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When I am asked the inevitable question “What kind of music do you write?”, I am always embarrassingly at a loss for words. Musicians want to know details of my harmonic language- is my music tonal or atonal? Nonmusicians often ask nervously if it sounds “modern”. Here’s the best way I can describe it: it is neither tonal nor atonal; I adhere to no preexisting method of pitch or harmony organization. I am more interested in the use of sounds as organizing musical materials than I am in melody or harmonic relationships. I also do not believe that atonality even truly exists; the term was an attempt to describe the music that broke away from Common Practice Tonality. I believe that Tonality means something very specific involving use of tertian harmony and the presence of a V7 chord (or at least of the half step relationship of the leading tone to the tonic, and of the resulting tritone between the leading tone and the 7th of the V7, and of the resolution of that tritone). Most composers in the late 20th and early 21st century are faced with the daunting but incredibly exciting task of creating their own musical language, which can draw from or completely break away from past music of all styles.
My music is generally slow-paced. I always tell people that “You can take the girl out of Nebraska, but you can’t take the Nebraska out of the girl.” The wide open spaces that I experienced as a child, not so much in my living environment, but in the many car trips we took to Colorado to see my grandparents, were and are an integral part of my artistic psyche. One of my favorite composers is Jean Sibelius. One time I saw a documentary about him, which showed the place where he lived and worked- it was a wide-open expanse of frozen lake and snow- one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen. I love living in the east, but I long for the space and expanse of the place in my childhood memories. I feel like my music is an expression of that longing.
My music often feels sad to me, even if I wasn’t sad when I composed a particular piece. I, like most people, have had much sadness in my life. But I’ve had much joy as well, and I’m not entirely sure where the melancholy comes from. My music is also mostly very quiet, although there are occasional outbursts here and there for various reasons. I often feel oppressed by noise, and I want my music to be heard by being listened to carefully. I want it to whisper rather than shout.
When I was growing up, I played the piano constantly. I also played the clarinet and sang; it was obvious to me and everyone around me that I had some musical talent. But my creativity showed up in other places, as well as in music. I loved to draw and paint. Eventually it became clear that I had only a little visual talent; it took my music teacher in high school to recognize that maybe I could marry my burn to create with my musical talent and try composing. I began taking composition lessons at 17 with Dr. Robert Beadell at University of Nebraska, and it was immediately as if some kind of Truth had been revealed to me: I was meant to be a composer. But I still can’t let go of my love of painting. I believe that I am a visual artist who only has aural talent. I think of each piece as a work of art that exists as a whole in time and space, just as a painting would. I don’t know if this is something that’s ever audible to a listener; more importantly for me, is that it is how I conceive of each piece and where I get my inspiration.