Interview with composer May Lyon about her new work and creative process

August 9th, 2016


What inspired Ode to Damascus? and how have you captured this in the music? 

I am very interested in history and other cultures. Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, dating back nearly 11,000 years. It has survived some of the most major wars in history and unfortunately finds itself amidst another.

The first half shows two sides of life in Damascus that have been present throughout millennia: loss through war, alternating with the bustling city itself. Loss is imagined as a woman singing a lament, walking from the desolate outskirts and eventually merging with the city, her voice rising into a cry. A simple yet sorrowful Violin and Piccolo line represents the woman. The city is busy, constantly moving and changing, represented by the piano, clarinet and cello, using a repetitive phrase varied and distorted.

The second half is water, in reference to Damascus’ location close to the Barada River and the many streams that flowed from this river into the city. For centuries Damascus was a beautiful green oasis, however various modern changes have affected this, so that the river no longer feeds the city during drought. Use of limited intervals, subtle changes in the instrumentation and dynamic maintain flow. I have also added melodic streams and a final climax before the expected drought.

When developing a new piece can you describe the stages of creation in your process?

Research and planning: I will read about the topic I’m composing about, or the instruments I’m using, as well as sketch a basic plan for the piece or a few chords and themes. Poetry, art, history and even anthropology can all inspire me. I will sometimes go back to this stage if I am stuck when composing.
Composing: Early stages I flesh out the themes and plan. I tend not to worry about articulations or subtleties at this point unless I am very sure of them. Later I extend each section further, adding colour and further orchestration. I am aware that the final result may differ from the plan and I let a piece go where it needs to.
Editing: Otherwise known as perfecting. Both highly rewarding and stressful.
Typesetting: I think this is just as important as the music, as illegible music is unplayable music.

Who or what are you biggest influences as an artist? 

Who: I have very eclectic music tastes, which I think is important to maintain.
What: Natural history, anthropology (especially of religion) and nature in general. The view outside my studio window.

This work has been commissioned by the the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Recital Centre as part of their Emerging composers program. What kind of impact has this commission made on your career? 

This commission gave me the confidence to continue my work as a professional composer after I finished my degree. This is a difficult industry and many of us do it for passion. To have support is extremely valuable and it’s always wonderful to know that something I have created will be heard.

Your work will receive it’s premiere on Thursday, what goes through your mind before you hear a performance of a new piece? 

Perhaps oddly, I try to separate myself from the work as much as possible for two reasons: so that I can listen with fresh ears; and because I feel that once I have given a piece to an ensemble it is theirs, as they give it a voice.

May’s work will be premiered Thursday August 11th, 6pm at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon

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