Conversations about Creativity
Maryanne Kremer-Ames & Allen Ames:
Technique is the Pedestal; Inspiration is the Statue
October 17, 2017
Lyra was formed in 1987 by guitarist Maryanne Kremer and violinist Allen Ames, playing their debut concert at the Phoenix Art Museum. Since then, they have performed hundreds of engagements all over Arizona, appeared on TV in Phoenix and Northern Arizona, and been profiled on classical station KBAQ. They performed and recorded on the Phoenix Symphony’s award-winning CD of Elmer Bernstein’s music for The Magnificent Seven and played with Dave Brubeck in his Fiesta de las Posadas Christmas cantata. They have played many concerts and residencies as touring artists for the Arizona Commission on the Arts. For fifteen years, Lyra performed at the renowned Noches de las Luminarias at the Phoenix Botanical Garden. In 1996, Allen, a trained luthier, created the six-stringed Violira, encompassing five octaves to augment Lyra’s repertoire. They have released four CDs: Lyra, Violin and Guitar; Way Back Tomorrow; Four Hands, One Heart; and Christmas with Lyra. Since 1989, Lyra has been engaged as the annual summer ensemble in residence at the Briar Patch Inn in Sedona. Allen and Maryanne were married at the Briar Patch in the Fall of 1989.
Ellen: Maryanne and Allen, you were both established musicians when you decided to form the duo Lyra more than thirty years ago and your eclectic, emotive music to this day, captivates wide audiences. Your classical guitar, violin and six-string Violira performances are much in demand. Starting with you Maryanne, would you tell us something about your early training as a classical guitarist and as a symphonic percussionist?
Maryanne: I started to play guitar when I was 8 years old. I was inspired by the performances of a neighbor who played guitar outdoors at night with a stand up bass player. The Beatles also inspired me and I started taking lessons. When I got to be 15 years old, I heard a recording by Andre Segovia and thought that it might be fun to try some of this kind of music. I then began taking classical guitar lessons and found myself falling in love with the sound of a classical guitar. And so it’s been ever since!
I played percussion in the school concert band at age 12 or 13 because they needed a bell player and there was no guitar written for this music. It started that way but when I got into high school, I took some lessons and then auditioned for Regional Orchestra. Much to my surprise I got in, even though I had only been taking lessons for a year. I found that I had an aptitude for it and quickly fell in love with the orchestral literature. I graduated in both guitar and percussion from the Mannes College of Music, a New York City conservatory where I received a Bachelor of Music degree. Later, I went on to get my Masters at Arizona State University.
Ellen: Allen, both you and Maryanne play numerous instruments but you are most associated with the violin. What attracted you to studying that instrument and who are some of the musical groups with whom you have performed? I know the range is wide – from opera, to ballet, jazz, and bluegrass.
Allen: I was first attracted to the violin through the symphonic music I heard as a small child: Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky – music with strong and complex emotions. It was all way over my head but it moved me powerfully in ways I couldn’t understand. I loved that. Appreciation of the violin as a solo instrument came later.
What has most attracted me to the violin, then and now, is the way it can render a huge variety of human feeling and levels of energy. You can study and perform a lifetime and never approach the limits of what it can do. That’s what keeps it fresh and interesting.
Orchestras and chamber groups were the bedrock of my training and, for the first several years, my professional life: The Arizona Opera and Ballet, show orchestras, ad hoc freelance orchestras for special performances like the Messiah, the Verdi Requiem, things like that. I still do these occasionally. I’ve also played in a lot of string quartets. That’s one side of things.
I was also playing jazz early on. I was lucky to have some incredible mentors like pianists Nadine Jansen, Charles Lewis and Danny Long, singer Francine Reed, and others, who were of national caliber but preferred to work and raise their families in Phoenix. Equally important were the musicians I played with in “variety” dance bands. They were incredibly experienced, could play any style, and had the most amazing jokes and stories. I also played with a lot of strolling violin groups, an art which is nearly extinct now. All these, and more, constituted a fantastic graduate course in practical music making. They gave me a set of disciplines that I still use every day.
After about ten years of this, I found myself entering a wider musical field. I started playing with the William Eaton Ensemble, Meadowlark, Mosaico Flamenco, Esteban, and various Navajo musicians for Canyon Records. So I had to adjust my style of improvisation for Flamenco, Celtic, New Age, Native American, and things that went beyond categories altogether. Along the way I met Maryanne and we formed our duo.
