Australian-born composer Melissa Dunphy knows what it is to change career, country, and compositional style. She talks to Philip Barnes about what motivates her choral works, and how she tries to open boundaries of music to the next generation
Philip Barnes of Choir & Organ
January 15, 2019
Crossover musicians are nothing new, but they remain a fascination for a public prone to placing artists in narrow categories. We are interested, even surprised, to learn that a performer adept in one genre can achieve success in another: think of Sting recording songs by John Dowland, or Thomas Quasthoff swapping Schubert lieder for jazz. In this vein the Australian-American musician Melissa Dunphy presents a dizzying array of talent, ranging from modelling to classical composition, from performance (on the viola) to acting (acclaimed at the Philadelphia Fringe). She also performs in a rock band with the risque name Up Your Cherry, and recently has added construction to her resume, restoring a theatre in an 18th-century building where she uncovered archeological remains of national significance.
Dunphy's choral compositions reveal a pronounced sensitivity to the voices available, the text, and occasion for the new work. Although her training is academic, culminating in a Benjamin Franklin Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a doctorate, there is nothing of the 'ivory tower' about her. Indeed, her first piece to earn widespread recognition was an overtly political work in support of equal marriage: What Do You Think I Fought For At Omaha Beach? sets testimony given to the Maine Senate by a veteran of the second world war, Phillip Spooner, in which he asks for his gay son to be accorded the same rights as his straight brothers. This piece won Dunphy first prize in a competition organised by the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers in Kansas City; it has subsequently been recorded by the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus, and performed widely in the US, in both its original mixed voices version and an arrangement made for male voice chorus. A similarly topical work that gained recognition was The Gonzales Cantata, in which Dunphy took public testimony by former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, and used his own words as an indictment of policies under president George W. Bush.
Composing, explains Dunphy, is like any kind of writing: 'The best work is created when the author is truly passionate about the subject at hand, which is why so many of my compositions are inspired by extra-musical topics that inflame me in some way, such as political movements. Like many authors, I follow the maxim to "write what I know", so even when I am given a text to set, I make sure that I know exactly what I want the work to say and why I need to say it.
`The puzzle is how to employ notes on a page to reach that objective. Music is a language; melodies, harmonies, rhythms and timbres mean things, sometimes extremely specific things, and one of the attractions of vocal and choral writing is the interaction between the meaning of the text and the meaning of the music. I can completely change the meaning of a word in a text by changing its musical delivery: I can fill a banal text with emotion, undercut earnest words with irony, or make a complicated sentiment seem childishly straightforward; I can juxtapose texts and melodies against each other to deepen their meanings and draw connections.'
While Melissa Dunphy has used her gifts in the service of her political beliefs, they do not limit or define her creativity, as a series of subsequent works attests. The three works she wrote for the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus while its composer-in-residence confirm this: scored for unaccompanied double choir, their titles are Alpha and Omega, The Day of Resurrection, and Suite Remembrance. Complementing such double-SATB works are a handful of highly atmospheric settings of the activist poet Lola Ridge, written for several Californian women's ensembles. More recently, Dunphy has contributed to a programme of new Advent antiphons given by the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia: her O Oriens has received numerous performances by groups on both sides of the Atlantic. However, her first UK commission came not from a church choir, but the male voice ensemble Opus Angticanum, who asked for a new piece — The Elements of the Sun Broke into Song— to present at the Two Moors Festival in 2016.
The summer of 2018 saw the first performance of a major choral work, American DREAMers, that set the words of five immigrants brought to the US as children. It was performed first in the Episcopal cathedral of Philadelphia by PhilHarmonia, and subsequently in Portland, Oregon, by the Resonance Ensemble. Lasting 24 minutes, it is scored for unaccompanied singers, and may be heard via Dunphy's website (where most of her music is available as PDFs.)
Choral works like these are a response to her enthusiasm to work with singers and vocal conductors, whom she finds 'the most generous and adventurous collaborators and performers. The sense of camaraderie within and between choral groups is unmatched; I'm constantly telling other composers that if they work with choirs, their music will self-propagate as it spreads through choral networks; and choirs seem far more willing to commission new music and invest in musical risks than their instrumental counterparts’.
Following A New Heart, a short anthem for SAB and piano written for the Third Baptist Church Choir in St Louis, she recently completed If Thou Wilt Be Perfect for St Peter's Episcopal Church, Ladue, setting those challenging words 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Other works currently under preparation include an organ solo for Carson Cooman, to be premiered in early 2019, and later in the same year an unaccompanied choral work for the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus that sets epitaphs from Gallipoli.
Having grown up in Brisbane, the daughter of Greek and Chinese parents who met in Australia, Dunphy explains why this last work promises to be particularly evocative for her: 'One of the reasons that Gallipoli still looms so large in the Australian consciousness is that the disastrous campaign gave us our national identity as hardscrabble and irreverent underdogs, as opposed to the privileged and indifferent British officers in command. It's interesting that, of all American cities, I settled in Philadelphia, whose similar "larrikin" cultural identity can be traced all the way back to the revolutionary war. (Our sports fans sometimes wear rubber dog masks at games to celebrate our underdog identity.)'
The image of the underdog actually informs much of Dunphy's sense of herself as an artist. Her refugee parents never attended high school and were solidly `blue collar', nor did they receive any kind of musical training; yet, to give their daughter more opportunities than they had enjoyed, they arranged for music lessons and sent her to an excellent private girls' school. She recalls: 'I grew up playing the violin and viola in youth orchestras and singing in choirs, and fell madly in love with music, even saving my allowance to purchase subscriptions to the Lyric Opera of Queensland, much to my parents' bafflement. I also delighted in composing madrigals, fugues, and settings of avant-garde poetry, but although my teachers were impressed, I wasn't overtly encouraged to take my interest in composition further.'
So, upon leaving school, Dunphy studied medicine at university, where music took a back seat, her life only leavened by a growing interest in electronic music and playing in rock bands. But medical school was ultimately not for her, and then she `bounced' between several industries including corporate law, television production, and live theatre. But on marrying an American and emigrating to the US, she caught 'the composition bug' properly: 'I was asked at the last minute to compose incidental music for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (in which I was also playing the role of Cobweb), and as I laboured to hit the deadline, re-familiarising myself with skills I hadn't practised since high school, I suddenly realised that I had found what wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was 24 years old, already aging out of many opportunities for "young composers" when I began my journey. But, like an underdog, I persevered.'
This perseverance has led to a career that has embraced both established and student musicians, and Dunphy takes particular satisfaction in her many commissions for student performers: `I'm very proud to have interacted with hundreds of the next generation of musicians, exposing them to new ideas in my music and texts, and telling them of my journey and unconventional career path. It's especially important for me to demonstrate to young musicians that composers do not have to look like hyper-focused, bewigged German men, but can also be multi-ethnic immigrant women with varied interests which inform their art. I hope in some way to inspire these students to figure out exactly what they want to say and why they need to say it, and take the risk of becoming creators themselves. After all, if music is a language, shouldn't all musicians be able to write it as well as read it?' www.melissadunphy.com
Philip Barnes sang in various UK cathedral choirs before moving to St Louis, USA, where he has directed its Chamber Chorus for 30 years.