Molly Joyce (photo by Alexandra Gardner)

Molly Joyce: Strength in Vulnerabilty

Composer/performer Molly Joyce explains why perpetuating the notion that only a small select few are physically worthy enough excludes most people from the experience of making and ultimately enjoying art.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

One of the hallmarks of many different kinds of music performance—whether it’s a classical piano recital, a jazz combo in a club, or an arena rock show—is the demonstration of extraordinary physical feats on musical instruments. A cult of virtuosity has perpetuated the belief that the harder something is to play, and hence the fewer people who are able to play it, the better the music, and that the rare specimens of humanity who are able to play such music have special superhuman powers. At the same time, embedded in the word virtuoso is the word virtuous, implying that the rest of us who can’t scale these heights are somehow lacking in moral goodness.

Composer/performer Molly Joyce explained to us when we visited her in Washington, D.C. at the Halcyon Arts Lab, where she’s in residence this year, why perpetuating the notion that only a small select few are physically worthy enough excludes most people from the experience of making and ultimately enjoying art:

I think it’s problematic when one type of body or one type of being is reinforced through new music that still seeks a physically virtuosic connection. And I think that’s why, at least for myself, I always try, in my own passive way, to hopefully suggest other types of physicality.

Although she eschewed pyrotechnics in her own music long before she publicly identified as disabled (which was only about two years ago), Joyce has found many alternatives to virtuosity since embarking on exploring disability aesthetics as an artistic pursuit. For her, vulnerability is the new virtuosity. As she explains, “It’s not like you have to necessarily get rid of virtuosity all together, but you can reimagine it through other forms.”

She realizes, however, that music lags behind other artistic disciplines in embracing disability, and because of that she has been drawn to working with video artists and choreographers. One of the most fascinating projects she has been involved with is Breaking and Entering, a collaboration with the disabled interdisplinary artist Jerron Herman, which was awarded a 2019 New Music USA Project Grant. During the course of the piece, she and Herman swap roles—she dances and he sings:

My dance is definitely not super on point, and he’s not super in tune all the time, but the whole point for us is, through the disability aesthetic, we’re coming together. It’s not perfect. There are enough mistakes and we’re showing this, and also showing our vulnerability through that, a breaking and entering through, hopefully, to something else. That’s just as interesting as a very virtuosic piece.

[Ed. Note: This month, guitarist Jiji will perform Molly Joyce’s Plus and Minus at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ (February 1). The South Carolina Intercollegiate Band, conducted by Jack Stamp, will perform her All or Nothing in Columbia, S.C. (February 8). NakedEye Ensemble will perform Less is More at The Cell in New York City (February 16). Cellist Alistair Sung will perform Tunnelvision at Batavierhuis in Rotterdam, Netherlands (February 20), and the Harvard Glee Club, conducted by Andrew Clark, will premiere a new Molly Joyce work with text by Marco Grosse at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA (February 21). On March 31, Joyce will moderate a Disability and Creativity Panel at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C., and on May 15, New Amsterdam Records will release her first full-length album Breaking and Entering which features her voice, vintage toy organ, and electronic layering of both sources “in an act to reimagine disability within the human body.”]

  • Read the Full Transcript

    Molly Joyce in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
    November 20, 2019-2:00 pm, at the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C.
    Video presentations and photography by Alexandra Gardner
    Transcription by Julia Lu

    Frank J. Oteri:  I’m curious about the relationship between the purposeful avoidance of virtuosity in your recent music and identifying as disabled, particularly as a creative artist.

    Molly Joyce:  I started having thoughts about what virtuosity means, especially Western classical music’s obsession with extreme physicality, about two-and-a-half years ago when I first started doing disability studies and was reading about disabilities as social constructions, specifically the social model of disability which states that we’re disabled by the social barriers around us. It made me realize throughout all my very classical training that there’s always been this obsession with virtuosity and showing off ability, and that I just really fight back against that any way possible and I feel that I’ve always been doing that in my music, even before I even identified as disabled or really embraced that. I think this has come through a lot in my electronic works, going beyond the immediate ability of the performer and showing that not everything is there that you see or hear. And that of course comes through in my performance works and video works. I really love this quote from the disabled musicologist Stefan Sunandan Honisch. This might not be his exact version of the quote, but he often states that vulnerability is a new virtuosity, which I really love. It’s not like you have to necessarily get rid of virtuosity all together, but you can reimagine it through other forms.

