Composer, conductor, and violinist Maya Miro Johnson, age 17, lives in Salt Lake City. Maya’s Luna Lab mentor is composer Kristin Kuster.
"My hope is that one day we can simply call ourselves 'composers/conductors (who happen to be female),' rather than 'women composers/conductors,' and that we no longer feel treated like some special subgroup but simply like equal artists, thinkers, and professionals."
How did you first start composing music?
Although I really loved classical music, I never really saw myself as being capable of it. I thought it was reserved for a kind of elite. It always seemed something very distant, something up on this golden pedestal in the sun that I could never quite reach. The way music is taught, it seems as if compositions fall from the sky, fully-formed, into the heads of old German white men with crazy beards. Even though I knew this to be untrue, it was still a pervasive image that was lodged in my brain.
When I was just starting high school, my interest in the dual fields of conducting and composition blossomed. I heard this radio broadcast from Carnegie Hall, and that was kind of this weird “aha!” moment I had where I was picturing the orchestra and thinking, “how can I really be up there? I don’t know if I can…” This image, Simon Rattle, with his amazingly gorgeous hair, just flinging his arms around came into my head, and I thought, “that’s got to be really interesting. What is this thing called conducting?” At the same time, I also heard Andrew Norman speak live about his music. And that was maybe the first time that I realized that contemporary music is this constantly evolving, struggling thing that’s very vivacious. It has life, it has its own personality. That’s the first time I realized that music is also like that, that it’s engaging; it doesn’t just happen, it has to be made. You can engage with it, especially as a composer.
I joined the youth orchestra in Salt Lake City and began to teach myself to read scores by borrowing them from the library and bringing them to Utah Symphony concerts, in order to build an auditory connection with the visual notation. At the same time, the first annual Utah Young Composers Project (a series of workshops with local composers culminating in an orchestra reading), run by my now-teacher Devin Maxwell, was announced. I thought, “hey, why not? I’ll give it a try.” What happened is I kind of stumbled blindly into this giant mammoth of the orchestra and I just loved it. I loved it so much and I just had so many ideas. And I really liked the sense of engaging with sound as I’d never been able to do before with my instrument.
I auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra as a conductor, and last summer I was selected to be one of their two apprentice conductors. It was just a phenomenal opportunity. I learned so much about music, and how sound is linked to physical and psychological gesture. I also met some very important people, role models, such as Marin Alsop.
What inspired the piece you wrote for Luna Lab that will be premiered on June 4?
Something that is important to me and that I as a native of Salt Lake City have been experiencing quite a bit is global warming and climate change. The environment is a strange, invisible variable that floats around and influences every part of your life without you realizing it. A particular instance that sparked this compositional idea was when we had this crazy smog back in December. You couldn’t see five feet in front of you. The air is really, really bad here in the winter, partially due to this thing called the winter inversion, which is this natural air pressure pattern made worse by commuter emissions. The consistency of the air was very heavy and static but also composed of delicate tendrils at the same time. It had a thickness to it, but also a kind of gracefulness. It was very visually stunning, actually. Obviously, I couldn’t breathe, so that wasn’t fun, but it somehow reminded me of a brass sound, the way the brass sound has a thicker quality. It’s round, but the air is kind of concentrated. And so, I started planning a tripartite piece for brass ensemble based on these ideas and utilizing extended techniques that explore air and how the thickness of air can change for the worse or for the better.
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra commissioned you to write a piece that will be premiered next winter. Tell us about that piece.
My theme is the idea of “home”. They wanted a younger generation’s perspective on this idea. So, my job is to both represent myself and what “home” means to me, and also to younger people in general. I’m really interested in representing “home” in two ways: as something that’s incredibly transient in relation the outside world, political turmoil, and the way landscapes, communities, and relationships change. And then as an internal stability, meaning the identity of an individual, meaning a feeling of security or resilience even in times of exploration, extremity, or hardship. It’s for chamber orchestra. They told me I could do anything with the percussion, so I’m really excited about that. I currently have a concept that utilizes a great deal of spatialization and motivic, extended writing too. It’s very much about the duality of the strange and the familiar.
Why is Luna Lab’s mission of empowering young women composers important?
I think that the problem women are facing at the moment is not the number of women that are participating; it’s not the number of girls being encouraged to become professional musicians, in my personal opinion. It’s where those numbers are concentrated. It’s still really, really hard for women to break the top 100 composers, the “establishment.” It’s hard for them to get their music played. It’s hard for conductors to get work. They’re no longer told that they are not capable, but instead that they cannot achieve expertise in their fields, even only subconsciously or indirectly. They’re really concentrated at the academic level, at the amateur level or at the local level. Of the top 10 full-time, internationally-ranked orchestras in the U.S., Marin Alsop is still the only female music director. Perhaps this is because, culturally, women are seen as nurturing or pedagogical and not career-driven or ambitious in any way. I think it’s really, really important that we be allowed to be both, to be both mothering as teachers and ambitious as workers in high-stakes fields like orchestras. My hope is that one day we can simply call ourselves “composers/conductors (who happen to be female)” with an almost-meaningless parenthetical, rather than “women composers/conductors,” and that we no longer feel treated like some special subgroup but simply like equal artists, thinkers, and professionals.
But in the meantime, we face challenges, like the fact that programming for big ensembles like orchestras is already very conservative. They mostly perform standard repertoire, which is mostly-dead, mostly-white, mostly-male music, right? And since women and composers originating from the New World and non-western countries are associated with 20th and 21st century work, their music is already going into programs even more infrequently, because of the risk of the unknown factor. Which is why organizations like Luna Lab and the SPCO are so fantastic, because they take risks on the unknown. Like me. I’m unknown, and I’m very grateful that they’ve taken this risk on me. I hope that I can deliver for them. It’s great that Luna Lab provides both opportunity for exposure and role models who are succeeding both as mentors and as full-time composers and who are willing to take risks on young people who wouldn’t have that opportunity otherwise.
What are your career goals?
I’d really love to be a music director somewhere someday, as well as perhaps a composer-in-residence. My dream is to demystify the relevancy of contemporary music by contextualizing it with the great masterworks of the past. I love Beethoven and Shostakovich just as much as Xenakis, so I’d love to work with both traditional orchestras and contemporary-specializing ensembles like ICE and EIC. In general, though, I just want to get people to think more deeply and feel more deeply and become empathetic. What’s so amazing about an orchestra is that it involves an immense amount of cooperation and focus. And that is not reflected in our political world at all. It’s really, really hopeful and beautiful and exciting that people still retain their individuality and their unique ideas and experiences when they play in an orchestra, yet become this one amazing, fantastic organism. I really think that sense of cooperation is critical to share with the world, and I want to get people to think about communication and linguistics and meaning and history and science and symbolism and how it all interacts with our daily lives, and how we can be more empathetic towards other people.
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