“I Decided to Do It Because Composing Felt Bright and Purposeful:” An Interview with Molly Herron

David Johnston

2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Molly Herron


2012-13 Composer-in-Residence Molly Herron recently shared with us her musical journey from violinist to composer, “big messy learning curves,” her approaches to music education for youth, upcoming projects and her predictions on the transformation of the new music scene in NYC. Also, find out about Molly’s fascinating collaboration with researchers at Mt. Sinai … with the end result being a free iPhone app to the public!

Click here to hear Molly’s most recent piece Scavenger, recorded live this past September at West Fourth New Music Collective’s End of Summer Concert.


What is your musical background, and when did you first start composing music?

I began as a mediocre violinist in childhood and struggled with many aspects of music. I kept trying to give it up and find something I was more suited to, but one way or another I would get pulled back. Nothing came easily for me. I got tendonitis in high school, which was partially a result of trying so hard to get better and being really frustrated with myself. I began writing music when I had to put the violin aside to heal. It took me until my sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence College to begin taking composition lessons and writing music in earnest. I also finally gave up violin and started studying piano around that time. It took me so long to pursue composition professionally because it seemed so unattainably difficult. In the end I decided to do it because composing felt bright and purposeful and I couldn’t let it go. Eventually I just decided to pretend that I was talented and had something to contribute. That got me over a bunch of hurdles and landed me where I am now. I’m starting to feel at home in my ears these days.

Your works possess a wide range in terms of instrumentation and musical style. Can you describe your creative process? And how you come to choose a new work?

My creative process is different every time and is generally filled with trial and error. I try to be as creative as possible and to be open to finding solutions I don’t expect. I do my best when I can start with parameters. I never write a piece before I know the context of it — who is playing it and when it is going to be performed. The piece I’m writing now is for solo piano and fixed track, and I am writing it for a wonderful pianist and dear friend of mine, Helena Basilova. In writing this piece I started with thinking about her and the kind of music that draws her, as well as the enthusiasms and frustrations we have shared with each other over the time of our friendship. That gives me a starting point to work from. Collaboration is really important to me because otherwise I can feel a bit too lost in my own head and the endless possibilities of a work.

Generally I’m not the one choosing my next project, it’s a matter of seeing what turns up. I have been very fortunate lately to have a lot of exciting opportunities. With my composers’ collective West Fourth New Music (W4) I’m getting the chance more frequently to invent projects, but in my capacity as a co-producer with W4 I think more about what would make a good concert then a specific piece I want to write. I love writing for all different instruments and combinations because it exposes me to different challenges and opportunities.

How would you describe your music? Has it changed over the years?

I’m still really trying out different things and exploring what I’m interested in. I hope I always am. My music tends to be influenced by what I find exciting in other people’s music. Right now much of what I’m focused on is rhythmically motivated. I love folk music and how it treats imbalances and irregularities and I think that often ends up in my music.

My work over the years has certainly changed a lot. When I look back at my list of works I see a big messy learning curve that I want to burn the first three quarters of.

We’re so curious about your work with researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital. How did you collaborate with researchers and patients? Was it a whole new experience to compose music specifically for patients, or was your writing approach similar to another new commission?

The Mt. Sinai project is actually still ongoing. I have been working with a researcher named Michael Diefenbach. He is doing research to help people who have undergone treatment for prostate cancer control the side effects of the treatment through deep breathing exercises. I initially wrote music for him over two years ago and then when they received money for a large scale study, I expanded what  I had done and got it ready for patient trials, which are going on now. There may be another round of editing later on depending on how that goes. Dr. Diefenbach wanted music from me that would help patients time their breathing, the inhaling and exhaling, in a strict temporal sequence.  He was pretty open to the kind of music I was proposing, but there were a number of very clear guidelines that I had to incorporate into the music.  I couldn’t really go outside of those guidelines because the research required them.   The music I produced had to meet the needs of the project and please the patients. In that way it was a totally different approach than I normally have which is focused mostly on what I want!  It is good to remember sometimes that music is really a craft with specific techniques that can achieve specific goals. It was a wonderfully fun challenge to fulfill the requests of the research team. If everything turns out, the end result is going to be a free iPhone application available to the public.

