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Meet 2019 Luna Composition Lab Fellow Charlie Meenaghan

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Luna Composition Lab is a mentorship program for young, female-identifying, non-binary and gender non-conforming composers founded by composers Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid with Kaufman Music Center.

Charlie and the other 2019 Luna Lab Fellows will premiere their new works on May 8 at Merkin Hall. Get concert details.

Los Angeles native Charlie Meenaghan began composing a couple years ago, improvising on the cello and writing down ideas that eventually formulated into her first pieces. Her composition studies took off when she was accepted into the LA Phil Composer Program and began studying with the composer Ian Krouse. Now 18, she’s busy applying to college and working on her Luna Composition Lab commission – a string quartet to be premiered at Merkin Hall on May 8 by an ensemble from the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Program. Below, she talks about the new piece, working with her Luna Lab mentor, Gity Razaz, and her struggle to channel anxiety into creativity.

Tell us about the new string quartet you’re working on for Luna Lab.
The piece is a sort of programmatic recounting of the events surrounding its own construction. The piece is called “Somatic,” after somatic therapy, which is something I, throughout the time of writing this piece, have been concurrently practicing with a therapist. I was finding that I had a lot of anxiety, particularly with composing. And in this piece, I wanted to sort of flip that anxiety on its head and make music out of it. This is a piece for string quartet and tape. With the tape, I use all sorts of recorded bell sounds, and in order to conjure this overwhelming feeling I literally have thousands of them going. You get this crazy cacophony of sound that almost sounds like something out of a Penderecki score or a peak moment in the Ligeti Requiem, except on completely different timbres. I disperse these moments of that throughout the piece as gateways into new sections and pivotal moments. They begin sort of muffled, like you’re only getting a glimpse of the full thing, and each time, you get closer and closer to the full picture of this gigantic sound mass. In the end, the full thing is realized, and that’s when the piece is able to return to the lightness of the opening. It’s only after you fully connect with this thing that you can heal, and it can cease to burden you.

Is there a point while you were composing “Somatic” where you faced a big obstacle or got stuck?
The sense of dread I felt throughout was preventing me from writing the piece. It just became more and more of a struggle to write, until I overcame those internal problems I described. Once that happened, I rediscovered my ability to compose normally, and I was able to turn things around at the last minute and get the piece done. So it very much follows the trend of the piece itself.

What has it been like to work with your Luna Lab mentor, Gity Razaz?
It’s been neat. She’s been a guide in navigating the world of electronics, which is a resource I haven’t had access to otherwise in my life. Of course, you can always look stuff up on the internet, but an actual one-on-one interaction with a person can help you with a specific problem you’re having and can introduce you to new things. That’s not something I’ve had in my life before, because not all composers work with electronics, and the ones I’ve known have not. And just generally, the access to resources that you wouldn’t normally have in your life is really wonderful. Especially if you don’t have the resources available otherwise to connect with really renowned composers who can help you with your music and with fellow composers you can make connections with. It’s pretty incredible.

Aside from music, what are your interests?
Computer science, in particular, is a field that I am very interested in. In fact, I just committed to the Columbia-Juilliard Program, so I will likely be a computer science major rather than a music major for the next few years. I’m also really interested in the overlap between technology and music. For this project, I’ve worked with electronics, which isn’t exactly computer science, but is tech-oriented nonetheless. And for an upcoming project, I’ve been trying to teach myself to use Max for algorithmic composition. Aside from computer science, I play tennis, I love martial arts, and I’m interested in psychology.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced recently?
It’s always the pressure I put on myself. As I’ve seen with this project, while the pressure can push me to accomplish great things, it’s very much a double-edged sword. I think putting pressure on myself with music, with academics, with everything, has allowed me to grow maybe faster than I would have otherwise, and write pieces that I maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. But at the same time, I think it’s very important to make sure that I’m motivating myself positively instead of negatively. I need to be worried about how each project I work on compares to the previous one rather how it stacks up against everyone else’s music. And even more important is to focus on the learning and the growth over the finished product.

What are your future career goals?
I know music needs to be in my life, and probably part of my career, but I don’t think it’s going to be the entire thing, because it’s just such an incredible challenge to make a living as a composer. Plus, if this project has taught me anything, it’s that I think I would actually write better if I was balancing music with a different, more stable career path – it would make the pressure a lot less great. But certainly, I want to be composing – and I’m very open-minded to whether that’s for film or for concerts or what have you. I’m looking forward to trying it all.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
I have an insatiable appetite for sushi. My favorite is salmon roe.

Do you have any advice for young composers just starting out?
Be kind to yourself. The best thing you can do is to be your number one ally. If you’re listening to your own voice and you’re not worried about how others will perceive it, or what others will think about it, and you’re not stressing over that, and you’re just writing what you’re hearing and feeling, that’s when you’ll write your best music.

Learn more about Luna Composition Lab.