This Composing Life: Composer Molly Joyce

Composer Molly Joyce

Update: Molly Joyce, whose 2012 interview appears below, has a track up for GRAMMY consideration. Please join me in wishing her the best of luck. (You can listen to Form and Flee on the listening list at the end of the interview.)

I first learned of Molly Joyce at the Contemporaneous concert Just for Us. Her piece Dollhouse was one of those chosen by Contemporaneous in its call for scores for that year. She explained that her composition came out of a dark time when she was questioning her “whole pursuit of a career as a composer.” What was astounding to me at the time, and remains so, is the way she composed her way through that dark time to create a piece of such affirming joy.

Joyce, a student at Juilliard, hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the ripe old age of twenty, she has many plaudits to her credit, including recipient of a 2010 ASCAP Morton Gould Award. But the awards, while essential to a developing career, are beside the point for me. I think, plain and simple, that Joyce writes vibrant, inventive music that communicates straight from the heart. I asked Joyce if she would mind answering a few questions and, to my delight, she agreed.

Q: What’s your earliest musical memory?

Probably playing Suzuki violin in kindergarten with an amazing teacher who was very encouraging and enthusiastic. I then remember switching from violin to cello when I started second grade because of a car accident which caused trauma to my left hand. Since I was no longer able to play the violin, I remember the music teachers at my school looking at me funny like, “what are we going to do with her,” and then they figured out that with a cast on the bow I could play cello backwards! I fingered with my right hand and bowed with my left, with the strings on the cello strung backwards. I was definitely different from all the other kids, but it was also a great way to always be on the end of the stage at those ever exciting elementary school music concerts.

Q: Who’s the composer you’d most like to meet and why? (Traveling back in time is, of course, permitted, but not required.)

By far Philip Glass. I’ve been to a lot of his events in New York but have never met him personally. I remember the first time one of my early composition teachers introduced his music to me and I was completely blown away. It was like all of my previous expectations of what I should do with writing music were entirely thrown out the door, and in a good way. He is still a tremendous inspiration to me in many aspects, from his ensemble to his incredible perseverance throughout his career.

Q: Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?

It often depends on the piece, but typically I find inspiration from music, visual art, and poetry. I love when I have the opportunity to write pieces for some of my best friends who are musicians, so when I write for them they are definitely the inspiration. Sometimes, I also become inspired by random and weird things like a dollhouse or a dance floor. As far as visual artists go, I love Louise Nevelson and Andy Warhol, and for poetry I’m obsessed with Shel Silverstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anne Sexton, and Edith Södergran.

Q: What’s the gift you most wish to give with your music?

When I first saw this question, I initially wanted to jokingly answer something like “to communicate a message from above.” But really, you never know how someone else will hear or react to your music, so all I can hope for is some form of communication. I guess I generally hope that when one listens to my music they are hearing a personal voice and great musicians.

Q: What are you listening to?

Everything and anything. I’m constantly searching for new music to listen to as forms of inspiration. At the moment I’m obsessed with Balam Acab, Gold Panda, Mount Kimbie, My Brightest Diamond, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and Debussy. I’m also always listening to the New Amsterdam Records/Presents artists.

Q: If you could ask a question of yourself (as opposed to the questions I’ve posed to you), what would it be, and how would you answer it?

I guess a question that I often find myself confronted with is, why I am composing? Why do I feel the need to enter this crazy world of music and put myself out there to be critiqued in such an exposed, personal way? I often find that the most natural answer to this is that I’m strangely addicted to it. For some reason, it is the most natural creative outlet for me and it hopefully will be for the rest of my life. I love the process of organizing sound in whatever ways I want, trying to notate my ideas, and then experiencing the rehearsal and performance process where I get to learn from the musicians and hear my music come to life.

Q: One of your newest pieces is Rain In My Head, for solo harp, which I loved on first hearing and have enjoyed ever since. As I listened, it seemed to me that writing for solo harp poses special challenges. Can you tell us a little about that?

