Interview with Mary Jane Leach

mj_leach-4Photo: Giorgia Fanelli

Mary Jane Leach is an American composer, who has overseen an impressive and diverse output since the 1970’s. Working primarily with small classical ensembles, as well as tape manipulation, her work explores the phenomena of difference, combination, and interference tones, often overlaying several voices or instruments to create rich sonic textures. Her latest album, (f)lute songs, was released last year on Modern Love, and was featured amongst Toneshift’s Best of 2018.

Daniel Hignell-Tully: You have amassed a vast collection of compositions, spanning choral works, tone studies, and small ensembles.  Are there underlying common threads that orientate all of your work, regardless of instrumentation? 

Mary Jane Leach: Yes, although it might not be obvious. The underlying organizing factor is breath, which makes most of my pieces organic in a way. This started because I wrote a piece, Note Passing Note, that had notes that I’d envisioned being held for three minutes, forgetting that I had to breathe, so I began to work with “breath,” even for instruments that aren’t wind instruments or voice. Because I work with sound phenomena, in which I have to overlap notes so that the phenomena don’t drop out (once the sound of the initial attack dies away, the purer sounds emerge), I have to map out the pitches and entrances. I started out making improv pieces for voice, but found that I either fell into predictable patterns, or that the results didn’t satisfy me.

DH: Given this compositional breadth, do you consider yourself as composing in distinct areas, with unique strategies and intentions for each?

MJL: The pieces for small ensembles are the least similar, as they in most cases are for open instrumentation, so obviously don’t work as carefully with sound phenomena, although there still is a sensitivity to the overall sound. Lake Eden is like that – I didn’t want the piece to keep building to a final climax, but have more ebb and flow to it, as well as not having a discernable downbeat. Since then I’ve written group pieces that have groupings of instruments playing the same sets of phrases, to give the pieces more variety.

DH: You have discussed previously the utility of difference, combination and interference tones in your work. Could you expand upon this? What is it about these sorts of emergent phenomena that attracts you?

MJL: I’m fascinated with the sound, I just like it. But I’m also intrigued by how you can get some mysterious sounds without resorting to extended techniques. Plus, there is something powerful with the overall sound, perhaps because it is based on natural physical properties. I consider that most music is analyzed as if it were algebra, with always one result, while in actuality it is like calculus, with the different elements varying – pitch, instrument, space, volume, etc., so the results vary. In other words, hearing more than just the notes on the page, that a piece played on flute will be very different when played on clarinet – hearing the overall sound, and not just the fundamental notes on the page.

DH: Likewise, the tape recorder has played a fairly prominent role in your career. What do you like about tape as a medium? What does it afford you as a composer or performer?

MJL: It started out as a practical way to realize my pieces without having to hire musicians – at first I had access to two tracks, then four, and then eight (which is why I have a number of 8-part pieces). Even my choral pieces started off as tone studies. I had been writing pieces that I could multi-track – i.e., such as 4BC for four bass clarinets, mostly for instruments that I could play. Then I wrote Trio for Duo, in which the alto flute and I sound remarkably similar. And then a friend suggested I could have eight singers perform the pieces for voice, and that’s how I became a choral composer. Even though my choral pieces are difficult to perform, it’s easier to put together performances than for, say, seven bassoons or nine oboes.

DH: One aspect of your practice that I find compelling is how hard it is to classify. Your work seems to border several disciplines at once – minimalism, drone, ambient, classical… do you consider yourself to be part of any overriding tradition? And do you find these sort of classifications helpful as a composer?

MJL: Perhaps if I had been more clever, I would have marketed myself as a certain kind of composer. That said, I don’t think classifications are that important, although I can see how they can be useful at times—not as a composer, but as a way of informing people of what’s out there. I do consider myself as being part of a continuum in the western tradition. For years I knew more about early music than the standard romantic/classical styles, and in a way I consider a lot of early music quite experimental, some things that got dropped along the way that got started up again in the twentieth century. I like to think horizontally instead of vertically, for instance.

DH: Your compositions are often rich with personality, and a certain (to my ear at least) overarching optimism. Equally, you have previously framed your work around certain practical and self-referential considerations, such as composing for instruments you could play. Do you actively seek to incorporate your personality into your composition? Do you feel that notions of identity, selfhood, and such, are important impetuses for your work?

MJL: That’s nice to hear. I think I’m optimistic in the way Leonard Cohen is. I really don’t think about inserting my personality into my work, maybe I just take on the personality of the instrument that’s being played.

DH : What does this mean in practice? Do you perceive specific instruments as having specific characters that you as the composer can explore? It seems to me that you sometimes seem to make instruments do slightly unusual things, or to obfuscate – as with Trio for Duo  – the clarity or personality that might exist between ostensibly distinct instruments? Is this accurate?

