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Amazing journey: Dunphy, Epomeo, the Dreadnaught

JC Lockwood of Newburyport Arts

Melissa Dunphy is a classical composer with, um, some unusual influences, touchstones, like her stubborn, lingering obsession with Nine Inch Nails, which led her to re-imagine NIN's "The Frail," which she named "Variations on a Theme by Trent Reznor" and which she arranged as an Elizabethan madrigal, of course. And this is probably the most "normal," the most standard repertoire thing she's done lately. She's 32, an Australian transplant. She's a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, a PhD candidate in composition, on a Benjamin Franklin Fellowship. She's currently working on an opera based on the writings of Ayn Rand. Not the (yawn) important philosophical underpinnings of her fiction, what the Russian writer called objectivism. No, she's zeroing in on Rand's nasty, completely over-the-top depictions of sex that read like rape fantasy, or, in the case of "Fountainhead" hot-to-trot protagonists Howard Roark and Dominique Francon, sexual assault committed during the course of a home invasion. "I'm amazed that no one has made an opera out of it yet," she says. Then, pausing, she adds, "Hopefully I won't get sued."

And "Ayn," as the opera, her doctoral project, is called, is just the latest in a series of seemingly impossible Dunphy music projects. Like "What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" a piece that uses a speech by an 86-year-old World War II veteran in a choral piece supporting gay marriage. Or "The Gonzales Cantata," a piece that made a big splash a couple of years ago, a composition whose libretto comes directly from the transcripts of the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on Alberto Gonzales, the Bush attorney general who got the boot after charges about the politicization of his office in the wake of firings of US district attorneys. That piece, first performed at the 2009 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, got national attention when left-of-center gabmesister Rachel Maddow started talking it up on her radio show. It also caught the attention of David Yang, artistic director of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival and violist in Ensemble Epomeo, the trio that came together at the Festivale d'alla Musica da Camera d'Ischia in Italy to explore the possibilities of just one piece, the Schnittke String Trio, and discovered that they had a whole lot more to talk about, musically — and Big Man, musically, on the Penn campus. "If you can set that to music, you can set anything to music," he says. And last year, when Yang and Peter Davison, founder of the Two Rivers Music Festival in Wirral, England, decided to pool their resources and dual-commission a piece based on the life of a captain of a ship built in Newburyport sailing out of New York for Liverpool, just across the bay from the Two Rivers festival, he thought of Dunphy.

Epomeo will perform Dunphy's "Captain Samuels speaks to the sea!" at a chic, pricey black-tie event Oct. 12 at the Custom House Museum. The piece looks at the Dreadnaught, also known as "The Wild Boat of the Atlantic," which was built in Newburyport by Currier and Townsend in the mid-1800s and made its mercantile bones on the New York-to-Liverpool run. The ship was commanded by Captain Samuel Samuels, "an incredibly romantic figure, truly larger than life," says Yang — and someone who could make the voyage in a jaw-dropping thirteen days. The composition incorporates original poetry by Two Rivers founder Peter Davison, unusual material for a string trio, and it's not the only piece on the program that uses verse. Each of the seven brief, ultra-modern movements of Gyorgy Kurtag's "Signs, Games & Messages" — "Think Bartok meets Webern, angular and modern," says Yang — will be introduced with poetry by Pushcart Prize nominee Robin Beth Schaer — brief, like a haiku.

And it's not the only premiere Dunphy has going that weekend. "June," a stark piece for baritone voice, electronics and original poetry, will be performed back home in Philadelphia in the Voice Electric, the city's "premiere new music organization," according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, putting the spotlight on six young composers from the City of Brotherly Love. Hubby Matt, a web developer, founder of The NIN Hotline, a Nine Inch Nails fan site, and Dunphy's musical partner in Up Your Cherry, the noise-pop duo, was supposed to have stood in for the composer at the Philly show, but Dunphy has rejiggered her schedule and will make the mad seven-hour dash from Philadelphia to Newburyport after the "June" premiere.

And those aren't the only premieres she has this month. She also wrote the music for "Behind the Eye," Carson Kreitzer's portrait of Lee Miller, the model who became Man Ray's lover and muse and, ultimately, an icon of surrealism, which Gas & Electric Arts will bring out later this month at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

"Not a bad problem to have," the composer says. "Probably shouldn't complain."

Nah, probably not, especially when your day-job is being a fellow, getting a stipend, or, at least, some sort of recompense for doing what you want to do, like writing an opera about the fur flying at Ayn Rand's house.

So, yeah, she keeps busy.

Portrait of the artist as a chameleon

No, Dunphy is not your "typical" composer, insanely driven, someone who knew exactly what she wanted to do when she was young and single-mindedly pursued it. She had classical music training, but … well, there was the whole Nine Inch Nails thing, right? Her parents wanted her to be a doctor. That lasted maybe nine months. Calling the code on her medical career was "one of the best decisions I've ever made," she says. She's been doing music forever, piano at 3, violin at 7. Minor diversions: drum, French horn and flute. She graduated high school with the highest marks in Queensland in music performance, toured Asia and the United States with two youth orchestras. Studied theory and composition at West Chester University. Graduated summa cum laude, natch.

