Interview with Molly Joyce

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 Ms. Joyce regarding her debut with Kaleidoscope.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started with music?
Molly Joyce: I initially started on the violin, however, at the age of seven I was involved in a car accident after which my left hand was nearly amputated. After the accident, with the incredible support of my elementary music teacher, physical therapist, and mother, I was able to figure out a way to play the cello backwards, so fingering with the right hand and bowing with the left hand (with a splint on the bow). I was always involved with music from then on, also playing trumpet (including the ever-fascinating marching band) and occasionally singing in choir. However, once I was in high school I had access to computer notation software, and looking back I think what attracted me to composing so much at first was that there was no immediate physical limitation, and thus I could let my imagination run free.

CR: What is favorite thing about being a composer?
MJ: Seemingly everything and anything about it - the process, the people, the pain, you name it. But I think most importantly the ability to live out my passion day in and day out, pursuing the easiest and hardest thing I know how to do.

CR: What motivated you to submit a piece to the Call for Scores with KCO?
MJ: I saw it as a great opportunity to possibly become more involved in the Los Angeles new music scene, a community I've always admired from afar and hope to get to know more in the future.

CR: How would you describe your compositional style?
MJ: Where to start! Sometimes I resort to answering this question as just "good music," however right now I would describe it as a mix of reverb, dance floor, and seemingly everything in between.

CR: If any, what are some non-musical and musical inspirations behind your piece?
MJ: Head to Toe was inspired by my experiences performing in high school marching band, and the idea that one player could perhaps become a whole marching band. When I was working on the piece, I was particularly reflecting back on the Friday night football games, and how during the majority of these events the marching band stands still in the bleachers, barely marching at all. Therefore with the piece, I wanted to highlight this contradiction by imaging the solo performer “march” in the bleachers, becoming a single-person marching band aurally and visually.

CR: What are some of your hobbies/passions outside of music?
MJ: I very much love traveling and all that it entails. I love being immersed in a new culture and surroundings, meeting new people and hopefully expanding upon my own horizon of possibility. Furthermore, a more recent passion of mine has been pursuing research and activism grounded in the intersection of physical disability and the arts. Thus as I travel I have been trying to pursue this passion and course of activism through meeting and collaborating with various disability activists, curators, and artists active in that realm, in addition to my own personal research. I also enjoy running (outside and on elliptical), keeping up on the Kardashians, and occasionally a diet coke with a splash of amaretto.

CR: Are there any charities/causes that you're passionate about that you would like to raise awareness to?
MJ: One organization I've recently become very inspired by is the Disability Visibility Project. Founded by activist Alice Wong, the project is an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability media and culture. I greatly appreciate the project's ambitions to create a wealth of disabled media which is intersectional, multi-modal, and accessible, and in my opinion deeply engaging and thought-provoking.

More info on the project and it's activities here:

CR: After your accident were there a lot of people telling you that you weren't going to be able to participate in music making? Or were people more supportive in your experience? You say that composition presented no physical limitation and you felt free to create music, so I'm wondering if someone discouraged you in any way.
MJ: There was definitely no one discouraging me from participating in music, it was more the physicality of the instruments that discouraged me the most, a physicality that I was always fighting against rather than working with. Thus I never thought to actually explore and investigate my impairment for what it’s worth and what it’s capable of.

I’m not trying to make my impairment a story of pity, but rather a story of identity. A story of investigating one’s deformity, one’s diversity, and instead of asking why me, asking why not me. For me that question was specifically asking why can't I be the one to push again the false, social construction of the human body. Why can’t I be the one to push against that construction, and perhaps push into a world where these things we call bodies will not be seen in comparison, in juxtaposition, but rather in celebration, in exploration, and in imagination.

CR: Perusing your Facebook page, I notice that you seem to travel quite a bit with a toy organ. Is this for a specific piece? Do you also play piano/organ in addition to the many other instruments?MJ: I love to take the organ with me everywhere and anywhere I go if possible. I often specifically travel with it to artist residencies in the US and abroad, for various collaborations with musicians and artists, and also for work on my first solo album, featuring the organ and my own voice. Therefore along the lines of performing other instruments, I have recently started to sing with the organ, and have also been known to try my skills at bass drum occasionally.

CR: I love that you address opposites (easy/hard, joy/pain) in your explanation of what you love about being a composer. What specifically do you find easy, and what specifically do you find to be difficult about life as a composer? What specifically brings you both joy and pain?
MJ: This is somewhat tricky for me to answer, as what I find easy one day might be difficult the next, and vice versa. However at least right now I know that I love performing what I have written, to be able to fully executive the material from start to finish and being able to fully implement my vision (even if it’s a not-so-good one). I also think the most difficult tasks are related to that, in trying to form a clear and singular voice for my material, yet always having the feeling that perhaps it is an impossible quest, and to rather relish in the impossibilities and the in-betweens.