    FJO:  There’s a humanity implicit in vulnerability which is really the opposite of the deification of virtuoso soloists and composers that is at the core of so much of classical music performance practice of perpetuating really hard pieces by dead composers that can only be played by anointed high priests.

    “Vulnerability is a new virtuosity.”

    MJ:  Yeah exactly.

    FJO: This mindset has actually been really detrimental to the acceptance of new music. But this is the music that you grew up immersed in and you ultimately became a composer. Were you initially attracted to this whole virtuoso thing, too?

    MJ:  I think I was more so when I was younger and as a composer—maybe this was just internal pressure I placed on myself—to write virtuosic pieces and really show off the performer’s abilities, which is great, but now sometimes I find that problematic in that I can’t even try to play the way they do with my hands. Now I see more of the problems and issues with it in general.

    I was interviewed by a disability researcher from Australia a couple of weeks ago. She’s on a worldwide fellowship to interview [people at] music organizations in the U.S. and U.K. about why music is lacking—compared to dance, or theater, or visual art—in [engaging with] disability. Part of the theory, that we came to together, is because of the instruments and the barriers that they place upon expecting a certain ability from a human body. Again this relates to wanting to show off the body and virtuosity. And, the more I think about it, how inaccessible it is to someone sitting in the audience thinking they could never do that. Impossible.

    “Music and the arts in general should be more a place of personal expression.”

    I feel like music and the arts in general should be more a place of personal expression. I’m particularly interested in what comes out of one’s own experience, and that’s why I think it’s problematic when one type of body or one type of being is reinforced through new music that still seeks a physically virtuosic connection. And I think that’s why, at least for myself, I always try, in my own passive way, to hopefully suggest other types of physicality.

    FJO:  Following up on what you were saying about musical instruments and barriers, it’s interesting to me that your instrument of choice has been a small portable electronic organ which doesn’t have a full keyboard range, so there are only certain things you can do with it. It has all these wonderful chord buttons on the side, but you don’t have every key so you can only use them in certain keys. Are these limitations why you were attracted to it?

    MJ:  At first, I thought it was my ticket to Brooklyn! But I think the aha moment really came in grad school when I started performing on it more and I wanted to build out a solo set and be self-sufficient. I decided to add electronics, to sample it and process it electronically to create backing tracks. Then I realized I could create a whole world with it. Initially I was hesitant about working with it because I thought it was just too small or that the range wasn’t enough on its own acoustically. I used to play with other people at first. But I think that moment came once I added electronics and realized the possibilities are infinite from here. Then more recently I’ve added voice and lyrics as well as video and projection.

    FJO:  You mentioned writing virtuoso pieces early on because you felt that’s what you had to do. And you went to Juilliard, so you were around the most competitive virtuoso players of all of these instruments. When did that flip to writing music that you could play yourself?

    MJ:  Oh, I still feel when I write for others that I want to use their abilities to the most as possible or learn as much as I can about those instruments and not deny certain factors. I think my own performance works are obviously much more tailored to me. But I think it’s been much more recently too in a way, thinking about—even with a chamber piece—how can I subvert the expectation of this?  Of again, physicality, or just expectation and outcome. You expect the full orchestra to be playing at the climax of the piece; can they drop out and just one instrument takes their place?

    FJO:  When did these ideas become as much of an aesthetic mission as well as a socio-political mission about shining the light on disability and vulnerability, about creating art that specifically addresses those issues?

    MJ:  Near the end of grad school I did an independent study with an amazing advisor, Sebastian Ruth, who founded Community Music Works in Providence. He was not particularly fluent in disability studies per se, but he was very encouraging and was a really great mentor overall for me following my intuition and also to foster that within my work. It led me down this life-changing inner path and journey which I’ve been on ever since of trying to create work only a disabled artist can create, work that won’t be compared to so-called “normal” or “non-disabled people” or “able-bodied,” but can be a line of its own.

    “There are adaptive instruments, but you don’t see those at concerts.”

    More recently I’ve been thinking about how frustrating it is, for example, working with writing for guitar. I can’t just pick it up and try it. People always bring up that there are adaptive instruments, but you don’t see those at concerts. Those are usually used just in art therapy or music therapy contexts. So there’s still a lot of progress to be made. I’m not saying to throw out all the instruments in the world, but it’s very frustrating, especially when you go to a music school and they say, “Why don’t you just pick up the instrument and try to learn a bit?” I can’t, so I’m not going to do that. I think a lot of classical music instruments focus on dexterity; I don’t have that in my left hand. Hence why I love that organ.

    Molly Joyce's electronic organ

    Molly Joyce’s electronic organ

    FJO:  You did this amazing TED Talk. It was very personal and emotional, but also beautiful. In it, you said you didn’t initially identify as someone who is disabled. Did that identification come before the aesthetic decisions in the music, or did they evolve simultaneously in terms of your embracing it and accepting it as part of your identity?

    MJ:  I think more simultaneously, but it was definitely coming out in my work first. I was composing works for the organ. I just wanted my hands to switch places or work with very physical motivation. That’s even in my compositional works, the range will go high or low, or the bow will get wider. I interview other creative disabled artists often, and a lot of them also say it comes out in their work first. And then they identify as disabled. Once I started doing disability studies in grad school, I slowly started. I used to say I have a weaker left hand. Then I would say I have an impairment. Finally, I identified as disabled about two years ago. At first, I thought I wasn’t disabled enough in a way. I wasn’t in a wheelchair, so I didn’t want to claim that since people were more disabled than me. But then I realized it’s really an identity for all to claim. A collaborator really pushed me on it, too. He said, “You’re making all this work about it, and you want to support other disabled artists.” I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but that was really, again, life-changing. I have an acquired disability. This is something I’ve talked about. I had my car accident which affected my arm when I was younger, but it’s still like having been on the other side in a way and being hesitant to embrace the other side, especially growing up. But I embrace it full-heartedly now.

    FJO:  Ultimately disabled vs. able-bodied is more a scale than a binary. If you’re a performer, physical limitations can be a barrier to certain repertoire even if you’re nominally able-bodied. You certainly wouldn’t call someone disabled whose hands were too small to play Rachmaninoff, although there are people whose hands are too small to play his music. Yet there was this pianist Ruth Laredo who came up with wonderful solutions that enabled her to play it and she became one of the best players of his music. But it emerged out of having to combat a physical challenge. Her hands were too small to play the music she wanted to play. Overcoming physical limitations is different for every person. You may not want to do this superhuman thing that nobody can do, but there are things that you do want to do, and you find ways to do them. On the electric organ, you just play chords in the left hand. You’re not doing fast arpeggiation, but you’re finding other things that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise done.

    MJ:  The organ chords influenced a lot of the harmony I write for other people. But it’s also taken me on this path of learning to sing and write lyrics. Asking what happens when movement and sensation leaves your body has led me to doing videos with the hands, something I think I would never have done if I didn’t have the car accident or the disability. I think it just led me down this path of wanting to pursue a disability aesthetic, no matter what medium. It’s very common in the visual art world, where they work in whatever discipline comes to them. I’ve been doing much more exploring with visuals. We just did a dance show last week. This is something which I love doing. I can’t imagine trying to do what I do with two so-called normal hands. I don’t think it would be nearly as exciting or interesting, at least to myself.

    FJO:  I wonder, in your creating repertoire that you can play based on your own physical limitations, has there been there some sort of mindfulness also about creating repertoire that can be accessible to more players?

    MJ:  I’m definitely interested in that. There are definitely things happening that maybe aren’t just receiving as much exposure in a way, like a lot of people are writing for lower grade band. I haven’t had a specific opportunity in that way, but I’d definitely be interested I think. And it’s interesting I guess, because I feel like when you say “accessible” that to me comes in terms of “disability accessibility.” Accessible to all the senses in a way too means something a little different than I’ve been thinking about with my own work, or with captioning and with audio descriptions, but I think that’s a different topic.

