Allison McIntosh is an accomplished composer whose works include chamber opera, art songs, solo instruments and voice. Currently a doctoral composition student at the University of Kansas, Her works have been performed at Boston Symphony Hall, New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, and the National Presbyterian Church, as well as many other venues throughout the country. In this interview McIntosh discusses how her music is inspired by literature, her creative process and what inspires her.
Please introduce yourself and describe your music for new listeners.
My name is Allison McIntosh, I live in Lawrence and am in the last semester of my doctoral program in composition at University of Kansas. I write a wide variety of concert music, but in the last couple of years I have become particularly focused on writing for voice. I write a lot of art songs (voice and piano) and just finished writing a new chamber opera. My music blends the influence of tonal harmony with modern techniques, and I often explore things like quartal harmonies or polytonal relationships. Above all, though, I focus on melody.
You've mentioned that you draw lots of inspiration from literature and poetry in your work. What sparks your creativity the most in your life?
Literature and poetry do indeed serve as a huge source of inspiration for me. When I write for voice, it's really important to me to deeply consider the text I'm setting and use it as the foundation for my musical choices. Words inspire me with instrumental music, too - sometimes if I'm stuck when starting a piece, I will read a lot of random poetry. I often will find an image or a theme that will spark an idea, whether the final piece ends up being related to a poem or not. I find myself particularly drawn to imagist poets, such as H.D. or William Carlos Williams.
What is your composition process like? How do you get the ideas that then turn into your finished compositions?
It certainly depends on what I'm working on. I just finished an hour-long chamber opera, so that was a big project that required a huge amount of planning and methodical work. If I'm writing something smaller, I can work more intuitively and just let the music flow. But generally, I will often start a piece by doing a graphical sketch - I get a piece of printer paper and colored pencils, and I draw a bunch of lines and shapes that will represent the general form of the piece. This helps me to think about things such as how I want the energy of the piece to evolve, what type of instruments or textures I might want to use, or the general emotional trajectory of the piece. From here, I usually either have an idea and get to writing it down, or I improvise at the piano until I come up with something I can build on.
Do you have any specific instruments or voice types that are your favorite to compose for? What is it about those instruments that you love?
As I already mentioned, I love writing for voice. I get to work with words, which is so fun. I also think the voice has a lot of unique challenges to consider when writing; you have to set words in ways that they will be best understood, and you have to be aware of how hard it is to sing - most singers can't just pull notes out of nowhere like you can do with an instrument. Also, every voice is different, so I've really loved being able to work with specific singers and learn how to write for their unique voices. I don't necessarily have a favorite voice type, but I am partial to mezzo-sopranos and love exploring their lower registers.
What was the most exciting or fulfilling performance of your work you've ever heard? Where were you, who was performing, and why does it stand out to you?
This is a hard question, because I honestly feel so excited every time my work is performed. But one time that stands out to me is back when I was doing my undergraduate degree at Tufts University in Boston. I did a senior thesis, and for that I wrote a symphony orchestra piece inspired by Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was a tone poem that basically represented the story of the book through music. I play the cello and had played in the Tufts Symphony Orchestra all through my undergrad, and when I finished this piece, my conductor agreed to do a reading session of it with the orchestra. So it wasn't even a performance - just a half hour where they sight read the piece and recorded it. But it was a really formative experience for me. That piece was the first big project I had worked on, and it was being read by all my dear friends in the orchestra. And there is something really special about hearing a whole orchestra play your music. I think it's definitely one of the most humbling experiences there is as a composer. I've had a few large ensemble pieces played since then, and every time it is an awesome feeling.
What music are you raving about right now?
One composer I've been really into lately is Unsuk Chin, she's a Korean composer based in Germany. I love her cello concerto in particular, but probably my favorite piece of hers is her opera Alice in Wonderland. It is delightfully strange, and the production that's on Youtube has such fantastically creepy costumes and staging. It captures the madness of that book perfectly. I especially recommend that people watch the Mad Tea Party scene, especially at 7:15 when they do an extended rumination on "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
Allison McIntosh's recommendations:
The Ballad of the Brown King & Selected Songs by Margaret Bonds. Bonds was a Black composer who wrote some really fantastic music. I especially love the Three Dream Portraits on this album, which use text by Langston Hughes. Actually, he wrote the words for most of the music on this album.
No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney. I love angry feminist punk. My favorite album by them is The Woods but it doesn't look like you have that one!
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. I recently read this. Epic fantasy with queer characters and dragons, what more could you ask for?
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, by M.T. Anderson. Shostakovich is a composer who is very dear to me; this book is a great introduction to him and the wild story of his seventh symphony.