As part of our Listen to the Future Composer-In-Residence Program, we’ve been commissioning works for each of our ensembles from some of the premier composers in classical music. With this program, we hope to contribute work by new voices to the canon of works geared towards youth orchestras. In anticipation of Debut Orchestra’s performance this weekend, which will include the world premiere performance of “Moonflower” by Laura Brackney, CYSO Social Media Team members Marisa Lin and Zhihanna Liu spoke with Ms. Brackney about her background and the inspiration behind this floral-inspired piece.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What made you start composing, and how long have you been composing?
I really didn’t even know about it when I was younger. I started out as a music education major, but then in college I met a friend who was a composition major. I was like, “Wow, these are your assignments? You get to write music?” It wasn’t something that had really occurred to me. I had always loved music by just playing around with it, but I never had the intention of writing music before that.
Could you describe your typical process for composing a new piece of music, how you begin and some of the steps you take along the way?
With each piece, it’s always a challenge to figure out what I’m going to do, but I want to take advantage of each opportunity and also honor whatever requests there are. Like if this is a piece for CYSO’s Debut Orchestra, I thought about what I would want to play if I was in that ensemble. I was thinking a lot about the kinds of music that I listened to when I was at the age of students in the Debut Orchestra.
In general, I always start out with a lot of thinking on a goal that I might have with this piece. I write out some words, and I like to draw sketches to try to map out the timeline of the piece. I want to include texture and experiment with timbre first before pitches and rhythms. Once I have a better idea of the concept, I start looking for specific sounds and improvise, usually on a keyboard, sometimes recording different things. For this piece in particular, it was really fun to come up with chord progressions and then try to improvise a melody over that. It’s different in all my pieces, but this one is unique because I usually don’t think in chord progressions. I was figuring out the melody which was fun but a challenge for me, especially when I was younger I always struggled in my ear training classes.
How do you balance the technical aspects of composing along with the creative and artistic aspects?
It’s always tricky. There’s a lot of back and forth, like “Oh, this is my original idea but maybe my intention isn’t very clear because it’s too cluttered or too busy” or even the opposite problem with not enough happening. So it’s a very involved editing process to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s different in every piece, but in this one [for Debut Orchestra] it was a lot about what instrumentation would work the best, which ideas are able to be heard, and how to use the ensemble and different subsets of the ensemble to help give the piece some texture and different degrees of depth.
You mentioned there was a lot of editing. As a composer, how do you decide when a piece is finished? Do you have a specific process for revising and refining your work, or do you think it’s a bit more intuitive?
I’d definitely say it’s intuitive. I like to work off the computer as much as possible and there’s a lot of printing drafts when there are changes to be made so then I can scribble over the drafts. It was great to be in contact with Dana Green, the Debut Orchestra conductor, because we were able to have a discussion about what needed to be changed and what would work better for the ensemble. It’s always good when you have a collaborator to work with to share a different perspective. I got to speak to him a bit before the actual compositional process to talk about some ideas he had for the ensemble so it was good to have that back-and-forth, too, for feedback.
Can you talk about any specific challenges you faced throughout your career, whether it was related to technical skills, creative blocks, or external factors like deadlines?
It’s easy to bring in a perfectionist mindset, because I feel like when people are first starting out, they’re hard on themselves. So just trying to keep in mind that you need a positive attitude because if it doesn’t work, you can always go back to it.
On the opposite end, what are some of the breakthroughs you’ve had in your career, regarding important lessons or realizations while composing?
That’s a hard question! I don’t know if I have one specific moment, but I am pretty grateful that I’ve gotten to do music for so long and meet a lot of interesting people along the way. That’s not really a breakthrough moment, but just in general by doing these I’ve gotten these really neat opportunities where I’ve gotten to grow as a person and as a musician. Just as growing up feeds into your voice as a writer, to know how to express yourself in music. So maybe there’s been no one specific moment, but like today I had my Music Theory class, my students had a guided composition project which was really exciting for me to get to hear and it was neat to see how all of their thoughts were different.
Before the interview, I was looking at your website for a little bit, and I saw that you view composing as a form of “sonic gardening”. Could you please expand on what that means to you?
