Prufrock's Dilemma

This Composing Life: Composer Molly Joyce

Composer Molly Joyce

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.

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Listening List

With grateful thanks to Molly Joyce, here are three of her compositions, Rain in My Head, Toy Cathedrals, and Dollhouse:

© Molly Joyce. Reproduced by kind permission.

© Molly Joyce. Reproduced by kind permission.

Toy Cathedrals, for bassoon and pre-recorded electronics, was written in the summer of 2011 in New York City for one of my best friends, bassoonist Midori Samson. It was my second venture into writing electroacoustic music, and with the electronics I strived to create a very atmospheric effect with gradual expanding and building in order to support and contradict the bassoon line in various ways. The title comes from the electronics in the piece, in which I utilize toy and cathedral organs. Toy Cathedrals is dedicated to Midori, without whom even the sheer possibility of this piece would never have been conceived. Special thanks to Ryan Streber for recording and mixing.

© Molly Joyce. Reproduced by kind permission.

Here is Joyce, introducing Dollhouse at the Contemporaneous concert: