Spotlight on Amy Scurria: 'Music is My Prayer'

American composer Amy Scurria takes time today from a busy schedule to share some insights about the process of making music. In doing so she provides a fine debut for a feature I hope to make a regular part of this journal: a series of spotlight interviews with noteworthy composers and performers.

Amy Scurria, winner of four consecutive ASCAP Plus awards, counts the Philadelphia Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra among the many groups who have commissioned her original compositions and is one of the youngest composers on the roster of Theodore Presser, a publisher that claims many of America's most distinguished talents. She holds degrees from the Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Her mentors in the art of composition have included Chen Yi, Robert Sirota, Samuel Adler, Philip Lasser and Narcis Bonet.

Amy grew up singing in church choirs and madrigal groups. She began teaching herself piano as well as the basics of writing music by the age of eight. She maintains that 'Music is a powerful and unusual language that, when spoken well, can reach the deepest part of the human spirit.' Steve Schwartz of Classical Net Review calls her music 'a journey to discover heartbreaking beauty. The climaxes of her work aren't so much dramatic as rapturous... A tremendous technique infuses the music, but Scurria never uses it to cover up a paucity of ideas. She's an honest workman - the real goods.'

I asked Amy to share some thoughts with us about her creative process.

AT: 'God and Country' themes seem to figure prominently in your work. I'm thinking of the eloquence on display in orchestral works such as We Are Met at Gettysburg and Blessings of Liberty, and vocal works such as Salmo 100, A Prayer, Thou Who Art Over Us, and i thank you God (text by e. e. cummings). How has this become a strength for you? What subjects and ideas have you not yet had as much opportunity to explore but hope to?

Amy Scurria: This question touches on something I think about quite often. I think that it's important for a composer to ask oneself why he or she composes. I ponder this quite often myself and the answer I most often return to is that music is my prayer. It serves as my most honest and pure expression.

When I experience 'writer's block' or even just before I compose, I always begin with prayer and meditation. It opens me to the creative process.

It's interesting that the question I'm asked most often is 'how do you write music?' If I find that they are not looking for an in depth explanation, I more often than not answer: 'one note at a time.' However, I often wish that people would ask instead 'why do you write music?' As all musicians realize, being a composer is not a life filled with glory, a large income, stability, or any other such benefit that might draw a person towards this pursuit.

I won't even try to guess why most people compose, so I'll only comment on why I do. From an early age, I have felt a deep yearning for music. I remember hearing music as early as three years old and feeling compelled to cry; not because the music upset me or even made me sad, but because I wanted to climb inside the music and I didn't ever want it to end . . . so I think that as I got older, listening to music somehow wasn't enough. By the time I was eight years old, I discovered that creating music was the only activity that would alleviate that deep feeling of yearning and somehow make me feel complete and whole. So, at the risk of sounding quite cliché, the reason I compose is because I must!

It surprised me when you said 'God and Country' figure prominently as subjects in my music; however, this makes sense. I grew up in a predominantly military family. My father, two uncles, and both grandfathers were career military men, as were a long line of men in my family going as far back as the Civil War. I, myself, was torn in high school between pursuing a career as a Coast Guard pilot, like my father, or pursuing music. Obviously, I chose the latter--though I often wonder how my life might have been different had I chosen the former. I don't think I ever made a conscious effort to create music that reflects the subjects of 'God and Country,' so perhaps this just happened by default (and partly by circumstance!).

I think what most people don't realize is that when someone serves in the military, the entire family serves in the military. It's a sacrifice that affects the entire family unit. I will never regret that my father was a career military man. In fact, I carry an intense pride for this. However, I'm sure that the sacrifices that we made (moving every 2-4 years, having our family split up temporarily, not always knowing where my father was or if he would come back alive) affected me in a deep way... so much so that it bleeds into my music. It doesn't mean that I always agree with the choices we make as a country. But I do know first hand what it means when someone decides to serve our country. In the case of my father, it was a service that was whole-hearted, complete, unquestioning, honourable, and something to be deeply admired. So, this is probably why after 9/11, I decided to make my commission for the Vermont Youth Orchestra a patriotic work... and why the commission by the Philadelphia and Minnesota orchestras on the Civil War resonated so deeply with me.

Regarding God, prayer, meditation, improvisation and dance are all a large part of my creative process. My faith is an important part of my life and I suppose I am always attempting to compose a better work as an offering and thanks to God.

Regarding subjects and ideas I have not yet had the opportunity to explore yet: there are many. There are so many things I feel passionate about and I could come up with endless reasons to compose as a reflection of those passions. However, some underlying inspirations and influences are the subjects of hope, women's issues, flight, freedom of spirit, celebration of spirit. I have always felt that an 'artist' has a responsibility to have a cause, a message, a reason for creating... for taking the time and energy to express something to the public. My driving force behind this belief has been to create music that reflects hope and beauty. I think it is impossible to avoid the fact that life is difficult. Perhaps in some way I am looking for a haven from difficulties through music, but this is also what I hope to create in my own music. If I can make someone feel hope, recognize beauty in life, imagine something wonderful, feel a freedom from the difficulties of life, then I have succeeded in my pursuits and in my creation of music.

