Melissa Dunphy: Composing Has To Be a Calling
Melissa Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. What is striking about her music is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity.
One of the highlights of my attending the 2019 National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City was encountering Melissa Dunphy during the Composer Fair at the end of the first full day of the conference. Dunphy was full of energy and passionate about what she does and was also incredibly articulate—an ideal candidate for a NewMusicBox Cover! And after I returned home and started exploring her musical output, most of which she has generously made scores and recordings available for on her website, I was even more eager to have a sit down conversation with her about creative work.
What struck me about her music, and what she confirmed when we visited her at the bizarre place in Philadelphia where she lives (more on that later), is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity. Primarily a composer of vocal and choral music, Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. The Gonzales Cantata, her 2009 gender-reversed faux-Baroque setting of the public US senate testimony that culminated in the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, landed her on national television while she was still pursuing an undergraduate degree in music composition. Her unaccompanied choral work from the following year, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, is also based on public testimony, this time from an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality, an issue that still divides people in this country.
“I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech,” Dunphy remembered. “I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music.”
Among her most ambitions works to date is her 2018 American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral setting of texts from five young Americans who were brought this country as children. “This is completely up my alley for various reasons,” explained Dunphy, who was born and raised in Australia and is the child of immigrants who fled Greece and Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.
I think that all politicians should have a life-threatening health scare. ... You should be thinking about your legacy.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
The idea of just being an artist and only an artist is, has, is and has always been a bit of myth.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
There’s always going to be a place in the world for people who make art and can also get on that marketing train.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized that it sounded much more like a political mission than purely an artistic mission.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
One of the reasons I came to composing so late was because I didn’t have any examples to look up to who looked like me.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Some people are like, “Throw out those old masters.” Like, bull.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
For a little while in my late teens, classical music was really pissing me off with its obsession with technical perfection. So I broke up with classical music for a while...
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Everybody comes to music school thinking they’re going to be the next John Williams or Danny Elfman.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Teaching is just as much about learning new things yourself, and your students will teach you just as much as you teach your students.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
There are a lot of similarities between the almost absurd mannerism of a Baroque cantata and the absurd manner of American politics.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
If you’re not considering the context of the world around you, your art is bullshit.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I don’t think people who criticize arts entrepreneurship look at grants as being in that category.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
One of the things that art can do is present things that are shades of gray and have you understand those shades of gray emotionally, rather than just intellectually.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
There’s a lot of room for error in an orchestra piece. There is no room for error in an a cappella choir piece.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I don’t care if my piece becomes irrelevant if my friends can get married.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Art needs to be grounded in what’s happening around us.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I understand, because it’s my history, what motivates people to go to a new country and face instability.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I am happy to accept sacred commissions if the religious organization will give me some leeway on what text I choose.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
Composers should stop worrying about being as intellectual as possible and start thinking about what reaches the next generation.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
I literally make concrete in the other part of my life.
Melissa Dunphy, composer
But creating intense politically-themed music is only part of how Dunphy spends her time. That bizarre place she lives in is an 18th century building that most recently had been the site of an abandoned magic theater. When she and her husband acquired the property, it was in a ruined state. So, on their own, they embarked on a huge construction project that has resulted not only in a viable place to live and artistic studios, but also an AirB&B they rent out. However, more interestingly, in excavating the former theater which they had hoped to eventually turn into a performance space, they discovered a wide range of 18th century artifacts and have become significant archeologists of early Americana. Dunphy gave us a guided tour of the construction work and some of their findings following our extensive conversation about her music, some photos of which appear toward the end of the transcript.
“We tore every room down to the studs,” Dunphy euphorically exclaimed. “I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable. In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. … This whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.”
Read the Full Transcript
Video Presentations and Photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: That’s for taking the time to chat with us this afternoon and for helping us arrange your apartment so meticulously. You seem to have a lot of experience with on-camera interviews.
Melissa Dunphy: This is my stupid media training. That was my job at a TV studio. The one I worked at was very small and when we did a political show—this was in Harrisburg—my awkward claim to fame there was I would usually work the chyron or teleprompter. One day we had Arlen Specter on as a guest. It was after his cancer treatments. We’re about to start the show and the director is like, “Melissa, can you go down into the studio and powder Arlen Specter’s chemo bald spot.” And I was like, “I’m sorry, what? I’m not the makeup girl.” And they’re like, “No, she’s gone home, and you’re the only woman left in the entire studio. You do makeup way more than anyone else here. So grab the makeup kit in the hallway, and go and powder Arlen Specter’s face.” I had to do it. So I went down, and I was so embarrassed.
FJO: I would have found it difficult to be nice to him after how he treated Anita Hill.
MD: Oh, he’s a complicated one. It was very interesting. I met a lot of politicians who came through that studio and some of them would not look me in the face. They were constantly looking over my shoulder, either because I wasn’t important enough or because I was a woman. But Arlen Specter looked me right in the eyes. And when I asked him questions, he talked to me like I was a person.
FJO: Wow.“I think that all politicians should have a life-threatening health scare. … You should be thinking about your legacy.”
MD: That was not even my experience with some politicians who are on my side of the aisle. I think that all politicians should have a life-threatening health scare. It should be a prerequisite for being a politician. You should be thinking about your legacy. But anyway, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, but unlike most composers, I’ve done a lot of media-friendly camera work, television hosting and stuff, and I’ve also been an actor for many years.
FJO: It’s good to hear you say that, because that’s actually where I want to begin.
FJO: We’re living in this age where most composers have to market themselves, and some people do it better than others. I knew who you were long before I actually met you, and I think that’s a good thing.
MD: Sure. Me too.
FJO: But there are some folks who claim that focusing on being entrepreneurial and furthering your career is a distraction from composing music.
MD: I think the idea of just being an artist and only an artist is, has, is and has always been a bit of myth, or at least a very artificial state of being. We might think back to the “Great Composers” of the past who all had wealthy patrons who supported them. But they had to play a lot of politics to get those wealthy patrons to support them with their money so they could do the things that they do. That’s been the case for many hundreds of years. Or you do art because you love it, and you have something else that you do to survive. Human survival has always been, up to this point in our history, a thing that we have to actively accomplish through one means or another. One means of being a pure artist, of course, is to just be fabulously wealthy. There have been so many artists throughout history who have been able to do this. For some reason, the one that’s springing to my mind is Gesualdo. If you’re fabulously wealthy and you can live a life of not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from, or your next rent check, or how you’re going to pay for your kids to go to school, or the dowry for your daughters, or whatever the case may be, then it’s very easy to be an artist, right?“The idea of just being an artist and only an artist is, has, is and has always been a bit of myth.”
Art is also something that humans feel compelled to do under all circumstances; even people in the most destitute and desperate of situations create art. But it’s a pursuit that requires some kind of privileged leisure. You have to have time to make art, to make the kind of art that I’m talking about where it’s not just an improvised melody that comes out of nowhere and then is gone. What we do as composers is spend weeks, months, years laboring over a piece, and then we have to find people to bring that piece to life. It’s a huge endeavor and it takes a lot of time. You have to have a certain amount of privileged leisure to be able to do that.
