Thursday, April 23, 2020

The cooped-up composer



Last time Claris and I sent a newsletter, the world was a different place. Look at that happy picture above! That's me and members of the music faculty of Gonzaga University at the end of February, hamming it up during the last residency I imagine I will do until at least 2021, although I didn't know it at the time. I loved connecting with the students in classes and rehearsals, and watching from the wings as they performed an amazing concert on the theme of women's suffrage and activism (if you're curious to hear more about the residency, listen to my two-part interview on Spokane Public Radio here and here).

Since then, of course, a global pandemic has hit, an event that I've speculated for most of my life about as a layperson interested in science and morbid worst-case scenarios, although I hoped I wouldn't ever see one for myself. About six days after this photo was taken, I developed a worrying dry cough and shortness of breath, followed by a low-level fever. After over a week of those symptoms, I was given a COVID-19 test which eventually came back negative, but I was under strict quarantine for several weeks, and have barely left my house since. A lot of people have expressed relief that the test came back negative, but I think that's backwards! A positive test result would have meant relative certainty that Matt and I will survive this disease—plus I would have been first in line to donate plasma and contribute to finding a treatment or vaccine. Now I'm just holed up feeling anxious and powerless, and wondering what will happen next.

Like a lot of artists, COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on my career and income in a short period of time. In addition to the several cancelled residencies and teaching gigs this spring, many upcoming premieres and performances have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled, including a premiere at Strathmore, a premiere by Amuse Singers in NYC, and the first-ever performance of several of my works by the Choral Arts Society of Washington. My secondary source of income, an Airbnb on our second floor, has predictably gone from near-100% occupancy to 100% vacancy. Matt's taken a paycut to help keep his employer afloat, and all my private teaching has moved online, which is always a poor substitute for face-to-face learning.

Instead of a concert, the Choral Arts Society of Washington interviewed me for a series published on their website. We had a great conversation about political music and of course a little archaeology.
Similarly, National Concerts, who commissioned Eight of Swords, my first collaboration with Tony Silvestri that was to be premiered at Strathmore this month, instead interviewed conductor and composer participants for Facebook Live. There were many disappointed student choristers from around the country who were supposed to have flown into Washington DC for this concert.
In this midst of all this, it feels strange to celebrate good news, but I do have some? I've been told it can be nice to hear some good news even (or especially) at moments of crisis when it seems like nothing is good. So if it doesn't feel too sacrilegious, here's a little from me.

I won an Opera America Discovery Grant

First, a little background: until this moment, I had never won a grant in my life. In fact, I joked that I was Grant Poison. I guess I can't make that joke anymore, because to my utter shock, I have been given one of the more prestigious grants in my particular field. Opera America's Discovery Grant awards seven female composers each cycle with funding to develop a new opera project.

Read the full press release here!

Curious about my opera, Alice Tierney? I'm working on it with librettist/playwright and dear friend and fellow Philadelphian Jacqueline Goldfinger, and dramaturg Julia Bumke, and director Christopher R. Mirto. The title and inspiration is taken from a true story about a 19th-Century 45-year-old "dissipated woman" which you would already know all about if you listen to my podcast The Boghouse (specifically episode 13, but you really have to listen to all of it to understand how/why I found the story). But here's the twist: the opera is not really about Alice Tierney! It's an ARCHAEOLOGY OPERA! I have figured out a way to bring both sides of my life together!!!!

More details about the opera will come out in the coming weeks, but currently I'm still hammering out some details with the commissioner, so stay tuned.

The Boghouse was reviewed in The Public Historian

At the end of  February, our irreverent amateur archaeology podcast was reviewed in an academic journal, a turn of events that I never would have predicted a year ago when we first started recording our adventures in audio form. You can read the entire review in this PDF. My little academy-trained heart couldn't be more thrilled that my hobby is getting this kind of attention, and that my potty mouth (see what I did there) has been enshrined in a journal published by UC Press and distributed on e.g. Project MUSE.


Waves of Gallipoli and If Thou Wilt Be Perfect were published by EC Schirmer

I've mentioned these upcoming publications in past newsletters, but two new choral works of mine, Waves of Gallipoli and If Thou Wilt Be Perfect are now available on the EC Schirmer website, which means you can check out the scores. And here are some preview recordings from the always fabulous Saint Louis Chamber Chorus:

Online concerts are happening

Of course, it's not the same thing as attending a concert with a live audience, but I'm so delighted that several incredible performers have been programming my works and broadcasting them from their living rooms. 
Soprano Maureen Batt
Crossing Borders: Living Room Edition
Just you, me, and your device 

The program (in no particular order):
Girlfriends (Stephen Bachicha) for solo sop
June #2 (Melissa Dunphy) for looper pedal and sop
La Guardavoces (Melissa Vargas Franco) for solo sop
The Bliss of Fatigue (Monica Pearce*) for wine glass, toy piano, and sop
Ice Kaleidoscope (Bob Bauer*) for sop and electroacoustics
Quatrain (Daniel Gardner*) for sop and electronics
For broken and tired am I (Matthew Emery*) for soprano and piano (feat. Cheryl Duvall - Pianist on piano)
Nightingale Songs** (Rosśa Crean) for solo sop

*Canadian Composer
**World première

The concert is part of the recital series Crossing Borders, which puts Canadian music together and in dialogue with music from other countries. The series pushes geographical, musical, and metaphorical thresholds. This program includes works that have been on previous season’s programs as well as a world première.