So I’m playing a big variety of music now, some of it with people I’ve known for decades or even since my school days, some with people I meet for the first time on the bandstand.
Ellen: And you Maryanne, have performed with many symphonic orchestras in New York and New Jersey. You were also a percussionist on a riverboat.
Maryanne: When I graduated from college, my first gig was playing drum set in Lynn Carter’s band, who was a female impersonator performing in Atlantic City. That was great fun and gave me experience in playing shows. After that, I played with the American Wind Symphony, a group that performed on a barge while traveling up and down the Mississippi River, and in this way, honed my percussion skills. Other groups with whom I played, included the music of free-lance composers in New York City in addition to the Lubo and Eastern Opera Companies and also the Queens Symphony.
Ellen: Your mother was an artist, Maryanne as was your father, the well-known cartoonist Warren Kremer. You were exposed to his creations early in your childhood, to his characters such as Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost and many more. So you were surrounded by art. What about music? How much did your parents influence you with regard to your music or your choice of leading a life in the arts?
Maryanne: I began visual art before music but decided when I was a teenager that I would like to pursue music professionally for three reasons: 1) I felt a strong spiritual connection to music and wanted to touch peoples’ lives through performing it. 2) I wanted to work more with people and not have as isolated a life as many visual artists do. 3) I didn’t want to compete with my father. My parents were not musicians although my father had a fine ear for music and could pick out and play tunes on a keyboard. His Grandfather was an opera singer in a German opera company in New York City at the turn of the century. My cousin Louis played the guitar and that inspired me greatly. Both parents were very supportive in my choice of music for a profession as they believed in my ability and they themselves were financially successful in their artistic careers, so felt that I would succeed as well.
Ellen: What about your parental influences Allen with regard to your pursuit of music?
Allen: Both my parents had great musical ears and were ardent music lovers, especially Classical and Jazz. So music – good music – was around the house all the time. My father actually made part of his living as a jazz pianist for a few years before I was born. After that, he had a day job but was still doing a few gigs on the side. When I started learning to play jazz, we would jam together.
Most importantly, when I decided to make my living in music, they were supportive of this – let’s be frank – rather risky venture! To this day my mother, who is 91, listens very astutely.
Ellen: And then one day in July 1987, Maryanne rode into Phoenix not on a white stallion but maybe, in what I visualize: a beat-up 1965 Jeep Wagoneer – without air conditioning?
Maryanne: Actually, it was a 1985 Toyota Tercel station wagon to haul my timpani and percussion instruments around in New Jersey and New York – a gift from my parents that at the time, only cost $8000, no air conditioning but snow proofed!
Ellen: Talk of not having quite the right gear – snow proofed for Phoenix but no air conditioning! You might have withstood being scorched but you did melt Allen because not only had you ridden into Phoenix but soon into a marriage and the formation of the duo of music – Lyra. Or did Lyra come first, and then marriage?
Maryanne: Lyra came first! We began star gazing one night while camping and discovered two constellations that we affectionately named “Bat Woman” and “Frisbee man”! We stumbled upon the constellation of Lyra and thought this name auspicious because Lyra means strings (and we both play stringed instruments) plus we decided to pronounce it with a short i sound like the word “lyrical,” which we found to be a more beautiful sounding word than when pronounced with a long i sound.
Allen: Our musical and personal relationships developed in parallel from the very beginning. We met on a gig on Valentine’s Day – that says it all, doesn’t it? – in 1987. At that time, each of us was looking for a fresh musical direction. I had just emerged from the breakup of a fine string quartet and was feeling at loose ends. Maryanne had just completed her Master’s in guitar at ASU and was looking for a way to focus her energies beyond the usual freelancing. So we found each other at the right time. We would rehearse, then go out on a date!
Ellen: Your wedding took place at the Briar Patch Inn in Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona. Please tell us something about the history of that magical place. Has its environment influenced the feel of your musical compositions and performances? I know you have a huge following all over Arizona and in Sedona. Lyra is an institution there.
Allen: It’s been a huge influence. The Briar Patch as we know it combines two older resorts in Oak Creek Canyon; the Terracotta Resort, which had handmade cabins dating back to the 1940s, and the original Briar Patch, which had been an R.V. resort. Several years before we came on the scene, Joann Olson and her husband Ike, acquired both properties and combined them into one resort. They got rid of the trailers, built more cabins, and Joann, who is an artist, used her landscaping and decorating talents to shape the Briar Patch into the slice of Oak Creek heaven that it is.