In the last century, we’ve had this interesting situation where institutions have supported that kind of privileged leisure. Recently those institutional support structures have begun to crumble for one reason or another. I would argue that for many of us those structures were never there to begin with. Those structures only really supported a very certain type of artist and usually a very certain demographic of artist. The rest of us have always had to be entrepreneurs. We’ve always had to figure out how to market ourselves. What do we mean by arts entrepreneurship? There are so many different definitions of it. In my personal opinion, all it really means is the ability to market your art one way or another, whether that means being able to pitch yourself to wealthy patrons or to use the new medium of the internet to get your work out there. It means that you have the ability to brand either your music or yourself as some kind of appealing thing to an identity within our current culture.
FJO: Of course, for the folks who improvise a melody in the moment, that takes a lifetime, too.
FJO: And indeed, those were some of the folks who got left out.
MD: Absolutely. It has not been as valued in this weird art world that we live in; what we’ve come to define as art in this weird institutionalized capitalist world is art that lasts, this canon of art that we’re all trying to get our works into to achieve some kind of legitimacy or immortality. I hate that barrier. I would argue that all of it is art. I would argue that pop music is art. I would argue that all of those things are forms of art.
FJO: You and your husband have a rock duo, so I know that rock music is also part of what you do.“There’s always going to be a place in the world for people who make art and can also get on that marketing train.”
MD: Absolutely. Is it art? Yeah, I do believe that it’s art. It’s a creative pursuit. We’re expressing ourselves with a creative pursuit. I think that in an ideal world there would be avenues for composers who are no good at the marketing side of things to be able to express themselves and survive while expressing themselves however they wish. But there’s also always going to be a place in the world for people who make art and can also get on that marketing train—figure out how to get their work out there, how to find the people who appreciate their art, how to find the listeners or the eyes who want to see the things that they have to offer. In some ways, it’s about putting your stamp on the world, whether small or big. That’s one of the things that I feel art is about.
FJO: You’ve actually really challenged people’s notions of what constitutes entrepreneurship, everything from designing elaborate Halloween costumes to a podcast about the history of the unusual space you live in which used to be a magic theater. That Boghouse podcast has now taken on a life of its own independently of your music, but hopefully it will ultimately lead people back to your music. I also find it fascinating and wonderful that on the about page of your website, you not only have a bio, you also have a mission statement. It’s as if you’re a nonprofit corporation. You have values.
MD: Yeah. Sure.
FJO: I also think it totally shuts up anyone who says, “Oh, this is just marketing.” Because you clearly have an agenda, which you state there, and your music is true to it.
MD: I’m so glad that you appreciate that. “About” pages always come across as a marketing tool. If you’re a composer, and you’ve written an “about” bio on a website, does that make you an arts entrepreneur because you’re already selling yourself to an audience? Why is it even on there? Should we just dispense with bios and resumes all together? I don’t know. But for me, a regular composer, “about” doesn’t say enough about the art that you’re making, who you’re making it for, and why. Generally the things that you see in programs for concerts are just laundry lists of things that you’ve done.
FJO: Where you went to school. Who you studied with.
MD: All the commissions…
FJO: The awards you’ve won.“When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized that it sounded much more like a political mission than purely an artistic mission.”
MD: It just becomes, for want of a better word, a dick-measuring contest. Who has the most awards? Who has the biggest awards? Who has the best schools on their resume? Who studied with the teachers who won the most awards? Does it say anything about your music? No. It says you’ve been legitimized by institutions, which I would argue is another form of entrepreneurship in itself. It’s just a different avenue of marketing yourself. For me, more important than that is: what are you trying to do as a composer? When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized that it sounded much more like a political mission than purely an artistic mission. I fell into political music pretty early on in my career. And the more political music I wrote, the more I realized that this is why I wrote music, and then the question became: what do you hope to achieve with writing political music?
I sort of figured it out as I was going along. I want to bring voices to the forefront that haven’t had a voice before. I want to inspire the next generation to be better than this one. Because let’s face it, we haven’t done the best job. We’ve done a crappy job, and our hope has to be that the people that come after us do better and do better faster than we did better than the previous generation. It should be like an acceleration toward a better humanity. Once I crystallized those ideas, any kind of reluctance I had to market myself as part of marketing my art evaporated. One of my main missions is to encourage more women, more people of color, and more non-binary kids—more people who aren’t the established dead, white, German canon—to compose music.“One of the reasons I came to composing so late was because I didn’t have any examples to look up to who looked like me.”
I realized that one of the reasons I came to composing so late was because I didn’t have any examples to look up to who looked like me. Or sounded like me. Or were in the same boat as me. When I was six or seven growing up in Australia, I watched the movie Amadeus. I probably was too young to see it, but it was on TV. It was probably edited for TV. I fell in love with that movie. I was learning a kiddie version of the Sonata in C on the piano at the time, and the piano book I was studying from had a picture of Mozart and a little bio of who Mozart was and I loved that he was six years old and he was writing music. I saw that movie and I thought it was so funny and so cool, and I loved everything about it. And you know who I wanted to be? I wanted to be Constanze. I didn’t want to be Wolfgang because he was a guy. When you’re six years old, you notice things like gender and gender roles and what’s expected of you, who you want to be when you grow up, or who you should look up to. For a lot of kids, whether they think about it consciously or not, they’ll look up to the one that looks the most like them or shares the most characteristics.
FJO: And you grew up in a world where it was constantly reinforced that all the great masterpieces were created by men.
MD: Right. And I loved them.
FJO: Yeah, it’s great music.“Some people are like, “‘Throw out those old masters.’ Like, bull.”
MD: Some people are like, “Throw out those old masters.” Like, bull.
FJO: Instead we should just let some more in.
MD: Absolutely. Yes.
FJO: When we’re exposed to Mozart, we should also be exposed to Marianna Martines and the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
MD: Right. We ignored this stuff, and why? How stuff becomes canon is an interesting whole other conversation. As I got older, especially after I became a composer, I read stories about how Nannerl, Mozart’s sister, was also a gifted musician, but as soon as Wolfgang came along, her father concentrated on Wolfgang because it wouldn’t be seemly for a woman to be cavorting around Europe being a child prodigy. So there are two sides to this. One is: look at all these women who were creating art and were ignored. And the other side is: think of all the women who were lost. Think of all the women artists we lost because we never encouraged them, or they never thought that it would be possible for them.
FJO: And then you have these weird in between cases like Fanny Mendelssohn, who I think was writing even more interesting music than Felix, but who was discouraged from pursuing a career as a composer and some of her work even wound up published under her brother’s name.
MD: I think this has been a struggle not just in music, but in pretty much every art form in the Western world, especially the art forms that have been institutionalized liked painting. So how do we change this? There are so many initiatives out there right now to address this issue. I realize what would have changed it for me earlier. I didn’t even think of becoming a composer until I was 24. This is really late. In classical music terms, I was basically an over-the-hill old maid by the time I was 24. I only got the idea because a director of a play I was acting in desperately needed some music and asked me to write some, knowing I was a musician.
