Music by Women on a Mission

Interview with Melissa Dunphy

Recorded April 7, 2020

April Angilletta: Hi everyone, and welcome to Choral Arts. I’m April Angilletta. I am the Associate Director of Communications and I’m here with our Artistic Director, Scott Tucker, and Melissa Dunphy, one of the composers who was going to be featured on Music by Women on a Mission. That concert was scheduled to take place last month on March 28th. Unfortunately, because of all the current events, we couldn’t have that concert happen in person and it’s now canceled. But the music by the women on this program is really important to us. And we wanted to make sure that we have a way to share this new music by these women composers and make sure that we get a conversation started, and share this important work. So with that- Scott, Melissa, welcome. Hi.

Melissa Dunphy: Thank you so much for doing this and finding a way to still honor the spirit of the concert even while we’re all social distancing.

Scott Tucker: Exactly. Well, it’s a pleasure to see you and talk to you and, and at least we can talk about music, if we’re not going to actually do it.

So I know that some of our listeners won’t be thoroughly familiar with you and your whole story. I know that you have a blog and now you have a podcast. I know that it’s been tremendously exciting for you to have bought a theater, or to bought a space, and made a theater and an apartment on top of it. And I was reading a lot about that, and your adventures there. So I wonder if you could just- I don’t know if it’s possible to do this briefly- but just kind of give us a little synopsis.

Read the full transcript

Melissa Dunphy: So, I live in Philadelphia. Like Washington DC, it’s a very historic town with hundreds of years of fascinating history. And as you can probably tell, I’m not a Philadelphia native. This is not a natural Philadelphia accent. I grew up in Australia. My mother was from China, my father was from Greece. And, so when I moved to America, I became an American citizen.

I tell people, you know, I found American history interesting on, you know, on sort of several levels, but I never felt really deeply invested in it until about five years ago, when my husband and I bought a theater. It actually was a magic theater, as in, a theater when magic shows were held. And it had gone through a period of scandal where the owner went to jail and the property came on the market at a really cheap price.

So, my husband and I kind of did something very financially risky and bought this place with the idea that we were going to reopen it as a performing arts. Then, at some point in the future, it’s a little 50 to 70 seat theater, perfect for recitals and small theater and you know, any kind of performing art lectures, this kind of thing. And then we built an apartment on top for the two of us to live in.

During the course of construction, we had to dig into the foundation of the building and we found two privies. For those of you who don’t know what a privy is, it’s literally a toilet pit from before indoor plumbing was a thing. Back in the 1700s, they not only used to use the privy pit as a toilet pit; they also used it to throw a lot of trash into it, and this includes a lot of pottery and glass and artifacts.

So we found in our two privies, under our building, which had been untouched in 200, 250 years, thousands of artifacts that date from approximately 1770 to 1780. So, we’re talking right in the middle of the revolutionary war. So I suddenly went from someone who was sort of intellectually interested in American history to someone who is touching bowls and plates and wine bottles that our founding fathers and mothers and their servants and their enslaved people were using in the 1700s. This sent me on a journey of learning about this period of American history through this culture that I never expected.

So, sorry- my podcast has nothing to do with music. I call it my escape from music. It’s called The Bog House, which was a slang term for the toilet back in the 1700s, and it tells the story of my research and our amateur archeology adventures, uncovering these artifacts. We’re still uncovering them right now. We still have a dig going on in our foundation. Then we’re researching the lives of the people who lived on this property and owned the property and possibly owned these plates and bowls and dishes, and pipes, and shoe leather, and just incredible things that we found underground.

Scott Tucker: Amazing. It’s an amazing story. It really is. It’s incredible.

Melissa Dunphy: Well, it’s been a lot of fun. And I told people, I was getting my PhD in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania when we found these artifacts and people are always like, wow, you did an incredible amount of research after you found these out of. So I’m like, procrastination is a powerful force.

When you’re trying to write a thesis, you can get anything else in the world done. You find more hours than there are in a day to do anything else. So that’s kind of what I was doing. But, it’s become a really important and exciting part of my life and I’m actually finding ways now to bring those two worlds together in different ways. And the bog house.