Maryanne and I had been playing together for a couple of years when we started playing at Briar Patch, so we were still developing our profile as a duet. It was the perfect catalyst for us. We played six mornings a week all summer long, so we could really concentrate on becoming Lyra. Not only has the magical atmosphere influenced our style, but we can bring an arrangement or a new composition down to the Creek with the ink still wet and see how it works with an audience. We both compose, but Maryanne has a special gift and the Briar Patch environment has stimulated her to write pieces that really come out of the land, the trees, and the water here.
We were married at the Briar Patch after our first summer in residence and there was no question that it was the natural choice.
Maryanne: Yes indeed, the beautiful red rocks and the Oak Creek Canyon itself has been a great inspiration and influence on our music. Many of the compositions that I’ve written for Lyra have resulted from contact with the natural surroundings there. One such piece entitled Anthem, came directly from viewing the red rocks through an arched glass transom in a beautiful cabin. Other pieces came from sitting on the rocks in the middle of the Oak Creek with a guitar in hand listening to the rush of the water and composing the music that resulted from that experience.
We’ve had the good fortune to spend 28 consecutive summers there and perform our music for audiences outdoors during the morning hours. This has helped us learn to connect with an audience and has taught us what reaches them and what doesn’t, in addition to informing our music.
Ellen: Your range of music is vast, eclectic, from classical and electronic instruments to Latino and popular Broadway shows, symphonic orchestra, plus you have both played with musicians such as Dave Brubeck. The versatility of your performances and the range of instruments you play between the two of you – violin, guitar, percussion, and more is remarkable! And there is the humor as well for comic effect. How did both your wide-ranging, eclectic musical ability evolve?
Maryanne: Yes, there can be humor, too. Actually, we were attracted musically to each other because of our mutual eclecticism! Both of us have had trouble fitting in only to the standard classical expression of our instruments. We love all kinds of music and find it stimulating to explore many styles. In addition, being we are only two people playing together, we found that eclecticism was not only more engaging for us but also for our audience!
Allen: We started with the classical literature for violin and guitar, which is far from impressive. It’s mostly early 19th Century sonatas by forgotten Italian composers, or modern new works. A few of them are worth playing, but we had to go to other sources to have a performing repertoire of any real size. Since we both have experience as composers and arrangers, we’re able to choose music we like and adapt it for our instruments. A few works originally for violin and piano, like the Meditation from Thaïs, work very well. Some piano pieces, such as the Bach Inventions, are also good. There’s even a Vivaldi guitar concerto that we’ve made work by some textural sleight-of-hand.
Maryanne has her own variety of musical styles, which she brings to the table. I have my love of Jazz and Irish music, and we have a common appreciation of Bossa Nova, Flamenco, and other Latin forms. Over the years, we have also built up a pretty good number of original compositions that are eclectic in style. Most recently, we’ve been doing a lot of Gypsy Jazz, which is the music of Django Reinhardt and his followers.
This is an ongoing process: There’s no predicting what new thing either of us may discover and bring to the duo.
Ellen: You have made a number of CDs that include many of your original compositions. How long were the gestation periods for each album and how did you make the choices for the seamless flow of the compositions?
Allen: This is a hard question because each album includes pieces we’ve been playing and polishing for years, as well as newer ones. When we start a new album, our dedicated preparation time can vary from a couple of weeks to a month and the actual recording and mixing from three to five months, working around our gig schedules.
We’re proud of the way the music on each album fits together. We wanted to make each piece lead to the next with a sense of inevitability and it simply took a lot of hard work, like putting scenes together to make a movie. But when we had the right order, we felt it immediately.
Maryanne: It usually would take us around 3-5 months to record and mix an album. Many factors went into deciding how to juxtapose compositions. Factors such as tempo, instrumentation, the harmonic key and mood all played a roll. It’s like telling a story; it was very important to us to have a flow and at the same time, an interest to our albums. We wanted our compositions to excite or calm or inspire or uplift in a spiritual way, or sometimes, to just entertain! Even the amount of silence in between each piece was very important; this also influences the effect of the music that would end as well as follow.
