Lisa Ann Marsh’s natural and supernatural music


“I try to put mind before ego in my writing as much as I can.”

Composer Lisa Ann Marsh. Photo by Brian Marsh.

In 2011, Lisa Ann Marsh made a wish. After being invited to a concert at a friend’s house, where she presented her own composition, Suite for flute and piano– she decided to embrace her dream of becoming a songwriter, a dream she had carried over to pursue a career in nursing.

“There is some vulnerability and insecurity if you plan to implement your ideas or have people listen to them,” says Marsh. “So I decided that I was going to give myself 10 years before doing an actual assessment of whether this was something I was good at or whether I should keep spending all that time on what.”

After a decade, Marsh, pianist with the Marsh-Titterington Piano Duo and piano faculty member at Portland State University, has his answer. “It’s the tenth year,” she said. “And this year I decided, ‘Yeah, I’m going to keep doing that. It’s part of who I am.

Composer Lisa Ann Marsh.  Photo courtesy of the composer.
Marsh in his studio. Photo of Elena Rose.

In fact, music has always been a part of Marsh’s identity. Raised by parents who listened to Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, Marsh eventually found her own sonic obsessions, ranging from Joni Mitchell to punk band X. They helped form the creative foundation of her compositions, as well as her sound obsessions. relentless dedication. to optimism and spirituality.

“I lived a long time,” she says. “And I think there’s a whole spiritual world around all of us that we all have a potential connection that has been clouded by capitalism, by mechanization, by greed, by all these things that weigh on us.”

Whether she uses an opera to explore how sorrow can be transcended or an ice xylophone to express the devastation of climate change, Marsh’s music helps lighten that weight. I recently interviewed her about five plays that illustrate the development of her career, in both tangible and intangible ways.

“We Will Remember” Marsh in performance, ice xylophone scene at left. Photo by Matias Brecher.

fun (2013)

Marsh’s opera tells the story of Arthur, a man guided in mourning by the nine muses of Greek mythology after the death of his wife and child. The opera, which features a libretto by Barbara Conable and Matthew Zrebski, tells a story so vast it has yet to be completed. Act one was created on its own and act two is currently in preparation.

“Arthur does indeed find comfort and he finds love [in the end], and there is a very positive and hopeful resolution for the opera, which was not necessarily the case at the end of the first act. It’s a kind of cliff suspension. People are like, “Wow, is he going to be suicidal? Will he find happiness in his life? ‘ The idea is that these muses appear to Arthur in his dreams and that they are like real people and that they teach him how to live his life – these beings from another time who help him through this great suffering. . That in itself, in my mind, is sort of a supernatural event. “

Distillation (2013)

The distillation was presented as part of the Crazy Jane Misbehaves concert, which shares her name with the character of Crazy Jane created by WB Yeats, whom Marsh and the other women of the Cascadia Composers organization adopted as their muse. Invoking the spirit of Marsh’s days as a member of the punk band Metro Dog, the play explores how laughter can cover up emotion – an idea embodied in the delightfully disturbed, cackling voice of Renée Favand-See.

“It was the first time that I presented something electronic in a concert hall. Obviously I had been in this punk band, I was a singer and I sang through mics and I had crazy electric guitar stuff, but this was the first time I tried to tell myself : ‘Okay, here’s a concert. Let’s take an electric guitar… and run the vocals through the guitar pedal so that there is echo, reverb and distortion. ‘”

“[Renée Favand-See] was a little unhappy with this performance, because she felt her voice was a little too raw, but that’s exactly what I wanted. Something I wanted to take away from my days as a punk singer was this idea that the more imperfect, the better. The more you let go and don’t even know what’s going to happen, this is what is going to drive people crazy for it, rather than the predictable. [sense of], ‘That’s what it’s gonna be.’ ”

Will we remember (2017)

Marsh’s Meditation on Climate Change consists of four songs: Deep in the veins, blue the color of the eyes, drifting pollen and They once lived here, which features designs taken from the songs of the Selk’nam people, an extinct indigenous tribe originally from the Patagonia region. With his inventive use of ice instruments, Will we remember is one of Marsh’s most daring compositionsand a testament to her desire to imagine a better world for her two granddaughters.

“It turned out that the ice xylophone was really the centerpiece, for me, in so many ways. Because I had started to write the song and I was talking to my handyman [now-retired craftsman Joe Johnson] about it and he said, “Well, you know, in Iceland they make ice instruments and they do concerts inside igloos.” So he made these ice cream molds and built a booth for me, then we did the show twice.

“On the day of the show, [Johnson] came in and used some kind of knife to shave them and throw them away. Then, of course, we had to go out and play because it’s starting to melt on stage – and ditto with the ice wind chimes. You have to take it out and make the piece and either let it melt or put it back in the freezer. I wanted people to hear the beauty of ice cream. I wanted them to be transported to a glacier-like place, but also to be aware of their fragility – the fact that our ice caps are melting.

Triptych (2019)

Component for cello, flute, percussion and piano, Marsh has captured the wonders of Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon; the Orkney Islands, an archipelago of Scotland; and the Wave, an area of ​​northern Arizona covered in sandstone carved by water and wind for millions of years. The piece was inspired by Marsh’s travels with her husband, photographer Brian Marsh.

“My husband and I bought a very nice motorhome about eight years ago. He’s an off-road, off-grid vehicle, and so we made it our mission, because he’s a photographer, to go to places where most people wouldn’t or couldn’t go and see. parts of the landscape that were truly remarkable, but very remote. I always took score paper and also took my computer, which I could have in the van. I’m there and I notice what I’m noticing and feeling and – this is going to sound a little weird – but what kind of messages I’m getting, what’s the vibe.

“With the wave and the way that sandstone is like a wave, it translated into the way I wrote the patterns for this particular movement. They were supposed to imitate what the landscape looked like. And in Horseshoe Canyon, [there are] pictograms [that] are so beautiful. It’s not like western art where it’s incredibly realistic. He’s 4000 years old and you are setting watching him say, ‘Who were these people? What were they thinking? ‘ And the figures they drew really look like aliens, and you’re like, ‘Wait, maybe there were aliens here when they lived here. Who knows?'”

Unknown world (2020)

Created during the pandemic, Unknown world is the epitome of Marsh’s capacity for hope in the face of angst. Using percussion, piano and synthesizer, the piece takes listeners on a journey through several movements, which trace a course from despair to belief.

“When I design a piece – and it’s the same as when I play a piece that another composer writes – I have in mind what I call the ‘energy arc’, which is the arc of emotions and energy. which are presented. So, for this particular room, the peak of the turmoil is Hot winds, which is the middle movement. We start with Rising seas, which is a little depressed and scary. [It’s followed by] Quiet towns, which is like Spooksville. Before the social justice movement [that followed] the murder of George Floyd, the cities were completely silent. It was scary.”

“And then, just because I’m optimistic and because I believe in the goodness of mankind – although this is not always shown, especially now, by everyone – I needed The new dawn. I think the naysayers and the doomsday prophets and doomsday prophetesses, they’ve given up. They lost hope, and for me, there is still hope.

“I can’t predict what the world will be like 100 years from now. I mean, I hope we still have our planet, I hope we still have a human race, but I know there are so many possibilities in the human mind, in human civilization. I believe there are supernatural powers that all human beings have that we have not yet fully identified or harnessed. One of them would be universal compassion and empathy for each other. I believe that every human being has this ability.

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Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes on plays and films for Willamette Week and is the editor of the THO Movie Reviews blog and podcast. He first dabbled in journalism at the age of 13 and decided to start criticizing sci-fi and fantasy films – a hobby that over the course of a decade grew. transformed into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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