FJO: Where was this?
MD: This was in Harrisburg at the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival.
FJO: So you didn’t write music until you moved to America.
MD: In Australia, I wrote some stuff in high school. I loved writing madrigals. I wrote some things, but I never took it seriously. It was never writing music to be a composer. It was writing stuff in high school, getting patted on the back for being very clever at writing when I was 16. Then when I was 19 or 20, I did a madrigal arrangement of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails and that was probably the only thing I did after high school, until central Pennsylvania.
I was getting my creative side out by acting in a lot of local professional theaters. I was in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the music director for the show dropped out at the last minute. The director came to me desperate and said, “Will you write the songs for this play? We don’t have anyone. And there are a lot of songs.” And I said, “Yeah, sure. Let me try and do that.” I was rehearsing and then staying up until two in the morning, and then sleeping for five hours and getting up and writing more because there was so much to write. But I had this epiphany in the middle of this hell schedule where I went, “Oh my God, this is what I want to be doing.” I’m not a believer in a higher power, but it was that kind of ping. “This is it. Eight years out of high school, you finally found what you want to do with your life.”
So how do I become a composer? I did a little cursory research and realized I needed a grad school degree. But I hadn’t gotten my undergrad yet. I graduated from high school a year early. I got really good grades in math and science as well as music. But everybody said music is a fool’s game, don’t go into that. So I went to med school. It was a very difficult program to get into in Sydney at the University of New South Wales. It’s a seven-year degree and, at the end of it, you’re a doctor. You get your bachelor of science and your medical degree at the same time. I got in, and I lasted nine months, and I said, “Oh my God, I’m going to be the world’s worst doctor.” My heart was not in this. This is not the thing that I live for, and I think to be a doctor, it has to be a calling, just as it is to be a composer. And so I quit, much to the chagrin of my parents and everyone around me who was horrified that I would turn down this golden opportunity. I spent eight years bouncing around from job to job trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And it was this ping—you’re going to be a composer—when I started writing music for this play. So I wanted to get to grad school. I knew I had to get a bachelor’s degree first. So I went online and the closest place I could get a bachelor’s degree and not go into to debt for the rest of my life was West Chester University, just outside of Philadelphia, which is a great university actually. It’s a state school. The composition faculty is fabulous. I got a degree, a bachelor of music, majoring in theory and composition. By the time I graduated from West Chester University, I was 29. I was too old to apply to the Curtis certificate program. At that time, they had a cutoff of 28. I had aged out of all of the young competitions with a cutoff of 25. This starts to weigh on you as a composer. It’s like if I’m not a young composer anymore, what am I? But I stuck with it because I had a calling. I really wanted to do this. My point with all this is to say it took me a long time to realize I wanted to be a composer. And one of the questions I had when I came out into the world of classical music and saw how we discriminate against people who come to it at an older age was: what stopped me from saying I wanted to be a composer younger? I really think the number one thing was that all of my composition idols were men. So it just never occurred to me.
FJO: Here’s one thing that I find fascinating about this. You were writing music: you wrote a madrigal, which is kind of a serious thing with multiple voice parts, and then you wrote incidental music for a play. So you were already a composer. Why did you feel you needed to have an academic degree and be validated by that system?“For a little while in my late teens, classical music was really pissing me off with its obsession with technical perfection. So I broke up with classical music for a while…”
MD: It’s a little bit complicated. For me, it’s totally psychological. First of all, I grew up in the classical tradition. And I had a Chinese tiger mom. She took me to piano lessons when I was four. I started violin at my school when I was seven. My grounding is in that classical tradition. I think I would have had a different path if my grounding had been in jazz or folk music. In the classical tradition, you must go through a course of study, a sort of a system to get to a point where you can call yourself a genuine professional musician, whether that system is a Suzuki system or studying with a recognized teacher who will put you on their systematic path of education or through an institution, which is the most accepted version whether it’s a conservatory or going to get a bachelor of music. I knew because of my background in classical music that I wanted to continue in that system. I have dabbled in jazz, rock, folk, and a lot of other different genres. I did a lot of dabbling, especially in my late teens and early 20s, which I think was really important because for a little while in my late teens, classical music was really pissing me off with its obsession with technical perfection. So I broke up with classical music for a while and sowed my wild oats playing jazz viola in clubs in Sydney. Then I got back together with classical music. And I said, “What do I need to do to write the kind of music that I think I want to write?” I don’t think I knew exactly what I wanted to write when I was 24. But I was sort of obsessed with madrigals and polyphony and these forms that I already knew in the classical world. So I had to study. It’s certainly possible to study on your own. But the easiest way to study all of this stuff is to go to school, right? So for me, it was two-fold. Yes, I had totally bought into the—perhaps, one could argue—myth that I needed institutional legitimacy by going to an institution and getting that stamp, that piece of paper. Then part of it was also I just want to learn. For better or worse, the best way for me to learn is to have an institution that frightens me with exam dates and assignments and not getting good grades if I don’t learn. I respond very well to that.
FJO: And yet ironically, the kind of music you eventually wanted to write, the kind of music that you describe in your mission statement, which I almost want to call a manifesto—
MD: It is a very short manifesto.
FJO: By and large in order to do the kinds of things that you want to do—communication, social relevance and all of that—most of those of things are going to happen with text. Vocal music: song cycles, choral works.
FJO: But that’s not really the focus of music composition in the academic world.“Everybody comes to music school thinking they’re going to be the next John Williams or Danny Elfman.”
MD: I absolutely agree with you. And I think it’s wrong and misguided on the part of academia. Maybe that’s one reason why I knew when I started my grad school degree that I didn’t want to follow the path of becoming a tenured professor at some academic institution. I knew I wanted to be a freelancer. I don’t think I knew when I first said I wanted to compose music that I was going to be primarily a vocal specialist or even a political music specialist. Probably my experience was like 80 percent of new undergraduates: I wanted to do film music. It’s a thing. Everybody comes to music school thinking they’re going to be the next John Williams or Danny Elfman. And I thought that was going to be me, too. Then I realized as I learned more about it that that wasn’t the grind that I wanted to get involved with and that I was probably possibly on the wrong coast to start off with, although there are many fine film composers on the East Coast. Then I realized where my passions lay, and it was in this political-vocal music. I think I got very lucky with the institutions that I went to, and the teachers I studied with, because all of the teachers that were the greatest influence on me also write a lot of vocal music and do not care about the academy looking condescendingly down on vocal music as a discipline. The teacher I had the longest at West Chester was Robert Maggio, and he writes a lot of musical theater—straight up, Broadway-style musical theater, which the academy used to think was not even art. So he totally encouraged me when I said I wanted to write a cantata about Alberto Gonzales. He was totally on board with that. There was never a whisper of “Well, this isn’t going to be good for your academic career” or “People are going to look down on this if you focus on this kind of music.” When I first came to the University of Pennsylvania, I actually had the fear that my past work doing political-vocal music as an undergraduate was going to hamper me in some way because Penn is Ivy League and it’s George Crumb and Richard Wernick and all these people. I spent the first year or so of my time at Penn trying very hard to write what I thought was expected of an academic composer.