You’re a co-founder of West Fourth New Music, a Brooklyn-based composers collaborative dedicated to producing new music concerts. Could you tell us more about W4’s recent history?

W4 was founded two years ago and we have been working like madmen ever since and having a great time. It’s wonderful to feel like part of a community and to be working towards a group goal. Right now we are focused on producing concerts.  Our mission is to promote new music, its audience and its makers. Concert presentation is central to that for us. We are rethinking the context in which live music is heard with the aim of making it totally pleasurable and accessible to audiences and artists. I think people are open to being really challenged by new music as long as they feel like the context in which it is presented is welcoming and not designed to alienate them.

In the future we are hoping to expand what we do to include youth education and artist services, but that is still very much in the works for now.

Our most recent concert was the 2nd Annual End of Summer Festival, which was held at Exapno in Brooklyn on September 22nd. The festival is a series of individual sets that are pretty wildly different, but all of them fall outside of the realm of easy genre categorization. The concert before that was called Cellophilia and was presented last June at the 92Y Tribeca. It was a concert exploring music written for the cello in the last decade with works for solo and ensembles of up to 8 cellos. We brought together more established composers with people just beginning their careers. We also recently collaborated with a dance company called BODYART. We worked together with the choreographer Leslie Scott on a number of miniatures that were a part of an evening of dance presented at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in early October with live music by PUBLIQuartet.

We have gotten some wonderful feedback and are having a lot of fun.

You’re also an active music educator, having come up with your own teaching curriculum. What aspects of teaching do you love? Do you think teaching helps to inform your composing in any way?

Teaching is wonderful for giving me a different perspective on music. All of my students are young children and watching them approach music and answering the questions they have has forced me to clarify how I think about music in order to invite them into it.

In my opinion, a lot of music education is done very poorly ­– either by oversimplifying to the point of misinformation or by tossing students in with a lack of preparation so that they develop coping mechanisms that put up barriers to advancement. Music is so abstract and hard to teach that you have to really be on your toes to get it across. I rearrange my teaching methods for every student and am constantly reevaluating.

I’m not sure if teaching informs my composing, but it probably does! Most things that go into my brain end up coming out in my work eventually.

How would you describe the new music scene in Brooklyn? And the rest of NYC?

I find the NYC new music scene totally thrilling. I feel like I’m in the middle of something big that is happening and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I think everyone in the music community right now is struggling to reevaluate what is important; not just in music, but in communities and in perception and in relationships and in the ways that music reaches an audience. My prediction is that we will look back on this time as one of transformation with Brooklyn being at the heart of the change. I’m not someone who can be an artist in a vacuum. My colleagues have an enormous influence on me and in Brooklyn everyone is at the top of his or her game. That energy really keeps me going and encourages me to work harder.

I love your Open Systems quartet for the JACK Quartet based on principles in physics. Could you describe how you decided upon physics as your inspiration? Did you have an earlier interest in physics?

I love a lot of scientific topics in a very layman way. I think that science and art are wonderful bedfellows because they are both focused on understanding the world and making connections. Both have these aspects of concreteness and practicality that can so quickly bottom out and give over to incomprehension and abstraction.

When I wrote Open Systems I was thinking back to learning about electrons in high school. The way electrons jump between atomic orbitals reminds me of harmonic nodes on strings and polyrhythms that may or may not line up at certain points. Open Systems was just about exploring the idea of the uninhabited space between distinct points, between connection and disconnection.

Could you describe your Residency project at Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy?

My project is still very much in the planning stages and hasn’t been full approved by BYCA yet, so I don’t think I should say anything here other then that I am very excited about it! I hope to have more details to announce soon.

What are some upcoming works or concerts for you and W4?

In addition to my BYCA project, I am at work on a W4 benefit concert and second anniversary celebration coming up on November 27th at Glenn Cornett’s space Spectrum at 121 Ludlow Street. My piano piece for Helena Basilova will be premiered there. We also have a very exciting concert coming up in early 2013 featuring a baroque ensemble performing new works. The composers being presented on that concert are Caroline Shaw, Timo Andres, Tristan Perich, Matt Frey and I. This spring I will begin a collaboration with the playwright Jane Alden on creating a score for her adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”

There will be more to announce soon, but that’s about all I can say for now!



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