Interview with Melissa Dunphy
Following the performances of Murray Hidary’s Mindtravel, Kaleidoscope will continue with the 2018 portion of its fourth season pairing two classical chamber standards and four new works. On January 27th & 28th, head down to the Los Angeles Theater Center and the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica to hear the West Coast Premieres of Head to Toe by Molly Joyce, Obliquely Wrecked & Alpha by Pascal Le Boeuf, and Scallops and Bollocks for Tea by Melissa Dunphy. Generously donating her time, I spoke with Mrs. Dunphy regarding her debut with Kaleidoscope, and if you’ve ever wondered what Revolutionary War era toilets, Magic Theaters, and Australia have in common, look no further than the brilliant, talented and incredible life of multiple award winning composer, Melissa Dunphy.
Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?
Melissa Dunphy: I grew up in Australia; I am half Chinese and half Greek, but grew up in a Chinese household. My mum had heard that learning music made you better at maths, and in typical Chinese Tiger Mom fashion she had her heart set on me becoming a doctor. So she took me to piano lessons when I was three or four years old, and I took to music and loved it immediately. Throughout my childhood, my parents told me I could only continue my music lessons if I did well in school, so music became the bargaining chip that kept me working hard in all areas academically; but the discipline of learning musical instruments helped me excel in other areas of school too, so maybe my mum was right all along! The viola is my one true love though; I took that up in high school and return to that instrument more than I do any other.
CR: That’s fascinating! How did your involvement with music during your childhood lead to composition?
MD: That’s a really complicated question. When I was a kid I was completely in love with Mozart; he was my rockstar idol. As I got older I also fell for Stravinsky, Wagner, etc., but if you had asked this classical-music-obsessed 16 year old who her favorite composers were, I would have given you a list of ten dead, white men. I would not have named a woman because I had never studied about any female composers, and definitely hadn’t played any music by female composers. It just never occurred to me to become a professional composer as a kid. I mean, I wrote things while in school, but ultimately I started med school straight out of high school in Sydney, Australia.
CR: No kidding!
MD: Yes! My mother's dream was right in her grasp, and unfortunately for her I dashed all of her hopes when I realized I was going to become the world's most miserable doctor; I would probably have killed people with my misery. After dropping out of med school, I spent eight years sort of wandering the world and figuring out what I was good at.
CR: Wow! What kinds of jobs did you find yourself working while you were figuring out what you wanted to do?
MD: I worked as a legal secretary, I worked in IT, I worked as a sales person, I worked in TV production for a while, I worked as an actor (I received a lot of theater training as a kid as well), but these were just jobs to pay rent. Of course, the whole time I wandered I was also doing music on the side only as a hobby because it still didn’t know it could be a career for me.
CR: At what point did that change for you?
MD: I met and married an American, my husband Matt, when I was 23 years old. I never imagined I would get married so young, but I loved him so much, and the only way we could be together was for me to marry him and move to America. So in 2003, I ended up with him in Central Pennsylvania, where I worked with some theater companies including the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream. The music director for the show was supposed to write all original music, but he dropped out three weeks before the show opened with none of the music written because he was going through a personal crisis. The director, knowing I did music on the side, approached me to write the music for the show and I decided to give it a shot. For the next three weeks I stayed up until 2AM every day writing music for the first time since high school, and I had an epiphany: I realized this was what I wanted to do with my life. It was really weird, like the universe was saying, “Hey Melissa, you're going to be a composer now.”
MD: Yeah! As soon as the production was over I sat down and started researching how to be a composer. Because I had dropped out of med school, I didn’t even have a Bachelor’s degree. So I researched the nearest place I could get a degree in composition which was West Chester University. I had my heart set on eventually attending the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school because it was in Philadelphia, and I wanted to move back to a city. With luck, I got into the Doctorate program there and just finished my Ph.D. in Composition in May 2017.
MD: Thanks! It took a long time, but I finally became a doctor! (Just not that kind of doctor.)
CR: In relation to you now working as a full time composer, how would you describe your compositional style? It seems like you have so many life experiences to draw upon, so do you ever write about your non-musical influences?
MD: Absolutely, I’m very extra musically oriented in my music. I totally respect that some people can write String Quartet No. 4 in D minor, but I can’t do that. Most of my successful pieces have been vocal works, and I think that’s because the non-musical influences immediately inform the music through the words in the text. In general, language inspires me and it's something I love using in my music. Even in my instrumental work there is almost always an extra musical “hook”. Sometimes new music requires effort on the part of the audience, and the addition of something extra musical helps people get into the music. People are much more open to less accessible tonality when there is an extra musical component, like in film soundtracks. People are totally adoring of atonal soundtracks in Hitchcock films, for example, but it's very difficult for them to get into the concert hall to listen to that stuff. So, most of the music I write bases itself in tonality. Don’t get me wrong though, I have nothing but respect for composers who write in the atonal style—it’s just not for me.
CR: I see. So how exactly do you incorporate extra musical subjects into your pieces?