I have two commissions coming up- choral commissions. One is setting letters of Abigail and John Adams. So, contemporaries of the people who owned these artifacts. I have another commission that’s about Hannah Callowhill Penn, who was William Penn’s second wife, who I talk about in the podcast a lot. And most importantly, I’m actually writing an opera for Oberlin Conservatory, which is about archeology.

It’s about archeology. And it focuses on a true story of a woman who was murdered on my property in the 1880s. But it’s told from the perspective of four archeologists in the modern era researching her story. Now I’ve been thrust into this world and I’m in touch with these national park archeologists and professional archeologists, and I’m learning a lot from them about what it’s like being an archeologist. So, I’m writing songs about it.

Scott Tucker: It’s amazing, really. They always say, write what you know, I guess. There you are.  I think you must know more about your property than anybody knows about where they’re living, you know, because you were, yeah. Because you were able to dig so deep and so deep in time. It’s really amazing.

Melissa Dunphy: It’s also a testament to- and this is maybe speaks to our current moment as well- where we’re all stuck in our houses and our lifelines to the outside world are through the internet. I did most of this research into my property on internet databases and through online libraries, and, I think we are so lucky in some ways to live in an era where that’s possible, because even 20 years ago I would have had to physically go to a library and look at microfiche of newspapers, which my undergraduate students- this is aging me a little bit now- they’ve never even heard of it. They don’t know.

Scott Tucker: No idea. (laughs)

I was a professor for several years at Cornell, and toward the end of my time there, I remember two of my students sitting in my office, two undergraduates. They asked me a question. I said, “hang on.” And I reached up and I got a book out of my shelf, I looked it up, and then I gave them the answer. They looked at each other and chuckled, and I said, “what?”

And they said, “Well that’s just so cute and quaint that you looked in a book.”

Melissa Dunphy:

Instead of just typing it into your computer. (laughs)

I sent one of my interns on a microfiche expedition for something that hadn’t been yet been digitized to the internet and she literally had no idea what I was talking about. I was explaining how to use the machine and I said, “make sure you take some Dramamine”.

And she’s like, “What are you talking about?”

And I’m like, “If you’re anything like me, microfiche will make you motion sick.” And she’s looking at me like I have three heads. Like, how can something like reading make you motion sick?

I’m like, “trust me, trust me.” And she goes and does it.

She’s like, “yeah, I was sick within like 10 minutes.”

Scott Tucker: Wow. Well, let’s talk a little bit about your time at U Penn, if you don’t mind. I heard a little bit of an interview you did, where you were talking about your main teacher Jay. He took you to Starbucks and said, “why are you writing this esoteric stuff? Why aren’t you doing what you used to do, which is really music that’s largely political in nature.” So that’s really how you started.  And then as you got into grad school you decided you should be very intellectual, and now you’re where you are now, writing music that’s accessible and exciting, and hits you in the heart and in the head. It’s really such wonderful stuff you’re doing now.  Tell us a little bit about your time at U Penn.

Melissa Dunphy: It’s an interesting time to go through academia, because we in academia deservedly got a reputation, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, as producing a certain type of music and a certain type of attitude toward music and music making. Obviously we went through serialism and atonality, and this idea that “who cares what the listener thinks.” It’s all about the composer’s intent, and music that had to be very intellectual music that appealed to music theorists a lot because it could be analyzed using certain rubrics. And, I think there’s a place for that music. I’m reluctant to sort of say, “Oh, that’s all garbage; nobody should write like that.”

We have billions of people on this planet and it’s important to have music that appeals to all kinds of brains. There are so many different kinds of brains out there. When I came to grad school, I had just written a piece called The Gonzales Cantata, which was in some part inspired by my emotional reaction to American politics during the Bush administration.

I was constantly walking around in a rage, which seems so.. talk about quaint!  I thought I was really angry back then, but I didn’t really know what rage was. So, I was thinking a lot about politics. I was learning a lot about the American political system and I was having a lot of emotional reactions to it, and I wanted to write about how I felt and what I was seeing.

But I also wanted to pay homage in some ways to my love of Baroque music, and counterpoint and my own facility with working within that kind of harmonic world. So I wrote this very near Baroque Cantata. It makes fun of itself, but it also follows a lot of the conventions of a Baroque Cantata. It got a lot of attention. It kind of went viral. It went on the Rachel Maddow Show, and I spoke to a lot of people. People had a lot of fun singing it. Some of my favorite comments were from singers, who said, “this was so much fun to sing.”

