INTERVIEW: Nicole Murphy

Composer Nicole Murphy has been spending a lot of time with EiO over the last couple of weeks as we prepare her opera ‘Mandela Was Late’ for the upcoming Flash Operas.  As this interview that Jason Cady conducted with her proves, she thinks about storytelling in a methodical way and digs in deep when a commission pulls her into uncharted territory.  

CADY: In your blog post you talked about adapting the Peter Mehlman story Mandela Was Late for your opera. So let’s talk about the music you composed for it.

MURPHY: The music is rhythmically based and the construction of time is represented through the wood block which goes through this series of metric modulations in the piece so you always feel like you’re pulled out of time, out of the situation for a moment, and that the clock is this overbearing character in the piece.

The story and the music are intertwined. It’s kind of hard to separate one from the other. One of the big compositional challenges was to create the sense of tedium of a bureaucratic meeting. How can you have enough contrast but still have this sense of monotony of sitting through this process that both these characters realize is ridiculous?

CADY: That reminds me of the book “Osmin’s Rage” by Peter Kivy, which was inspired by a letter Mozart wrote to this father about composing Abduction From the Seraglio. It was this idea of, “how do you make music describe an ugly emotion yet also sound beautiful?” It must have been a real challenge to represent tedium without actually being tedious.

MURPHY: Yeah, you need the audience to experience tedium but obviously a rewarding sense of tedium. It was a fun challenge.

CADY: You mentioned the wood block and the metric modulations. I remember there is usually a quarter pulse on the snare or a dotted quarter pulse on the wood blocks and lots of changing meters. Could you tell us more about your rhythmic logic?

MURPHY: It was based around this idea of representing time. Essentially, the woodblock is the second hand of a clock. The crotchet equals 60, but occasionally it doesn’t. There is this kind of tension between how we feel time and how we measure time. I wanted all the action in this meeting to feel slightly at odd with the concept of time. That’s where the rhythmic construction came from. It’s also something that I’ve been playing with of late.

CADY: So you’ve explored this in other pieces?

MURPHY: Not linking it to time as much but the sense of shifting the grid underneath the parts. I like the element of surprise that brings. You lock into a groove and all of a sudden it’s interrupted and feels quite uncomfortable and then it snaps back in.

CADY: Many composers seem to not really understand that to do interesting metric or tempo things there first needs to be that sense of a groove for it to be perceivable.

MURPHY: To me it’s all about subverting expectations. It sounds cruel to your audience, but it’s about pulling the rug out from under them. I like to be surprised musically.

CADY: You said the music and story were intertwined for you. Did that lead you to try anything new?

MURPHY: The one-track mind of the piece is driven by the context of the story. Had it been a fifteen-minute piece that didn’t have this story attached I would have changed tracks earlier. It forced me to think of other subtle ways to do contrast, to give a sense of forward motion before that interrupting, woodblock pulls it back into the second-hand ticking.

Nicole’s Chicken

CADY: I was struck by your compositions for guitar, especially your chamber piece, Stolen. Are you a guitarist?

MURPHY: I’m most certainly not a guitar player. I managed to get through most of my schooling without ever having to write for guitar. I hadn’t avoided it purposefully but it’s one of those things that doesn’t come up in orchestration class. When I had to write the electric guitar chamber piece for a festival I thought, “I can just hide it in the background, play a few harmonics and no one will notice that I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then they said, “Could you write a guitar duo?” That project sparked a bigger 45-minute electric guitar and chamber ensemble piece. The last few years of my life have been dominated by guitar. But my instrument is piano and some woodwind and strings as well.

CADY: The guitar sounded so idiomatic you fooled me.

MURPHY: That’s just lots of score study and fingering charts. The thing about guitar that’s so exciting is there are so many ways to realize a certain passage. Often I’d think, “it works this way,” and then I’d put it in front of a guitarist and they would say, “We can play it this way or this way or this way.” There just aren’t as many possibilities with other instruments.

CADY: And what about your classical guitar piece?

MURPHY: That was part of the Norfolk festival. They had a whole heap of guitarists there: three different guitarists involved in that project.

CADY: Is guitar a little less common in New Music in Australia?

MURPHY: Yeah, definitely. I know it’s a big part of the new music scene in the U.S. but it’s not so common here. That sounds ridiculous because it’s such a common instrument, but it’s not part of the new music scene.

CADY: You get quite a lot of performances in the US. Do you have a connection here?

MURPHY: I don’t know. It’s strange. There have been a couple of years where my music was performed more over there than it was at home. I have no idea, but I guess I just feel very fortunate.

CADY: What’s going on in the Australian scene?

MURPHY: We have a really vibrant new music scene. Where I live in Brisbane it has really grown and flourished in the last five years. We’re the smaller city to Sydney and Melbourne which have really strong scenes. Both those cities have a distinct sound world and I like being up here in Brisbane because I have more freedom. I’m not really locked into those scenes. Australia is very active because it’s so far removed from everywhere else. You have to make your own projects happen. It’s very local. We have amazing musicians.

CADY: Plus you can have a garden with a dog and chickens.

MURPHY: It is really lovely. Before I started my PhD I had a pretty thriving vegetable garden with lots of fruit trees and stuff. The fruit trees remain but the vegetables have since died. But the chickens are just funny little creatures. One of them we called Kanye because she was the loudest.

CADY: You also composed a previous opera, right?

MURPHY: Yes, it’s called The Kamikaze Mind and it was performed in New York last month. The libretto is from this amazing novella by an Australian author Richard James Allen. It’s about an astronaut who falls into a black hole and is scattered into an infinite number of pieces all around the universe. So the story is essentially him trying to put himself together with these fragments of his life and memory. It’s organized like a dictionary. You get a word and its definition tells the story. It’s ordered alphabetically but you can read it a number of different ways. You can read it via themes or read different letters or chronologically. Some of the definitions make you laugh out loud and others make you cry for humanity.

I used to joke about it with friends because I got this book in the mail and I have no idea who sent it to me. Whenever I shared it with friends, if they were composers I’d say, “but I’ve got dibs on writing an opera from it.”

CADY: Someone sent you this book anonymously, and you never found out who?

MURPHY: No, I never found out. I have absolutely no idea.

CADY: Even after writing the opera no one came forward? It’s amazing!

MURPHY: I often forget about that part of the story, but it’s kind of wonderful.

CADY: You could write an opera about your opera!

MURPHY: I sure could.