Interview with Marjorie Merryman

by Yi Yiing Chen

Background as a composer

Yi Yiing: How did you become a composer? What do you remember your first experience of making music? Did you know at that point that you would want to make this your profession? 

Margorie Merryman: I started inventing music to play on the piano when I was around 11 or 12. My mother volunteered at a church near my school, and I liked playing the piano there. But I didn’t know very much about music, and I didn’t know how to learn more, so I made pieces up. I could probably still play some of them. It didn’t occur to me that I was composing or that there was such a thing as a composer. Actually, I never really set out to be a composer, even much later. But music and the expression of thoughts and feelings through composing were very compelling to me, and the rest just happened.

Method of composition

Y: Do you have a fixed schedule for when you compose?  Are there any locations that you find particularly inspirational?  What is your composition process? Is every time different, or do you follow a pattern?

M: Most of my music has been written late at night, which is probably the most natural time for me – everyone is asleep, no one will bother you, and my mind can calm down and focus. But now that I’m older, I mostly write in the morning, before I go to work (at Manhattan School of Music). I like that time too, before I’ve had a chance to get distracted by all the cares of the day. The preferred location for me is home alone.

I can’t claim to have a compositional process per se. Every piece is different, but generally I start with some musical idea that has occurred to me. It’s most likely to be a gesture that contains specific harmony or specific melodic shape, and I work from there. Even if I begin with a more elaborate idea, very often that will be changed by the time the piece is actually written. Once I start working on something, I like to play it on the piano if possible. I play and improvise and change things around, not unlike what I did in my childhood composing. There’s a danger in that method, since it would be very limiting to write only textures for piano, so I do work against that tendency. I think about form quite a lot also, but mainly I try to be alert to the context the music is creating, and to shape the form around that.

Value of being an educator

Y: You wrote The Music Theory Handbook, a very useful text that I used when I was in college. Do you think it is essential that a composer study the theory of the Common Practice Period? Do you apply any kind of theory in your composition lesson?

M: I love tonal music and the language of tonality is magical to me. It’s also inescapably the context from which most of our contemporary music developed, and every composer can learn from the masters who preceded us and be inspired by their incredible imaginations and their technique. So I think it’s important. But not everyone agrees about the extent to which young composers need real mastery of the tonal language, and I don’t feel extremely doctrinaire about this. I don’t ask my students to do tonal exercises, although they may be studying this in other classes. I also don’t demand that my students apply some other theoretical approach, but I think they can learn a lot from newer theories about language, color, form and continuity. About tonal music, I find ideas that come from common practice, like phrasing and the notion of beginning-middle-and-end, the pace of harmonic change, voice-leading and salience of pitches in register, etc – these ideas are helpful for many students across a variety of styles.

Career and life

Y: How do you balance being a composer and an administrator?  What do you like to do other than teaching and composing?

M: I love working in music, and hearing music every day. I’ve been fortunate to be associated with music schools, and that’s an environment I enjoy – I’m involved with teaching, looking at scores, programming concerts, working with amazing performers in faculty and students, as well as composing and teaching composition every day. Although it’s busy, it’s also rewarding. In non-working moments I enjoy being with my children and grandchildren, and with friends.

Elegiac Songs

Y: What have been your major influences (as a composer)? Did you and your husband influence each other musically? Are there places in your Elegiac Songs we might hear any of these influences?

M: I wrote these pieces in 2015-2016. They are dedicated to the memory of my husband, the composer Edward Cohen, who died in 2002. We were married for almost 30 years, and he was a great influence on me in every way. I wouldn’t be able to point to some specific technical influence, but in this piece there is actually a direct quote: in the first of my songs, the piano plays an upward-sweeping scale in Ab, doubled at the fourth, which occurs both at the end of the first section and again, more briefly, near the end of the movement. This scale and gesture come from the opening of my husband’s opera Bezhin Meadow, which he worked on for several years, playing this passage almost daily. The story in his opera deals with the fragile nature of life and the thin line separating the living from the dead, and it ends with an image of birds flying high overhead. These themes are related to the poetry of my first song, and I felt inspired to make this musical quote.

Y: What can you share about working incorporating poetry into music? Is there anything special about the collaboration between poet and composer? 

M: For me, singing is a very fundamental thing, and I have written quite a bit of vocal and choral music. I have most often chosen poetry or prose that I have known for years, because those texts have already worked themselves into my imagination. I became aware of the wonderful poetry of Louise Gluck during the 1990s, and I happened to meet her because my daughter studied poetry with her at Williams College. Ms. Gluck didn’t offer any suggestions about setting her work, except to tell me that she enjoyed having it set to music. I’m very grateful for her permission to use her beautiful poetry.