I remember when I started writing Rain In My Head, I was very excited but also terrified in many ways. I was really psyched about writing a piece for one of my best friends, Emily Hoile, who is also a phenomenal harpist (she recently won 2nd Prize in the Cite des Arts International Harp Competition in Paris). On the other hand, I was terrified because the harp is such an amazing instrument in so many ways. Two of the aspects I love about writing for the harp are that this instrument has such a wide range and so many coloristic possibilities. Furthermore, I knew that I didn’t want to write a traditional, “harpy” piece that had a lot of glisses, exaggerated melodies, and fancy arpeggios. I therefore set out to write a piece that mainly focuses on harmonic changes, and then at the end finally having a strong melody with lots of rolls. The piece was inspired by Emily and the Shel Silverstein poem Rain. In the Silverstein poem, the feeling of rain or something “else” holding down your mind is described, which I found very intriguing. I cannot explain exactly why I was so attracted to this poem and the feeling it evokes, except to realize that it portrays a sentiment that I have felt and I think we all have at some point in our lifetimes. The last line of the poem reads, “since there’s rain in my head.”

Q: Last not least, what’s coming up for you?

I was recently named a finalist in the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble/Alia Musica Composition Competition, in which my piece Dollhouse will be performed by Alia Musica on November 16, 8pm, at Kresge Hall (Carnegie Mellon University). Also, on October 26 at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York City a new flute, guitar, and drone piece of mine, Dissolve, will be premiered by the amazing duo of Daniel James and Colin Davin.

About Molly Joyce: For more news, reviews, audio, and information about Molly Joyce, click here.


Listening List

With grateful thanks to Molly Joyce, here are three of her compositions, Form and Flee (on the 2020 GRAMMY ballot), All or Nothing, and Rain in My Head.

© Molly Joyce. Reproduced by kind permission.

10 thoughts on “This Composing Life: Composer Molly Joyce

  1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    It is so encouraging to come across young people, such as Molly Joyce, who are not only intelligent, musically gifted, creative, original, talented [and one could go on] but who have, at the same time, something to say and who say it in such a delightful, self effacing manner. To read this interview has been a total joy, and most informative too. We shall return to listen to the music – a treat for the start of the week.

  2. friko

    Hm, I’ve listened to the music and don’t quite know what to say. It is certainly not unpleasant to the ear. Perhaps I would not wish to go to a concert which solely consists of this composer’s work but included in a performance of other works it would certainly add interest.

    Molly Joyce is very composed (no pun intended) and mature for her young age and I can only congratulate her on the single-minded pursuit of her art. I wish her every success.

    Thank you for introducing me to this young musician.

  3. Scott

    I liked that she is inspired by poetry. Another form of music. The enthusiasm of being “psyched” to write something to be played by your best friend. Something really nice about this. I read the poem and listened to the piece. I like the interpretations.

  4. shoreacres

    I was pleased and interested to see that she named Louise Nevelson as an influence. As you know, Nevelson’s one of my favorites, and many of my best memories have her work as a backdrop, figuratively but also literally. It not just uncommon, it’s rare to hear her referenced.

    The experience of the trauma to her hand interested me, too. I thought at once of Cedell Davis, one of the best of the Mississippi bluesmen. A native of Helena, Arkansas, he contracted polio at age nine. Forced by his disability to give up harmonica and re-learn his guitar skills, he grew creative, telling an interviewer, “I was right- handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn the guitar around; I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kinda swiped one of ‘em.”

    Necessity, invention and all that.

    Sometimes there’s a tendency to understand such traumas as “tests”, as obstacles that build character and so on. I’m sure that happens, but I think in both Joyce and Davis I see something more – youngsters learning how to respond creatively to life. In later years, that sort of experience continues to nurture other kinds of creativity.

  5. David

    Unfortunately the sound device doesn’t let me listen beyond the halfway point of each piece. But I liked the way Dollhouse was developing – it strikes me as an anxious rather than a joyous piece. I’d like to know how the melody at the end of Rain in My Head turns out – beautifully played, what I heard. Anyway, she certainly goes beyond the modest aims of her idol Glass. All good wishes for her future.

  6. Suburban Soliloquist

    Susan- First thought: I’m thoroughly envious! Not of Joyce–who is wonderful, but of your bold move and beautiful new site. I wonder if you’d be willing to share how you made the move, and if you have tried, or have been successful with moving your old blog posts to this site?? (I haven’t looked back yet to see, actually, so perhaps you’ve been able to merge them, perhaps you’ve already addressed my question.)