But I got very lucky, again because of my composition professor at Penn. The one I had the longest there was Jay Reise. One day in one of my lessons I came in with this piano piece that was honestly just incredibly intellectual and esoteric. There were no emotions in it, and it was bullshit. I showed it to him and he sort of hemmed and hawed, and then he said, “Melissa, do you want to go out and get a coffee instead of discussing this piece? Let’s go get a coffee.” He sat me down in the Starbucks, and he said, “Melissa, why are you writing this piece? Why are you writing this kind of music? You had this massive hit with The Gonzales Cantata. Most composers would kill for that kind of connection with an audience and that kind of publicity. Why aren’t you writing political music? That’s obviously where your heart is.”
And I felt this flood of relief. I was like, “Really? I can do that here? You’re actually encouraging me to write the music that I want to write, which the academy has spent decades looking down on?” And he’s like, “Yes, of course. Go and do that.” And so that’s what I did. I took his permission very literally and immediately just focused on that during my time at Penn. Not all of it was political, but I think the next piece I wrote was What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?—a political choral piece. While I was writing that, I was studying with James Primosch, and he’s written a bunch of choral music as well. I think if I had gone to another institution, I might have had a harder time. I don’t know how to give advice to young composers who are looking for institutions to go to because I think it’s a very individual thing, and it’s very difficult to find the right fit. And sometimes you don’t know what will be the right fit until you go there and discover who your teachers are, what the culture is, and who your classmates are. But I feel very grateful. I feel like I landed in the right spot for me.
FJO: It’s interesting, though, all of these compositional mentors for you were men.
MD: I also had one female composition teacher, Anna Weesner. She’s great. I wrote Tesla’s Pigeon while I was studying with her. I loved working with her. I feel like I haven’t had a bad composition teacher. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m a pretty easy-going student—actually, easy going is the wrong word. I immediately fall into desperately trying to please my teacher and so I study very hard, and I have my Chinese tiger mother training. So I’m very focused on doing the best that I can while studying under a teacher. But it is interesting that all of my teachers at West Chester in composition were men. And all of my teachers at Penn, with the exception of Anna Weesner, were men.
FJO: And you were lucky because desperately trying to please the teacher is a dangerous paradigm for a composition student. What can happen a great deal of the time is that you study with somebody and then become a clone and write music that sounds like your teacher’s music. So bravo to Jay Reise for telling you to write music that was true to your voice.“Teaching is just as much about learning new things yourself, and your students will teach you just as much as you teach your students.”
MD: Yes, absolutely. Bravo to him. He especially is someone who has a calling to teach. He’s a really good teacher. I’ve seen where people join academia so they get a steady paycheck and access to resources and health insurance, but they’re not really there to teach. They’re there to research, or write, or compose, or whatever. And teaching is not what they enjoy. I feel really lucky that the professors I’ve had were very invested in teaching and went out of their way to make a real effort to do it the right way. In my teaching career, I really try to do that for my students as well. I don’t want them to write the same way as me. I want them to have their own voices. I want them to pursue the things that they want to pursue, even if I don’t understand it. Teaching is just as much about learning new things yourself, and your students will teach you just as much as you teach your students. But I felt very lucky that way because I know of many composers who have had bad experiences with teachers and who have been actively discouraged from writing certain types of music. I think that’s a real shame because why would we all want to write the same kind of music?
FJO: Indeed. And it happens across the stylistic spectrum.
MD: Yeah, sure.
FJO: It happens in jazz, too.
MD: Oh, sure. Oh, jazz is weird. Jazz has exactly the same kind of weird hierarchical problems, I think.
FJO: But I’d like to talk more about specific pieces of yours that you already mentioned, like The Gonzales Cantata, which is about George W. Bush’s villainous attorney general.
MD: I wouldn’t call him a villain. I’d call him an anti-hero.
FJO: But he wound up having to resign.
FJO: And you set the testimony, which is a very up-to-the-minute contemporary text, but you turned it into a Baroque cantata. I would never have imagined, until I heard this piece, Lindsey Graham singing like this.“There are a lot of similarities between the almost absurd mannerism of a Baroque cantata and the absurd manner of American politics.”
MD: Well, there are a lot of similarities between the almost absurd mannerism of a Baroque cantata and the absurd manner of American politics. I think I felt this even more keenly in 2007, because I came to America in 2003. So this was within my first five years. I wasn’t even an American officially yet. I was a Green Card-holding Australian citizen and there were things about American politics that I thought of as inherently ridiculous. And Baroque music, as much as I love it, is inherently ridiculous in so many ways—just the weird Rococo nature of it all, the excessive ornamentation, particularly in Baroque opera or Baroque cantatas. I can draw so many metaphorical comparisons between that and the grand standing of American politics. So I was feeling that very keenly. Also the cantata was another one of those weird epiphany moments to me. I was listening to the testimony in the car on NPR, and I was riveted by our friend Arlen Specter grilling the hell out of Alberto Gonzales. After the segment was finished and I turned off the radio, it was like ping. You’re going to write a cantata about this testimony. You’ve got to figure this out. When I get an idea like that, it’s usually a pretty good idea. Or at least I have the will to follow it through to the end, much like getting the idea to become a composer. So I remember, I went to West Chester, and I told my teacher at the time and he had actually not been following the testimony at all. So I think his first question was Alberto who? So I had to sort of explain what I wanted to do, but he was totally on board with everything. Of course, the first issue was if I’m going to set the words of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what is going to be the gender of the performers who are performing this piece?
Here’s a rant: We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage. We are more powerful than a playwright would be in deciding that gender split. We are more powerful than the director, or an artistic director of a company would be. It’s up to us. Right? Because once you set the tessitura of a musical theater piece, it is very difficult to cross-gender cast. There are obviously a few exceptions. We have countertenors and we have some female tenors and you could possibly transpose, but transposing is really difficult; especially if you start introducing instruments other than piano, transposing becomes very impractical. So I realized when I sat down and started to write this piece that it’s up to us. If I may digress and have this little rant, some composers are using this power very irresponsibly. We have composers right now who are writing musical theater pieces or operas that are full of male voices—full of them! We have a situation in the vocal music world where women singers outnumber male singers at least three to one, and yet there are so many new pieces of musical theater and music coming to the stage where the men outnumber the women by that ratio or higher. This is an abuse of our power. I refuse to believe that I’m just following the art, that what the art said to me was that this piece of music was full of male voices. If you’re not considering the context of the world around you, your art is bullshit. You have to consider the context of the world that you live in and the fact that male voices have been centered on the stage for centuries in our art form. And it’s up to us. There are obviously exceptions to this. There are many composers who are thinking about these ideas, but I almost feel like it’s worse right now than it has been in the past. At least romantic composers were centering the female soprano as the star of an opera on the stage, even if she was surrounded by men. Now we have operas about men, filled with men, male choruses—anyway, that’s my rant. Because when I realized that this was the power that composers have, to decide the gender of the people on stage, to decide the voice type, this is when I said, “Well, I’m not going to write this cantata to be about a bunch of men just because that’s the makeup of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I’m going to swap all of the genders around, and it’s going to look ridiculous, because there are 20 women on stage, and one man, in the form of Dianne Feinstein, but why is it less ridiculous to have a stage full of men?”“We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage.”
