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Interview: Philadelphia Composer Melissa Dunphy talks Voice Of This Generation, the new classical scene, and Tesla’s Pigeon

Elliott Sharp of Philadelphia Weekly: Make Major Moves


As part of the ongoing Phily Fringe Festival, the City Wide Composers Collective is presenting Voice Of This Generation. Held at First Unitarian Church on Saturday, September 17 and Sunday, September 18, seven Philadelphia-based composers under the age of 35 will perform. It’s free (though donations are welcome), and it’s BYO, so you can brown bag a Four Loko if you want. It’s all about ripping classical music out of stuffy halls and away from the old figs and creating a new classical scene.

Among the young artists presenting their work is 31-year-old Melissa Dunphy, an Australian born composer currently studying music composition at Penn. For Voice Of This Generation, Dunphy’s piece for piano and soprano,”Tesla’s Pigeon,” will be performed. Make Major Moves got the Fringe veteran—Melissa presented her concert opera “The Gonzales Cantata” at Fringe 2009—on the telephone to talk about Kanye West, the decline of the Philly Orchestra, the new classical scene, her rock band Up Your Cherry, and how Nikola Tesla fell in love with a bird.

Make Major Moves: Voice Of This Generation is sort of a polemical statement directed toward Kanye West, who claimed to be the voice of his generation. Do you listen to Kanye?

Melissa Dunphy: I’ve listened to some. I have pretty wide musical tastes. Kanye’s not my favorite music, but I recognize that he has talent in his genre. And, he’s obviously a monster of polemical statements, so I think he does it better than we ever could. [Laughs.] He’s definitely a voice for a subset of our generation, but I think the way pop culture has evolved along with the internet, there’s no longer a single voice. Everything is more decentralized than it used to be, and as composers, we think of ourselves as a voice for another particular subset of our generation. It’s also a play on the fact that the concert focuses on vocal music.

MMM: Is there a young composer today who you think could possibly rise to the status of Kanye West?

MD: Probably Nico Muhly. One of the reasons he’s been getting so much attention recently is that he’s not afraid to branch out and flirt with many different types of music while still putting his own stamp on them. That’s really important for “classical music,” if you want to call it that, but I prefer to call it “art music.” For most of the 20th century we’ve had a very clear cut divide between pop and art musics, but now in the 21st century we’re in a giant mixing pot of cultures and there’s a real cross-pollination, so more art composers are starting to branch out and do different types of music. As a PhD candidate studying music composition at Penn, I have these really intellectual discussions about music every day, but at night I sometimes play in a rock band with my husband. I try to involve myself in many different genres of music and I think that’s something contemporary composers need to do.

MMM: What’s the rock band all about?

MD: The name is Up Your Cherry. It’s actually a mishearing of an Italian musical phrase that in English means “as you please.” I said it in rehearsal with my lazy Australian accent and some people thought I said “Up Your Cherry.” And I thought that was a really good band name. So I play an electric mandolin, which I run through a bunch of distortion and octave pedals, and my husband’s a punk drummer. It’s a lot of fun, but we have a dangerous show schedule coming up in the next few weeks. We’re the house band at a few Fringe shows, so we’re just playing night after night. I’m gonna be so tired by the time we finally get to the Voice Of This Generation concert.

MMM: So, a few months ago, NPR ran a list about the best composers under 40, which was very diverse and sort of disrupted more conservative conceptions of what a composer is. Did you see that?

MD: Yes, I did. Yeah, I think there’s a bit of a revolution going on concerning the stigma and goals of academic music and what being a composer means. I think it has a lot to do with the economy, really. Institutions of higher learning across the county are having many funding difficulties, and so the academic jobs that so many younger composers are expecting after they finish school are no longer around anymore. Getting tenure is like this impossible dream now. That’s had a big impact on how young composers look at their careers.