Ellen: You also compose music for film. Your composition, Maryanne, SAMMY’S SONG, for the movie, SAMMY THE JOURNEY that both you and Allen performed, is emotive and soulful. How did the music come to you?
Maryanne: I found my heart being deeply moved by the suffering that Sam went through. In experiencing this, I allowed myself to replicate the mood in music. Slower chords came out of my guitar with a clear melody, influenced by chords that were experimented with, chords that evoked a poignancy, a simplicity, a nobleness, and a dignity, all influencing the melody and mood.
Allen: In cases like this, my task is simply to add a texture to Maryanne’s composition and let it evolve over several performances until it feels right.
Ellen: Tell us about the violins and the six-string violiras you make for other musicians, Allen. Also, why did you create the violira?
Allen: I was privileged to work with the late violinmaker Carl Reiter as his apprentice in the 1980s, but until last year, I made very few instruments because of my busy freelance schedule. My current violin was made in 1994 by Joseph Curtin, one of the most gifted violinmakers of our time. It has the classic Italian tone, an almost magical combination of sweetness and intensity, and blends well with Maryanne’s classical guitar.
A few six-string violins exist, but the “violira” is my own creation: a violin-viola hybrid that goes from the high violin range down to the bass notes of a cello. I designed it especially for Lyra; it has the extended low range to accompany the guitar, allowing Maryanne to take the lead whenever needed. And its more viola-like voice gives us an interesting ensemble blend that sounds bigger than just two instruments. www.allenamesmusician.com
Ellen: The Musical Instrument Museum now also has your violira in its collection. Tell us about this museum and the significance of having an instrument you invented, displayed there.
Allen: The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is the largest of its kind, with thousands of instruments from all over the world. A few years ago, its director happened to hear my violira and asked if I would build one for the museum.
The completed Violira II (a refinement of the original design) is now part of the MIM’s permanent collection and will go on display in a few months. Apart from the honor of having an instrument as part of this fabulous museum building, it has revitalized my interest in violinmaking; I’m now working on an original-design five-string “contralto” violin and will keep making them on a regular basis.
Ellen: You both continue to perform together and also individually. Allen, please tell us more about the different musicians and groups with whom you have collaborated and also toured. The Three Redneck Tenors is one example. You were a great Fiddler on the Roof.
Allen: Apart from Lyra, I play regularly with the William Eaton Ensemble, Meadowlark, Fiesta Flamenca, Zazu, and jazz singer Vismaya Hagelberg. Of course, I play with any number of ad hoc groups and orchestras put together for gigs and concerts.
For the last several years, as our schedules allow, I have had the honor, and enormous fun, of touring with Three Redneck Tenors as solo violinist/fiddler. It’s a tremendouslyunny show and these guys are authentic opera singers with amazing voices.
Fiddler on the Roof holds a special place in my heart; I’ve played it three times in my life as the sole violinist in long dinner-theater runs, most recently last year at the Arizona Broadway Theater. It’s one of the most gratifying gigs you can hand a violinist. It demands everything you have, but you never get tired of it!
Ellen: Maryanne, you also continue to perform with numerous musician and orchestras and presently, as a timpanist with a number of different orchestras. A couple of years ago, you traveled with an orchestra to China to perform.
Maryanne: Yes, I love playing timpani and percussion. I presently play with several orchestras in the Phoenix Valley. I’m principal percussionist with one orchestra, and toured China in 2011-12 as timpanist with the American Festival Orchestra. In addition, I’m presently forming a percussion trio which will play ensemble music in the schools, some of which I’ve composed.
Ellen: Do you find audiences have certain expectations in terms of what they want to hear and how do you adjust to these? Also, how do you introduce these diverse audiences to your new compositions?
Maryanne: We’ve been told that what appeals most to our audiences is the connection Allen and I have to each other and the unified ensemble of our playing. This seems to make it possible for us to introduce a diverse palette of music to different kinds of audiences. As far as expectation, our long time Lyra audience knows that we will always create something new and different, and will also play their favorite Lyra compositions.
Allen: In nearly all cases, we mix classical with our other styles, and this seems to appeal to all audiences, though the mix varies with the situation. We generally program for energy flow more than a particular musical style. So our originals are in the mix with everything else and are always accepted as part of the show. A very important part of our performance is talking to the audience. One human characteristic that seems universal is the enjoyment of a story; when the audience knows the story of a piece, they’re ready to receive it.
