could get out my head, out of my lonely studio and discuss these ideas with real people before my solitude would talk me out of my ideas. They would listen to me and say, “Hell yeah! I would love to go to that concert.”
EM: It sounds like it was a really diverse, affirming environment.

CO: Yes. At communal mealtimes, I got more affirmation and ideas than I ever could on my own. Being social every night made me realize that being a composer had become a very lonely business for me. When I’m home alone too often, I pass on some of that negative stuff to my husband. At MacDowell, it wasn’t a burden to my fellows because they were in the same situation. We’d recognize one another had had a rough day then talk each other out of a funk. Two bites into the meal, the loneliness had eased, and the day’s trek seemed worthwhile.

EM: You connected strongly with one interdisciplinary artist in particular, Brent Watanabe. How did your friendship and collaboration develop at MacDowell?

CO: Brent is an interdisciplinary artist that brings his visual art degree and over a decade of computer programming skills into his work. He uses a technique called projection mapping, where he creates a three dimensional parameter for two dimensional materials to traverse. The framework is an environment for the creatures he has made to rebound from, fall off of, crash against. It’s fascinating, intimate, clever, and as beautiful as it is childlike. Lately, I have been doing the same sort of thing with my music. I create wall, floors, and ceilings with the intervallic compass or the temporal space, so the music can ricochet or get smashed into a corner. I create limits, but then I create chaos to be contained in these structures. I shared my music with Brent before I’d seen his work, and after he’d listened, he came to me and said, “Okay, I’ve been listening to your music. And I know we’ve bonded over our similar sense of humor, and Sesame Street, and these childlike worlds that we want our work to inhabit. But I’m presenting my work tonight, and I think you’re going to be so freaked out over how similar our work is that we’re going to have to work together.” So after a couple of videos at his presentation, I turned to him and said, “Holy $%*# Brent, this is exactly how I think!” “Right!?,” said Brent. “I knew right away that this was meant to be.”

EM: You bonded over Sesame Street?!

CO: Ha! Yes! Sesame Street was incredibly influential on my creative process and still is. It is on Brent’s, too. The original episodes came out when we were little kids. I would have been three or four when I saw Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” on one of the earliest episodes. I’m always thinking about that show, or how to return to kindergarten, about the physical materials I played with as a child, playing with those blocks you can shoot marbles through. And Brent tries to keep Sesame Street in mind when he creates his pieces. We both approach our work with a very childlike curiosity. It’s a rare thing to find a person who maps their memories on a similar playground and who would kill to work for the Children’s Television Workshop and consider it one of the highest forms of art.

EM: What is it about those very physical materials of early childhood that appeals to you musically?

CO: I think what really attracts me is the elegance of the simplicity of those first lessons—lessons that are all about exploration without self-consciousness. I also think there’s something wonderful about seeing these materials, touching them. Not just hearing them. I’m very attracted to visual artists, because they do something tactile. I’ve always been jealous of mechanics – people who create something you can touch and see, something permanent. The ephemeral arts don’t exist outside of a recording. Music isn’t a physical object that you can enjoy for an extended time. That always makes me a little forlorn, and I long to make music last for extended periods of time beyond noise pollution. So when I met Brent, and he felt my music was similar to his concepts of his pieces using projection mapping, I realized I could make my music as tactile as possible. We’re now talking about a future collaboration and asking, is the music going to affect the picture, is the picture going to affect the music? Are the people in the space going to be able to touch objects and affect them? Or is the art a physical being that makes sound and exists on its own terms? His work can become musical, and mine can become tactile and visual. It’s about as close as I’ll ever get to creating a visual piece of art, and I’m really excited about that.

EM: It’s interesting that a playful, physical approach has remained important for you long after you left public school teaching. How did you come to composing?

CO: I really didn’t listen to any contemporary music until I was in my thirties. The first time I ever heard a new piece was in high school: George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. That piece seemed completely insane and I loved it. I remember thinking: “God, what am I missing?” This was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early ‘80s. But, then I never heard anything like it again, even when I went to college I got a degree in music education and taught orchestra in Texas and California.