In particular, I'm working on the beginning concepts of a work that will incorporate the use of photography around the subject of women--perhaps a Celebration of Women type of work. I'm still in the very beginning stages of this.

AT: Can you share anything about your working method--where you get ideas, what you look for in choosing a text?

Amy Scurria: My working method really depends on the type of piece I'm composing. I tend to compose choral works, piano works, and songs straight through whereas an orchestral work involves a lot of sketches. My ideas come from prayer, improvisation at the piano, singing, dance, and sometimes dreams.

When choosing a text the first thing I look for is whether it's available for use! If it's in the public domain and if not, if I can get permission to use it. For this reason, I have been setting a lot of Christina Rossetti's poetry. Not only does her poetry resonate very deeply with me, but her publishing company has been very generous in granting me rights to set her poems. I also love finding female poets when possible. In choosing a text for a musical setting, I usually select a text based on whether I hear music as I'm reading it. Every poem or Bible verse I've ever set has resulted in an immediate 'musical response' as I'm reading the poem. This is when I know a particular poem will illicit musical inspiration and flow nicely for voice setting.

AT: You possess a deep appreciation of poetry. Who are your favourite poets and why? Has poetry as an art form helped you develop as a composer in some way--something beyond simply supplying a text for musical setting?

Amy Scurria: The first time I affiliated any kind of text to music was when I was 16 years old. I was given an assignment in my AP English class and we were given the utmost freedom with the type of project. So, as I often did, I decided to compose a piano piece. In doing so, I selected a poem and composed the work as a reflection of that poem. Though I had an affinity towards poetry for quite some time, this was the first time that text served as an inspiration or guide for musical form.

Once I entered college at Rice University I began to compose songs and experienced firsthand the mistake of not acquiring permission for a text! I composed a full song cycle and later was not granted permission for the use of the poetry! The piece was useless until many years later, when I met a wonderful poet while working on a commission who was willing to rewrite the text for me. She did a beautiful job and the work was revived as a result of her efforts (thankfully)!

So text has always been an important part of my compositional process. Beyond All Walking, my first orchestral work, went through a lot of sketches. I was struggling with the form of the work. I had a strong opening and an ending, but I wasn't certain how to get from point A to point B. My teacher, Bob Sirota, suggested several things, one of which was to find a text to use as a reference. One of my favorite poets is Rainer Maria Rilke. I particularly love the translations by Stephen Mitchell. So, I selected a Rilke poem.

Going Blind

She sat just like the others as the table.

But on second glance she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.

And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly as chance selected them they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed)
I saw her. She was moving far behind

The others absorbed like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes which were radiant with joy
light played as on the surface of a pool.

She followed slowly taking a long time
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though once it was overcome
she would be beyond all walking and would fly.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Stephen Mitchell, trans.
Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Modern Library, 1995.

My grandmother had passed away a few years prior to my composing this work and I wanted to write something in response to her passing. I had remembered a class I visited at Rice prior to matriculating. The professor was discussing the artwork of Michelangelo. Michelangelo was of the belief that the physical body acted as a prison to the human soul and that the soul was struggling for liberation from the constraints of the body. I loved this idea that the soul was eternally drawn to the heavens and I could suddenly see in many of his sculptures, that the soul is constantly yearning for freedom from the body. This idea, along with the Rilke poem, provided for me the perfect sources of inspiration I needed to complete Beyond All Walking. Other things provided inspiration for this work, but the text played a huge role.

AT: Has a composition of yours ever surprised you?

Amy Scurria: This is really an interesting question and one I've never been asked! I suppose every composition is a surprise to some extent because I really don't know what I'm going to create until I begin creating it. However, a lot of initial thought goes into a work before the actual composing. So, normally, by the time a piece is committed to score form, it is exactly as I have intended it.

I suppose I've been surprised by the reaction to my works, and I'm lucky to say that I was pleasantly surprised. There is nothing more powerful than when someone approaches me with tears in their eyes and shares how a work touched them. This has happened mostly with Beyond All Walking and We Are Met at Gettysburg. So, in that way, I have been most pleasantly surprised by the reaction the works have created.

AT: Many thanks, Amy, for sharing your comments and your music. We look forward to updates.

Beyond All Walking
(Peabody Symphony Orchestra/Teri Murai)

A Prayer
(Shepherd University Concert Choir/Scott Williamson)

Press Onward
(Shepherd University Concert Choir/Scott Williamson)

Furchte Dich Nicht
(Rice University Chamber Ensemble)

Five Haiku
(Peabody Conservatory Ensemble)

Variations on Reflection
(Susan Boettger, piano)

Blessings of Liberty
(Vermont Youth Orchestra/Troy Peters)

Games Children Play
(Sylvia Danburg, violin, with narrator)

Amy Scurria Home Page
Photo ©Phyllis Berger (USA)

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