Because composers have spent such a long time pushing the envelope of what is easily singable or performable, they leave a lot of performers behind who want to concentrate more on expression rather than the mechanics of how to see these notes that are on the page. There’s always a tension in classical music between technique and emotion, always this kind of tension between these two things. What is more important? What is the audience actually hearing, between these two things?

So I think, when I went to Penn, I was worried that I’m at this Ivy league institution and this is like capital-A- Academia; what is expected of me? Should I start writing in these other styles? Should I stretch my own practice to encompass this other style?

And I did that a little. But then Jay Rees, and actually all of the composition professors at Penn, were not quite what I expected. They were very encouraging of me listening to my true voice and finding my own true style, and they were never dismissive of music that might be more accessible to more performers or to more audiences.

I don’t feel like I ever had someone say to me, “this is too pop” or something, and then that’s translated into my career post-graduation. I write a lot of choral music and I love working with choirs. I love working with singers and especially choral singers. I feel like choir are some of the gamest, most enthusiastic, most community-focused performers anyone could possibly hope for in new music-making.

I tell my students all the time, it’s fine to write whatever you want, but if you want to be performed and if you want to connect with performers who love your work and actually champion your work and proselytize your work, write choral music that singers want to sing. You put a piece out there and people love to sing it and they will literally tell other choirs and other choral directors, “Hey, sing this work.” And that doesn’t happen in the orchestral world. Can you imagine?

Scott Tucker: Yeah, that’s a little bit of a different situation; it’s true. Of course music is a connector anyway, but with choral music in particular, using the voice is so personal, and choral singers tend to be those people who all through their lives were joiners and doers, and, interconnectors. So, yes, I imagine that writing music for that kind of group is satisfying because of that reason. It’s such a great role on music.

Melissa Dunphy: It is. I’ve written for orchestras and I’ve written for taping musicians and I love working with them, but I don’t get like the same sense of community. There are people who sang my work a decade ago who still keep in touch with me and still write me notes and say, “I heard your latest piece and I joined a new choir and I’ve been talking to the Carl, the choir director, about your music.” Can you imagine like a second violinist in an orchestra joining a new orchestra and cornering the conductor, saying “I have some repertoire suggestions.” That just doesn’t happen. So, I’m really disappointed. One of the most disappointing things to me about the cancellation is that I didn’t get to meet the Choral Arts Society of Washington, because I was really looking forward to coming down and meeting your choir in person and listening to them sing in person, and answering questions. But hopefully there will be a chance in the future.

Scott Tucker: That brings us to the two pieces we were going to do of yours on the program, Listen and Wild Embers. We have a couple of questions from chorus members, but before we get to those, could you give us a little synopsis of what those two were about?

Melissa Dunphy: Sure. So I’ll start with Wild Embers actually. So, I really love the movement online of young, often female, poets, or poets from marginalized communities who’ve been publishing their poetry online and going through unusual channels to get their works and their words out there to their audiences. The world of poetry, much like the world of music, has in the past been very institutionalized. You go to these schools, you win these awards, you get published through these certain avenues and that’s how you get your work out there. And the internet, again, revolutionized how that works. And so there are communities of particularly young female poets who publish on all things, on Tumblr, or Instagram, or Twitter, and their poetry speaks to audiences of, often, young female readers that really connect with them. These are voices that in this very hyper literary world often don’t get as much attention and much publicity, so these audiences have been neglected for a really long time.

One of my favorite poets is Nikita Gill. She is a British Indian poet. So, Indian heritage lives in Britain. And she writes really feminist poetry that speaks to issues of mental health, and healing, and trauma, and the patriarchy, and women’s place in the world, and all of these sorts of things that really speak to me, and I think speak to a lot of other women. She got so successful at publishing this poetry that she actually got a book deal and her first published collection of poetry was called Wild Embers. To celebrate the publication of this book, she wrote a poem called Wild Embers. I read the text and I got chills, and I instantly wanted to set it.

“We are the descendants

of the wild women you forgot

We are the stories you thought

would never be taught.

They should have checked the ashes

of the women they burnt alive.

Because it takes a single wild ember

to bring a whole wildfire to life.”

And I love this poem so much because it makes you feel this connection to survivorship and this acknowledgement of the injustices of the past, and the knowledge that it’s going to get better.  I thought, “Ah, this is so powerful. I really need to set this to music.”

I got in touch with Nikita on Twitter because that’s what the new world is. And she was really excited for me to set it for choir. I wrote it as a treble chorus piece for a high school group in California, Bella Voce at Acalanes High School. It was so great, working with these young women who were going to take this message on and then, after the commission, were out in the world. So many different groups connected with it. And that’s what I find is really cool about this piece; choirs that have more mature women, it makes them very emotional because they think about what they’ve been through, and young women find it really empowering as well.  To me it’s, it’s almost like a protest song, but one of those protest songs that you can sing that binds you in a community of people.

Scott Tucker: I understand. Our women absolutely took to it and most of them singing weren’t as young as Bella Voce, for sure. And they totally connected with it and loved it. They loved singing it. I’m sure we will sing it in public at some point, but just to do it in a room was empowering.

Melissa Dunphy: The other piece that you have on the program is very different and was a commission that I got from Resonance Ensemble, which is based in Portland. Kathy Fitzgibbon is the conductor there. It was a very sudden commission. I don’t usually take commissions with this short a lead time, but they contacted me and they said, “we have a commission for you, but we need it really quickly.” And I said that my schedule is really busy.

They said, “Wait, before you hang up- we want you to write a piece that sets the words of Christine Blasey Ford in her testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court.” They were asking the right person.

Like a lot of women when that testimony was happening, I found it just horrifying. I was at the edge of my emotions for days on end, seeing this constant coverage of this case, and seeing the vitriol against Christine Blasey Ford, and then watching her own incredibly emotional testimony and identifying with it. I started to think about incidents in my youth, in high school where I had been assaulted or attacked, just things that had been taken for granted as almost normal, that I started to realize were not right. I just heard what they were saying and was thought, I’m not going to get many opportunities to write something like this again for a choir. Yes, absolutely. I’m on board. Send it my way.

Then they said an amazing thing- Resonance actually came up with this idea initially. They said, “Would it be possible to connect it in some way to Anita Hill’s hearings from 1991 at the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas.” When that happened, I was only 11, and I lived in Australia, so my knowledge of those hearings was very secondhand. I don’t remember watching them on TV at the time, but I went back and looked at them and what struck me was the similarities between these two sets of hearings. And the reactions. So we have these two hearings that are 27 years apart, and the same thing happened. We think that we’ve progressed so far as a society, but did we? This is a huge question and it was devastating to think about.

So, I made two movements. One took excerpts from Anita Hill’s testimony and the other took excerpts from Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. I made them deliberately quite different in style. In the first one I collected short excerpts that were a litany of all the things that had been said and done to Anita Hill, which she stated in her testimony, and they’re very confronting. They are not words that choral singers are used to singing. They’re triggering. And it was a difficult decision whether or not I was going to set these words- I mean, they’re horrible. They’re disgusting words because that was what was said and done to her that she had to say out loud, in public. And for awhile I was like, “I don’t want to set any of these words. I don’t want to set this at all.”

And then I thought, “she said them; she had the guts to say them out loud. And for me to shy away from them is erasing it. Just as the actions were erased at the time.”

Scott Tucker: That’s a very interesting point.

Melissa Dunphy: I knew it would be confronting and I knew it would be disturbing and I put every trigger warning possible on this piece because it’s a traumatic piece to sing. Women who have been through this kind of harassment- you’re singing this stuff and you feel the way you felt when you were being harassed. It’s horrible to sing. So, the first movement is very confronting and I feel like it puts people in sense of shock, but I’m also like, it is shocking.

It should be shocking, and it’s not fair, and it should make you hurt in some ways. And then the second movement is Christine Blasey Ford’s words, which were the headline words from her testimony, which came from a question rather than her prepared statement. Um, and it was, uh, you know, when she was asked, what was the thing that she remembered the most clearly?

And she says “Indelible in the hippocampus was the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.” And that connected me. Those were actually the words that connected me to an incident in high school where I remember a boy forcibly grabbing me and his friends laughing about it. What connected me to that most viscerally was that’s what I remember too. It was not only the act of being physically assaulted, but the humiliation of them finding it funny. So I tell people, when this piece gets performed, the first movement shocks you, I think necessarily, out of your complacency and the second movement is the catharsis.