Ellen: There is a difference however, between individual and collaborative creativity. What differences do you see and do you think that an important element in being successful collaborative creators is also being proficient, independent ones?
Maryanne: Yes, most definitely. If we don’t have our independent lives and creations, then what we do together can become stale. It’s necessary for us both to explore independently in order to bring something fresh to Lyra.
Allen: Each one feeds into the other, but a strong independent creative impulse is the foundation. This should be kept sharp by playing with a variety of musicians, ideally in situations that make you sweat a little bit. This gives you something to bring back to your comfort zone and keep it fizzing.
Differences? Independent creativity takes more work in that you are pulling the whole load, but you can also be completely unfettered. Collaboration requires more discipline; you have to listen harder, compromise, get inside the other players’ heads and hearts and find common ground. I find it more interesting because it takes me to places I might not normally go. And in those moments when the common ground is gained, it can be one of the most sublime experiences on Earth.
Ellen: Having had the privilege to enjoy so many of your performances, the intuitive connection between Maryanne and you as you perform together – and apart – is quite palpable because of the transcendent beauty of it all. What is the importance of intuition in the music you create?
Maryanne: I think intuition is one of the most important aspects of creativity. My understanding of intuition is that it goes beyond intellect into a realm that is spontaneous, enlivened, and instinctive, using ones feelings and innate understanding, again devoid of concept and intellect. This allows for insight and freshness that would otherwise not be possible.
Allen: We rely on intuition at all levels. Even a Bach piece requires it – what we call interpretation. For creating music, intuition operates differently according to the situation. I am more an improviser than a composer; when I’m improvising, I can completely abandon myself to intuition, but it’s harder for me to just sit down and write the notes. In jazz on the other hand, the formal demands can be quite rigorous, but the structure of the tune is already established and I can lose myself in it.
Ellen: Maryanne and Allen, the improvisations in your collaborations are great. How do they happen?
Allen: Most of our improvising has a context. For example, in a jazz tune, there are solo sections where we each improvise according to the style. Some of our originals have space for improvisation as well. Sometimes, it’s different every performance. But in certain pieces like Maryanne’s Anthem, I will start by improvising but, over time, let it settle into something established as part of the composition.
Maryanne: We’ve been playing together for so long that sometimes we even know what music the other will suggest we play, even before it’s played! We seem to be in a vibrational flow that allows us to create in the moment through the trust and familiarity we have with each other. Also, the work we’ve done individually helps to feed our imagination when we improvise together.
Ellen: I see many advantages to both working alone and together. Alone, perhaps, a certain freedom as to where you might let your creative exploration lead you and together, the benefits of delighting jointly in what you create and the reciprocal support and affirmation that comes from the collaboration.
Maryanne: Yes, working alone helps us be fresh in our creations and bring something new to Lyra. But working together helps us go beyond ourselves and is so much less lonely!
Allen: It really is much more rewarding than working alone! When things are properly cooking, you build what Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet has described as a “zone of magic.” When we feel it, we know that the audience can feel it, too.
Ellen: What qualities have been essential in making your collaboration work not only well, but also, wonderfully?
Maryanne: Several things: we’re both interested in various styles of music and this unites us. Also, we know how to compromise as well as criticize each other in a constructive not abusive manner. We are jointly committed to performing and we respect each other as musicians and people. Our proficiency on our instruments is well developed both technically and musically. I think the audience senses these things and the result is a performance that all can enjoy, including ourselves!
Allen: There’s a certain mystery about it but I would say, number one, enough basic musicianship to listen to each other, react and adjust to each other in minute ways. Also, there’s a quality of “simpatico” that can only arise from good personal chemistry and shared musical values. It’s our good luck that we’re on the same page most of the time. And when occasionally, we’re not, we are able to work through differences of opinion to find solutions. Over and above that, you have to love what you’re doing enough to keep at it year after year.
Ellen: Tell us Allen, about your ongoing music lecture series with diverse audiences. What sort of subjects do you cover in these talks and do you perform during them as well?
Allen: I focus on the violin, its history, the great players, the music written for it, what makes the violin as special as it is. There’s enough material there for many series of lecture-performances! I talk, play recordings, demonstrate things on the violin, sometimes, play a movement or two. Right now, I’m doing a six-part series called “The Grand Tradition of the Violin.” The next series, nearly completed, will be “The Magic of the Violin,” and I’m sketching out additional ones. This is information that I have spent a lifetime joyfully acquiring and it seems natural to give it back to audiences now.
Ellen: It is important to pass on your musical experience and knowledge to others and I think that is a large motivating factor in why you teach, Maryanne.
Maryanne: Yes, most definitely! For many, learning to play music is to express one’s heart. There is nothing more rewarding than helping another human being do this! To play an instrument for many is a lifetime commitment and as such, passing on knowledge can have a deep and hopefully beneficial influence in the life of another.
Ellen: How important do you feel it is for every child to have at least a little bit of exposure to music training?
Maryanne: I think this is much more important then our present society realizes. It teaches us how to listen beyond intellect and develops areas of the brain that can lead to inspiration and creativity. In this way, we help children grow into adults capable of thinking for themselves as well as being able to contribute to society in a unique way.
Allen: It is VITAL: Of all the arts, music is the one that most brings people together. With all the fragmentation and seemingly intractable disagreements in the world today (and for most of human history for that matter), it’s important to have the experience of creating harmony with others; the great pleasure that this affords can have a lasting effect. Also, music is a big part of one’s general culture, which is the glue that holds our society together.
Ellen: I agree, Allen. Love of the arts has the potential to connect people whereas politics, all too often, divides. Do you think music comes more easily to some than to others?
Allen: Playing it at a high level perhaps, but nearly everybody can sing, or play an instrument well enough for their own pleasure. And we can all appreciate music!
Maryanne: Yes, some find it harder to listen without visual prompts while others have this ability more naturally developed. I have even seen young babies react physically to our music, while other babies ignore it.
Ellen: What makes a melody memorable?
Maryanne: A great melody can stand on its own, but I think the harmony can really make it shine. Harmony helps to create tension and resolution in a melody. These things give direction and purpose to a melody and cause the listener to feel particularly satisfied when resolution is accomplished. It is very much like speech or communication, only with a deeper and more powerful emotional contour. In addition, a good melody won’t be too rhythmically complicated and will frequently tug at the heartstrings!
Allen: A difficult question! The flip answer is: If I knew that secret, I could write a few and retire. Actually, we’re dealing with two separate issues: Is it memorable or is it good? Or both? A melody can be memorable but not necessarily all that good. In fact, we’ve all had the experience of hearing a tune we don’t even like – but can’t get out of our heads! To be memorable, a melody has to be simple, with a catchy rhythm, often with a repeating pattern. There are certain technical ways to do that and the pop music industry has it down to a science. So many tunes I hear on the radio are cranked out by formula, and they sound like it.
A good melody, a beautiful melody, a timeless melody, is a different animal and here’s where the mystery comes in. The simplicity is there, but there’s something more sophisticated under the surface that stirs your emotions.
I know this much: A good melody is strong enough to stand on its own hind legs with little or no support, certainly without the aid of drums and synthesizers. Think of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or a great folk tune like Barbara Allen. Beyond that, the quality of beauty is hard to define, but you recognize it when you hear it. You find it in folk music, Classical melodies, the “Great American Songbook,” too. And, yes, in some popular music, from the Beatles to Radiohead, that has not been written to formula.
I know this sounds hopelessly biased, but I think Maryanne has the touch.
Ellen: You are right! Each time I listen to Maryanne’s Wayland or Anthem or Way Back Tomorrow, I feel uplifted plus the melodies linger on. And your Earth Sky Chant, Allen, that’s another one that remains with me for a very long time after having heard it. Who in your mind are the really important composers and which composers would you say, if any, influenced you and why?
Allen: I would say that the most important composers, the absolute pillars, are Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Shostokovich. After that, we’re still too close to the music: Posterity will have to sort it out. Obviously, there are many, many other great composers that the world would be poorer without. Maryanne and I share a particular fondness for Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Among living composers, I have a special regard for John Adams and Steve Reich. Don’t tell anybody, but I also like Phillip Glass.
Influences? If I were a serious, large-scale composer who I would love to be able to write like, would be Shostokovich. On the smaller scale in which I work, it’s hard to tell where the influences are. Looking from the outside, so to speak, I can detect some traces of Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt, Navajo melodies, maybe a little Schubert.
Maryanne: I love so many composers that it’s hard to pinpoint a few. But in general, I would say the universal and profound compositions of Bach are amazing, as well as the emotionalism of Tchaikovsky, the gorgeous folk music of Vaughan Williams and the beautifully ethereal impressionist work of Debussy. In addition, the compositions of the Beatles are extraordinary in their content as well as their lyrics. I’m influenced by all these!
Ellen: How would you define a classic? What makes a composition become a classic?
Allen: The answer to this one is simple, sometimes cruelly so: A composition or a tune becomes a classic if enough people are listening to it and loving it after its original style has gone out of fashion and the composer is dead. How does it pass the test? It’s hard to tell: Anything of really high quality has a better shot, obviously, but that’s not always enough. Current popularity doesn’t have much to do with it either. It’s something that goes beyond the style of one’s time to move people for all time.
Maryanne: A classic I feel has three components: It never dies in its popularity throughout the ages, it is constructed in such a way that it captures a timeless universality, and it’s greatness will reveal something different to you each time you listen to it.
Ellen: How does a melody or song arrive in your head and how do you differentiate it from what you have already heard elsewhere?
Allen: It’s similar to the way I write poetry. I usually start with the germ of an idea: a few notes, perhaps something I improvised and half remember, even a rhythmic groove. From there, I let it grow into a phrase, then a complete melody. I work out the underlying harmony at the same time, and sometimes that pushes the melody in a different direction. Then I go back and start tweaking; a note here, a little rhythmic change there. Unfortunately, I’ve never had something just come to me whole as it did for Mozart and Schubert.
Unconscious copying is always a danger; we have so many tunes gathering dust in the great cluttered attic of our memory. My labored way of writing does have the advantage that if a phrase emerges that seems a little too familiar, my alarm bells go off and I change it before it goes any farther. On the other hand, there will always be small fragments, two or three-note motifs that can be traced back all over the place, and that’s fine. That’s where style comes from.
Maryanne: Most of my compositions have come out of improvising on the guitar. Sometimes an idea or fragment will come without an instrument but for me personally, this is usually not the norm. If the music starts to sound like another piece, I frequently will abandon it. I find that the energy I get from developing a composition comes in part from it being original, which is usually something I can feel as well as hear.
Ellen: Technique alone I suppose, is not enough. Right?
Allen: Absolutely. That’s the pedestal. Inspiration is the statue.
Maryanne: Technique and studying and listening to music over the years, has certainly developed my ear, which has contributed to my ability to write music, but this is only the beginning. Creating something new seems to come more in the moment although sometimes more work is needed.
Ellen: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Maryanne: Always follow your heart, practice and work hard, and don’t be afraid to be yourself. If it is to become your profession, make sure you think carefully about how to make a good living; this too is important! With that comes some knowledge of business promotion (or access to someone with that knowledge) and also luck; hard work in itself is not enough.
Allen: Interest in music is rightly encouraged as part of a complete education. But when you begin to show signs of considering a career in music, you’ll receive discouragement at every turn. Every teacher, every guidance counselor makes it look like a horror movie: “Nooooo! Turn back! Save yourself!”
And, you know what? They’re right. My own violin teacher, Max Mandel, played in the Phoenix Symphony at night and taught all day. When I told him I wanted to get into the business he said “What are you, crazy?”
It’s not for everybody. You don’t have to be a genius, but if you are talented (you have to look at yourself with merciless objectivity) and have a real fire in the belly to make it happen, all this discouragement is just part of the screening process. Know this going in: You probably won’t make a lot of money and will have to make sacrifices. If you can’t live with uncertainty you’re in the wrong line of work.
Know this also: If you work hard, believe in yourself and keep your faith, the Universe will find ways to provide for you. You will experience moments of ecstasy usually reserved for religious adepts. You will get to know people of the highest possible quality. And you will make a difference in people’s lives. You will often be unaware of this, but it happens all the time. Be open to opportunities, especially unexpected ones. If a door closes, it’s usually a sign that another is about to open. Take a deep breath and walk through it.
I have a story to finish: When I came back from college I got a job in the Arizona Opera Orchestra, sitting third chair in the first violin section. At the first rehearsal, the concertmaster turned around and grinned at me. It was Max Mandel. He said, “What did I tell you; you have to be crazy!” He shook my hand and, from that point, he was not my teacher anymore, but my friend and colleague.
Contact Allen: www.allenamesmusician.com
Contact Maryanne: firstname.lastname@example.org