But she didn't limit herself to longhair. Yup, she played in orchestras and chamber groups, like the West Chester University Symphony and Melodia Trio, but also played folk and funk and cyberpunk, lately playing the Mandocaster (an Eastwood, which, aside from looking more badass than the Fender, she says, is cooler because they kept it an 8-string, so it still sounds like a mandolin.) in Up Your Cherry, which earlier this month provided the sound for "Puppet Manualfesto," a showcase of short puppetry vignettes. "Yes, we are aware of the obvious Spinal Tap references," says Dunphy, whose song "Tesla's Pigeon" won 2012 NATS Art Song Competition Award. "We embrace them." And she isn't just doing music. She studied speech and drama education at Trinity College of London and has seriously worked the verbal side of the stage. Since immigrating to the US in 2003, she's been everywhere, stage, television, film and radio, playing everything from Nurse's Aide, in an industrial training video — yeah, one of those irritating respectful workplace/ sexual harassment films you have to watch once a year - to narrator/ interviewer for film documentaries. She's been a full-time company member of Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg and the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. The Philadelphia Inquirer called her as "unquestionably the city's leading Shakespeare ingenue." She's also been a legal secretary, worked at an IT help desk, worked as a wine consultant … Well, that was actually the sexy title they gave for what was essentially a telemarketer for wine. She became "the pinnacle of gothness," an almost-centerfold in dark side guru Voltaire's book "What is Goth." It's not that these worlds collided as much as that there just wasn't enough elbowroom, creatively and personally. Something had to give. She had to figure out what she was going to do when she grew up, a battle between her introverted and extroverted sides, or, as she remembers it, "a series of painful decisions … There are just too many things that I enjoy doing. I had to choose." Oh yeah, she's easy on the eyes, half Greek, half Chinese. And young. Hate her yet?

Row row row your boat

You never know what you're going to get. Could be something like "Insects," which explores the intersection of two similar sounds — bugs and the various involuntary noises we produce with our own mouths. Or maybe "Handshake: A Scherzo," A raucous homage to the sounds of the Information Age in a setting of the Lorem Ipsum, or dummy copy. Or maybe something like "Tangled/Triangle," an exploration of jealousy for clarinet, violin and cello. Dunphy likes to put quotation marks around the words "classical" when talking about classical music. She's interested in music, but especially "the way different genres influence me." She says her best work is usually inspired by important public events.

The concept for "Captain Samuels" came to Newburyport by way of Philadelphia, of course, and Wirral, England, home of the Two Rivers Festival, located near Liverpool, between the Mersey and the Dee rivers, a regular haunt for Ensemble Epomeo, which just released its first album, "Hans Gal & Hans Krasa: Complete String Trios" on Avie Records this month. Yang spoke with festival founder Davison about the possibility of pooling their (limited) resources and doing a joint commission. They went back and forth, trying to find a common connection, which, obviously, would be the sea. Enter Michael Mroz, director of the Custom House Maritime Museum, who came up with Samuels and the Dreadnaught, also known as " The Wild Boat of the Atlantic," built in Newburyport in 1854 by Currier and Townsend. The ship was commanded by Samuels, "an incredibly romantic figure, truly larger than life," says Yang. The ship made the New York-to-Liverpool run, making the voyage in thirteen days, eight hours.

Initially Yang and Davison planned to use the original poetry as inspiration for the musical piece, an unseen, organizing principal, but decided to make it a narrated work, a story told through words and music, forms complementing each other. "They are tied together," Yang says. "Great music should be able to stand on its own, but where you can play without the music, without the film and still see the arc of the story." Ultimately, Davison had to significantly cut the text, slashing four pages down to one, necessary, however painful, to keep the piece at a manageable length. He placed Samuels at death's door, "looking out to sea, recalling a remarkable life and facing death with calm resignation, as it creeps up on him in old age. I imagined how Samuels might look back on his life and his relationship with the sea," says Davison, who in 2010 published "Wrestling with Angels," about the life and work of Gustav Mahler. "Was he striving to beat his fellow men, to prove a point, to win glory – or was he in fact pitted against the sea itself?"

What Dunphy saw was an inner monologue, a poem broken up into four sections, almost suggesting movements. The composer's job is to "support the prose with music that doesn't get in the way of the story," in this case, supporting a narrative/biographical arc running from the building of the Dreadnaught, the so-called "miracle ship," a ship that may or may not have — it's still disputed — broken the transatlantic speed record, to the later years of Samuels, to the end of his life. "The poem is so evocative," she says. "There are so many different moods, a bittersweet longing to see next stage of the journey, see what's on the other side, to gain a peek into what is called heaven." The key is that she's writing music, but thinking theatrically.

The finished product?

"It's fantastic," says Yang, "lyrical, different sounds, textures. It's wonderful. It's going to be amazing."

The program will include sea shanties, songs of the seafaring era, sung by Dunphy before the concert begins. The shanties are "sprightly melodies that make you want to dance, but are sad and wistful, about love and loss, family and friends, and the unavoidable, how these men are drawn to the sea," she says. "It was a calling for them, something they had to do. They had to sail." In "Captain Samuels" she weaves that perspective into the music. "It's a modern piece, but looks back as well," she says. Davison, who, in 2001, edited "Reviving the Muse," a collection of writings on the direction of new music, will read the entire poem before the formal premiere.

The piece will also be performed next year at Birkenhead, England, where it will be paired with Mahler's Piano Quartet and Beethoven's Serenade for String Trio, Opus 3.

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