In New York, particularly, there’s a rising scene of young composers like Missy Mazzoli and David Little, and groups like Alarm Will Sound, that combine their classical training—you know, these rock solid chops in understanding music and being able to analyze and synthesize it—with a much broader outlook. We’re not just interested in impressing a bunch of professors anymore, or writing a piece of music that’s gonna get us a tenure position. We’re writing for the listeners again because they’re the ones who are gonna come to the concerts so we can pay our rent and keep the lights on. We can’t expect these old paternal instutions to take care of us anymore.

MMM: Kids are going out to rock concerts every night, but they’re not going to classical music shows. Why do you think this is the case?

MD: Yeah, that’s one of the big reasons why we’re putting this concert on. When the Philadelphia Orchestra announced their bankruptcy this year, it was culturally shocking for classical music. The Philly Orchestra’s an institution that redefined how orchestras should sound, has had amazing conductors, and suddenly they’re filing for bankruptcy! And then there were all these threads on the internet where people were discussing it, and I noticed that a lot of people who were non-musicians, or who didn’t have any training in music, said they’d never been to the symphony because they didn’t want to put on a tuxedo or spend a bunch of money or sit in a chair really still and watch a performance because that didn’t seem like a good time to them.

I think that’s very reflective, because when I do go see orchestra concerts, and no disrespect to old people, it’s just a sea of white and grey heads. [Laughs.] It’s a very conservative audience and performance style that hasn’t changed in 100 or so years, and when even the smallest change happens, there’s an uproar. There are all these people who’ve been around it for so long and they don’t want it to change, and they’re the ones with money, so the orchestra wants to cater to their demands. Sure enough, there’s stagnation. And this is one of the causes of the symptoms of the Philly Orchestra filing for bankruptcy, and a problem with other orchestras around the country.

So, when we first thought of doing this concert, the objective was to provide a space for those who don’t want to put on a tuxedo and sit still the whole time. We wanted it to be more like a rock show. You can bring your own alcohol and drink during the show, and we insist that you come dressed casually. Why should it be any different? People are really shocked when they find out that our show is BYOB, which says a lot about what classical music has become. And it’s doing it to itself by remaining chained in the ivory tower and with the upper-class who don’t want the hoi polloi to come into their venue and stink it up.

MMM: So you think it’s partly an image problem?

MD: Yeah, exactly. Young people who aren’t into classical music will love classical music if they hear it in a film, like Star Wars, which is basically John Williams aping a bunch of romantic composers, and it’s played by an orchestra, and that music is very relevant to so many people. But, in the concert hall, it has a hard time attracting people because they don’t even try to reach out to people, or if they do try, they don’t try very hard because they’re too afraid they’ll piss off their core constituency.

The image of classical music being associated with the upper-class is a real problem, especially given the economy. If classical music and opera are seen as this thing that rich people do—they put on their best clothes and pay a few hundred bucks a ticket—given the current economic climate, very few people are going to do that. If you’re tight on money, going to see an orchestra’s the thing you’re gonna cut. I think classical music can be much more vital and essential in people’s lives. People don’t stop going to the nightclub or the pub because of money problems, but they won’t go to the opera. [Laughs.] I’m sorry if I’m ranting, but I’ve had a lot of coffee this morning…

MMM: No, I think it’s great. Keep going!

MD: Similarly, there was a controversy on Facebook a few weeks ago that really caught my attention, and I got into an online war over it. A young pianist named Yuja Wang performed at the Hollywood Bowl recently and she’s this gorgeous slip of a thing. She wore this super sexy skin tight dress, and the reviewers couldn’t stop talking about the dress, condemning her for it. And the comments on some of the articles and on Facebook were full of the most vile, misogynistic rhetoric against her for daring to show up and put her sexuality out there. It was crazy!