MD: Even just giving music a title that is extra musical can suddenly change the experience of the listener. I think it's a powerful tool in my arsenal that I am happy to shamelessly rely on. If the music isn't good then the extra musical influence is not going to work anyway, so it has to also be able to stand alone as music as well.
CR: True. What extra musical influences play a part in your piece Scallops and Bollocks for Tea?
MD: This piece is just hugely fun. Because it’s a set of variations, I got to explore a bunch of different styles, and it was my first time working with a chiptune emulator. Some of it sounds like Super Mario Brothers, some of it sounds like Autechre, all kinds of music I grew up on in the 90s. Essentially, I wrote this piece a few years ago for a group called Network for New Music here in Philadelphia. They did a call for scores for the University of Pennsylvania to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the world’s first supercomputer, ENIAC. As an Australian, I knew there was an Australian version of ENIAC called CSIRAC, which was the very first computer to play music, meaning the birth of computer music actually happened in my home country. Anyway, around 1950 or 1951, one of the computer’s programmers, Geoff Hill, noticed that he could use the CSIRAC’s native, buzzing noises and program them to play certain pitches with punch cards. In his downtime he figured out how to make the computer play several melodies, including The Colonel Bogey March, composed by Lieutenant F.J. Ricketts in 1914, and famously used for the film “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” by Malcolm Arnold. During WWII the melody was used by British propagandist Toby O’Brien, who inserted lyrics to emasculate Hitler (“Hitler has only got one ball”). In fact, the title of the piece, Scallops and Bollocks for Tea are some of the re-written lyrics from O’Brien’s version. Eventually the propaganda song made it to Australia, where Mr. Hill programmed it into CSIRAC. So I decided to write a theme and variations with solo violin and a chiptune emulator, which has a kind of primitive electronic sound that reminds me of CSIRAC.
CR: Wow, what an incredible story! I’m curious, how exactly does one recreate the original sounds of the CSIRAC computer without punch cards?
MD: Actually, CSIRAC’s sound has already been recreated by computer programmers and historians because they too wanted to see what it sounded like. They found the original punch cards and sent them through the machine, but this time recording the results. It's super buzzy, and almost sounds like a gnarly analogue synthesizer. I loved the sound of it and was able to use a chiptune emulator to recreate the original sound, or something close to the original sound. As a sidebar, there’s actually an in-joke no one except for Australians is going to pick up. In the last variation, while the chiptune emulator is playing this huge arpeggiation, the violin is playing a tremolo which is actually the Australian national anthem. This is because the computer is Australian, and so am I. I thought I’d mention that since no one is really going to pick that up unless they’re from Australia.
CR: I see. What motivated you to submit this piece for our Call for Scores?
MD: I really loved this piece as soon as I wrote it, which is rare for me. Kaleidoscope’s Call for Scores is such an open call; there’s complete freedom in instrumentation, which as a composer, makes it difficult to choose what to send in. So I sent what I consider some of my best orchestral work, but then I for some reason decided I should send in this second piece, Scallops and Bollocks for Tea, which despite my love for it, has been kind of neglected. I tend to anthropomorphize my pieces as if they're my children; after submitting it I tweeted: “I believe in my kids! Winning isn't important, little buddy, if you want to enter the contest, I'm here for you!” Lo and behold, it’s the piece Kaleidoscope picked!
CR: Yay for Scallops and Bollocks! Switching gears, part of Kaleidoscope’s mission is to engage audiences with new works, as well break down unnecessary barriers in order introduce classical music to the greater Los Angeles community. Going back to your childhood, you mentioned that all of your idols were old men at the time. For all the young boys and girls out there who for them this may be their first orchestral concert, who are some female composers that they should come to know?
MD: I should say that I never felt that any one person was overtly discouraging me from being a composer—it was just a message I was getting over and over again that composers were old, dead, white German dudes. But, in answering your question, everyone should know Jennifer Higdon. She's from Philly, and I love her. I also love Caroline Shaw's work; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Missy Mazzoli is fantastic. In fact, Philadelphia has a lot of amazing female composers, and part of me wonders if that was the reason that I’ve felt so at home in Philly; because I see these strong female composers here. I really hope it helps with the next generation; sometimes you have to see other people who you identify with doing something before the idea even occurs that you should be doing it too.
CR: Very true. Speaking to you as a person, what sorts of things do you like to do in your free time? Assuming you have any, *laughter*
MD: *laughter* I still do acting on the side, and recently I embarked on this crazy adventure with my husband here in Philadelphia. We had been thinking about getting a live/work space like a garage or a basement to rehearse with our band and set up our drum kit. One day my husband found an old, creepy magic theater we’d never heard of for sale on Zillow, and the price was really low. When we went to check it out the whole thing was falling to bits, but we eventually decided to buy the building for $265,000, which is an insanely price low for a property that’s literally a ten-minute walk to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. So we've spent the last two years completely gutting the building in anticipation of remaking the theater, and have gone into a massive amount of debt because of it, but we built an apartment on top of the theater for us to live in, and a smaller studio apartment that we're renting as an AirBnB to help pay for some of the construction. We’re ready to start construction now on the theater space itself.
