Karen Lemon is an experienced musician – she holds a PhD in Musicology from the University of Sydney (on Schoenberg’s “atonal” music c.1910) as well as a licentiate in Dalcroze Eurhythmics from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh – but until recently has had limited opportunity to compose, a circumstance that she is presently attempting to remedy.
Recent performances of her music include a performance of the piano solo ‘This Sea’ in Shanghai in 2012 and a performance of a score for quartet to accompany a screening of the 1920 silent film classic ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ in Sydney in 2014.
Karen+has worked as a tutor at the Conservatoriums of the University of Sydney and the University of Tasmania. Currently she lives for most of the year in France.
OPUS DISSONUS - What was your first contact with the art of composing?
LEMON - That rather depends on how one defines “the art of composing”. If it is “creating fully notated music designed to be played by instrumentalists with sufficient talent and experience to read and realise the score”, then probably at around 17 years of age, when I wrote a piano piece. I’m not sure it was particularly artful, though (it sounded like bad Rachmaninoff!). But as an undergraduate at university I had the good fortune to take some composition lessons, even though composition was not my main study. I’m not sure that the pieces I wrote then were artful either, but certainly the music of the composers from whom I learned mostly was, and so it was a valuable experience.
OPUS DISSONUS - What motivated you to start?
LEMON - …however, were one to define “the art of composing” as “the practice of making up bits of music”, then I have been composing ever since I can remember! My early encounters with music were at the piano, playing by ear and improvising. So it’s hard to identify a single point at which I started to compose, and thus a motivation for it. But my motivation for doing what I was doing was the love of it. I should say that my upbringing was mostly with pop music, which, in written form, is not so much notated as sketched out, giving a map for realisation. My engagement with art music didn’t really begin until I was at university, except for learning four piano pieces each year for my piano exam.
OPUS DISSONUS - How does your compositional process work?
At this point I should apologise to your readers, because this is probably all sounding rather lowbrow. But, alas, I must continue in the same fashion …
My compositional process works something like this:
1. I decide which instrument(s) I will write for, approximately how long the piece will be, and for what kind of performer(s) (virtuoso or talented amateur or relative beginner, and adult or teenage or child). If I am writing for voice(s) I find a text and usually undertake some basic planning regarding structure.
2. I sit down to compose, but immediately notice that the windows need cleaning. So I clean the windows. And that takes so much time that I think “I don’t have enough time to compose now – I’ll compose tomorrow”, and then I take myself off for a walk by the seaside (I’m very lucky that I live near a very beautiful clifftop walking path).
3. Tomorrow comes and I sit down to compose, but suddenly remember that the bathroom cabinet is in desperate need of being cleaned out. So I clean out the bathroom cabinet. And that takes so much time that I think “I don’t have enough time to compose now – I’ll compose tomorrow”, and then I take myself off for a walk by the seaside.
4. Tomorrow comes and I sit down to compose, but am gripped by an inescapable urge to rearrange the cutlery and kitchen utensils drawers … And this and steps 2 and 3 and their like go on for days and days. My house is never so clean and tidy as when I am starting a new composition. And during this time I experience two emotions: fear – fear that I have no musical ideas and will never compose another piece of music ever again – and anger – anger with myself for not forcing myself to work. However, I know from experience that all this fear and anger (and walking!) must be necessary, because …
5. One day while I am eating breakfast, my whole being is seized with the sense that today is that day that I will compose, even though I have no musical ideas in mind. So I sit down to compose. And after a few hours I find in front of me several pages with dots and squiggles and notes all over them, that represent a basic plan for the piece, the main musical ideas I will pursue, how they will be developed, and sometimes even short passages that are fully formed. And I think: “how did that happen?”, and the answer is: “I don’t know”. I can only assume that throughout those seemingly procrastinatory days something was going on in my head of which I was unaware.
Now, I know that that sounds hopelessly naïve. I would love to be one of those composers who says things like “I was reading this article the other day about gene splicing and found the mathematical permutations associated with splicing and recombination of the cloning vectors so mind-blowingly fascinating that I thought I would use them to direct the manipulations of my microtonal fractals at every structural level” or some such. Or even something like “this piece is a profound contemplation of the horror of anti-civilian bombings in Aleppo”. But, alas, I’m not. It is not that I do not engage with such ideas; it is simply that I don’t take them as starting points for composition. They just go into the muddled melting pot that is my brain, and come out (or don’t come out) as they will. Perhaps in the future some musicologist will come across a piece of mine and discover “Hey, the rhythmic structure of the opening of this piece is exactly that of one of Donald Trump’s insane phobic rants in the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election”. And they may well be right. But it certainly wasn’t intentional!!!
OPUS DISSONUS - Who are the composers who have had the greatest influence on your work, from the earliest compositions to the present?
That’s a difficult one: the true answer is no one and everyone, which doesn’t say anything. But if I had to make a call, I’d probably say Mahler for having the courage not to hold back, Beethoven and John Cage for being trailblazers and for making people think outside the square (even though any Cageian influence is purely cognitive, not at all musical), Debussy and Bill Evans for sheer inventiveness and exquisite intricacy, and Brahms and Hindemith for unsurpassed compositional technique. And J.S.Bach and Messiaen simply for being J.S.Bach and Messiaen.
OPUS DISSONUS - In your opinion, what can we expect for the future of classical music?
There are two ways of looking at this. If you mean what is the future in society of classical music, then I admit that I am a pessimist. I’m not sure it has one. These days, in Western society at least, it seems that only things that require electricity or battery power are considered to be of any interest, and only things that cost money are considered to be of any value. So it’s curtains for classical music. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for it, though. If, however, you mean in what artistic direction will classical (ie art) music go, then who could say? I just hope that wherever it goes, it goes with reverence and humility.
OPUS DISSONUS - Final words/considerations, or your words for the composers of the future.
We are all of us different, and so who am I to say? In my music there are melodies. And chords. With root notes! That move in functional progressions with sound voice-leading!!! Clearly I am a musical dinosaur. But I feel that that is MY music, that is MY way of speaking with others, and I hope that others think I have something to say that they can embrace. But each has her/his own voice, and so all I would be inclined to say is: listen, read, think, feel – widely, carefully, sympathetically – and be yourself, even if that is at odds with everybody else. You will find your place and your conscience will be clear. However, if fame and commercial success are what you desire, ignore everything I have just said.