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The Philadelphia Issue

Melissa Dunphy

Nate Wooley of Sound American

In a city that has two powerful musical institutions of higher learning, University of Pennsylvania and Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia has never been at a loss for compositional talent. Some composers, such as George Crumb and Richard Wernick, have built legends in music and education while making Philadelphia their home. The same is true of another generation of composers, consisting of the other three interviewees in this issue (Primosch, Higdon, and Clearfield) who have built phenomenal reputations and continue to affect the compositional climate of the city.

Then, there's Melissa Dunphy: a young and talented composer building her reputation as part of a new generation of Philadelphia composers one piece at a time. Add to it that she's an international transplant involved in making fairly tonal, yet modern vocal work based on the political railroading of ex-US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or Ayn Rand's sex life, and I think it becomes clear why I chose to feature her as a voice of Philadelphia.

In our interview, we delve into common practice harmony, the desire to connect with people through music, and owning your musical predilections, along with the ups and downs of finding your way as a musician and what it means to work in Philadelphia. Melissa has also allowed us to stream the fourth movement of her vocal work Tesla's Pigeon.

Note: In our conversation, we both reference certain schools of harmonic thinking. I've included links to explanations, so that the reader has the choice of how deeply they would like to explore each of these topics based on their experience of these techniques - Ed.

Melissa Dunphy

Sound American: Let’s just get started with some of the obvious questions and then I want to try and move to some talk of your musical output and how you think about music. You grew up in Brisbane, Australia, correct? Why the move to Philadelphia?

Melissa Dunphy: Yep, I grew up in Brisbane, and then moved to Sydney for six years when I finished high school. Coming to America is kind of an epic tale, but the super-short version is that while I was in Sydney, I struck up an online friendship with a guy in Central Pennsylvania who ran a news website for Nine Inch Nails, a band I was obsessed with at the time. We chatted platonically on ICQ (remember ICQ?) every day for about two years, and met in person while I was vacationing in America when I was 22. While hanging out, we roadtripped to New Orleans from York, PA, and somewhere along the way, we fell in love, despite our every effort to keep it platonic. After a few months of intercontinental love, we couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to get engaged and navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of immigration. People often ask us why Matt didn’t move to Australia, and the answer is simple: America has more than ten times the population of Australia, so there are far more arts and media opportunities here because the audience is so much bigger. At first, we lived in the Harrisburg/York/Lancaster region, which admittedly sounded like a nightmare to a city girl like me, but living in small towns removes a lot of distractions; I figured out what I wanted to do with my life while there, and I don’t think I’d be where I am now if I hadn’t spent a few years away from the big smoke. Eventually, though, we started inching our way east, and when we landed in Philly, I felt like the city welcomed us with open arms. Matt has a great job that he loves and, almost immediately, I was landing lead roles in Philly theaters and getting amazing opportunities like my fellowship at Penn. I used to think I wanted to end up in New York, but Philly has been really good to us and I feel very at home here now – and we bought a house easily, something that definitely wouldn’t have happened in New York City.

SA: Where did the impetus for music making come from? In my research I seemed to come across a number of wildly different career paths that you've taken, which is not all that unusual for a musician supporting themselves, but when you’re talking about medical school or television, that goes a little beyond a typical "day job" commitment. What is your musical history and how did your desire to devote yourself to it full time make itself known to you?

MD: I have a Chinese mother, and in stereotypical Chinese-mother fashion, she took me to piano classes when I was three years old to see if I would be the next Mozart. When it was clear that I was not quite in Mozart’s league, she wanted me to quit so I could concentrate on learning math and science for an eventual career as a doctor (I did mention she’s a stereotypical Chinese mother, right?), but I loved music too much and was very headstrong about continuing. I went to a great school in Brisbane where it’s mandatory to take up a stringed instrument in fourth grade, so that’s when I started the violin, and I switched to viola at 14.

