Composer, pianist and violinist Helen Lyons, age 15, lives in New York City. Her Luna Lab mentor is composer Tamar Muskal.
"I can’t imagine a life without writing music. It’s the first thing I reach for as soon as I have any free time. I find it both incredibly relaxing and intellectually challenging to start with an idea and expand on it until it’s a fully-formed thought. I love the pleasure that it brings others and the beauty that it can bring to the world."
What inspires you to compose?
A lot of my pieces are inspired by nature. What I love about New York City is that it’s so beautiful. It’s such a busy city with a lot of people, yet it’s so close to nature. Last year I wrote a piece for string orchestra called “First Day of Spring.” The sun was out and the birds were singing, it was just such a beautiful day. And there’s another song I wrote for orchestra called “Snowflakes” that’s about the irregularity and beauty of nature. I really love the energy of the city combined with its proximity to the water. Even though people may not associate city life with nature, if you keep your eyes open and look for it, you can find nature everywhere.
How did you begin composing?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve sat down at the piano and improvised. Sometimes ideas come to me as I go about my daily life, and sometimes they come to me when I’m sitting at the piano. I come up with a lot of my best ideas when I’m doing something else. I wrote my first composition for multiple instruments when I was 9 years old, when I was a finalist for the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. I compose music all the time and always have a handful of projects in various states of completion. For example, right now I’m working on six different pieces written on paper, and three more ideas that exist only in my head.
I’m lucky because my high school has an incredible music program. My teachers are really inspiring, and the other students are truly accomplished musicians. I’ve written for a variety of ensembles, including solo piano, percussion ensemble, a woodwinds group, piano trio, a violin clarinet piano trio, string orchestra, full orchestra and jazz band. I love to write piano trios because I feel like each instrument has its own unique voice. I also play violin for my school’s orchestra and have been lucky enough to play piano in my school’s jazz band, which I like because it creates opportunities for students to improvise and experiment with sounds that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to if they’re just studying traditional classical music.
What is your composition process like?
As I said earlier, when I come up with an idea, it’s often inspired by nature. Maybe I’ve just experienced a beautiful day, or seen a really dramatic flash of lightning. I also play sports – I was the captain of the girls’ lacrosse team last year and I’m on the varsity swim team this year. I often find that when running across the field or in the middle of a long swim set, the rhythmic, repetitive nature of that activity can often be a catalyst for giving me ideas. Generally, I come up with an idea, and I say, “Wow, I like that sound,” and then I think about it. The idea bounces around in my head for a while, and then I come to a point when I can’t stand it and I just have to write it down. And then I transcribe the notes onto a digital score using Sibelius, the computer program. Sometimes if I come up with an idea in a place where I don’t have access to that, I create my own little staff and write with a pen and paper. It could be in the back of my notebook, it could be anywhere, like in my lacrosse bag. I write some notes down, or even some letter names to jog my memory. And then whenever I can, I open Sibelius and just let the music pour out of me.
Tell us about the Luna Lab piece that will be premiered on June 4 at Roulette. (Get tickets)
The piece is called “The Chase/Torrent.” It’s for full orchestra. I was running home from the subway, and there was a huge rainstorm. It’s about running home and trying to beat the rain. Everyone in the streets was running, and it was a dramatic experience. The piece is very fast-paced – it’s almost tripping over itself, it’s going so fast. I tried to make it as dramatic and momentous as I could to reflect the rainstorm.
How has Luna Lab impacted you personally?
I’ve found my mentor, Tamar Muskal, to be incredibly inspiring. She’s a wonderful role model. Her confidence in me and her words of encouragement have really motivated me. I’m starting to learn about what composing is like in the real world. No one in my family has a career in music, and so I’m really grateful to this program for being able to teach me about what that could be like. She’s really welcomed me into her family and life in a way that’s been incredibly generous.
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