|The sound of new music
Mary Jane Leachs compositions hit both head and heart
A stint in theater lighting may seem like the start of a roundabout way to becoming a successful composer, but for Mary Jane Leach 72 it seems to have made perfect sense. She can even provide you with an inspired disquisition on how lighting techniques mirror what shes doing in her music.
Leach is a composer in the contemporary downtown sense, which means she doesnt write music with orchestras in mind. Until recently, in fact, much of her music could hardly be described as classical in either sound or inspiration, falling instead somewhere between extreme minimalism and sound art. For the past twenty years she has explored what are known as combination tones, interference tones and difference tones, phenomena that can produce additional phantom-like sounds when two notes are played or sung just the right way.
Sound phenomena often happen accidentally, and they can send shivers up your spine, says Leach, seated on the floor of her small, tidy, high-rise apartment in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattans Upper West Side. Its like in lighting, where two colors can create a third. Its kind of a magic youll hear these notes together and think, wow, thats kind of neat. The thing I like about it is that it isnt always predictable.
Equally difficult is predicting the reaction audiences will have to her spare but often hauntingly beautiful music. I had a concert of my work performed once in Federal Hall here in New York, she says, stroking her two cats, Annabel and Mr. Mellow, who doze at her feet. It was in the halls rotunda, all marble and hard surfaces, and the space was just solid with sound. The woman who organized the concert said she was hallucinating. Then there was the story one of her fans related to her. I have this guy, this osteopath whos into a lot of New Age things, who comes to my concerts, she says. He told me once that hes been to my concerts and seen people trembling, literally shaking, like theyre having some kind of physical reaction to the physical sound. She grins and shrugs. Im not really sure what he means.
Some of Leachs listeners may profess a New Age bent, but critics have found in her work a rigor and a toughness, as well as a beauty, that sets it apart from the pretty, meditative sound pictures of, say, George Winston. One critic praised O Magna Vasti Creta, the opening work from her latest album, Ariadnes Lament, as music of uncommon sonic purity and beauty, while adding that to her credit, Leach offers spiritual recharge without the banalities of the new mysticism of Arvo Part or Henryk Gorecki.
Leachs music has been performed around the world, and she has been commissioned to write for an assortment of new music ensembles. In 1989-90 she lived in Cologne, Germany, as composer-in-residence at Sankt Peter Koln. She has recorded her music on several labels, with the choral work of her two most recent releases, Ariadnes Lament (1998) and Celestial Fires (1993), receiving considerable critical acclaim.
But it was theater, not music, that was of primary interest to Leach duing her undergraduate days. I was a music minor, though, so all the theater people thought I was a music major, and the music people thought I was a theater major, she recalls with a grin. Shed grown up in the Vermont towns of Hyde Park and Montpelier, followed her brother to UVM, and discovered classical music through the madrigals that were performed as part of the annual Shakespeare festival. I learned that early, pre-Baroque music and contemporary music have a lot in common the rhythmic freedom, the harmonic similarities and I started writing for a couple of theater productions, she says, adding that the little writing she did made her want to do more.
After graduating, Leach stuck around Burlington to run Discount
Records, a Church Street shop that sold LPs of everything from
Haydn to Hendrix. It was a good education for me, she recalls.
I learned a lot about music, about performances and composers.
She ran the shop for three years, moved to Cambridge, Mass. to
run a Discount Records there for a year, then headed for New York
in 1977 where she began studying music at Columbia University.
With Monteverdi and other Renaissance composers influencing her, however, Leachs music has matured from stringent exercises of almost scientific empiricism to beautiful works that manage to be both sensuous and intelligent a fairly potent combination. She has an ear for pacing and structural unfolding, often building her pieces to ardent, expressive arrivals, writes Anthony K. Brandt, a composer, editor and teacher in Cambridge, Mass., in the introductory notes to Ariadnes Lament. The traditional distinction between consonance, as pillars of stability, and dissonance unstable moments that must inevitably seek out resolution is maintained, though she will allow dissonances to flower and persist in ways her predecessors did not.
Leach gets a gleam in her eye when the subject of dissonance comes up. One of the things I learned studying lighting is that all color is no color, she says. With sound, you can only have dissonance if theres consonance its the combination that makes each of them work. Thats what makes Bach or Monteverdi so interesting to listen to. Interesting music, free of ideological baggage, is Leachs only aim.
There are so many outside constraints that are paralyzing classical music, like the twelve-tone approach that has characterized so much academic music its such a dead-end, as if people didnt trust their own musical instincts, she says. Whats appealing about minimalism is that its a more natural expansion of the musical language than twelve-tone, and in some cases more rigorous. With academic music, sound can be secondary to theory. Thats not the kind of music I want, though. For me, its all about the sound. VQ
Scott Sutherland, a writer in Portland, Maine, is a frequent contributor to Vermont Quarterly.