With sounds of ice crackling, to dreaming of blissful sun basking, to contemplating a blurred reality, this program of living classical contemporary composers explores themes of compassion, isolation, and joy
VIOLIN CHANNEL LIVING ROOM LIVE | We’re coming to you live from New York City this afternoon for a living room livestream with Canadian violin soloist Lara St John | Today’s program featuring: Gabriela Lena Frank’s ‘Tarqueada' from ‘Suite Mestiza’ for Solo Violin, Bach’s ‘Giga’ from the 2nd Solo Partita in D Minor, tunes from Cape Breton, Canada (with Acadian chair dancing), the Presto from Bartok’s Solo Sonata, tunes from Romania (with ankle bells) - and Melissa Dunphy’s ‘Kommos’

The Violin Channel is committed to reminding people that live art will still exist even in these uncertain times | If you are enjoying this performance and you like to support Lara’s preferred charity, the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, you can donate now at:
#COVID19 #DontStopTheMusic #LivingRoomLivestream #OneCommunity 
See Less
And one heads-up: the divine mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is performing the work I wrote for her last year, Come My Tan-Faced Children in a recital for the LA Opera series #laoathome on Monday, April 27 at 4pm PST and 7pm ET. Raehann is entitling the virtual recital, 'Underscored' and featuring composers that are underrepresented in classical music. Look at this badass spread with my picture included! Mark your calendar and look for it on the LA Opera Facebook page on Monday.

Image may contain: 13 people, including Melissa Dunphy

I've joined the online faculty of the Young Women Composers Camp

The Young Women Composers Camp is a summer program for female and nonbinary composers that I have enthusiastically supported since I heard about it, and I'm excited to be joining their teaching stable this summer, offering composition lessons to high school and undergraduate students interested in composition (no former experience required). If you know any young composers or composers-to-be, send them to the YWCC website to apply; tuition is a sliding scale, and we're really trying to make this program as accessible as possible.


I posted this on Facebook at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, as a suggestion to those of you who are retooling your curricula to encompass social distancing, although actually this is a retool that I think has been overdue in music education for a long time. Please feel free to adapt/send this to any other music educators, as I just want to spread the word about these ideas.

I have been giving versions of this rant in seminars and colloquia for years because of a strange gap I see in music education which really bothers me. Bear with me for a moment. Music is similar in many ways to an expressive language, right? It has grammar, vocabulary, literature, it communicates ideas and emotions. OK so imagine that you are studying French. But for some reason, the way you are being taught French is not by speaking or writing your own words in this new language. No, instead, your teachers tell you to learn and memorize the words of long-dead French men such as Proust and Voltaire and Baudelaire, then once a semester you are required to stand in front of a crowd of people and recite, word-for-word, those texts. Everyone in the audience knows how it's supposed to sound, so if you mess up the pronunciation of a vowel, they tut-tut and you have points taken off your final grade. But if someone were to ask you to describe your hopes and fears in French, you wouldn't be able to find the words. If you were asked where you come from and who you are, you couldn't give them an answer. You could only recite something about Parisian madeleines. You have never even been encouraged to say the most basic sentences of your own in this new language.

Can you really say you are fluent in French? This is a weird way to learn, right? So why on earth is this the primary way we teach Western Classical Music?

Let me put something to you. Change your curriculum to center student composition. In my teaching practice, I had the most success with this in my aurals class. Take your Ottman and throw it in the trash. You don't need sight-singing books when you have an entire classroom full of composers who can come up with never-before-heard melodies to sight sing. Have the students swap with each other and sing each other's melodies. Trust me, hearing someone else bring your music to life, even the simplest stuff, is a composer's number one joy. When I did this in a college-level non-major aurals class, my students actually enjoyed aurals. They did extra work! Several of them expressed a desire to begin composing or arranging for the first time! Think about that. They enjoyed ... aurals.

I firmly believe that this approach can also be adapted to other disciplines, yes, even performing ensemble disciplines. Have your students write music for soloists or small groups in the ensemble to sing or play. Have them respond to the current crisis with music! Composition is something they can potentially do while practicing social distancing, and solo performances can be recorded, or multitracked for smaller groups (lay down one track in an mp3, and have other students record their part while listening to it).

Your students will get so much out of this, and not just during a pandemic. They will engage with music far more than they already do. When the restrictions are lifted, you might even have amazing pieces that your ensemble can perform in person, and think about what it will mean to these students that it's their *own* thoughts being musically expressed, not some dead European dude they don't know. When this crisis is over, you could do a whole concert of student works.

Consider it, please! Change the way you teach music. Stop the ossification of our art form and encourage new voices. I know a lot of you were never given the chance to compose yourselves, but you can give your students that opportunity, and what better time than now?

That's all from me for now. Till next time, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, stay at home if you can, and be well as literally as possible.

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