Wednesday, August 22, 2012

In My Own Voice

When I began writing music as a young girl I was heavily influenced by the only modern music I was familiar with: Bartok’s Hungarian Folk Songs for Children, Kabalevsky’s Little Song, Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring and Petrushka, Copland and Debussy. My early pieces were folk-song like, sometimes impressionistic, always singable. When I switched my major to composition after my senior year at Lawrence University my composition teacher told me my ears were too conservative and suggested I start listening to more modern pieces. So I got my radio operator’s license and a spot on our campus radio station. I launched a new program I called “Brave New Worlds” highlighting music by women, lesser known historical and modern composers. I came to appreciate Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Joseph Schwantner, George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Joan Tower, Nancy Van de Vate and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

And yes, my ears changed.

I abandoned the modes in favor of the octatonic scale or contrived scales composed of alternating minor thirds and seconds. I avoided major and minor triads and anything that sounded “too tonal.” I tried to compose like my graduate school professors, writing rhythmically pounding, driven, dissonant music that I came to associate with the masculine, penetrating force. But always in those pieces there was a yearning, achingly lyrical solo midway through by a viola or oboe or cello. I think it was my feminine aesthetic crying out, my own composer’s voice desperate to transcend, to be heard.

As I sought these last few years to return to composing again I have struggled to find my way back to “serious” music. The themes I invented which would have pleased my graduate school professors left me dry and uninspired until I let go of the ghost of their approval and, instead, wrote what I heard. And now my music flows again. It is lyrical and not so dissonant, not so self-consciously modern. I have given up the idea that I will or need to move and shake the musical world. I truly don’t care as I used to whether I influence anyone else or wind up in the history books or win a Pullitzer. It is enough that I am writing again, and that what I am writing pleases me. It is what I want to write, what I hear, my own lost voice. I obey my muse and write my music—mine and no one else’s. I am free to express myself my own way; there is no one looking over my shoulder. I cannot begin to explain the joy that brings me. When your soul has had its wings clipped you watch awestruck when it grows them back and begins to fly….