CR: Girl, you are living the life I want!
MD: *laughter* I haven’t even gotten to the best part! When we dug into the foundation of the building, we uncovered two Revolutionary War privies—which are toilets or trash pits—full of historical artifacts. It's crazy! I'm going to start a podcast about this because my life is like a fever dream. Anyway, during the time period there were cobblestone streets and horse-drawn wagons, so when a family moved house, there was no easy or cheap way to transport breakable items. It was common practice for people to throw all their breakables into the toilet before moving and buy new glassware near their new house. So, I’m now the proud owner of hundreds of bowls, platters, plates, glassware, wine bottles, a couple of chamber pots, cups, and animal bones with butcher marks in them. We’re in touch with archaeologists, who’ve been able to determine that our finds are all older than America for the most part. It's just crazy. When I was still finishing my degree my advisor was frustrated with me for not finishing my dissertation, and I had to tell them I just spent the last five weeks in a 250-year-old toilet in the ground, digging through centuries-old human feces and pulling out pottery. My life is really weird.
CR: I’m speechless right now *laughter*. Your life really is a fever dream! What is the theatre ultimately going to be used for?
MD: Well, it will be a performance venue, but one of my goals is to also use the space as a composition school for non-male identifying children and minorities. The reason I'm so focused and passionate about doing this is that I believe we teach classical music completely wrong. Music is a language, just like Japanese, French, German, whatever. But no language is taught the way we teach classical music. Why do we expect children to only learn about what other people have written, and don’t encourage them to write their own sentences, their own paragraphs? Anyone who has studied language knows that to truly understand the language and achieve fluency, you have to also be able to speak and write the language in your own words. Imagine trying to learn French and someone only allowing you to read Voltaire or Proust, making you memorize it and stand up in front of other people to recite it. Can you imagine learning French that way?
CR: That’s a great point.
MD: We don't encourage our children to immediately to write their own musical sentences, but this is crucial, even if you don’t want to be a composer. When you teach English composition, you're not expecting your students to become amazing novelists because that’s not the goal. The goal is to write words to understand how the language works. Without teaching our kids how to compose music, how could they possibly understand how music works? Composition makes you a better musician. No one would understand language as much as they do if they only read what other people said. I had this realization when I was an aurals TA at the University of Pennsylvania. I started asking my students to compose their own melodies for sight-singing instead of using exercises from the textbooks. My kids came in really excited about the melodies they wrote, they knew what it was supposed to sound like, they could critique how someone else was singing it, and it actually made my job easier as a teacher because they would correct each other’s mistakes. At the end of the semester, my students were creating their own three- or four- part harmonies, and got to experience the joy that I feel as a composer when I hear other people perform my music. I mean I’m flying to LA to see my little three-minute violin-and-tape piece being performed because it's magical to see someone else be inspired by something that you wrote and interpret it and bring it to life. That is the coolest damn thing in the world, and if I have to fly across the country to see it being done, then I will do it in a heartbeat. The community that that creates, and the feeling of joy and togetherness is so huge. The fact that centering composition is not the standard way to teach music, and instead we ask students to only study expensive books and scores from hundreds of years ago is criminal. I'm livid about it.
CR: Now that you mention it, me too!
MD: You should be mad! We should all be thinking, “What the f***?”. So whenever I get the opportunity to speak about this, I encourage people that is is what they need to be doing. Don't get me wrong, I love Bach. He's a dead, white German guy, and I still love him with all my heart, but it's really hard to get kids jazzed about Bach unless they're crazy nerds like me. So I feel like it's not just about consuming music, it's about learning to love music as a language that people can speak as well as they can read it.
CR: I love your outlook on this, that music is actually language. I'm so happy that Kaleidoscope chose your piece, and that there's going to be a relationship that develops between you and this orchestra. Also, it means that I got to talk to you, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity! As a final statement, is there anything you’d like to leave with our readers?
MD: I read an article about recently that said classical music needs to focus on building communities and engaging with audiences as its primary goal. Not just giving them music to consume, but actually forging a community with an identity that focuses on young audiences. How do we make classical music part of the identity of an audience? Well, that’s a tough question. But, if you fail to define your community, you risk not engaging anyone. Kaleidoscope doesn’t have that problem. It has defined itself by both building new communities and strengthening the communities that already existed, and their audiences are lucky to have any orchestra like that around. As for me, it’s up to me to resonate with people by forming opinions and expressing my points of view through music—that is how one forges a following and gets people to take notice. Some people are going to hate it, but if I don't write music that has an identity, then no one will identify with it. So I hope that the people of LA in the audience can identify with Scallops and Bollocks in some way, and that it becomes part of them, and part of this awesome community.
CR: Amazing. I have just enjoyed listening to your ideas. Thank you so much for taking that time to sit down and talk!
MD: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure!