What got you started as a musician and made you want to pursue it professionally?
My grandmother played the piano and had a piano in her house, and I was always mesmerized by it, and begged her to play. I wanted more than anything to know how to play, so my parents searched for a teacher. As soon as I started to play, it was intuitive for me to create pieces and improv. Later on, I switched to a more advanced piano teacher named Robert Ian Winstin, who was also a successful conductor and composer, and he immediately saw my interests in composition and started teaching me composition. At age 13, I premiered my horn concerto with his youth orchestra (I was featured as the soloist). I remember as I played the premiere having this strong feeling that this is what I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve been on that path since.
What started your interest in composition, specifically?
I was always improvised on the piano (and later on other instruments), and as soon as I learned to read music and learned what a composer was, I figured if all these guys could do it then I should too. Leading up to college, I was very passionate about horn performance as well, and it was a struggle for me to decide what I wanted to do in music. I applied to college as a double major, but all the best programs told me to pick one, as they felted I could never really be great at 2 things. Around the same time, I was really getting bored with the lack of good repertoire for horn, and felt like I was constantly playing the same pieces. Most of the repertoire for horn orchestral, and as a musician in the orchestra, sometimes I felt like a technician having to realize a conductor’s interpretation that was different from my own. That is why I ultimately choose to be a composition major. It was a huge revelation for me, but not for anyone around me. I actually ended taking horn lessons and playing quite a bit through school and still play sometimes, although it increasingly seems to take a back seat as I find less time. Through having to choose, I really did discover a lot about myself and got to focus on my music and develop a voice- I don’t regret it, but I also don’t condone teachers who force musicians to choose. With less standard music jobs available, more and more people are building their own careers, and it is only a benefit to have a multitude of skills, so my hope is that this is more rare now. I think the focus in composition would have come naturally regardless.
Your website biography mentions that you are interested in the in the physicality of performance and sound production. Can you talk more about how this is achieved in your music?
As an audience member, I’m very visually engaged with watching musicians perform. I find musicians’ physicalities to be very interesting and greatly affect my experience of the music. In my music, there is an overlap with other artforms, most specifically dance. Often my music has some type of choreography, but rather than have music and then movement, or music and dancers in separate spaces, both these mediums are realized in a single action. I often search for sounds and ways of approaching instruments that are physically interesting, and I build instruments as well. When I build instruments, I am much more concerned with the physicalities than the sounds. I feel like I can always accept the sounds at the end, and figure out how to make them interesting, but that isn’t the case for the physical production of sound. I am also very interested in how the physical nature of sound affects time, and have explored what I call “time resultant music,” and “physical indeterminacy,” quite extensively. In time resultant music, time is simply a result of producing a physical movement which creates sound, rather than an impetus for the musical material. For example, the physicality of a single bow or single breath is prescribed in detail, and the time it happens to be played in is just the result of this event. It kind of flips the musician’s typical relationship with time upsidedown. Physical indeterminacy is when the physical nature of the instrument, sound, or performer’s body is unable to be consistent, thus resulting in indeterminacy. This indeterminacy happen outside the will of both myself and the performers. An example would be repeating a gesture for longer than is possible, thus the fatigue of the performer is expressed in the sound, or a gesture that is too fast or too slow to be controlled. My music really showcases the physicality and musicality of the performers in the most raw way possible.
Was this interest in gestural motion and physicality of sound production influenced by your studies with Aaron Cassidy and David Felder, or was that element of music making always of particular interest to you?
I think a little bit of both. As a person, particularly a young person, I never sat still. I was constantly in motion and my own physical gestural language of my body has definitely always been influential, long before I was aware of the fact. I was interested in many physical gestures- fast flurries of notes, glissandi, and passing gestures across the stage in particular ways, well before I met either of them, or realized my specific interest in what I was doing. My mom studied visual arts, and I have always been encouraged to create. I studied painting quite seriously during my undergraduate, and part of where my music ended up was combining all the facets of myself. However, both Aaron Cassidy and David Felder pushed me further than I would have gone- at least at that time. I met Aaron when I was only 18, and knew nothing about new music. I must admit, that I didn’t like most of it immediately, but I was curious about it and questioned what it was trying to accomplish. Aaron continuously exposed me to rather radical music, and played devil’s advocate with me when I initially rejected it. I began to study the music to discover why I didn’t like it, and much of the time I discovered that I did. He definitely threw me outside my comfort zone, encouraged a more open mindset, and moreover inspired me to be boldly honest and myself. When I met David Felder, my music was already starting to cross the line between various artforms, and I was uncomfortable with the fact that it was hard to categorize or label. David Felder really showed me was that my desire (and others’ desire) to categorize what I do was really holding me back, and he encouraged me to go even further, often landing me in areas that were extremely uncomfortable for me. Specifically, he encouraged me to work with choreographers and dancers as musicians themselves. All the sudden I was actually creating choreography for dancers. It was very uncomfortable at first, because I have never studied that medium formally, but I eventually realized that I could learn a lot from them, and they could even learn a lot from me, because I came from a very different place and create choreography from a completely new perspective. It took much more research, experimentation, commitment, and just work than writing a piece that more solely explored my comfort zone (music), but I was able to express in a way that was so invigorating. He supported me working with a dancer instead of writing the typical orchestra piece, and supported me often taking months away from writing notes on paper to research sound, movement, and building new instruments, which is very unique in the academia. Having that kind of support and freedom really developed me into the artist I am.
Does this approach to composition involve a general methodology, or do you take a unique approach with each piece in order to serve the needs of the composition?
I take a unique approach with each piece. I’m not sure if it is because I tend to get bored easily, or that I always tend to overthink everything obsessively. It isn’t enough for me to accept the instruments as they are and write a piece for them. I have to think of these instruments purely as objects made from particular materials. Then I have to create a relationship between the instrument(s) and the player(s), and develop a way for the player to approach the instrument. Usually I end up knocking myself into a seemingly impossibly small box, which encourages me to be creative and push the edges of this box. Then of course once I discover these new relationships, I have to find a new notation system to write down these ideas. I end up making a lot more work for myself than many composers would, but that’s a reflection of my own personality as well.
It seems that focusing so much on physicality of gesture could necessitate some degree of collaboration with performers, especially in a piece like Liaison for dancer and bowed piano. Do you often work closely with performers, or is a lot of the compositional work done independently on your end and work shopped later with the performers?
I do often work with performers. I don’t always work that way, but it is my preferred way to work. For Liaison, I actually collaborated extensively, so much in fact that in the end, Melanie Aceto and I decided to share authorship of the work. I had the initial idea for the work, and made the final decisions on the material and form, but so much of the material was pulled from her improvisations, and so much of my material was explored further by Melanie to find more interesting solutions for both the instrument and her body (being a non-dancer, I had no idea the scope of movements that were possible), that it was impossible to separate the work we each did (as the sound and movement are connected, we each had a large impact in the others’ area of expertise). We worked on it for 2 years before the first performance (and have edited the work since then), spending many hours each week in the same room (pretty much all day every day in the months leading up to the premiere) with each other working over material. There would have been no way I could have created that piece myself. I walked into that piece knowing almost nothing about choreography, and had never taken on a technical project of building and working with a new instrument anywhere near that degree of complexity before. I am so inspired by performers and their personalities, and tend to be a social person. I prefer to be hands on creating and researching sounds with performers- that is the best way to find something new. This style of working however, isn’t always a reality for me, and I have written work, sometimes even strong work, without this collaborative method. Instrumentation is a strength of mine, and I think about it in a physical/ scientific way, which allows me to understand how sounds which I have never heard or explored would work, with a degree of accuracy that surprises people that don’t work the way I do.
When I listen to your music I hear it as primarily gestural and timbrally driven as opposed to focusing on thematic development, in the more traditional definition of music themes? Is that correct?
Yes. I enjoy stripping music down to something more raw and basic. I think working this way allows me to extract a deeper musicality from performers and myself.
What are some of the facets (or even challenges) of timbrally and texturally driven music that interest, both in your own works and pieces that have inspired you over the years?
While my music does tend to be timbral and textural, I also can’t say that it drives me. It is a physical gesture, sometimes connected with a specific music gestural, or physical idea that is the initial inspiration. Exploring within a certain physicality is where I find the timbres and textures, but my timbres and textures are always something that I find, rather than something which serves to inspire a piece of music. I am consistently inspired by the people around me; watching what drives them, the way the move, the way they engage with others and the world, etc. I typically am well into writing a piece before I have any sort of clarity about what the piece is, or even what my timbral palette is. The process really is a constant searching and discovery.
Do you have any upcoming projects or collaborations?
Yes, currently I’m trying to explore projects that I haven’t explored before, especially ones that take me out of my comfort zones. There is something about feeling fear that is comforting for me. I just finished my third string quartet titled Upend, but this quartet is for young pre-conservatory students at the place I teach at (Midwest Young Artists). These kids are crazy talented musicians, however they have little exposure or experience with contemporary music. I have found that younger musicians and people in general are much more open to trying new things and to new ideas, so I am very excited to start working with them and see how they react and engage with the piece. I have a longer term project for piano (an instrument that typically scares me due to its noteyness) in the very beginning stages, and I’m currently actively looking for new projects that put me in an area of a bit of unexplored territory.
And for the obligatory “desert island list.” What are the five pieces (regardless of genre) that have been most influential on your development as a composer?
These pieces certainly expanded the way I think about music
Lachenmann “String Trio”
Cage “Freedom Etudes”
Kagel “Zwei-Mann Orchester”
Tenney “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion”
For more information about Megan, her music and her upcoming projects you can check out her website at http://www.megangracebeugger.com/
Below are some videos of Megan's works. Enjoy!