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Interview with Melissa Dunphy

Alicia Byer of Interviews with Alicia Byer

What are you excited about in the world of composition today? What do you think are possible concerns or issues in the world of composition today?

I’m going to answer both these questions together: the world of composition is very open right now (in all genres, not just “classical” or art music). Technology has revolutionized just about everything about our art and our industry – how we write music, how we hear music, how we perform music, how we market music, how we distribute music, what audiences we can reach, and what those audiences expect. To me, this is tremendously exciting because the established, often rigid avenues of art music “success” have become or are quickly becoming obsolete, and the possibilities for forging our careers are suddenly just about endless. Technology and especially the internet offer us ways to become self-sufficient composers that were impossible twenty years ago. These new paths are also very uncharted, which is daunting. The old avenues may have been rigid, but they were easy to follow, at least for those privileged enough to start out on them. Now everybody is essentially making their way through the brush with a machete, and while there’s more freedom to some degree, there’s also more work to be done individually.

Contemporary composition is still not an integral part of popular culture in the U.S., and ‘classical music’ is in crisis. Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between ‘serious’ composition and popular culture, or how composers can remain relevant to the public?

This is such a complicated question! First of all, I question the idea that “contemporary composition” is not an integral part of popular culture, because that very much depends on what we define as “contemporary composition.” Is film or television soundtrack music contemporary composition? When virtually every American can recognize the theme to Psycho or Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, is it right to say that contemporary composition is not an integral part of pop culture? Is video game music contemporary composition? (The Philadelphia Orchestra last week played a concert of music from TheLegend of Zelda.) Where do we draw the line when it comes to electronic composition? Is music by Aphex Twin or Nine Inch Nails or Clint Mansell contemporary composition?

One of the problems with examination of this question in our community is the elitism of some proponents of contemporary “classical” music, which can sometimes devolve into a (perhaps unconscious) belief that anything that becomes widely popular is suddenly not “real” “classical” contemporary music. I have heard composers deride film music, Philip Glass, Broadway, and more for being not up to an imagined (academic?) standard, as though their accessibility disqualifies them from being taken seriously.

But as I mentioned earlier, the internet has changed everything. It is now easier for people interested in non-mainstream music to access that music, and for non-mainstream artists to reach their audiences. The issue of remaining “relevant” to the public now has to include a qualifier: which public? Do we want our music to reach as many people as possible? Do we want a smaller group of genre fans who will (hopefully) be able to support us monetarily? Do we want to reach a few people who really appreciate our work, and get by with a day job? We decide these questions individually, and there’s no right or wrong answer; none of us should be looking down our noses at anyone else for making a different decision, any more than we should be looking down our noses at pop or rock or jazz or hip hop musicians for their genre choices.

Do you have any thoughts about universities as the new patrons of the arts, and the focus on university jobs for composers? Is this a healthy situation for composers?

Wow, I view universities as the old patrons of the arts, and I have little interest in getting a university job when I finish my dissertation, which is probably a fortuitous predilection because there are barely any jobs available anyway. University jobs, when they were somewhat more plentiful, gave composers the freedom to write music completely independently of consideration of non-academic audiences if they wished. Contemporary concert music would undoubtedly sound very different if composers had not been given this freedom, for better or for worse. I prefer to write music that speaks to a wider audience, and at this point in my career, I am happy to focus on interacting with that audience directly as an important part of my job. Frankly, I believe that composers should try to get university jobs if they have a calling to teach at a college level, not because they see a university as a patron of their compositions.

What are your hopes for the future of contemporary music composition? Do you have any predictions for the future of this field?

The industry and the state of music is in flux, so I would hate to make any predictions. My hope – and it is perhaps a distant hope – is that streaming will eventually become a means for composers and musicians to make a living, but I’m not holding my breath on that front. The timing wasn’t right, in large part due to the sluggishness of the industry to adopt new technologies.

How do you see yourself as a composer in the world? Do you feel your social identity affects your composition, or does your composition affect your social identity?

Can I cheat and point you to one of my blog entries?

What do you find most inspiring or helpful as a working composer? What do you find unhelpful?

I can replace the word “composer” in this question with “human being” and the answer would be the same: when we support each other, everyone wins. Of course, we all vent about composers we don’t like artistically, but truly, nobody in our field is successful at the expense of anyone else. Competition is an illusion. Don’t ever bitch about someone else’s career success; at worst, acknowledge that you are jealous, but cheer them on anyway. Reach out to other composers, drop their names in conversations and interviews, spread everyone’s buzz along with your own.

How do you see your composition process in relation to history? Do you feel you are part of a ‘historical lineage’, or not?

One of the most inspiring things I’ve read lately was one of Elliott Carter’s last interviews. “Musical training leads you to the old-fashioned idea that the composer is writing for the future, and that he’ll be recognized like Brahms was. Well, that’s false. Sometimes I think that somebody will understand my music 10 years from now, but I’m not sure.” I love how humble he was. I love that even at 103, he was happy with his music, his life, and his success, and wasn’t worried about his legacy. Funnily enough, I have never been a fan of Carter’s music, but after reading this interview, I fell in love with him as a role model. If I live to 103 with his attitude, I’ll be happy. (

Do you need a particular environment, or particular resources to compose?

I prefer composing in Sibelius. I suppose I could use pencil and paper if I had to, but it would take so long, and my penmanship sucks.

How do you set about beginning a piece? How do you know when a piece is finished?

I have to find an idea that I’m passionate about to kickstart the process. Usually the idea is extra-musical. I know a piece is finished when I hit the final deadline and I can’t make any more changes.

Do you strive to develop a unique language or unique forms?

Not particularly. I try to have a unique voice, but I’m not inventing any languages.

Do you make instrumentation decisions based on available performers, or compose and then find performers?

Both, depending on the situation, but more often I consider performers before I write.

And in relation to your work in particular: Your work often deals with history or current events. Could you talk a little bit about what draws to these subjects? Do you find these topics artistically interesting, and/or do you feel you have a statement to make?

I compose about subjects that spark some kind of strong emotion in me, and quite often that tends to be a story I heard or read about in the news; I’m something of a news junkie, and I used to work in TV news and current events. This has been true particularly since my move to America (from Australia ten years ago), which awakened a kind of righteous political anger I’d never had the need to feel before. I feel I express my emotions most accurately when I couple words and music, which is probably why so many of my pieces tend to be vocal. Another theme I’m very interested in is getting inside the heads of complicated antiheroes and finding a connection to them – a kind of empathy and love without necessarily a redemption. I think there’s value in that struggle as a way of dealing with history and understanding the present; I can also trace it to my own childhood, growing up with a mentally ill mother. I’m sure there’s something to be said about using art to make sense of all the insanity in the world; it’s certainly something I revisit artistically again and again.

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