I think what brings me both joy and pain is somewhere in the middle, and that would be the actual performance and exposure of the material, ranging from assembling it with various artists and musicians, recording, and so on.

CR: In what way would you love to see your relationship with the new music scene in LA unfold? What about it have you admired, and what opportunities and future collaborations do you want to create following your debut with KCO?
MJ: I would hope to see my relationship with the LA new music scene unfold in an organic and natural way, with many trips to the beach included of course. I specifically admire LA’s overall arts scene, including museums such as LACMA and The Broad and dance companies such as L.A. Dance Project and Ate9 Dance Company.

Additionally, I get the sense that LA and California in general are very encouraging and generous towards starting and failing, and I mean this in the best of ways. In discussions with Kaleidoscope’s President Benjamin Mitchell I always remember him mentioning the supportive spirit towards establishing organizations in the arts and non-profit fields, and how the energy of California lends itself generously to starting, failing, succeeding, and seemingly everything in between.

CR: I notice that in your photos with the toy organ there seems to be a visual component as well. Do you like to cross collaborate with visual arts or other artistic idioms? Does a visual component play a part in Head to Toe? Exactly how does this person in your piece become a marching band both aurally and visually (rhythms, motifs, melodies, instrumentation, etc.)
MJ: I often feel that my performances with the organ are visually informed and motivated, which is why I often seek out collaborations in similar artistic mediums, such as visual art and dance. I’m fascinated with the intersection of the visual and the aural, as at least in my practice I feel it can potentially reimagine what is able, what is disable, and allow for a multitude of possibilities in between.

Thus with Head to Toe, I was imagining the performer becoming a one-person marching band in that the rhythm of the opening melody gradually gets transferred from the performer’s hands (the glockenspiel) to their feet (the bells) by the end of the piece. A transformation that I hope will allow for a complete “head to toe” experience for the performer and audience.

CR: Being that one of your passions is pursuing research and activism in intersecting physical disability and the arts, where would you say the arts community is at in terms of understanding/ignorance/expectation, and what do you hope you can inspire? If any, what bias or unfair treatment do you see in the arts community that affects those with a physical disability from pursuing music as a career or as a hobby? As a professional musician, has anyone questioned your ability to perform/compose? I see that you participated in a TED talk--was this related to your research and activism of intersecting physical disability and the arts, or is it another project?
MJ: I feel that I am at the very start of pursuing my research and work regarding the intersection of physical disability and the arts, and thus I don’t feel totally prepared to make a statement regarding the arts community’s treatment towards such conditions. However along the lines of many disability activists, I do hope to inspire a re-envisioning of physical disability, and in the words of disability studies pioneer Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, from “a form of pathology to a form of identity.” To me an identity that is not only physical, clinical, and personal, but rather emotional, political, and in my opinion somewhat of a miracle.

The recent talk I gave at TEDxMidAtlantic focused on such a pursuit, and to perhaps imagine beyond impairment in and of itself. I feel that physical impairment is an incredible facet that sheds a light onto the limits of human ability and the limits of human perception, limits that too often force a body into conformity rather than complexity, normality rather than vitality. Thus I feel that exploring and performing with an impairment offers a different perception and a different outlook which can ideally allow for any body, regardless of ability, to be without comparison.

CR: Do you have a favorite quote/mantra that you live by?
MJ: While I feel that this perhaps changes every day, my two current favorites are "nothing comes from nothing" and "the myth of more."

CR: What about your current favorite quotes do you like? What do each of them represent for you?
MJ: I think what I like most about the quotes is that they remind me to make the world I want around me, but to also not be tricked into thinking that a better world is just beyond me, and rather that it is already with me.

With “nothing comes from nothing,” this was on the first bracelet that I bought just for my impaired left hand. I see it as a constant reminder that nothing will come from my left hand if I don’t use it, if I don’t explore and enjoy it and even relish it, a lesson that I feel can also be applied to many different facets of my life as well.

With “the myth of more,” I also feel that this applies to my life on many different levels. But perhaps most importantly I think it helps fight against the human instinct for bigger, better, faster, stronger, and so on, which for me can at times be the right answer but in many instances can be misleading.

CR: As a final statement, what would you like to leave with our readers?
MJ: Incredibly sad I can’t make the concert this weekend (especially to see my good friend Jeff Stern perform!), but hope it goes super well and please treat Jeff to an In-N-Out burger + fries afterwards.

CR: Thank you so much for taking that time to sit down and talk!
MJ: Thank you!


Carrie Rexroat