This was the beginning of me forming that mission statement in my head because I realized what my responsibility is to change our art, which kind of extrapolates to changing the world. Changing the lives of the people around you. I can give my soprano friends jobs. And I can decide if they get a job or don’t get a job by the roles that I create in the music that I write. That’s really what it boils down to. And what kind of irresponsible person am I being if I tell my soprano friends, “No, continue being on food stamps. I’m giving more roles to the men, even though there are fewer of them, and they already have a ton of work.”
FJO: So how did this get on The Rachel Maddow Show?
MD: Here is what arts entrepreneurship looks like for me. Arts entrepreneurship for The Gonzales Cantata looked like me in my pajamas every day for six months after or before I’d even graduated from West Chester University, spending hours a day being my own PR person, and being a PR person without a ready-made rolodex of media contacts and just kind of creating it myself from scratch. I would spend a really long time on Twitter every day trying to talk to journalists, trying to make friends with people in the media, finding and trying to pitch my idea to whoever would listen. And it was months of this grind. I had about six months between graduating from West Chester and my own production of the show. I decided to put the show on in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, so that was my timeline. I discussed it with my husband. I’m going to take six months off after I finish school between finishing my undergraduate degree and starting my Ph.D. at Penn. In fact, the last performance of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival was the day before my first day of classes at Penn. So, I’ve got this amount of time and during this time my job is promotion—arts entrepreneurship, if you will. Okay, so I sat on my couch in my pajamas with the X-Files playing constantly, all eight seasons of the X-Files, and I did PR work. It’s a horrible grind. It’s a really difficult thing to do. I understand why a lot of composers hate it, but it’s the kind of work for me at least where, if I really believe in a project, I’ll do it like I’m obsessed with it. I think of my compositions like they’re my children and I want my child to succeed. I’m not going to pay to get them into college like Felicity Huffman, but I am going to contact as many journalists who I think would be interested in maybe doing a write up or, if that fails, I’m going to go directly to the audience as much as I can and see if I can reach people who might want to see the show.“If you’re not considering the context of the world around you, your art is bullshit.”
What I aimed at for The Gonzales Cantata was political journalists and then the audience. The week of the show, I was so exhausted. I was also conducting the show myself. I also directed it and produced it. All of the hats, right? The week of the show my husband was helping me out. Every time there was a story about Alberto Gonzales in the media, he would go into the comments and say, “Hey, if you’re interested in Alberto Gonzales, there is this show that’s coming on in Philadelphia that’s about his fall from grace and the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that he was embarrassed in.” He would have a Google alert every time Gonzales’s name came up in the press. There was a Wall Street Journal story about Alberto Gonzales and Matt did this in the comments, but he noticed that his comment didn’t appear. They have to be approved. And he thought, “Oh, I guess they don’t want me marketing in their comment section.” And he let it go. But the next day, or two days later, I get a phone call out of the blue from Ashby Jones, a Wall Street Journal reporter. He wants to talk to me about this show that he heard of because someone in the comments had linked to a press release. So I did this interview, and I thought nothing would come of it because I had done so many press approaches and interviews in the proceeding six months and nothing had happened. But he did a write up in the Wall Street Journal law blog—rest in peace, it no longer exists—and that law blog article suddenly started getting picked up. So the next day, it was in The Huffington Post. By the dress rehearsal that evening, it was on Fox News National. Bret Baier was talking about it. Then at the end of the dress rehearsal, my husband who was running the supertitles for the show was also on Twitter at the same time and saw that Rachel Maddow had tweeted about it. And I thought, “Oh, that’s it. I’ve achieved everything I need to achieve. Rachel Maddow, with her two million-at-the-time Twitter followers, retweeted The Gonzales Cantata. Oh my God. That’s it. I’m done.” But as I was getting changed, I get a cell phone call and it’s a Rachel Maddow producer, and she says, “We’re doing a spot on your show.” I was having an out-of-body experience, but I said, “Thank you so much for mentioning the show.” She’s like, “Oh, it’s a little bit more than a mention.” She ranted about my show for five minutes and how much she loved it. You can still find it online:
She sent me a Christmas card that year. It was all chance. I never actually spoke to her. I never pitched the show to her directly. That’s like winning the lottery. Or, might I say, it’s like applying for a grant. You do a lot of work for the possible promise of something that will help your career and maybe you’ll get it and maybe you won’t. But all of the work that you do, both in getting a grant and in your own PR work, is going to help you in some way. It’s going to solidify what your work means to you. In the case of PR work, you will make contacts with journalists. And, if something does happen, you’ll have a path to go back to those same journalists the next time you write something that’s newsworthy. Isn’t it funny? I don’t think people who criticize arts entrepreneurship look at grants as being in that category.
FJO: No, they don’t. They also don’t think of having a university job as having a job.
MD: Sure. Yeah, but it is.
MD: Another very nice example of the impact this piece had is that it also wound up on the radar of the then-president of Croatia, Ivo Josipović. Again, that was not something that I had an active part in. I just got a Google alert that he had done a presentation about the piece at Harvard. He had just found it on his own. I think that maybe one of the reasons why marketing is so difficult is that a lot of it is a little bit out of your control. You put the stuff out there, and the key is persistence, but whether it succeeds is a little bit outside of your control. It’s a little bit like what the zeitgeist wants from you this week. And that week the president of Croatia did something because he’s a composer as well, and quite a good composer.
FJO: Yes. I’ve met him. There’s actually a clip of Ivo Josipović on NewMusicBox.“I don’t think people who criticize arts entrepreneurship look at grants as being in that category.”
MD: Oh, no kidding. Oh my God. I went to listen to his stuff after I heard that he had done this and I was like, “Oh, it’s good!” But yeah, he did a speech about music and politics and included The Gonzales Cantata as a contemporary American example next to John Adams and Tchaikovsky and I think maybe some Shostakovich. The fascinating thing with The Gonzales Cantata is that it does get out there. And it produces these reactions in people, one way or another. For me, the most weirdly affecting interactions I’ve had with it are when people who were involved in the proceedings have reached out to me about being portrayed or about the proceedings themselves. I had an amazing experience last year. The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers in Washington state performed The Gonzales Cantata and they arranged for John McKay, who was the U.S. attorney for Washington state who was fired by Alberto Gonzales, to come to the performance and give a pre-concert speech. It was amazing to meet him. He’s a Republican, but actually we agree on most political issues. I think the party moved to his right. I’m Facebook friends with him now. It’s the weirdest thing. But he knew Alberto Gonzales. They used to go jogging together in Texas. And the most amazing thing was on stage in a question and answer session, when I told him about my own psychological assessment of who Alberto Gonzales was and where everything went wrong for him and why he did the things that he did, after I was finished, there was a moment of silence, and he said, “Oh my God. Everything you’ve said is exactly who he is.” I’ve never met Alberto Gonzales. All I know of him is from reading these transcripts and watching him on TV, and reading this news about him and listening to his words, and then trying to empathize with this anti-hero in this piece of music. I never dreamed that I had actually gotten it right. I thought I just made an artistic representation of a real guy. Then to have someone who knows him say to me, “Everything you’ve said is a hundred percent correct” was really special to me as an artist. But it was also this amazing moment for the people who listened to the music as well. Because what I always aimed to do with that piece was figure out who Alberto Gonzales was as a person, so I could understand why, because the anger was so great. In 2019, it’s hard to imagine that the anger we felt in 2007 was that great because we’re all so much more angry now. I was really angry in 2007. I wanted to understand why they did the things they did in the hope that with understanding I could help lessen the gulf between the two sides of politics. Obviously, I wasn’t successful in solving all of America’s problems.
FJO: Look where we’re at now.“One of the things that art can do is present things that are shades of gray and have you understand those shades of gray emotionally, rather than just intellectually.”
MD: Right, I know. It’s crazy. But one of the things that art can do is present things that are shades of gray and have you understand those shades of gray emotionally, rather than just intellectually.
FJO: Another thing about that piece, as well as several other pieces of yours, is that your text consists exclusively of public testimony. That’s a great way to use up-to-the-minute texts that you don’t have to clear copyrights for.
MD: Copyright is broken. Initially copyright was for a period of 14 years, and then 28 years, and then it just got larger and larger and larger, and now it’s practically indefinite. They’re fighting to make it more indefinite and to do away with the public domain completely. This is never a situation that artists have been placed in in the past. We as composers can now no longer freely interact with art of our generation or of our parents’ generation, or of our grandparents’ generation. If we want to set a text, for instance by James Joyce, it’s practically impossible to clear it because the estate wants money that we as artists don’t have. And it’s just really weird because to me, art is a dialogue between artists. That’s how art is created. The very beginning of polyphony in Western music was building a new melody on top of a chant. Imagine if the cantus firmus was copyrighted, and you weren’t allowed to trope on top of it. Where would the basis of polyphony and Western music have come from? I think we probably would have done it anyway. But this is so weird, because this is the first time in history that it’s illegal. This is felt I think most keenly in art forms like hip hop with sampling, of course, and that’s where a lot of the legal cases have come from. In my opinion, that’s because it’s a black art form, and so it’s less valued. The court decisions I think have been frankly racist. But for me as a composer who writes vocal music, it makes it difficult and yet sometimes easier to decide what texts to set because I have to take into consideration whether I will be able to get permission to set a certain text. Public testimony is in the public domain. And it’s also very current. It’s also unusual, and I love setting unusual texts.
FJO: Another piece of yours that uses public testimony is What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, which you also talked about briefly. In addition to thinking it’s a fantastic piece, I think it’s interesting to compare the world it was written in to the world we’re in now, even though it’s only a few years later. The world has changed since then. At least, I hope it’s changed. But, of course, it might change back. So I think a performance of this piece might mean something very different now than it did when you first wrote it.
MD: Yeah, even straight after I wrote it. What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? was written after I watched the testimony of Phillip Spooner, an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality. I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech. I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music. My first impulse was to write a choral piece about it. If you don’t count the madrigals, this was my very first a cappella choral work. It was incredibly difficult to write. A cappella choral music is hard. This is another reason why I’m mad at academia for thinking that vocal music is somehow less than. I think a cappella choral pieces are among the most difficult to get right. It’s actually easier to orchestrate something. You have a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for error in an orchestra piece. There is no room for error in an a cappella choir piece.“There’s a lot of room for error in an orchestra piece. There is no room for error in an a cappella choir piece.”
After I finished it, I hated it. I thought I had done a terrible job, because I was just too close to it and I had struggled over it for so long. My husband will tell you stories about me beating myself up and saying it’s garbage, it’s trash. But because I’d spent so long on it, I thought, “I’ll send it out to a few people. Probably no one will want it, but I’ll try.” And I sent it out. And the first place I sent it to was the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers composition competition, and I got a letter back, and they’re like, “You won.” I was completely shocked. Again, I have mixed feelings about this, because it’s that thing where you win an award and that legitimizes you and then everyone wants to sing your music because it won this award.
FJO: Well, what I think is interesting about performing the piece now is that while it began as a protest piece, it actually can take on a new meaning. I don’t think it has becomes irrelevant. I think it can become a piece that can be performed at gay weddings. Or any wedding, for that matter, because it’s so emotional and so moving.
MD: Right, and it shows where we’ve come from. And you know, the attitude shift that happened. I will say that piece experienced a significant uptick after Trump was elected.
FJO: I bet.
MD: I have very mixed feeling about that because there was a definite fear that we are going backwards and that the forces were mustering again to take gay marriage off the books at the federal level. Given a choice between this piece becoming irrelevant and gay marriage being on the books, I don’t care if my piece becomes irrelevant if my friends can get married. This is the choice. I don’t care about my piece. My piece has done what it needed to do, which was to comfort a lot of people who were scared in the last decade. The most incredible feedback I’ve ever gotten from that piece was from a kid in the Pacific Northwest who sang it with his college choir and wrote me an email that said, “Thank you, this piece gives me hope that one day I’ll be able to come out to my conservative grandfather.”
MD: I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote the piece. I was really thinking about my own emotional reaction to what was happening and how important this message was, but I wasn’t thinking of reaching a single person and giving them hope. And when that happened, it was like, oh my God, this is what this piece is about. Because even with the legality aside, we still have millions of people who are against homosexual relationships, and they tend to be of an older generation. And we have their younger relatives who are struggling with that.“I don’t care if my piece becomes irrelevant if my friends can get married.”
I had another experience with the Pennsylvania All-State Chorus; 270 high school kids from all over the state sang this piece at the PMEA conference a couple of years ago. Who was it who said this? Pennsylvania is Philadelphia at one end and Pittsburgh at the other, and Kentucky in the middle. There are a lot of places within Pennsylvania that are extremely conservative. One of the teachers, an older generation guy, came up to me. This teacher was from a very conservative area and had only brought a couple of kids to this conference who were in the All-State groups. He wanted to talk to me about the piece, and said that this piece had inspired a lot of very interesting discussions within his classrooms, discussions around what happens if you disagree with the message of these pieces, or you agree with them, and how to have a discussion without it becoming extremely emotional. And then he started to get emotional, “This piece has given me so much hope because while we were rehearsing it, my daughter came out to me as a lesbian, and I was so scared for her. But this piece gives me hope.” And again, it’s like this is okay. That’s the point then. You know. And by that measure, maybe this piece will become irrelevant one day. Maybe it will become so irrelevant that it doesn’t even make sense to sing it at a gay wedding anymore. Great. I’m totally okay with that. I think the message of it will evolve if we continue evolving in this direction. Maybe it will always be a message of hope. But if we get to a point where people are like—“Huh, that’s a weird thing to sing about; why would anybody care what the gender is of people getting married?”—I would be so happy. I would be delighted by that.