At the premiere that Resonance ensemble did, I was ugly sobbing at my own premiere, which felt weird and egotistical, but also, it was this necessary catharsis. Everyone in the room was kind of crying because, it was a devastating event and we’re still living it in a lot of ways. He got confirmed, you know. They’re giving judgements all the time. And again, I guess it’s a kind of protest song. It’s not the kind of protest song that you will join hands in solidarity and sing, but it’s the kind of protest song that makes you, aware of what we’re living through and not take it for granted and not get complacent.

Scott Tucker: I think every woman that sings that piece has to go a little bit through that process. Even before beginning to rehearse it I had to decide, is this something I can do? Because of everything that it seems to bring up. Of course I don’t want to mansplain it, but everything that it brings up for so many individual stories, and then to engage with that and absorb it and bring it out again into public- it’s quite a process. So, without me, they all had lots of talking and a lot of discussion and it brought our community together to be able to do something like this.

Back to setting some of the more graphic language in the Anita Hill testimony, things that Clarence Thomas had said to her and suggested to her. I noticed that that part gets very active and very imitative, and in some ways that does in fact obscure the text a little bit, or maybe just enough. You hear what’s going on, but it’s not quite as stark because it’s imitative. I was wondering if that was a conscious thing you did.

Melissa Dunphy: It was. I didn’t want it to be salacious. When you see Anita Hill give her testimony, she’s very professional. She’s almost clinical in the way that she describes this stuff. And, so, I don’t think that these words deserve a lot of very emotional lingering. I wanted to make it sort of this clinical list and then, to turn it into this wall of sound, which, if you can hear bits and pieces of it coming through, you know what this wall of sound is. I feel like in a lot of ways, that’s sort of a metaphor for how women are bombarded by our culture, with these ideas of what your places and just these, microaggressions: the way women are criticized, the way women are expected to behave in public and what happens if you step out of line and what we’re expected to put up with.

When we walk down the street, the things that are shouted at us or called out at us, we tend to try to sort of push it into this background noise, but it gets to us, it absolutely gets to us. And it’s only when you stop and think about it that it can really upset you. But what we’re doing most of the time is blocking it out. But it’s not actually healthy. You know, we’re just pretending it’s not happening. So, in some ways I said it as, “Yeah, you’re right.” It’s this imitative thing where one voice starts and another voice. It’s almost like a round. And it becomes a wall of sound where you can’t really hear the individual things that Clarence Thomas said to her, but you know what’s happening. You just hear it. It’s almost like the human ear also hears like the words that stick out- genitalia, breasts, you know, these sort of words, so that you’re like, “Oh.” But this is what she experienced. This is what millions of women experience all the time. Does that answer the question?

Scott Tucker: It does. And that’s a fascinating part of the process and it really gives it a lot more context than I was even thinking was in there, but that’s awesome.

All right, Melissa. So we had a couple members of the chorus who were singing your piece send in questions for you. And I think you’ve actually answered some of them already. The first one is from Linda. Linda is one of the women of the Choral Arts Chorus. She says, “The two separate parts of Listen are each powerful in their own way. What was your underlying choice for the different styles of the music? Was it the personalities of the women or their individual presentations of their information?

Melissa Dunphy: I don’t actually think it’s necessarily the individual style or personalities of the two women. I think I was considering more broadly the narrative arc of the whole piece and what I wanted people to feel when they walked out at the end of the piece, to very loosely state it. Can we break down some of those mechanisms that we put up to deny that this is happening in 1991, the Anita Hill testimony. And the second part is, can we allow ourselves to feel and to have that catharsis and to grieve the fact that, that we are living in an age where this is allowed to happen and continues to be allowed to happen. My grief, it’s not explicit in the words, but it’s also a grief for the current generation of young women who are in high school and college who are going through the same things. I want so much for their world to be different and I worry that, 1991 through 2018, I don’t know that it’s much different for young women. Again, it’s not explicit in the music, but if there could be a message attached to the music, it would be “Let’s acknowledge that this is happening. Let’s allow ourselves to feel the fact that it’s happening and then let’s figure out how to listen better so that the next generation doesn’t have to go through this because it’s damaging.” The fact that everyone in that room was crying at the premiere is evidence of the fact of how damaging it is to live within that kind of culture, our current culture. I don’t think it says anything about who Anita Hill and who Christine Blasey Ford, are, necessarily. I just think that these are the two actions that are necessary to get us to that point.