As much as I loved music, it didn’t even occur to me to make music my career until I was in my mid-twenties. In high school, everyone was sure I would be either a doctor or a lawyer, even though I did better in music than I did in chemistry or legal studies. I did reasonably well as a performer on viola, but I had terrible stage fright when playing solo music. I loved writing madrigals and baroque-flavored counterpoint (seriously, I have a ton of four- to seven-part madrigals and fugues I wrote in high school), but never thought to become a “proper” composer. When I graduated, my grades were high enough to get into a medical program at the University of New South Wales, and everyone said, “That’s wonderful! You should go,” so I did. Unfortunately, I hated it. I spent the next eight years figuring out what I wanted to do with my life via a process of trial and error. It’s telling that the first thing I did after I quit med school was become a junior legal secretary, to see if law would be any better. (Definitely not.) And then I worked in wines sales, IT, television production, web design, and stage acting – but I was trying to discover what I enjoyed so I could find a career, not supporting myself as a musician. I still had music – I played in youth orchestras and then rock bands for years, and in Sydney I sometimes had to busk to make enough to pay the ludicrously high rent – but it didn’t become my primary focus until I was asked in an emergency to set some songs for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, where I was a company actor. I spent two underslept weeks composing, and something clicked. I just knew – this is it. This is what I want to do. I think it’s because writing music uses both the left brain and right brain. It’s creative and a logic/math puzzle at the same time.

To say it another way: music and I were co-stars in a romantic comedy, one of those Austen-esque plots in which a girl dates a million different wrong men until she realizes her perfect partner is her best friend who’s been right in front of her the whole time.

SA: I think you’re best known, at this point, for The Gonzales Cantata, a 40 minute work for small chamber ensemble and voices with the libretto coming word for word from the emotional destruction of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2007. A lot has been written about this work, but I wanted to ask you specifically about the music. Beyond the subject matter, which may be one of the great political psycho-dramas of our time, your setting is a mix of Baroque continuo and, for lack of a better term, pop harmony. It’s difficult to put it that way because I think a lot of people will automatically turn off thinking of it as a hybridization, but there isn’t that feeling at all. The whole work seems to coalesce in a natural way, not only musically, but in the setting of the text as well. Do you feel like you consciously are working toward a symbiosis of all those kinds of elements within a piece?

MD: Thanks! It’s not really a conscious effort, I don’t think. I mean, I just really like writing baroque-flavored music. I’ve been steeped in it; I can remember improvising on the piano as a kid, and it was always chains of suspensions and other contrapuntal ideas that I picked up instinctively because I liked Bach. I guess you could say it’s my original musical accent, the way that, buried inside my current weird hybridized Australian-American accented voice is the far more broad Queensland accent I had as a kid. I can speak in a completely American accent, but I have to “put it on,” and I feel the same way whenever I try to write something that leaves Common Practice harmony behind. I will say, though, that something was starting to happen to me musically and stylistically around the time I wrote the Cantata. For years and years, I had tried very hard to like modernism and atonalism. In my late teens, I enjoyed the idea of listening to music that most of my friends hated. In my early twenties, I somehow got the notion that I was supposed to like difficult music, even though I often felt like I didn’t understand it. I made excuses for it.

Maybe I am just too ignorant to get it.

Maybe I’m too dumb.

Maybe I’m not musical enough.

Maybe I’d like this music if I performed a set theory analysis and/or found all the tone rows.

Eventually, however, I began to think that maybe I don’t have to like modernist music at all, or want to write it. Maybe, given that the majority of the population of the Western world relies upon functional harmony to give music meaning, I shouldn’t lock that toolbox, and I shouldn’t be ashamed of it either. And the first thing I started to do was go back to what I first loved to write, before the pretension of my late teens kicked in. Of course, it’s not completely diatonic, because all these other influences have imposed themselves, which is great. The more I write and listen, the more my accent changes and becomes unique. But the kernel of the harmonic tradition that began in the baroque period and is still present in every pop song on the radio is still there.

Setting text is like a puzzle, and the more difficult it is, the more fun I have with it. I get a real kick out of shaping a supposedly unsettable text into melodies that make formal sense, but a difficult text is also exciting because it sometimes forces you to twist a melody in a different direction, which can make your music and phrases more interesting and unexpected. I’m at a point now where the task of setting an easy text, like a poem with a regular meter, sounds awfully boring, like playing a game on easy mode when you’re used to expert. I’d probably write the squarest music.