FJO: Then it becomes a piece of music history and cultural history in the same way as the anecdote about Beethoven ripping up the dedication to Napoleon on the Eroica.
MD: Exactly. Right. Or all of these political songs that are now just nursery rhymes and we don’t even understand that they had serious political meanings with people having their heads cut off.
FJO: In a way, that’s another toxic thing about the canon, creating work for it to be great 200 years from now.“Art needs to be grounded in what’s happening around us.”
MD: I’m so not interested. I know some composers are. I don’t want to dunk on any composers, but if all you write are pieces about the majesty of the universe, it’s obvious that you’re aiming for something that people will be singing generations from now because the universe will always be majestic. You know what I mean? I’ve also written pieces that are about stars. Is anyone really a choral writer until they’ve written something that’s about stars? But, for me at least, art needs to be grounded in what’s happening around us. I feel like composers have always done this actually. And all of those pieces that are in the canon that we think of as timeless, they’re not timeless. That’s a load of garbage. I do a lot of theater as well, and there are many works of theater that I think the same thing about. Chekhov, for instance, all of Chekhov. We think of that as classic theater that is timeless. Chekhov is so grounded in the weird politics of Russia at the turn of the century. And it’s actually near impossible for the average American theater-goer to really understand what Chekhov was getting at when he is talking about Russia at this moment in time. But we find other meanings.
FJO: Like all the in jokes in Shakespeare that don’t make any sense to most people.
MD: Exactly, tons of things that are parodies of someone that we don’t know anymore, or slang that’s not in use anymore.
FJO: My favorite piece of yours, which is also very timely, is probably American DREAMers, and so I certainly don’t want the piece to go away but I do want the issue it’s about to go away, this xenophobic desire to build walls around ourselves.
MD: Yes. That was very much a reaction to that. I was approached by the choir with the idea of writing a piece about immigrants. They said that they were inspired to create this commission by the plight of DREAM Act kids but that they were open to it being about all immigrants; this was the germination of their idea. And I instantly was like, yes. This is completely up my alley for various reasons. I’m an immigrant. I’m from Australia and my immigration story is kind of interesting. I come from a Western, industrialized, English-speaking nation, which is very different from the immigration story of a lot of American immigrants. And I came here on a fiancée visa. The infamous mail-order bride, 90-day wedding visa that they have a whole reality show about now, because my husband and I fell in love while I was on a vacation, and we were friends on the internet, and long story. Anyway, my immigration story is not typical, one might say. There are a lot of us, but it’s not typical. However, both of my parents—in fact all three of my parents if you count my stepdad—have immigration stories to Australia that are steeped in all of these issues. My mother was a refugee from communist China. She swam from China to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution to get away with people shooting at her from the shore. There are stories from the chaos that she experienced as a child that I have no reference point for because she came to Australia to make my life better. I was born in Australia. My biological father was a post-World War II refugee from Greece. He came to Australia in the ’50s, along with millions of other Greeks and Italians, in the chaos after World War II when there were really no prospects. It was a complete mess in the Mediterranean post-World War II, so a lot of them came to Australia. Of course there are a lot of them in America, as well. So I know a lot about that. He was a child during World War II and actually experienced some of that. My stepdad’s parents were also World War II refugees from China during the Japanese invasion, and they experienced the Japanese invasion and the war. I’ve done an oral history with them. I had to for a school class where I heard the most hair-raising things that they had witnessed. So I understand, because it’s my history, what motivates people to go to a new country and face instability in a new country and a dangerous journey and the struggle for acceptance, and the fight against racism which is rampant in Australia.“I understand, because it’s my history, what motivates people to go to a new country and face instability.”
So yeah, I can tell the story. I can tell these stories because the first thing I did was say this is a project where I have to collaborate with people who are going through this right now. I found a movement on Twitter—#Undocupoets—where young undocumented immigrants are writing poetry about their experiences. This is what art is, the whole thing about empathizing with people and discovering the humanity in other people through art, right? So they were writing their own stories and expressing themselves in their poetry. I also found essays, because I like turning unusual texts into songs. I looked at essays. I looked at blog posts. I looked at various different texts all over the place, and then I started contacting some of these authors and writers and asking them if they wanted to be involved in the project. I split my commission fee with them, 50-50, and so I feel like I’m helping to support them in their very expensive struggles to remain in the country that they call home.
But the first trap that I was afraid of falling into was that of portraying these immigrants as just victims, turning them into one-dimensional characters in their own story. That’s absolute garbage. They’re just like us. They’re not victims that we have to save. They’re Americans who are being delegitimized by a racist government. That’s what’s happening. So my aim for this was to acknowledge their breadth of experiences, including the difficult journeys that they had. One of the pieces is called “Dancing in Buses” and is from Javier Zamora’s account of coming to America as a young boy by himself on a bus. He went missing for weeks in Mexico on the way to the U.S. border. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from groups that have sung it, including high school groups, about how it pulls the rug out from under you because it starts off sounding kind of fun—you can imagine a nine-year-old boy getting on a bus and going to join his family in America, that the beginning might have started off as an adventure—and then it gets dangerous. The second piece, “More milk, more milk makes it better,” is Janine Joseph and it talks about coming to America and getting full cream dairy milk for the first time and putting on a whole ton of weight, but also how delicious it was. She’s just a regular kid who came to America and lived the same as all Americans. We have a piece from Julia Montejo, “#Undocujoy,” which is basically also about how they are regular people that love and laugh and dance and all of the wide experiences of human beings and Americans. Then the last song is a call to action, which is from Claudia D. Hernández; that was from a blog entry actually where different poets who had come to America were invited to give reactions to the threats against the Dream Act. Stitching all of this together is Marlene Rangel’s story of coming to America as a child. She was not a professional writer. I didn’t want to just highlight the experiences of immigrants who were polished writers. She was interviewed for a blog about her story. She is studying to be a nurse down south. The best thing about American DREAMers, I think, is the fact that some audiences think they’re in for this really devastating emotional journey, and then they find themselves laughing through the whole middle section. And I’m like, yes! Because that’s life. I’m also pretty proud of that because making choral music funny is difficult, but I guess that’s part of my brand, too, starting with The Gonzales Cantata.
FJO: But you’ve also written several short, sacred hymns.“I am happy to accept sacred commissions if the religious organization will give me some leeway on what text I choose.”
MD: Sure. I am happy to accept sacred commissions if the religious organization will give me some leeway on what text I choose. And if you track the texts that I use in my sacred commissions, they’re pretty political.
FJO: You’ve also found ways to be quirky within those pieces. I’m thinking of Day of Resurrection, which has sections in 7/8; that’s not an expected kind of thing.