Scott Tucker: Awesome.

And the next question, which is the last one about Listen, is from Barbara, also one of the women who was singing your piece. She says, “I noticed that both the 1991 and 2018 end with the speaker’s assertion that she had to tell the truth. What other considerations went into selecting the particular words you used from their testimony and could you describe the process you went through to make your choices?”

Melissa Dunphy: Sure. I have some experience with editing testimony into choral works. I’ve done it a number of times. I think it’s actually one of my calling cards, which is very strange. It’s what I do as a composer? I edit text testimony into choral texts. That’s what I do. Most obviously and perhaps most extensively, when I wrote the Gonzales Cantata, 90% of that text is taken from the hours and hours of Senate judiciary committee hearing transcripts of Alberto Gonzales in 2007.

That was the first time I had done this kind of process. Transcripts are in the public domain, so you can use them and you can edit them. You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to edit them. They’re part of our governmental record and all Americans own the right to these words. So, when I did the Gonzales Cantata, that was a huge editing process because I had just pages and pages and pages of text. For anyone who has a composed, or for those of you who haven’t, maybe you don’t know this, but it takes a lot longer to sing something than it does to say it. A paragraph of text, which might only take you like a minute and a half to say, is like a 10 minute piece if you were to sing every word as a choir.

So the process is figuring out how to get the essence of the message through in as few words as possible, how to honor th original intention of the text or subvert it if it’s that kind of text. In the Gonzales Cantata, I did a lot of subversion of what was actually being said by selective editing, I guess you could say. Then for me, one of the most important considerations is-and this is quite analogous to the film students’ maxim of “show, don’t tell”- what can I say in the music that doesn’t need to be explicitly stated in the text? So, if I can convey a sense of being distraught in the music, then I don’t really need the words, “I was distraught” in the text. If somebody is describing how angry they were, I could put that in the music and I can cut out a lot of text that is stating how angry they were. I can just choose one or two words, set them in a really angry way- there you have it.

It’s almost like “pictures are a thousand words” to me. Harmonies mean things, articulations mean things. In our musical language, they have actually very specific emotional meanings and understanding that musical grammar is the gateway to figuring out what texts to use and how to use it.  For me, reading the testimony, maybe the main consideration was what parts of the testimony made me feel most intensely. You learn to recognize that. I think cause the composer, when you’re reading something and you get the goosebumps, you get a pang, sometimes you just start weeping. To me that’s a big sign.

If you’re reading something or you see someone say something and you start crying, you’re on the right track. If just saying that out loud is going to make you start crying, then what can I do as a composer to set that, to make it even more powerful, or powerful in a different way, or powerful to a new audience who might not have the inclination to read the text or watch a video? Again, another piece that I’ve used testimony for is the first acapella choral work I ever wrote, which was called, “What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?”. It sets a WWII veteran’s speech before the Maine Senate, in the state of Maine, in support of marriage equality.

Simon Carrington championed that work an it’s done the rounds, but that was another testimony that was the couple of pages of speech that I edited down selectively and tried to find the emotion in those words to put into the music. Testimony as text- I love, I LOVE unusual texts. I really love taking text that most people would say, “there’s not a song in that.” And being like, “Oh, challenge accepted. Let me find the song and surprise you.” It’s just a tick; it’s just a fun thing to do as a composer. It’s like a puzzle, you know?

April Angilletta: It does sound like a lot of fun.

Scott Tucker: I don’t think anyone would guess that would be a likely specialty of any composer, but it’s amazing! We really have done incredible stuff with that. And “What do you think I fought for on Omaha Beach?” is another really powerful, wonderful piece, so congratulations for everything you’re doing.

Melissa Dunphy: Thank you.

April Angilletta: There’s one more part of the question. Linda had actually asked about both of the pieces that we had programmed. The second question is about Wild Embers. She says, “The pulse of Wild Embers certainly emulates what a woman might feel who has been ignored. Do you see that pulse as drumbeats or heartbeats or something else?”

