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PROFILE: Melissa Dunphy, composer

Kristin Shafel of

This Saturday's Simon Carrington Chamber Singers dual concerts will feature the world premiere of their first composition competition's winning work, Melissa Dunphy's "What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" Melissa took some time recently to answer a few questions about the piece, her compositional process, and her reaction to winning the SCCS competition.

This Saturday's Simon Carrington Chamber Singers dual concerts will feature the world premiere of their first composition competition's winning work, Melissa Dunphy's "What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" Based in Philadelphia and currently at work on her doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Australian-born Melissa has already achieved a level of success and recognition on a national level, including a spot on The Rachel Maddow Show for another large choral work, The Gonzales Cantata. Melissa took some time recently to answer a few questions about the piece, her compositional process, and her reaction to winning the SCCS competition.

Kristin Shafel: Your piece "What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" is based on a WWII veteran's testimony from the Maine Senate Hearing last year regarding marriage equality, a very politically and emotionally charged topic. Your "Gonzales Cantata" is another politically-inspired work. As a person of Chinese/Australian descent, what has drawn you to US politics for creative inspiration?

Melissa Dunphy:
I was only mildly politically interested and a centrist growing up in Australia, but when I immigrated to the US in 2003 (to marry my American husband, Matt Dunphy) I was faced with the somewhat unexpected culture shock of a political spectrum shifted much further to the right. I'm often asked what I miss the most about Australia, and my answer is always the same: socialized health care and well-funded public education systems. I think most Americans don't understand how profoundly public health care and education affect the standard of living and quality of life - not just for the people who need them, but for everyone in society. My husband and I decided to settle in the US because, with over ten times the population of Australia, there are more opportunities in the arts and media, but the experience of moving brought me from being politically complacent to being very civically engaged and determined to contribute to political dialogues.

As a composer, my first rule is "write your passions," so it was only natural that politics would begin to inspire me musically, but the best topics are always not only politically interesting but personally engaging. Watching the struggles of the gay rights movement struck a particular chord in me. I was able to get married in order to be with the person I love; why shouldn't a gay or lesbian couple be able to do the same? I believe one of the worst things about the marriage equality debate is that it has been manipulated into being a partisan issue. Marriage equality has nothing to do with the left or the right; it is about human rights. One of the reasons I was so drawn to the speech that inspired "What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" was that the speaker, a lifelong Republican, made that point in such a beautiful, poignant way. I broke down in tears watching the video of his testimony. Anything that elicits that strong a reaction from me is probably going to end up in a piece I write at some point.

KS: What is your process for evolving somewhat prosaic language into the text for a piece of music? Do you set the testimony word-for-word, or modify it at all?

I don't think there's any such thing as an "unsettable" text. Since I was a teenager, I've been drawn to setting very challenging texts; one of my first vocal pieces was based on a poem "No Brian" that consisted of dozens and dozens of permutations of those two words with various punctuation marks. I do make cuts to the prose I use, usually for practical reasons; it takes much longer to sing something than say it, and regular speech involves a lot of repetition, so taking one iteration and setting it in a way that emphasizes those words has the same effect. Sometimes, I'll rearrange text for dramatic effect: in one section of Omaha Beach, for example, I have most of the choir sing about what Mr. Spooner did during WWII - battles and facts - while a small group of sopranos sings a descant about the suffering he saw. For the most part, however, I try to leave the actual words as they are. There's song in all prose; sometimes it's a matter of chipping the prose away to reveal the song, like a sculptor working on a piece of marble.

KS: What is your compositional timeline for politically-charged pieces? Do you immediately start writing after hearing the text or do you let them gestate? Do you feel timeliness effect their reception?

If something grabs me, I usually get down to the business of the text straight away, but after I've cut the text into lyrics, I'll sometimes take time before I put pen to paper (or mouse pointer to virtual staff). I do set myself deadlines, but I try not to worry too much about timeliness because I choose subjects that I hope are interesting in the long term. It's the personal, human aspects in stories that make them truly interesting. In the Gonzales Cantata, the character study drives the narrative more than political outrage, so I didn't mind that it took me a couple of years to get the piece out the door - but I will admit to being very glad that Alberto Gonzales was still in the news when it premiered. "Omaha Beach" had a much shorter timeline from inspiration to premiere, but I hope it helps to preserve Mr. Spooner's story in the public consciousness for longer than the cable news cycle or the lifespan of an internet meme.

KS: Much of your music (posted on your website) includes voice. What is your relationship with voice and choir?

The first instrument we hear when we're in the womb is our mother's voice, and our own voice is the first instrument we use once we're born, so the human voice necessarily has a very special place in music. It's little wonder that nearly all pop music is vocal, and nearly all famous melodies in any genre of music are singable. There's something very spiritual about the act of singing - taking a musical concept out of your head and expressing in your body. I do it all the time as I'm composing - even when I compose instrumental music - and I feel very lucky that I grew up singing in choirs and have some vocal training. Voice is such a powerful tool for composers; in any combination or instrumentation, if a voice is audible, it will be of primary importance to the listener. When you first distinguish Glenn Gould's quiet humming as he plays Bach's Goldberg Variations, your ear locks onto the timbre of his voice, and whatever line he is singing becomes the melody, whether you like it or not! Voice is also every composer's best friend for making very difficult or avant-garde musical concepts more accessible to listening audiences. It is almost too easy for me to return to vocal music again and again.

KS: I read on your website that you have had performances of your compositions on the East and West coasts of the US, and in Australia. Is this your first performance in the Midwest? How does it feel to win the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers' first composition competition?

I suppose this counts as my second performance in the Midwest, since an electronic piece I wrote, Insects, was performed at the SEAMUS annual conference at St. Cloud University in Minnesota this past April. I have never been to Missouri or Kansas before, however, so I'm very excited to be able to attend these performances.

I was quite shocked to win the SCCS composition competition! I composed the piece over several months, but finished it literally only days before sending in my entry, so the only person who had seen it beforehand was my composition professor at Penn, Dr. James Primosch. I don't think I had even shown my husband. I had absolutely no idea how it might be received by performers, or other musicians, or anyone else. It's always a little daunting to blindly send out a piece of music to be judged, especially by someone as distinguished as Simon Carrington. I usually talk myself down and imagine the worst possible outcomes. What an incredible joy it was to receive the news that my piece had been shortlisted. Even then, I didn't think it would be possible to win. I must have had to read the final outcome ten times before it sunk in - especially Mr. Carrington's wonderful comments.

KS: What is on the horizon for you as a composer? More vocal and/or politically charged works? Are there any events since the Maine Senate Hearing that have caught your attention?

I've had a bee in my bonnet for a while about writing a chamber opera, particularly with strong female leads. I get a different idea for a subject just about every week. Watching the media coverage of Rand Paul and seeing Berg's Lulu at the Met recently led me to wonder if I should write an opera about Ayn Rand's outrageous love pentagon. I find her personally riveting, even if I agree with hardly anything she wrote or said; I'm sure that even if I completely ignored the subject of Objectivism, that opera would wind up feeling politically charged because she so embodied her own political philosophy. Perhaps I could throw in a clarinet solo for Alan Greenspan.

For more information about Melissa Dunphy, please visit

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