MD: For most of my choral music, there is an element of pushing the genre just a little bit. I don’t think I write music that’s crazy experimental for choirs. I want to give them something that a wide range of choirs are well-equipped to perform, but I also like to challenge them a little bit. Most church choirs are not used to singing in a strange meter, but they’re all musicians. They can do it. It’s not totally out of bounds. I grew up going to a Presbyterian girls’ school. So for 11 years of my life, it was chapel in the morning and assembly three times a week, and singing hymns and singing a lot of John Rutter—so much John Rutter—and loving that tradition, even if I’m not a hugely devoted church-going person. But I agree with the moral messages. Clearly I’ve been influenced by the moral messages of valuing the poor, the weak, the meek, and the downtrodden, and lifting those voices up. I think that that’s a huge core message of Christianity. And the pieces that I have generally written in the sacred genre uphold that tenet of Christianity.
FJO: To take this back to entrepreneurial concerns, a relatively recent choral piece of yours, A New Heart, has no tenors. It’s just sopranos, altos, and basses.
MD: This was a really interesting commission, actually. It was commissioned by the conductor of the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, who had also just started conducting a choir at a Baptist church. The choir was not a polished professional choir and he knew what they were capable of, but he felt like they needed a piece that they could call their own to inspire them to enjoy what they were doing a little bit more. Actually in so many community and church choirs, tenors are a really rare commodity. The problem that I talked about earlier with there being so many more female singers than male singers, the male sections, particularly of amateur choirs, tend to be the weakest link in choirs a lot of the time. So there is actually quite a lot of demand for SAB pieces of music.
FJO: Fascinating. Because in the gospel music tradition, it’s the opposite, it’s all SAT.
MD: Right. But there are some weird ideas about masculinity—toxic masculinity. Deep-voiced means you’re a man. You know what I mean? It’s so subjective of course because all the tenors in opera are the most heroic characters in the opera. For whatever reason, I think Americans are socialized to think that having a high male voice is less masculine than being a baritone, so I wonder if there’s some of that involved in the distribution of tenors in America. I don’t know.
FJO: So your choral piece without tenors definitely fills a niche. It also includes a piano accompaniment.
MD: Yes, which is rare for me.
FJO: Another thing that’s rare for you is that that piece is not self-published; it’s with MorningStar.
MD: I am generally a self-publisher. I’m pretty adamant about that with a lot of my pieces. There’s a great blog entry by John Mackey, which talks about that. I read that in undergrad and it made a huge impression on me. And the more research I did, the more I thought I didn’t need a publisher for most of my stuff. I’m very good at marketing my own work and getting the word out there, and the kinds of performers that I appeal to do not necessarily need a publisher to give this stamp of approval before they approach my work. However, there is a gap in my PR abilities, and for the most part, that’s amateur church choirs. I don’t know how to reach them. I’ve never been a member of an amateur church choir or a volunteer church choir organization. I don’t have a network of people to reach out to to help distribute my stuff. The choral people that I know tend to be either in professional or upper community choruses, or they have church choirs where they have the budget to hire lead singers for each of the sections. So those are the church choirs that I mostly interface with and there is a sea of other church choirs that I don’t know how to interface with. I don’t know how to market to them, but MorningStar does. So this was the thing that won me over to MorningStar. I met the president and he and I got on very well, so that was very comforting. I also realized that for a piece like A New Heart, MorningStar would be able to do that entrepreneurial stuff way better than I could. It would take me a long time and lot of effort to figure out how to do that myself.
FJO: So is the idea that that would be kind of a calling card for you to write more of this sort of stuff? Do you want to do more of this stuff?“Composers should stop worrying about being as intellectual as possible and start thinking about what reaches the next generation.”
MD: Maybe. Let’s see what comes along. I’m totally down for writing more of that stuff if people enjoy it and want to sing it. I feel like A New Heart has done the rounds. But the interesting thing about letting a publisher handle all of that is I’m not actually sure how popular that piece is anymore because the publisher is handling it. They’ve expressed to me that if I have any more pieces I should send them along their way, but it’s a little bit weird because there is this middleman. I’m so used to directly interfacing with my musicians and to literally having singers in the choir say, “I would like to commission you to write for this choir now because I direct this other choir at this place,” or “I’ve pitched you to my artistic director at this organization.” When there’s a publisher as the middleman, I don’t have any of that interface anymore. So I don’t know whether I will get more commissions along those lines. I have no idea. My career is where it is, and I go where the current takes me in some respects. There are some currents that I’d rather go into and so I sort of work my way into that stream, but I’m not against it. I’m not against it because—and this is a whole other conversation, I’ll try to be brief on it—there is a myth in the composition world, and particularly the academic composition world, that it has to be difficult and that means you’re smart. The more difficult a piece is to rehearse and perform and get together, the more intellectual you must be. That’s a weird idea, isn’t it? I performed in the orchestra for the Brahms German Requiem when I was at Penn. It’s not that difficult to play. You can sight read the string parts. It’s easy. Do we think that Brahms was an idiot because he wrote something that you can sight read? No, we do not. Yet it feels like as composers we have this weird pressure from the academy to nest all our tuplets and make really strange harmonic choices that are not intuitive within the grammar of Western tonal music. If anyone can do it, then you must be just anyone. I’d like to push back against that a little bit in the sense that that’s not the music I grew up loving. It wasn’t like I like only the most difficult music. That’s not the music that made me a composer. It’s not the music that inspired me when I was a kid or a teenager or a student coming up through the ranks. It was the stuff that I could play. I wonder if composers should stop worrying about being as intellectual as possible and start thinking about what reaches the next generation. What inspired you to become a musician? What inspired you to write music? I think about the girl in middle school maybe having the opportunity to sing some of my music and thinking, “Oh wow. It’s a woman. A girl wrote this. Maybe I could write music one day.”
FJO: We talked at the beginning of this conversation about artists either needing to be independently wealthy or finding other ways to survive. I was floored when I contacted you to schedule this talk and you mentioned that your AirBnB is free tonight. You run a B & B?
FJO: There’s this whole other part of your life that has nothing to do with composition, but it is also very much part of how you are able to have an existence as a composer.“I literally make concrete in the other part of my life.”
MD: Totally. I don’t know if this is lucky or unlucky. Sometimes I really envy people who have one thing that they’re good at and know that that’s what they want to do, and they know it from the time they’re five years old and they just go and do it. I always had way too many things that I was interested in doing, enjoy, and can be good at. One of them, I discovered in my 20s, was renovating houses, like the first house that my husband and I renovated. We bought a house when we were 26, and we went room by room. My husband had no idea. He didn’t want do it, but I was like, “No, I’m going to do this. This is gonna be great.” We tore every room down to the studs. I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable.
In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. I’ll build a wall. I will tile a floor. I will create a room that I can touch and feel that I’m pretty sure is going to be here after I die, even if all of my music is forgotten and fades away. So there’s something that is very interestingly complementary about those two parts of my life. So yeah, this whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.
FJO: And as a result of your construction work in this space, you’ve found all these old objects and so you’ve also become an archeologist.
MD: Who doesn’t want to be an archaeologist? I would not trust anyone who said that they had not gone through at least one small archaeology phase as a child. Who hasn’t? I mean, come on. Did you go through it?