Melissa Dunphy: I think there’s very little air between drumbeat and heartbeat. Actually, I feel like drumbeats are heartbeats. I tell people all the time, I’m a really bad conductor because my inner sense of tempo and pulse is dependent upon my heartbeat. I admire conductors so much. I always feel like you must have some kind of Zen calm to not get up on stage and immediately take it three times as fast as you normally take it. Because I know the times I’ve conducted, I’ve literally had to take beta blockers to stop myself from rushing when my heartbeat goes up.

I have a very concrete response to that.  Wild Embers, for those of you who haven’t heard it, has body percussion in it, a stomp and a thigh slap and a sort of percussive effect where the choir goes “shh” really regularly through the piece. Those three things, to put it in very concrete terms, are a kick, a snare at a high hat or symbol, so you can literally think about them as this very drum kit oriented.

Maybe this is partly because I’ve played in bands, I have also a rock band background of a huge three-four beat of kick snare cymbal, crash kick, snare cymbal, crash that rhythmically goes throughout the piece and turns it into an anthem.  I’ve also been told it reminds people of scenes in a musical like Les Mis where you have the entire chorus marching on stage. I think there’s some of that too, but I absolutely feel like it’s a heartbeat and a drumbeat because I don’t really see a difference between those two things. I think our connection to drums comes from our connection to our own heart.

Scott Tucker:  Awesome. That’s a great answer. April, that’s it? That’s all of the questions from the chorus?

April Angilletta: Yeah. Do you have any more questions? We’re almost at an hour.

Scott Tucker: We’ll wrap up, but I just wanted to ask how you’re doing. Outside of music, I know that you’ve also got lots of irons in the fire with theater, et cetera.

Melissa Dunphy: Everything’s up in the air right now with the pandemic, right? I am so grateful and privileged. I have a roof over my head. I have enough food to eat. I have a husband who doesn’t drive me crazy that I am now quarantined with permanently. You know, I have three cats that keep us very entertained and occupied during this time. I have a back deck. I can go out and feel the sunshine on my face. But this is a difficult time for everyone. I still have commissions that I’m working on, but I’m grateful for that work and for something to do. I know a lot of people have lost all of their work and are really struggling with what’s going to happen in the coming months. And there’s a lot of uncertainty going around. But also, I’m feeling very much the.. it’s so difficult to create right now. It’s so difficult to focus on what you’re doing. I very much push back against people who are like, “Oh, artists must have so much time now to just write everything that they’ve always wanted to write”. Like, that’s not how it works. We’re all terrified, you know.

You can’t write something when you’re watching the news and watching thousands of people in New York city, which is an hour away from me here in Philadelphia and not so far away from you in DC, thinking about how long this is going to go on for and worrying about our government’s response and worrying about the response of other governments around the world. The political is personal, the personal is political and this is a really difficult time for everyone. So, I tell my students, (I teach at Rutgers, and I still am doing online lessons for my composition students) I think the main thing that we all need to do for each other and ourselves right now is be really gentle and cut ourselves some slack. Because this is an international species wide trauma that we’re going through right now and we can’t discount the impact of that.

And in the coming months, depending on how bad things get economically, we are all going to need, if we want to survive this, to find a sense of community and to help each other through this. So, let’s start making those bridges now. Let’s start making sure those bridges are connected now because our fellow artists, our fellow performers, our fellow singers, everyone out there is going to need a help coming up. So let’s figure out who we can help and how. I think that that’s the important thing. That’s where I’m focusing on trying to go forward from this.

I hope that everyone in the choir out there is doing okay. I hope your audiences are doing ok. I think we’re going to get through this, but let’s not kid ourselves that this isn’t one of the most complicated and difficult challenges that I think we’ve all had to face.

Scott Tucker: Well said. And can I just say what a pleasure it is to talk to you. This has been so interesting and wonderful.

Melissa Dunphy: Absolutely. Thank you so much for doing this. I’m so sad I didn’t get to meet you in person, but we’ll get there.

April Angilletta: We’re not that far away! When this is over, we can definitely meet up with you.

Melissa Dunphy: Absolutely! Yes. Let’s do that. Hooray.