SA: In the case of the common practice kind of music you write, have you ever delved deeply into what it is that gives you such great pleasure about writing in that way? If it's a construction issue, then why not dodecaphony or some of the process oriented minimalism that has a similar connection to thinking of music as a "puzzle". There's obviously a deeper connection there, have you put much thought into it, or is it enough to know you like it?

MD: I believe that music harmony is a language just like any other – we learn to interpret whatever system of harmony surrounds us probably from the moment we start hearing music in the womb.

Step one to understanding common practice Western music: uneven patterns of tones and semitones generate scales that we learn to hear as having a clear beginning and end.

Step two: a dominant seventh chord implies a tonic, and the tonic feels like home.

Once those aural concepts are established, a whole world of expectation opens up which gives composers the ability to surprise, shock, comfort, suspend, gratify and otherwise manipulate the listener with remarkably few notes, just as understanding the implications of the words “yes” and “no” begins the process of spoken communication that allows us to impart very specific meanings with only a few sounds. And the beauty of it all is that the grammar of this harmonic language is common to everyone who grew up singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, whether they realize it or not.

Dodecaphony requires people to learn a different language, one which they in all likelihood did not grow up hearing and haven’t internalized. And that language is aurally less precise. Here’s the thing: I have listened to and studied dodecaphonic music, I have perfect pitch – and I still can’t identify the bloody tone rows aurally. If I can’t hear them, what the hell hope does the general public have? Sure, there’s a system behind what notes are being written and played, but I personally don’t understand why I would want to use a system that can’t be perceived. Of course, it’s still possible to communicate gesturally using such a system, but the specificity afforded by common practice harmony is lost; there’s no closure when you hear the last note of the row, because nobody listening can hear it (or if they can, they are much smarter than I am, and should probably join some musical equivalent of the Prometheus Society). To me, dodecaphony is a bit like Esperanto. It was constructed rather non-organically as a rival system for quite noble reasons, it has some advocates and people who speak it fluently, but it hasn’t caught on with the vast majority of the population, and if I were a playwright, I wouldn’t be much interested in writing Esperanto plays, nor would I expect non-speakers to fully understand or like them very much if I did write them.

I guess I’m just in love with the musical language we have, and everything it allows me to do and say, and the commonality of it. I mentioned that I love that composition sometimes feels like solving a giant “puzzle” -- but if you were to ask me what puzzles I enjoy, I would tell you that I much, much prefer cryptic crosswords to Sudoku. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand Sudoku, which have nothing to do with language (and precious little to do with math, for that matter). But give me a clever punning snarl of a cryptic crossword, and I’m in heaven.

SA: You mentioned in one of our pre-interview emails that you have three loosely defined things you're trying to accomplish with your music. Could you tell us what they are and how you're trying to achieve them?

MD: Sure. My first mission is essentially what we’ve been talking about – I want to write music that my audience understands. I want to communicate ideas and emotions with people. I want a wide variety of people to feel like they understand what it is I’m trying to impart to them by the time they get to the double barline. I’m tired of the culture of the obtuse in contemporary art music.

Second: I want to make my music relevant. There are stylistic elements involved here, but the most overt manifestation of this pledge is that I like to write vocal music about subjects that are directly relevant to today’s world and audiences – the Gonzales Cantata is an obvious example. What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach? was about marriage equality, which I feel very strongly about. Right now I’m working on an opera about the sex life of Ayn Rand, and I’m making a comparison between her irresponsible actions and the later actions of her acolytes which contributed to the financial crisis and current economic recession.

Thirdly, I am becoming increasingly committed to the idea of bringing more women to the stage, either by telling women’s stories, or having women tell stories. I think I’m being radicalized by the growing realization that as a composer, I am almost completely surrounded by mostly white men of average build with brown hair and glasses. Seriously, that physical description probably fits at least 80% of the composers I see, and I’m not even talking about older generations. It’s cross-genre too – just take a look at any list of film composers or composers of Broadway musicals. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a white male composer of average build with brown hair and glasses, but when I go to a new music concert and ALL of the composers with works on the program look like they could be brothers or at least first cousins, I am concerned. This translates into a bias in the type of stories that those composers choose to tell, because by default, we all like to tell stories about our own experience. Factor in that almost all conductors are male, most all performing organization executives are male, and most directors are male, and I think we have the makings of a serious problem. But worst of all, in my view, is the fact that when you go to see an opera, it is still usually the case that more of the main roles are for men than women – and this absolutely ridiculous because there are far more female classical singers on the market than male. Time and again, I see productions in which the female performers are infinitely better than the male performers because their audition pool is so much more competitive. I see the most talented sopranos I know struggling to find work and make a living. The National Association of Teachers of Singing has at least four times as many female members as male. And yet, so many modern composers continue to churn out operas about Moby Dick and soldiers fighting in World War I – male characters as far as the eye can see – and nobody bats an eyelid. I find it infuriating, and I think that perpetuating the problem would be a dick move. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

SA: Finally, you've talked a little already about what it means to be a composer and musician in Philadelphia. Can you generalize what Philly is like for someone working in the creative arts right now? Do you feel like there are positives that you would only be able to get in Philadelphia? Conversely, are there things you think are lacking in Philly that may be present elsewhere for you and your career?

MD: Philly is the perfect-sized world for me right now. It’s small enough that it’s easy to get to know key people in the community, and I don’t feel like I have to hustle. It’s big enough that there’s always a lot going on and plenty of opportunities to be had – and it’s pretty centrally located in to the eastern seaboard megalopolis, so it’s no big deal to find more opportunities in Boston, New York, Washington DC, etc. if I so desire. At the moment, I’m knee-deep in composing, so I stay in my office most of the time. My interaction with the community only happens at occasional concerts or online, but I still feel like I’m connected to the city and I haven’t completely lost touch with the scene.

I think one of the best things about being a creative artist in Philly at the moment is that you can easily have a voice in the community just by speaking out. I’m aware of so many artists in different disciplines, and I assume many of them are aware of me, even if we don’t “know” each other. I read and pass on other artists’ blogs and articles, and I try to keep abreast of general goings-on – the weekly free papers (Philadelphia Weekly and City Paper) help a lot in this regard. I feel like there’s always a conversation going on in Philly about all the challenges facing artists – financial, creative, societal – and there’s no significant barrier to joining in and being heard.

I’m convinced Philly has better housing options than most other eastern seaboard cities. We have a three-bedroom 15-year-old semi-detached house (I guess it’s called a “twin” here) with a full basement a mile north of City Hall in a safe neighborhood, and our mortgage payments are less than $1000 per month. Oh, and we have a sizable backyard and driveway parking for two cars, and a subway station two blocks away. I can get to Penn in a 20-minute bike ride, and to the Art Museum (or the Franklin Institute, or the Barnes) in 10. Try finding all that in another major city.

The internet has changed everything about working in the arts, and for the work I do, I think it makes physical location less important. I don’t feel like I have to live in any particular city to do what I do, particularly since I’m not looking to get an academic job any time soon. (When I’m done with the doctorate I’m going to risk freelancing for a while.) Honestly, the only things I complain about consistently in this city are the Parking Authority, which is an agent of Satan that I hate with a white-hot passion, and the weather, which is sadly nothing like the Australian climate I love, except when it’s excessively hot and humid in the summer.


Nationally acclaimed award-winning composer Melissa Dunphy has written in a wide range of styles and mediums, but specializes in theatrical and political vocal music; her 2009 choral work the Gonzales Cantata received rave press and reviews from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, National Review Online, Huffington Post, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Dunphy’s compositions have been performed around the country by GRAMMY Award-winning ensemble Chanticleer, the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, the American Opera Theater, Anti-Social Music, Network for New Music, and at various electroacoustic festivals, and she has also received awards from ASCAP and the Lotte Lehmann Foundation, the Tesla Science Foundation, Boston Metro Opera, and the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Commissions include pieces for Ensemble Epomeo, Voice of this Generation, and Whitman College Chamber Singers. Dunphy has a Bachelor of Music (summa cum laude) from West Chester University, and is currently undertaking doctoral studies in composition at the University of Pennsylvania on a Benjamin Franklin Fellowship. Her teachers have included Robert Maggio, Larry Nelson, Van Stiefel, James Primosch, Jay Reise and Anna Weesner. Dunphy is also is an accomplished actor, recognized in Philadelphia as "unquestionably the city's leading Shakespeare ingénue," [Philadelphia Inquirer]. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband Matt and three cats. More information at or Mormolyke Press

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