MJL: I guess it means that I try to explore the acoustic uniqueness of an instrument – its harmonics and formants, how notes on it change in certain combinations and situations (acoustic spaces, volume, etc.). Actually I get unusual things to happen with only normal playing – i.e., no extended technique – it’s what fascinates me. True, I exploited how the voice and alto flute had similar acoustic profiles, treating them basically as the same instrument.

DH: What role does process play in your compositions? Do you feel composition is about successfully realising a score, articulating an existent idea? Or do you find some virtue in experimenting with the potentiality of the sound-worlds you concoct, of allowing chance, or even failure to open up new avenues of exploration? 

MJL: Some of my early pieces, 4BC being the most obvious, used process, but now I let the instrumentation determine what is happening. It’s scarier to write this way, as you can’t always predict the results, but I think I would get bored using process, that the result would be too predictable.

DH: You mention letting ‘the instrumentation determine what is happening’. Again, can you explain how this might work in practice? Is it a case of exploring the sonic potential of an instrument and its affordances, then turning these explorations into compositions? Or am I misinterpreting you entirely?!

MJL: I usually do extensive studies – what do eight unisons sound like, seven unisons and the octave (or fifth), and so on. I don’t have to do this as much as I used to, as it is time-consuming. Obviously, with good midi playback, it’s easier to create these studies (I used to do them by multi-tracking tones). Also, for instance, in Feu de Joie, there is a sextuplet figure that happens naturally, so I then notated that, and listened to what would happen next.

mj_leach-3Photo: Wanda Detemmerman

DH: It seems that with the release of Pipe Dreams (2017) and (f)lute songs (2018), there has been somewhat of a popular resurgence of your work in the last few years. Given that both of these albums contain predominately older material, does it feel strange to have this new level of interest? How do you feel the perception of you and your work has changed over the years? 

MJL: It’s surprising. Pipe Dreams almost came out on a number of other labels (the same with 4BC), but never did. I know that it was recommended to Fabio Carboni (Blume) a few years earlier, but he wasn’t interested at that time, and then he became obsessed with it. So maybe it’s just that the time is right now. Maybe people are willing to listen more carefully now, as opposed to just the loudest, fastest music. Also, with my choral music, a lot of people don’t like voice, and in new music festivals there is seldom more than one or two singers. I always wondered what would happen if I’d written for electric guitar instead of voice (especially women’s voices). Ariel’s Song has been performed with saxophones and Bruckstück on flutes, and they sound quite different and perhaps are easier for some people to listen to. Also, working with Manuel Zurria has been great for me—he knows intuitively how to play my pieces and is very supportive, so that has been great for me.

DH: In addition to composing, you have also written a great deal about your practice and others, such as your recent biography of Julius Eastman. Does research play an important role in your outlook as an artist? How important are the academic, or conceptual aspects of music to your work? 

MJL: From time to time I get immersed in finding out about something – extensive research on voice, women’s studies/ancient mythology, compositions for multiples, etc. I even spent a summer putting all of the commercially available theatrical lighting gels in chromalogical order, which allies well with the physics of sound (i.e., combining frequencies to obtain a resultant combination – pitch, color). I try to not get too distracted, though. The Eastman project took more out of me than was probably good for me, and certainly slowed down my own compositional work and career.

DH: You have spent a number of years teaching alongside your compositional work. Do you find that this role feeds into your own practice?  Likewise, are there other aspects of your day-to-day life that your compositional work engages with, either latently or deliberately?

MJL: I’m not sure I incorporated anything into my work, but it certainly kept my brain in gear, and it’s always fun to find out about things I didn’t know about before. I can’t think of any day-to-day things that I’ve incorporated into my work. I can tell you, though, when an elevator is about to break down, because the tones that it uses to signal going up or down start to get out of tune (something the supers in my building scoffed at, but I was always right).

DH: Are there any areas of your practice that are, for one reason or another, under explored? Is there a particular direction or idea you would love to develop further?

MJL: I recently decided that I really needed to go around to different cities and create pieces specific to interesting organs. I can’t imagine why I didn’t think of it sooner. Also, I have some large-scale voice and strings pieces that need to get performed – I have almost an hour’s worth of them (I’m a slow writer).

DH: Who have been the greatest influences on your compositional practice? Which contemporary composers, artists, or theorists greatly inspire you?

MJL: I start way back, with John Dowland even before I started composing, as his music was used as incidental music in a Shakespeare festival I worked at. Then on to Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach, skipping over a hundred years or so to Schoenberg, Webern, Bartok, Lukas Foss, James Tenney. Really, it depends upon what day you ask me what my enthusiasms are, as they can change daily.  I’ve always loved Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt, the more subtle artists.

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