When I was teaching, I started writing music for my students. It wasn’t great stuff because I was completely self-taught, but I realized I needed to explore composing. I stopped teaching public school, and when I was 32 I had my first private composition lesson. I remember thinking, “Let’s just try it and see what happens.” Part of the reason I didn’t take myself seriously at first was that I approached it with childlike curiosity, but an adult’s low self-esteem and perfectionism. When that perfectionism kicked in, I started to realize I cared a great deal more than I expected I would.

I hit a roadblock when I came to Northwestern; I lacked some skills in terms of craft. I really lost it and couldn’t write for three years. That was especially frustrating, to be creatively blocked, because it didn’t seem as if I deserved to be. I hadn’t been composing long enough to be blocked! I was cranking out music very slowly, in the same way, over and over. It felt like a sausage factory. And I realized if I couldn’t get back to that childlike curiosity, I wasn’t going to be able to play anymore. I needed to zoom way out. I realized I needed to look at form. Lee Hyla was very instrumental in helping me with my new process. Now I think of form as a canvas that I stretch before I put stuff on it. I make a building that’s safe for child’s play, and then I bounce a super ball in every room. That’s how I think now. And if I hadn’t been an educator first, I don’t think I could’ve pulled myself out of that funk.

EM: It sounds like you’ve learned a great deal about what you, as an individual artist, need in order to thrive.

CO: Yes. I also discovered a great gift. I now know how my brain works. I discovered at 43 that I have ADHD and cognitive disabilities because of depression. It was a difficult discovery to make, but now that I know how I learn and think, it’s truly informed how I work and is the origin of my recent creative breakthrough. Now I know I can that I can only concentrate for a certain amount of time. I don’t keep banker’s hours, so to speak. When I get restless, I have to do something physical. And if I can be physical and tactile, then return to my work when my mind has regained focus, I can be more prolific.

When I was a teacher, I would gravitate towards ADHD kids and kids with depression, and never realized why until I went back to school and tried to use my mind for much more difficult and abstract tasks. Having been an advocate for children with learning disabilities is now helping me advocate for myself as I try to succeed at this crazy composing gig.

EM: How would you describe the compositional places you want to go now?

CO: I really hope to work more with visual artists—including my brother, Michael O’Brien, who’s a sculptor—to build instruments probably played by percussionists. I want to fuse sculpture and performance together. I’d really like to work with choreographers, too. Now that I realize how tactile and visual my music is becoming, I think those bouncy, kinetic aspects deserve to be featured. My attraction to kinetic art and movement is going to be part of my music from now on.

I am also interested in composing music that spans longer stretches of time, but isn’t necessarily one single piece. I think my doctoral recital is going to be my first foray into working towards a continuous show. Each piece can stand on its own when performed outside this recital, but within the recital they will be used like modules that connect to the next, with transitions that help segue from piece to piece.

Now that I’m starting to find my own voice, I’m realizing I probably have a greater appreciation for American artistic styles than I do European Western art music. I’m not tossing out the latter of course, but these days I’m far more drawn to jazz, to the works of Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow, and to many forms of dance. I’m intrigued by American pioneers of invention, artists, sculptors, and other imported cultures that make America so diverse. I’m surprised by how patriotic I’ve been feeling lately, maybe like Bartók was in his day. I’m not going to take it quite as far as he did, you know, whatever the American equivalent of going to parties in full Magyar clothing would be. But, I am finding the roots of American folk music, jazz, dance, and American industry to be a much more influential source of material for my work than the third Viennese school, the Spectralists, or the New Complexity composers. I’m grateful to be living in a country that might just embrace me for that when I finally emerge from graduate school.

[Ed. Note: A/B Duo is touring O’Brien’s Nocturne for contrabass flute and djembe at various venues around the country in March 2014. In the meanwhile, you can hear several of O’Brien’s other compositions on her Soundcloud page.—FJO]