Interview with Patrick O’Malley

On January 13th, Kaleidoscope will kick off the new year with an eclectic array of new chamber works. Patrick O’Malley, one of the three composers featured in this concert series, will have his West Coast premiere of Paths Penumbra alongside Yuan-Chen Li’s Wandering Viewpoints and Oliver Lewin’s Dialogues. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. O’Malley and not only talk about the inspirations and influences that went into writing Paths Penumbra, but how as someone who is intrigued by dualities that exist in life, he attempts to discover the ways he can bridge two subjects together to construct something fresh and new.

Carrie Rexroat: How’d you get started with music?

Patrick O’Malley: My parents noticed that I was interested in math and decided that since music was mathematical they’d get me piano lessons. My first piano teacher would always be busy with something before the lesson started, so I’d sit at the piano improvising while I waited for my lesson to begin. That was my first introduction into composition, then sometime around middle school I became really interested in the orchestra through film music. The combination of those two experiences was what led me to write my ideas down and eventually pursue a career in composition.

CR: Can you take me through the process you went through in deciding to pursue music as a career?

PO: I realized that I wanted to be a composer early on and I’ve just always stuck with that. But I’ve never really had to think about it, I just do it. I have a huge interest in film music, but classical music has always been my primary pursuit because it seems to fit my personality better, it has a very supportive community, there’s a huge tradition, and the composer has a great amount of freedom in terms of what he or she wants to write. I do scoring work on the side, and have a live video game show that I orchestrated and conduct called Journey Live, and that’s something I enjoy, but orchestral and chamber music has been what I’ve been trying to hone and improve upon ever since moving to LA.

CR: Why orchestral and chamber music over other genres?

PO: I really like to create pieces that evoke something concrete, but not concrete enough that a listener is going to know exactly what to imagine; I want them to have their own experience, not a prescribed one by me. Orchestral and chamber music appeals to me because it really lets me pursue that sense of abstraction, and allows musicians and audiences to have that space to let their imaginations wander.

CR: I see. What motivated you to submit
Paths Penumbra to Kaleidoscope’s Call for Scores?

PO: I know Ben and he encouraged me to participate in the Call for Scores this year. I submitted Paths Penumbra, a chamber piece for clarinet, viola and electronic track because that piece is definitely a piece that doesn’t tell you what to think.

CR: What was the motivation behind writing that piece, what were its influences?

PO: Originally I wrote it for an existing ensemble that consisted of a clarinetist and a violist. At the time of writing, I was also taking lessons with the composer Isaac Schankler who runs People Inside Electronics in Los Angeles; we were studying electronic music and Max/MSP. Combining the two activities together just made sense, so I ended up writing an electroacoustic piece for the duo. That’s kind of the practical aspect behind the piece, but in terms of influence, I like to find intersections between popular culture and more intellectual art or history, not with the intent to say they’re the same, but to explore ways they can say things to one another.
Paths Penumbra turned out to be one of those types of pieces.

CR: In relation to
Paths Penumbra, can you elaborate on that concept?

PO: One of my hobbies is video games, just like a lot of people, but because I feel part of a great tradition in classical music, I try to take an influence like video games and transform it to a work that honors the classical tradition of composers. I want to go more abstract and create a new experience with familiar ideas and feelings being the driving force. With that being said, one of the inspirations of Paths Penumbra is that it feels like one is in a dungeon place, exploring another world just like one would in the Legend of Zelda games. The idea for the piece came not from playing the games directly, but from the electronic experiments I was doing at the time that I felt evoked a sense of wandering through a dark space with little glimpses of light here and there; the same feeling I had when playing those games, so I decided to write the piece with that sense in mind.  I didn’t want to write a literal piece about the Legend of Zelda, even though one of the chords in the electronic track is the same chord from the Great Deku Tree Level in Ocarina of Time, but instead my goal was to retain that same sense of expression that you are exploring a totally unfamiliar place. Specifically to me, the clarinetist and violist represent two players inside this dark, dungeon environment, exploring it and having a musical conversation about it. The electronics are the place these players are exploring, and it has a palpable sense of mystery. So again, the Legend of Zelda reference is absolutely not the point of the piece, but it was an influence that I used to evoke exploring an environment.

CR: Sounds very interesting! Is this how you would describe your compositional style, drawing on these types of influences?

