The sound of new music

Mary Jane Leach’s 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 she’s doing in her music.

Leach is a composer in the contemporary downtown sense, which means she doesn’t 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 Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It’s like in lighting, where two colors can create a third. It’s kind of a magic — you’ll hear these notes together and think, ‘wow, that’s kind of neat.’ The thing I like about it is that it isn’t 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 hall’s 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 who’s into a lot of New Age things, who comes to my concerts,” she says. “He told me once that he’s been to my concerts and seen people trembling, literally shaking, like they’re having some kind of physical reaction to the physical sound.” She grins and shrugs. “I’m not really sure what he means.”

Some of Leach’s 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, Ariadne’s 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.”

Leach’s 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, Ariadne’s 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. She’d 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.
She stayed at Columbia for a year before leaving to write her own music. “I was fooling around with a lot of multimedia stuff, using painted slides and 3-D animation and writing music I could perform myself with the slides,” she says. She performed using multiple overdubs of her voice on tape, and the more she investigated the curious sounds the technique produced the more intrigued she became. Soon she was experimenting in sound phenomena with an assortment of wind instruments — oboes, bassoons, bass clarinets — as she focused less on multimedia and more on the composition and performance of her peculiar new music.
In 1985 she began a series of choral works that examine the classical myth of Ariadne, who fell in love with Theseus and helped rescue him from her half-brother, the Minotaur. Leach’s musical inspiration is what she describes as the remnants of a “lost opera” by the Renaissance composer Monteverdi, but as the project has evolved Leach has relied less and less on her predecessor; in her newest installment, which will appear on a CD due out this year, she references him neither in music nor in lyrics.

With Monteverdi and other Renaissance composers influencing her, however, Leach’s 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 Ariadne’s 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 there’s consonance — it’s the combination that makes each of them work. That’s what makes Bach or Monteverdi so interesting to listen to.” Interesting music, free of ideological baggage, is Leach’s 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 — it’s such a dead-end, as if people didn’t trust their own musical instincts,” she says. “What’s appealing about minimalism is that it’s 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. That’s not the kind of music I want, though. For me, it’s all about the sound.” VQ

Scott Sutherland, a writer in Portland, Maine, is a frequent contributor to Vermont Quarterly.