Yes! I’ve been pretty influenced by nature; not only by the natural landscape but also environmental issues. My two main interests, I suppose you could say, are being outdoors and gardening, but I also enjoy riding my bike to work, swimming, and just being outside in general. I spend a lot of time gardening, and it’s a parallel to music in that when you’re writing a piece, you’re creating and tending to a sonic landscape, deciding what to put where, what you want things to grow into, what things you want to add. I also think whatever you feed into the soil helps you reflect on what you want out of a piece of music and how that changes over time. There are also a lot of nice parallels [between] thinking about how to represent specific types of plants or gardening styles and different types of textures or structures in music.
What would you hope your audience would take away from your compositions?
Well, I don’t want to tell anybody what they should or should not feel, but hopefully they do feel something! I’m a little hesitant to say something specific, but what I hope for Moonflower, the piece I wrote for Debut Orchestra, is some amount of playfulness, joy, and curiosity. I really enjoy just getting to think about how all the different parts and all the different instruments are interacting with each other and the relationships within the piece.
Moonflower was commissioned for a specific ensemble and occasion, specifically CYSO’s Debut Orchestra. How do you approach composing for a specific ensemble or event? What kind of factors do you take into account?
For this piece, it was a very specific duration. The piece is about five minutes and for a youth orchestra. Taking all of the things that could be a good challenge for musicians of that age—like, there are some tricky rhythms maybe, some chord progressions that I got through playing around with different pop music. So thinking about different ways to include things that might be fun but also challenging for the age level of this group in particular and for what would work for the orchestration of the ensemble.
Did you have any challenges or obstacles you faced while composing Moonflower?
Well, there were some challenges with the instrumentation and orchestration because we weren’t 100% sure how many instruments there would be until the auditions had passed. So I made a few changes there. I doubled some things in certain lower range instruments to account for there not being many low brass players. I guess I wouldn’t necessarily call that a challenge though, it was just a thing [to work around]. I do think for me, the challenge of this piece was thinking more in terms of pitch and rhythm, because they’re usually my last parameters to consider when writing music. I usually think about texture or timbre first.
Do you think there’s anything different or special a youth orchestra can add to performing a piece?
I don’t know if it’s just me imagining this, but I think is that young musicians would bring a certain level of enthusiasm and curiosity. It’s easier for us older people who have been doing music for a long time to maybe lose some of that excitement about learning things for the first time. This might be the first big concert that some students are playing, or first concert with Debut Orchestra in particular. I’ve worked with kids before, teaching piano lessons for several years, and I feel like it’s just always inspiring to work with young musicians because they can bring an open-mindedness, curiosity, and excitement about making things and new ideas, which helps refresh my own interest in music or inspires me to get more excited as well.
Do you have any future plans for Moonflower or other pieces you’ve composed? Do you have any upcoming performances or commissions?
I’m actually very excited to hear Moonflower, because I haven’t gotten to hear it yet! I’m very excited because it’s been in the works for a very long time. I have another piece that’s premiering in May, a solo flute piece that was commissioned by the Texas Flute Society. Their annual festival is at the end of May and I got to write a piece for the Myrna Brown Competition. There are going to be several finalists in the competition playing the piece that I wrote. It’s called Spoken by Sunlight, so again there’s that nature element in that piece. That’s very exciting, because I just wrapped up that piece in March, which feels like a long time ago but was not that long ago. The next thing I’ll be working on is again going to involve flute, [which is] for a couple of friends that I met back in grad school, Audrey Cullen and Cammy Flores, for a conference that is happening in Arizona.
For our final question, do you have any advice for CYSO students, whether they be composers or instrumentalists?
Keep up the hard work. Being a musician takes a lot of work, as you all know from having to practice! But you also get to have a lot of really great opportunities to meet new people and learn new things. You should get a lot of joy out of making music, especially since you get to share it with other people in this ensemble setting.
Thank you to Laura Brackney for speaking with our young musicians! Don’t miss the world premiere of Moonflower at Debut Orchestra’s spring concert on Saturday, May 6, 2023. And you can find out more about Laura Brackney’s other compositions at her website.
ABOUT MARISA LIN AND ZHIHANNA LIU
Marisa Lin is a violinist in CYSO’s Accelerando Strings and sophomore at Lyons Township High School. When she’s not practicing, you can find her developing new recipes for her baking blog or taking goofy pictures of her dog.
Zhihanna Liu is a sophomore at York Community High School and a violinist. This is her second season participating in CYSO’s Social Media Team. Aside from playing the violin, Zhihanna loves to read, cook, and watch movies.