We are excited to share an interview with the adventurous Kansas City composer Aubrie Powell. Taking her inspiration from books and poetry, especially that of Langston Hughes and William Shakespeare, Powell's work seeks to fuse narrative form with musical structure. Powell has written music for piano, string quartet, guitar and voice and is currently finishing her Music Composition studies at UMKC. Enjoy Powell's music and her book and music recommendations.
Introduce yourself. Where do you live and work?
Hello, my name is Aubrie Powell. I live in Kansas City and am working on finishing my Masters Degree at UMKC in Music Composition. I grew up in New Mexico and did my undergraduate degree in Cleveland at a small school called Baldwin Wallace University (BW). I play the double bass and I especially enjoy playing in orchestras and in chamber groups.
You’ve composed classical music for a variety of settings, including dance and Shakespeare productions, string quartets and electronic music. What projects are the most fulfilling for you? What’s the most challenging project you’ve been involved with?
My most fulfilling musical experience was first writing incidental music for BW’s production of Shakespeare’s play All’s Well that Ends Well. It was an unexpected opportunity that was a musical breakthrough for me collaboratively by making it accessible to the audience, complimentary to the story, and playable by the enthusiastic actors.
I enjoy collaboration because it brings together different perspectives and minds. It can be frustrating but also creates a work that is more than what one person could accomplish.
The most challenging project I have been involved with was writing for guitar quartet. The guitar is an interesting instrument that is complex and tricky.
Who inspires your art the most?
I am probably most inspired by books and poetry. The details can trigger musical ideas. For example, the poetry of Langston Hughes is extremely musical and thoughtful and I wrote a song cycle based on four of his poems. Musical form is inherently narrative to me, so in reading a book I can imagine how it would translate to musical structure.
I am very interested in integrating the human voice into chamber music and most of my influence in this vein has come from Amy Beth Kirsten’s work. She is a composer and teacher on the east coast who does a lot of experimentation in extended techniques and vocalization.
What tools do you use to compose? What may surprise a listener about how your music is written?
I use all the tools available to me to compose, including my bass, the piano, and just playing around on my computer. It may not be surprising but I often write in chunks and think about the order and connecting material later. The grouping together of different chunks and shaping them together is my favorite part of composition. The tedious part is actually generating the material, but once it is there the manipulation and shaping is really fun.
What inspires you the most about the Kansas City music scene?
Kansas City has a really great vibe. I have never lived in a place that has such a strong sense of community. I really enjoyed the Green Lady and the jazz scene. Kansas City offers so much variety in music with the all the events at the Kauffman and the performance venues downtown. The art museums are spectacular and so close to UMKC. I also really like the zoo here, especially the kangaroo exhibit.
Aubrie's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
I enjoy all the trilogies by Robin Hobb. She has a way of taking the narrative to such a high-tension point that it seems unbearable, and then she finds some kind of resolution. Her endings truly show a progression from the beginning to end and you end up someplace new, not a happily ever after. Also all the trilogies overlap with the others. In one series you are following a ship trader family and they cope with the impact of the royal family’s bastard from another trilogy. Hobb’s writing also shows a great understanding of perspective and humanity. Every character changes or parts of them are revealed more slowly. I find it a well-formed and intricate piece of fantasy.
I really like the Harry Potter series. It has had little influence on me musically, but J.K. Rowling’s imagination is incredible. Every time I read the books there is some detail I find that hits me in a new way. It is like what they say about listening to a Mahler symphony, that every listening you hear something new.
The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher really appeals to my sense of humor in literature and in music. I like contrary reactions, determination, and then to throw in something unexpected.
The Orphans of Chaos trilogy by John C. Wright had a direct impact on my music because I decided as a freshman in college to write a symphonic work based on the characters. Promenade is the first movement for this work and is formed around the characters promenading into musical space.
I, Too, am America and The Dream Keeper and other Poems by Langston Hughes
Harmonielehre by John Adams, I loved his manipulation of texture and orchestration.
The group Eighth Blackbird innovates the new music experience with staging and memorized scores. I especially enjoy eighth blackbirds performance of Amy Beth Kirsten’s work Colombine’s Paradise Theatre, but it is not in the catalogue. Their two award winning albums, Filament and Meanwhile are however.
The band Alt J has a visceral effect on me. I enjoy their color and musical voice.