In the pop music world, music and sexuality are inseparable. But classical music is seen as a sexless environment. It has to be purely intellectual and completely not physical, and this is just ridiculous. This is another reason why young people are turned off. When I posted about this on Facebook, I had a few people who never listen to classical music who were like “Oh my god, I have a huge crush on her and I’m listening to her music and I think I’m gonna pick up her record!” [Laughs.] It’s human nature, and we can’t deny that young people think that way, and so to cross them off the marketing list as a result is a mistake.

MMM: There’s a tendency to blame the audiences, claiming that they have base sensibilities and they’re not intelligent enough to understand the music’s complexities, and so on. What do you think of this?

MD: [Laughs.] I may be extreme among classical composers when it comes to this argument. Some of my colleagues don’t agree with me. Milton Babbitt, in the 1960s, wrote an essay pushing this point like “Who cares if they listen? The composer should be writing for himself, and as soon as he starts writing for an audience to understand, it’s no longer artistic, it’s just bullshit.” This attitude is prevalent.

For me, and this may be because I spent a lot of time in theater as an actor before I returned to study music composition, but acting is all about storytelling. When you’re doing a Shakespeare play, you have some really thick language to get through that some of the audience members are going to struggle with, and it’s up to you to find a way for people to understand what the hell it is you’re saying. It’s your fault if they don’t. Music is no different. You’re trying to communicate something, and it’s up to you to do so. If the audience leaves saying “I have no fucking idea what that composer was saying,” then there’s a disconnect, and that music was performed in the wrong way. Or they wrote the piece poorly. This is an extreme view. [Laughs.] I am rigidly opposed to the “blame the audience” thing.

MMM: Can you tell me about “Tesla’s Piegon,” the piece you’re presenting at Voice Of This Generation?

MD: Sure. So Nikola Tesla’s a scientist and inventor originally from Serbia who emigrated to the US. He’s become this like internet folk hero in the last decade. He was this guy who was amazing at science but not so good at managing his life. He’s a very flawed character with these bizarre personality quirks that appeal to someone like me who also has strange quirks. [Laughs.]

So one of these quirks that has gained a level of notoriety is that he was really obsessed with pigeons, particularly one white dove that he fed everyday from his window at the New Yorker Hotel. The story he would tell his few human friends was that he was in love with the pigeon and he loved her the way a man loves a woman. [Laughs.] From a young age, he felt that a relationship with a woman would degrade his genius. Ignore women, acquire science. But in his later years he sort of channeled all this built up frustration into this one white dove.

One night, the story goes, the pigeon came to his window while he was sick in bed and a white light, brighter than any light he’d ever seen, came out of the pigeon’s eyes and it told him telepathically that he was about to die. So he held the sick pigeon in his arms and it died, and he knew right then he had completed his life’s work and that he too was about to die.

MMM: That’s heavy.

MD: [Laughs.] He lived for another 20 years, but he didn’t do much. He was mocked as a mad scientist and became destitute, and so on. It was tragic. So this incident with the pigeon is really fascinating and I wanted to immortalize it in song. What the hell happened there? What did the pigeon say to him? Or, what did he hear the pigeon say? What if we imagined Tesla as Prospero and the pigeon as Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest? What if the pigeon is this spirit that flies around and has magical powers and shows itself only to him?

In The Tempest, Ariel is really a surrogate wife for Prospero, so I took Ariel’s song and found some other texts related to Tesla, including his favorite book, Goethe’s Faust. At the beginning of the second part of Faust—which is completely cracked out, by the way—Ariel makes an appearance and has a long speech that’s normally cut form translations because it makes no sense. But it fits well in this situation. It’s about how she’ll take away all Prospero’s troubles, and it’s beautiful. So, I took this and wrote this song cycle around it. It’s meant to be this sublime music that Tesla finds unbearably beautiful and at other times a terrifying mix of hallucinatory fragments and images of a women as a threat. And the cycle finishes, of course, with him dying. It’s a lot of fun.

Voice Of This Generation is presented Sat., Sept. 17, 7pm. and Sun., Sept. 18, 2:30pm + 7pm. First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut Street.

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