Melissa Dunphy: Composing has to be a Calling
Frank J. Oteri of New Music Box
June 1, 2019
One of the highlights of my attending the 2019 National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City was encountering Melissa Dunphy during the Composer Fair at the end of the first full day of the conference. Dunphy was full of energy and passionate about what she does and was also incredibly articulate—an ideal candidate for a NewMusicBox Cover! And after I returned home and started exploring her musical output, most of which she has generously made scores and recordings available for on her website, I was even more eager to have a sit down conversation with her about creative work.
What struck me about her music, and what she confirmed when we visited her at the bizarre place in Philadelphia where she lives (more on that later), is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity. Primarily a composer of vocal and choral music, Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. The Gonzales Cantata, her 2009 gender-reversed faux-Baroque setting of the public US senate testimony that culminated in the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, landed her on national television while she was still pursuing an undergraduate degree in music composition. Her unaccompanied choral work from the following year, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, is also based on public testimony, this time from an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality, an issue that still divides people in this country.
“I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech,” Dunphy remembered. “I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music.”
Among her most ambitions works to date is her 2018 American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral setting of texts from five young Americans who were brought this country as children. “This is completely up my alley for various reasons,” explained Dunphy, who was born and raised in Australia and is the child of immigrants who fled Greece and Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.
But creating intense politically-themed music is only part of how Dunphy spends her time. That bizarre place she lives in is an 18th century building that most recently had been the site of an abandoned magic theater. When she and her husband acquired the property, it was in a ruined state. So, on their own, they embarked on a huge construction project that has resulted not only in a viable place to live and artistic studios, but also an AirB&B they rent out. However, more interestingly, in excavating the former theater which they had hoped to eventually turn into a performance space, they discovered a wide range of 18th century artifacts and have become significant archeologists of early Americana. Dunphy gave us a guided tour of the construction work and some of their findings following our extensive conversation about her music, some photos of which appear toward the end of the transcript.
“We tore every room down to the studs,” Dunphy euphorically exclaimed. “I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable. In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. … This whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.”