PO: I always have a difficult time answering that question because it depends on who I’m talking to. I definitely think that my style is about creating journeys in my pieces, often from outside influences in some form, but the way people react to your music changes from person to person. At USC for example I think of myself as one of the more traditional voices in comparison to some of my composer friends and colleagues, but in other groups I’m the one doing all the weird stuff. So style is always hard to describe for me.

CR: OK. What are some of your expectations with the rehearsal process and performance of your piece?

PO: I don’t expect anything too crazy to happen because my piece is only for two people, and there is a click-track that’s available to the performers if they need it. The only thing that will be interesting is that the first performance is at Los Angeles Theater Center which is a big space with bars and couches. I’m interested to see how Kaleidoscope takes advantage of that space, and think that it will be great for my piece since it’s atmospheric and introspective.

CR: Absolutely. So, Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

PO: When I think of Kaleidoscope’s impact on the community I think it’s absolutely great that they’re doing these outreach performances. It spreads our music to people who will otherwise not have the opportunity or interest to hear it. Another impact I’ve noticed is that Kaleidoscope is really giving a lot of performance opportunities to younger players who are in school or have just moved to LA and are looking for gigs. I would recommend to any young classical performer in town to play a Kaleidoscope series, because not only will they get to perform good repertoire, but they’ll learn a lot about another type of ensemble experience, being that there’s no conductor and everyone has equal importance in making the music sound great. For me personally, my music is not about specific social engagement topics, and I don’t write with the idea of someone hearing my music as their introduction into classical music. I don’t really consider my pieces being heard in a school or a prison or something like that when I write, unless that’s the purpose of the project. I just focus on the people I’m writing for and what we want our collaboration to accomplish. But if someone wants to take my music to those places that’s totally fine.

CR: I’m glad that you feel that way, because if our art form is too exclusive, there’s always a risk that it may die. I think a lot of people regardless of their experience with classical music would love to hear this piece in particular, even if that wasn’t it’s original intention to be heard in a shelter or a school. I believe they’d find a lot of joy in it, especially since it has a pop culture influence that so many people are familiar with. All music can be accessible and applicable to any life.

PO: Of course, and the fact that it’s an electroacoustic piece may mean that it will be a new experience that people get regardless of whether or not they’ve ever been to a concert before. Plus, I do think that the Pay What You Can model will certainly get more people to come to concerts, and the fact that Kaleidoscope is programming with a strong emphasis on new music is  good for getting people interested in what’s going on now. Kaleidoscope is highlighting and being invested in today’s composers as much as the established composers. Even amongst the established composers, this orchestra is performing underperformed works, which I deeply care about. It seems like a small deal, but when you perform an unknown or underperformed piece by a name an audience recognizes, it helps establish this mindset that having new experiences is a good thing, instead of just hearing the same famous works over and over again. I think that also plays a significant role in keeping the artform alive, so to speak.

CR: That’s an excellent point! So back to you, you said you like to play video games, but how else do you enjoy your free time?

PO: A typical day for me can be composing or working on music business things, going to a concert or museum or a hike on one of LA’s great trails, and then coming home and reading or exploring my movie and game collection, either on my own or with friends. I don’t go to the movies as much as I used to, but I love movies and still listen to a lot of film music when I have time. In the past couple of years I’ve gotten into conducting because it’s a way of performing for me that I feel confident about; way more than playing an instrument. I don’t play sports, but I go running for exercise; USC is a great place to run in circles.

CR: Great! Do you have a favorite quote or mantra?

PO: My mentality as an artist is to know that I’m good at what I do, but I’m also not good enough at what I do. The first gives me the confidence to keep going, and the second gives me the push I need to keep going harder than I think. My first year at USC I was very conscious of being surrounded by so many talented people, and I did what I could do to preserve my own voice and raise the bar for myself. Self criticism is good, as long as it leads to you not being swayed from the path you want to be on. That’s something I will always keep with me.

CR: Absolutely. Is there a final statement you’d like to leave with our readers about you or your piece?

PO: I’m really looking forward to starting rehearsals! I know from past concerts that the shows are going to be good, especially with the dance party afterwards. In relation to my piece, if you are familiar with the Legend of Zelda, listen for the Great Deku Tree and see if you can spot that quote.

CR: Great! Thank you for your time, Patrick!

PO: My pleasure!

Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.


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Carrie Rexroat