Lucy Shirley is an accomplished composer and pianist currently pursuing a Master of Music in Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. Inspired as much by literature and poetry as it is by other music, her work is both humorous and adventurous. We are fortunate to share an interview with this emerging composer as she prepares for a busy summer of music festivals and more creativity. Enjoy.
You’re based in Indianapolis but are studying composition at UMKC Conservatory. What has this experience been like for you as a composer? How have you been challenged?
I originally moved to Kansas City last fall for my first semester of grad school, but I found it extremely difficult living in a new city mid-lockdown. It was really not ideal! I got super depressed. All of my classes were online last semester, so I moved home to Indianapolis for a while, but I’m planning on moving back to Kansas City in August for the remainder of my Master’s.
The last year has definitely been challenging (what an understatement for literally everyone, right?). I’ve been trying to find my own compositional voice, and I think I’ve slowly been doing that. Not being on campus this past semester has been difficult since it’s a lot harder to make connections with your fellow comp students and performers, but I’ve been given a lot of really cool opportunities at UMKC to get pieces performed through livestream, and I’ve still been able to take lessons, go to classes, and connect with people virtually.
Describe your beginnings with composing music. What initially pushed you in this direction?
I can’t really think of a time when I wasn’t making up songs. I remember being five or six years old and making my Bratz dolls perform original music in a concert for my mom (the songs were actually pretty catchy). I still have some old notebooks filled with hundreds of pages of scribbled, misspelled lyrics.
Going to college at the University of Indianapolis, I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing (I mean, does anyone?). Initially, I was a Music Education major, then I switched to a general music degree, then I switched to Piano Performance. I knew I wanted to go to grad school for music, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I started thinking about doing Musicology, so I presented at a few conferences, but I didn't love it as much as I thought I would. I thought about Piano Pedagogy since I love to teach, but I couldn’t see myself enjoying studying pedagogy all through graduate school. I thought about continuing with Piano Performance, but my anxiety was getting difficult to manage (I started getting extreme hypertension and blacking out in performances), so I knew I couldn’t continue it after undergrad.
It wasn’t until I took an introductory composition elective that I realized composing was a viable career path for me. I know it sounds strange to say, but I had always written music, so I thought everyone else did, too. In a weird way, the fact that I enjoyed composing and that it felt natural to me made me think I couldn’t make composition into a career. It was as if “talent” and “success” had to come with blood, sweat, and tears. Also, I didn’t think there was anything special about my music since I had never officially studied how to write it. But my professor really encouraged me to take myself seriously and consider grad school for Music Composition. I was honestly convinced I wouldn’t get in anywhere! But I got into a lot of places, and now here I am at UMKC. I would have never guessed!
How often are you working on music? Describe your process. Are you a heavy editor of your work or do ideas come fairly easily?
Honestly, it totally ebbs and flows. I’m a perennial procrastinator and I actually work best under pressure, so if I have a deadline for a piece coming up, I can work like crazy. I always think of my process as being similar to Philip K. Dick’s process of writing novels (except without the drug use). Dick would stay up for days writing a novel. He would do it in one giant go, and he never went back to edit. I think I tend to write the same way. I get really into something, and then I just compose pages and pages in a single day. I don’t go back to edit very much. If the piece works, it works, and I can tweak it a bit. If it doesn’t work, I’d prefer to just start all over rather than try to fix major parts of it. It feels like fighting a losing battle. Either the magic is there or it isn’t.
Okay, this probably isn’t the healthiest way to compose. Now that I’m writing this down, I’m looking at it and realizing it kind of seems insane. I probably need to get better at finding a balance of writing time and editing time, but I do everything by instinct. If my instinct isn’t on point, I’d rather just start all over and try something new. I really hate editing. (I hope my professors aren’t reading this).
How do you move through creative blocks? Who or what inspires you to stay creative?
Something I’ve finally realized in the last year is that I create when I’m happy. If I’m emotionally balanced and in a good place, writing music will be a natural byproduct. Conversely, if I’m creatively stunted, something else is out of balance in my life. I can’t write when I’m going through a depressive period, or when I’ve taken on too many responsibilities, or when I’m stressed out about something going on in my life. In a way, understanding the natural ebb and flow of my process gives me freedom to stop feeling guilty when I’m not composing. I can’t force it, and all I know is that it will come when it comes, and usually that will be when I’m happy.
What are you currently working on? What’s ahead for you for the rest of 2021?
Right now, I’m preparing for summer festivals! I got into two really amazing programs in June, Fresh Inc and the Norfolk New Music Workshop, so I’m gearing up for those. I’m also looking forward to four of my art songs being released later this year in the Modern Music for New Singers: 21st Century American Art Songs anthologies published by North Star Music. I started a blog recently, which is basically just an excuse for me to pretend I’m an art critic and wax poetic about aesthetics. Compositionally, I just finished a trio for soprano, clarinet, and piano, and now I’m working on finishing a trio for violin, cello, and piano.
I’m hoping to apply to doctoral programs in the fall for Music Composition, so wish me luck! I don’t really know where I’m going in my life, but I’m starting to realize that no one ever does.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This is one of my all-time favorite novels. The characters are fascinating, the writing is some of Gaiman's best, and the story is a truly original take on modern fantasy. It's an engaging, exciting read, but also delves into unexpectedly deep issues about religion, relationships, and regret. 10/10
Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. This collection of essays is not for the weak-of-heart, but oh my heck it's worth it. Sexual Personae, Paglia's first publication, examines common tropes of gender and sexuality in art and culture from ancient times to present. The essays aren't really presented in any definitive order, but by the time you're done, you'll find your entire outlook changed as you begin constantly, involuntarily drawing connections between Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Bergman's Persona, and MTV's The Hills: New Beginnings. (Okay, oops, maybe that last sentence only applies to me...)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I read Ender's Game in sixth grade and I have loved it ever since. I reread it every few years, and as I've grown, the book has grown alongside me. When I was young, I saw myself very strongly in the character of Ender, but as I've aged, I can now see parts of myself in characters like Valentine, Graff, or even Peter. The ending still makes me cry. I read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, for the first time last year, and though it deepened my understanding of Ender and his world in many ways, Ender's Game will always be closest to my heart.
Sing Street. A 2016 Irish coming-of-age rock musical set in 1980s Dublin, with songs by Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure, Joe Jackson, and a plethora of original music. It's charming, the songs are catchy, and the story is altogether wonderful. A true gem.
Clouds of Sils Maria. Starring Juliette Binoche as Maria and Kristen Stewart as her assistant Valentine, Clouds of Sils Maria opens as Maria is offered a role in a revival of the play in which she made her acting debut thirty years ago, but instead of reprising her original role, she will be playing the bitter older woman. As she runs lines with Valentine, the play's dialogue begins to blur with the movie's dialogue, which then almost blurs into a dialogue between Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart themselves. I saw this movie when it first came out, and it made a giant impact on me. It's about youth, aging, experience, anger, and authenticity, and it's really brilliant in the way it uses a sort of meta, implied monologue-within-a-monologue to convey a character's emotions.
The Brothers Bloom. An obscure Rian Johnson dramedy from 2008, The Brothers Bloom will forever be one of my favorite movies. The costume design is absolutely delightful, and the score, composed by Rian's brother Nathan, fits the movie perfectly. It's weird, funny, sad, romantic, melodramatic, and not at all what you expect it to be. I highly recommend it.
Far by Regina Spektor. I checked out this album from the library in maybe fourth grade, and I think I kept renewing it for the next year. It's Regina Spektor at her finest, mixing haunting melodies with arcane lyrics and some really cool piano rock. I was convinced I was going to be Regina Spektor, and so I released a Spektor-esque EP in the sixth grade. So embarrassing.
Camelot (the original Broadway cast recording). I grew up listening to songs from classic Broadway musicals. My mom would put on Camelot, or My Fair Lady, or Cinderella and I would "help" her cook or do the dishes, standing on a chair and probably making an absolute mess in my childhood home's kitchen. Camelot has some absolute bops (if you can listen to "Guenevere" without singing along, you're stronger than I), and always brings me back to being six years old, dancing around in our kitchen and belting along to Robert Goulet's dulcet tones.
Notorious B.I.G.’s Greatest Hits. I listened to Biggie's music constantly throughout college. His laidback flow, unparalleled lyric writing, and sophisticated backphrasing still point to him as one of the greatest rappers in history, especially considering that he did it all first. I think in many circles, rap is still considered a lower form of art (I'll never forget one of my music professors in undergrad being totally taken aback that I could enjoy unsophisticated "RAP-MUSIC!" The heresy!). Even though someone's personal preference might vary, I think it's important to see how rap and hip hop have earned a well-deserved place in music history, springing from musical idioms of the mid 20th century and continuing to influence modern musical thought. My favorite tracks on the album include the utterly intoxicating "Big Poppa" and lyrically brilliant "Warning."