10.23.2011 Molly Herron, classical contemporary music, portraits by Juan Carlos Hernandez, New York

5 Questions to Molly Herron (composer)

Brooklyn-based composer Molly Herron is one fourth of the West 4th New Music collective and finds inspiration in both science and newly-invented instruments. Her most recent project, The Same River, was commissioned by Concert Black with texts by John Knight. Upcoming projects in 2016 include collaborations with Dartmouth College, West 4th New Music, and Mantra Percussion.

Can you tell me more about The Same River? What are you exploring with this piece?

Concert Black asked me to write a piece for them almost two years ago, so I was thinking about the project long before I was actually able to start writing it. I wanted to write a piece that touched on all the individual talents of the three musicians of Concert Black and also their nature as an ensemble. They often co-create pieces for themselves, and when they do they sing as well as play instruments. From the beginning I knew I wanted to incorporate their voices into the piece.

Writing for voices presented the question of text. I looked for text that would reflect some of the thoughts I was chewing through at the time, which were largely about peculiar anti-social behaviors I had displayed as a kid. I was trying to remember how I had left these things behind or learned to manage them as I grew up. I was reading books about people who are pushed to the fringes of society because of their behavior, like hoarders and people with OCD, and wondering why I was able to leave my peculiarities behind while they were trapped in them. This was the space I wanted to explore in this piece: what isolates us, what connects us, and how do we retain important aspects of ourselves as we grow up and become socialized?

I asked a dear poet friend, John Knight, if he could help me find text to set. We both looked a lot and couldn’t find anything just right. After awhile he said “hey, why don’t I just write some stuff?” And to my utter joy he did! He was a great mirror for me as I worked through my thoughts and he wrote a text that clarified the whole piece for me. John brings in this wonderful Heraclitus quote at the end of his second poem which gave me the title: “We step and we do not step into the same river. We are and we are not.”

You wrote this piece for Concert Black. Was it the first time you worked with them? How did it go?

It was the first time I had worked with them together as an ensemble, but I had worked with them individually at other times. They are all people I’ve been friends with for a long time, so the project started from a place of real comfort and intimacy. I worked closely with Domenica Fossati throughout the process of writing her part which goes back and forth constantly between singing and playing the alto flute. She had shown me early in the process that she could do that and we explored the boundaries of it together. The four of us also spent a week together at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, which provided some invaluable workshopping and canoeing time.

2016 is going to be an exciting year for you. What’s happening at Dartmouth College?

Dartmouth has asked me to write a piece in response to on-going work at the Thayer School of Engineering. It is part of a three year project focusing on a bridge between the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts the STEM schools at Dartmouth. The first two composers were Fay Wang and Tristan Perich who worked with the Biology and Math departments. I’m going to be visiting campus and spending time observing the work going on at the Engineering school and meeting with teachers and students. The Thayer school is doing some fascinating work in infectious disease detection and looking at the molecular building blocks of materials. They also have a special lab that is used just to study ice! I’m so excited to get to go there and poke around.

Science is really at the heart of my music, so this is a very meaningful collaboration for me. My musical material is inspired by the properties of motion and energy, and understanding the physics behind all that is really important for my composing.

Another scientific project I’ve got in the works is a continuation of a piece I premiered on the SONiC Festival last October called Stellar Atmospheres. That piece is for voices, baroque viol consort, and an instrument created by Andy Cavatorta called The Dervishes. Over the next year I’ll be raising money and looking for an opportunity to turn that into an evening length production with a much bigger ensemble. The director Josephine Decker (who I worked with on her film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) will be joining me to build out the piece and incorporate staging and visuals. You can find more information on the original production here.

Molly Herron – Photo by Juan Carlos Hernandez

Molly Herron– Photo by Juan Carlos Hernandez

Are you still active with West 4th New Music?

Yes! West 4th (W4) has a very exciting 2016 coming up. We just released a new website and are starting work on an evening length piece for Mantra Percussion called Migrants that will integrate video by the artist Xuan. Each of the W4 composers (Matt Frey, Tim Hansen, Ruben Naeff, and I) will compose music on a different element of human migration. The resulting pieces will be interwoven to create the final work. My section of Migrants is focused on the current Syrian refugee crisis. I will be spending time this summer in Turkey, Germany, and The Netherlands doing research and gathering video footage for Xuan to incorporate in her work.

Creating music together with the W4 composers is one of the best things in my life. We write our sections individually, but collaborate to create the shape and scope of the piece and share our work all throughout the process. It is so rewarding to be able to turn what is usually such a solitary activity into a team effort.

We are also starting to plan for a piece with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, so there is lots of music to come from W4!

Will you also spend some time in studio in 2016? Can we expect a release?

Over the past year I have been realizing more and more how my experience of a work deepens when I see it live or on video. This becomes particularly powerful when there are unexpected elements in a performance. I do quite a bit of work with newly invented instruments, as I mentioned before. It is hard for an audience to comprehend what they are listening to without visuals when they aren’t familiar with the instrument or the technique that is creating the sound. I think this is true as well with people who hear The Same River without understanding that the instrumentalists themselves are singing. Visuals are so important to how our ears perceive sound, so I’m working to incorporate sound and visuals in the finished products of my work. So, in brief, an album isn’t an immediate goal of mine! I want to keep exploring the potential of documentation that includes a visual aspect.