    FJO:  I know that you’ve written one really fantastic wind band piece. But that piece definitely sounds difficult. What grade is that piece?  Has it been graded?

    MJ:  I think it’s like a five or a six. It’s kind of a self-grade.

    FJO:  How did the opportunity arise for you to compose that piece?

    MJ:  Caroline Hand, the associate director for bands at Ball State University, put out a call for female composers to write for band and one of my mentors, Jack Stamp, recommended it, and thanks to his encouragement, I submitted for it. I’ve always been looking for opportunities to write more for band, because I used to play trumpet in marching band. I think I have this dream of writing a big marching band piece one day and reliving that experience through my own compositional voice.

    FJO:  There seems to be such plenipotentiary in that world to write all kinds of pieces. Would you ever want to write a level one piece?

    MJ:  I’m usually open for anything. It would be an interesting exercise. Everyone says this, but boundaries are sometimes helpful with creative works in general. So yeah, I’d definitely be open.

    FJO:  You’ve written a couple of pieces for orchestra. You have one piece for chamber orchestra and narrator, and then that organ concerto which won ASCAP’s Leo Kaplan Prize and is another super cool piece.

    MJ:  Oh, thank you.

    FJO:  It’s really intense. And is perhaps the opposite, in terms of practicality, from writing a band piece, since it’s already hard enough to find opportunities to write for orchestra and this needs to be done in a venue that has an organ in it, since you can’t just bring one in.

    MJ:  Exactly. That was a great opportunity to have a practical loss, because it might not be performed as much. It was written during my graduate studies at Yale. I knew once I started there that second year student composers get this great opportunity to write for orchestra and we don’t only get a reading, we get rehearsals, a premiere, and a recording. However, I had always heard that the hall it’s performed in, Woolsey Hall, has infamously horrible acoustics. There’s too much reverb, it’s too boxy and too wooden. However I also heard that Woolsey Hall has this amazing organ in it with a 64-foot pipe that runs below the audience. So I felt like I just couldn’t pass this opportunity up. And it was coupled with when I was performing more on my toy organ. Also, my best friend’s an organist and I was taking pipe organ lessons from her. And I knew for this orchestra piece I wanted to do something either with electronics or just something different. Even though it’s not as practical, I was grateful I was allowed to use the organ in it and to explore the organ-orchestra relationship.

    FJO:  So is that pipe going underneath the audience why it’s called Over and Under?

    MJ:  Kind of, yeah. And all these dichotomies—it’s also signaling that the organ can go over and under the orchestra dynamically as well.

    FJO:  Dichotomies have inspired a lot of your titles: Compare and Contrast, Light and Dark, Down and Out, Past and Present

    MJ:  I don’t want to put a total label on exactly where it comes from, but I think some of that is the two seemingly very similar but different physical entities of my hands and my ongoing experience with that and then exploring that through musical works, for myself or for others and how that plays out—like going from arpeggios to chords, or the range will switch—and allowing that to drive my creative approach and process.

    FJO:  You said something earlier about limitations freeing you up. When you work on a piece, do you impose limitations a priori to get yourself to go somewhere?

    MJ:  Yeah, a lot of it has to do with range, like high to low, or it will expand or contract, or I just want these two instrumental roles to switch places by the end, or my hands will switch places. Something that you wouldn’t have expected to happen when you hear the beginning of the piece in a way, but then you somehow get there and hopefully you don’t even know how it happened. That really helps drive it, although sometimes I have to say, I abandon that plan or I construct a new one.

    FJO:  So you do this stuff to get you going; they’re guidelines, not rules. You can break them.

    MJ:  Yeah, it depends on if I’m really specifically attached to an overlying idea, or if I want to construct a new one, and of course, I’m often influenced by the performers, either myself or who I’m writing for and what I imagine them playing in the end and that experience and the hall or on the recording as well.

    FJO:  We haven’t really talked about stylistic aesthetics so far, but we’re heading in that direction by talking about this idea of self-imposed limits. Would it be fair to say that a big aesthetic influence on your work has been minimalism?

    “The first contemporary composers introduced to me by my high school composition teacher were Philip Glass and Steve Reich.”

    MJ:  I knew that was coming. Minimalism. I think the first contemporary composers introduced to me by my high school composition teacher were Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I don’t know if he could sense it, I don’t even know if I sounded anything like that when I was composing in high school, but I fell in love. It totally blew up my thinking, especially coming from just listening to Western classical music, where I thought that’s the only way I could compose. It totally reinvented everything for me and it’s really been a main influence.

    FJO:  It’s interesting that minimalism initially emerged as a reaction against this very complex super-human virtuoso kind of composition that was so difficult for players to play and for listeners to hear. Of course, anybody can listen to anything, but there was a mystique around it and the way it was explained, which was very technical. When Steve Reich came out with a manifesto about perceptual processes, he wanted the structure of music to be immediately audible. So I wonder if for you that was also an attraction, given what you were saying about inaccessibility.

    MJ:  I just loved listening to it, the colors and everything. I don’t know if everyone will like this answer, but I think I felt like I could listen to it in the background and the foreground in a way. I love listening to music in the car or while I’m doing something else. I think that’s always something I hope for my music in a way. Maybe some people want their music more in the foreground, but I think I like it in both contexts. I don’t want it to always take over your whole attention. It can also be in the back. I think that was definitely the first and foremost for me. Then also, once you start like seeing live performances of it, it’s obviously a new form of virtuosity in a way, or physicality, another extreme level with endurance.

    FJO:  Performing Philip Glass’s music live is actually really hard. And if you make a mistake, everyone can hear it.

    MJ:  Yeah. Exactly.

    FJO:  So in terms of vulnerability, I wonder how you feel about mistakes and what that means in your music.

    MJ:  I think when I’m writing for others, it’s not like I encourage mistakes. But I hope to find room for that in my music and collaborations and my practice overall. Obviously not everything has to be perfect all the time. The disability aesthetic is much more recent thinking, especially with my collaborator Jerron Herman—making rooms for rests, and access, and breaks. This is something he did in our latest collaboration. He had a big solo in the beginning, and he would just take a breath in the middle. Making room for that has made me start thinking about this a lot more in my own performances, very obviously making room for that in front of an audience or on a recording. Again, it’s much more recent thinking, obviously, so I don’t have a full fleshed out answer.

    FJO:  Is that latest collaboration Breaking and Entering?

    “Not everything has to be perfect all the time.”

    MJ:  Yeah, that’s the dance piece we just did. He came here about a month ago and we actually workshopped it upstairs in the dance studio. Our last show was on Saturday.

    FJO:  I learned about that piece when it was awarded a New Music USA Project Grant and it’s actually what made me decide that now was the right time to talk with you about your work.

    MJ:  Thank you. I appreciate that. I’ve worked with Jerron for about two or three years now almost. I did music for a dance of his or a music video, and then he used some music of mine in a dance piece of his. I feel like we have a lot of similar and divergent thinking in relationships and disability arts and culture and aesthetics. He’s a really accomplished dancer and choreographer in New York, and he has a weaker left side like I do, but his is congenital. His was through cerebral palsy, and mine was acquired with my car accident.

    We had the idea of trying to do a bigger work more collaboratively together, so that we’re both starting at the beginning in a way. We applied for the New Music USA grant and then this opportunity came through Danspace to actually premiere the work and it evolved into something I never could have imagined without him and without his encouragement. It was definitely the most collaborative work I’ve ever done in the best way possible. We both did music and we both did dance. I’ve been progressing towards that. I think even when I compose music on the computer, I’m kind of physical with it. And of course, when I perform, it’s not like I just stand. I usually try to embody the music, especially when the music is playing. And I love dancing for fun, but it was definitely a progression. It’s still something I’m very much fleshing out in a way. I’m not the greatest dancer in the world, but it wasn’t like I had never seen a contemporary dance. At Juilliard, I saw a lot of dance, and I still try to.

    FJO:  I think this is also your biggest work to date.

    MJ:  Yeah, it’s evening length.

    FJO:  But you didn’t write all the music.

    MJ:  Jerron would give me little ideas, little phrases or lyric ideas, and then I would flesh them out. Then he sang some of the music. In the second movement, we switched places. I danced and he sang. My dance is definitely not super on point, and he’s not super in tune all the time, but the whole point for us is, through the disability aesthetic, we’re coming together. It’s not perfect. There are enough mistakes and we’re showing this, and also showing our vulnerability through that, a breaking and entering through, hopefully, to something else. That’s just as interesting as a very virtuosic piece.

    FJO:  This piece brings up another kind of vulnerability, not just the vulnerability of dancing and not being a professional dancer, but also sharing in the creation of something. Composers are trained to be very possessive of their music. So I wonder how much were you able to let go, were willing to let go, and what was that experience like for you?

    MJ:  I wish Jerron was here. I feel like he’d have so much to add. I’d done some dance collaborations and visual art collaborations, so I feel like I’d been working up to it and I know that with collaborations you have to let go sometimes. My teacher David Lang said it best: in some collaborations, you have total control, some you meet in the middle, or for some you really just do what someone else wants. I think I tried to just flesh out the ideas he gave me and I always like to give a lot of ideas of my own and see what he wants to do, or what really resonates with him. But the one thing I was really firm on was that near the end I can’t compose new music, like when it’s a week before the show. I think that’s where I’m such a composer—I need time!  A lot of my music for the show had pre-recorded organ and vocals, and I like to process and edit it. So that takes time. And I can’t just do that in a day. This is interesting working with dance. I feel like they usually don’t think about working until they’re in a studio. We made so much progress once we were in the studio together.

    FJO:  So you didn’t actually co-compose the music with him. It’s your music.

    “I don’t really care about crediting too much.”

    MJ:  I would say most of it is. But he would give me some of the ideas and some of the lyric ideas, too. So especially on the lyrics I credit him. We just said the whole evening was created by both of us. I don’t really care about crediting too much, like I did this measure of the music and you did that. I’d rather just say it was duo work, which it very much was. I could not have done that without him.

    FJO:  Which is very much the way a lot of other kinds of music get created.

    MJ:  Exactly.

    FJO:  You’ve definitely worked in improvisatory contexts with people and group settings. I’m curious about how that’s different than writing pieces that you expect to go a certain way and what the give and take is for you.

    MJ:  There’s only so much you can do. I think it also helps, with the things that you have complete control over, like when I write the music and the lyric and record it all myself and mix most of it myself, I then hand it over to my engineer. It helps to have different outlets and realizing I had to let go of my ego.

    FJO:  There’s another piece of yours that I find really compelling, YousaidShesaidHesaid for soprano and fortepiano, which you created in response to Schubert.

    MJ:  I have to first and foremost give credit to the conceivers of the idea—the director Austin Regan and fortepianist Patrick Jones, who are both based in New York. They approached me almost six years ago. Of course, I always say yes to anything and everything. So then they got the librettist, Christopher Oscar Peña, on board. We’ve been slowly developing it basically over six years. I love the idea of a response, but in a more obviously contemporary voice, not only my compositional voice, but also the singer that sings it, and using electronics and processing. Then that story, the original Schubert, of this man and unrequited love, flipping the narrative to the female voice and I think not necessarily answering the story, but just adding more questions, and making it more hopefully relatable to real life in a way.

    FJO:  But now most of the time you write your own lyrics.

    MJ:  It really depends. I work with writers a lot, too, and other poets. Then sometimes myself, because some of it’s much more personally driven with my hand and losing physical sensation. But I love working with other writers that kind of know more of what they’re doing than I do. I realized with writing my own lyrics, I tend to fall into my own musical traps which can be good and bad. That’s why I really love working with other writers, particularly the poet Marco Grosse, whom I’ve been working with a lot lately. I find I’ll write differently to his lyrics. Not completely changing my voice, but more formal, because he’s already thought about the structure which I really love.

    FJO:  Getting back to your titles for pieces, another one with a somewhat provocative title is Less is More. One of the hallmarks of minimalism has been this notion of less being more. But it’s a somewhat strange title for this particular piece because it has optional lighting. I didn’t get to experience that aspect of it, since I only heard an audio recording of it, but if you’ve got optional lighting in it, you really are giving something more. So it’s more like more is more! But I’m wondering if you were somehow being tongue in cheek, or do you really embrace this idea that less is in fact more?

    MJ:  I knew that I wanted to create pulse-heavy and ostinato-heavy pieces. I wanted to engage all my guilty pleasures with it. It was written for the Eighth Blackbird Creative Lab, so I felt like I could experiment with it in a way and not feel like it’s this big commission. So I wanted to play with that and also of course with the lighting with the piece. I’ve always had this obsession. There’s a book called The Myth of More. It was inspired by that concept in general, and it’s just a piano and percussion duo and I think they’re in unison almost the whole time.

    FJO:  In terms of durations, with the exception of Breaking and Entering, which is the longest thing you’ve done so far, your pieces tend to hover around the five to ten-minute range. Even the organ concerto is a single-movement that’s only nine minutes. Would you be interested in creating more drawn out pieces if you were given the commissions to create them?

    MJ:  Definitely. I’ve done some. I did a 20-minute opera last year for Washington National Opera. Then I have an album coming out, but that’s in five pieces—five songs. Even this new collaborative work was definitely in movements, so it’s not like it was continuous music, which helps me approach these larger works. I’ve never done something totally continuous, which I’d love to do, perhaps more through an installation. I’ve always been afraid. I don’t know if it would be super boring to do something that was just one continuous work in a way. I don’t know if I could. It helps me to break it up in movements.

    FJO: A final thing I wanted to ask you about is this space and your residency here which is nine months, which is actually quite a long time, talking about durations. What have you been doing since you’ve been here?

    MJ:  I’ve been working on ongoing projects and also meeting a lot with disabled activists and artist organizations in D.C., really trying to learn from them, and also hopefully engage them for a panel I’ll be hosting in March on creativity in disability, as well as an installation at the end of June, as part of Halcyon’s By the People Festival. I want to feature contributions from the local D.C. disabled community. There are amazing nuances that disability has to offer like: What is weakness to you?  What is strength to you?  What is identity to you?  What is acquirement to you?  What is loss to you?  I want to feature excerpts from interviews and weave that into lyrics for the music I’ll create for this installation. I want it to be very immersive, to get really intimate and up close with disability and thinking about perspectives on bodies, but also things that disability brings to the table, such as a weakness and strength, and reimagining that.

    FJO:  Are you going to be answering those questions yourself as well, and if so, what are your answers to them?

    “What does weakness mean for me? I don’t know if I have the answers yet.”

    MJ:  I’m still very much pondering. I met with Judy Heumann, who’s a legendary disability activist and she said, “Why do you always say your weaker left hand?”  So I started thinking more to myself about what does weakness mean for me. I don’t know if I have the answers yet. That’s why I want to ask other people as well. I’m interested to hear what they have to say.

    Alexandra Gardner:  I have a question. I’m curious to know what Molly in 20 years is going to be like. Do you have a super long-term vision?

    MJ:  This, but on the beach. I’m kidding. I’ll try to remain super open, or not have expectations like “I’ll be this far.” I would love to just expand and develop what I’m doing now, but even more totally inter- and multi-disciplinary hopefully, kind of undefinable in a way with my practice as a composer-performer, but also visual art and video and dance and to continue my collaborations. A long-term dream of mine is to start an organization which supports creative disabled artists and disabled artists really cultivating creative disability. It would be a dream of mine to just basically give them as much money as possible. Of course that has its challenges and benefits.

    FJO:  One of the clichés that people always say about being a great composer is that you’ve got to find your own voice. But it does sound like through this work, you have found your voice.

    MJ:  It’s still very much developing, but I think a lot of it I was suppressing for a while, even my aesthetic inclinations towards minimalism or to pop and indie music. When people say that, I interpret it as meaning don’t deny what comes most naturally to you and just cultivate that and drive that as much as you can.

    Molly Joyce studio window detail