    Ms. Joyce- How sweet she is. You’re a skilled interview and I admire how you drew out some interesting answers and thoughts from Joyce. Yes, I do hear affirming joy in her compositions. Out of the darkness she’s created masterpieces. I can see how she is influenced by poetry, and may also be influenced by Glass.

    Gosh I am loving just about anything Contemporaneous does. :)

  7. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for this interesting presentation of that beautiful young composer! As always you open possibilities to get deeper into that theme. Have to look up Philipp Glass.
    I read the poem of Shel Silverstein, ‘Rain in my head’, and I tried to find out when this special poem was written – because I instantly (being more a pop music listener :-) thought of the Beatles: “I’m fixing a hole where the rain drops in/ and stops my mind from wandering”.

  8. Mark Kerstetter

    I remember ‘Dollhouse’ from the last time you posted it, Susan. I think it’s a wonderful piece of music and loved listening to the two other selections posted here as well. ‘Toy Cathedrals’ is very interesting, with that dialogue between the bassoon voice and those aural textures. Somehow I think I enjoy ‘Rain in My Head’ the most; I like its meditative quality.

    Philip Glass blew me away the first time I heard his music too. To this day ‘Einstein on the Beach’ is one of my favorite things.

  9. Susan Scheid Post author

    Jane and Lance: “and one could go on,” so right! I’m so pleased Joyce was willing to offer us a window into her creative world, for all the reasons you name.

    Friko: “Very composed,” indeed. Love that, pun or no. When I think what I was like at twenty, I can only stand back and marvel at what Joyce has achieved.

    Scott: I also enjoyed learning about the variety of Joyce’s inspirations. I agree that there’s something particularly nice about being “psyched” to write something for one of your best friends—not to mention that, in Emily Hoile, she has one helluva talented best friend!

    shoreacres: I love your Cedell Davis story. I thought it quite wonderful that Joyce’s teachers thought enough of keeping her “at” music to come up with this novel approach. Good for her, and good for them!

    David: As for Dollhouse, you do keep me on my toes in the best of ways. I agree that the part you were able to hear is better described as anxious. My shorthand was clearly inadequate to the task. What I wrote after hearing Dollhouse the first time does (I hope) a better job of describing the piece:

    The piece begins on a single, repeated note from the piano, an auditory semaphore signaling distress. The music proceeds in rhythmic bursts, gathering instruments to build layers of sound. The strings lift the ensemble to harrowing heights, anchored by the horns. The pulse returns, insistent. The music subtly changes as a long-lined lyricism threads its way through the tumult. The strings sing out, not in blinkered belief, but in a determined “I can.” As the piece comes to a close, a drum beats out a new semaphore: “I can, and I will.”

    BTW, I’m so sorry you weren’t able to hear the pieces all the way through. As they say in the IT world, I haven’t been able to replicate the problem, but I’ll definitely keep an eye out on that.

    Jayne: “Out of the darkness she’s created masterpieces.” A wonderful line that I just had to quote! Contemporaneous has shown a considerable knack for spotting talent like Joyce’s. I’m pleased as punch to be able to share my delight in them with you.

    Britta: A beautiful young composer, indeed! I love your Beatles comparison—I wonder if Silverstein had that in mind as he wrote the poem.

    Mark: Three quite distinct pieces, don’t you think? It’s going to be interesting to see what direction Joyce heads in next. I’m proud to have had a chance to interview her at this early stage in her career.

  10. hilarymb

    Hi Susan .. so interesting to read about Molly – and I did listen to her Rain in my Head, which I rather liked, but I definitely need more education in this direction .. so I shall look forward to coming back in due course, when I have more time … and ability to access the internet more easily ..

    Molly’s challenges tie in so well with my post on the recently formed British Paralympic Orchestra … that was broadcast on our Channel 4 recently … there they showed with the right passion and spark anything can be overcome .. literally anything.

    Your wordpress page looks so clean and refreshing to the mind … while your posts always exercise me! I’ll be back anon .. Cheers Hilary

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