Every year, we invite a Canadian composer to write an open letter for the program pages of the Contemporary Showcase Festivals taking place across the country. This year’s composer is Maria Corley.
Greetings from Lancaster, PA, where I’ve lived for about twenty-two years. I’m honored that ACNMP invited me to reach out to you. As I write this, the world truly feels crazy, making the arts even more important to our sanity. Kudos to ACNMP for tirelessly championing the new music that is carrying us forward, and kudos to each of you for being vessels through which this music lives and breathes.
I moved to Amish country after six years on the faculty of Florida A & M, a historically black university in Tallahassee; and six years before that in New York City, getting Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in piano performance from The Juilliard School. I’ve spent a lot of time in the United States, but I was shaped by growing up in Leduc, Alberta, a community just outside of Edmonton. My parents are immigrants from Bermuda and Jamaica (where I was born). There were about three thousand people in Leduc when my dad became one of the town’s two dentists. Only a handful of Leduc’s residents were black, and some of the others weren’t always welcoming. My childhood helped me to learn that fitting in is sometimes impossible, and attempting to do so can be personally detrimental.
In my family, playing the piano was mandatory. Luckily for me, I didn’t mind at all. My mom insisted that we study classical music but also exposed us to hymns, calypso and spirituals. My dad’s favorites included Bob Marley, great jazz singers (like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald) and popular music luminaries (like Ray Charles, and Simon and Garfunkel). In addition to the songs we heard on the radio, my friends and I imbibed as much African American popular music as we could. I didn’t dwell on a hierarchy: I remain awe-struck by Beethoven and Stevie Wonder in equal amounts, for the same reason -both of these great geniuses touch my core.
Given my eclectic musical tastes, I suspect my zigzag life comes as no surprise. I’m a solo and collaborative pianist, organist, teacher, composer, writer, life coach, and voice actor. I spin a lot of plates, but they aren’t random: The through-line is communication, without limits, or “shoulds.”
Shaking off limiting thoughts isn’t always easy. While I have extensive experience as a musician, my compositional training lasted a year, when I was about 13. Because of this, my self-identification as a composer is very recent, even though I’ve actually been either composing or arranging (often as I go along), for quite a while. Somehow, I bought into the idea that I hadn’t earned the right to say I was a composer. The thing is, if you compose, you’re a composer, whether or not anybody else knows about it, or likes it. As in all things, it’s only by doing that anybody learns and grows.
This statement also applies to the art of interpretation. Every piece of music gives us a chance to not only learn and grow, but also to explore. We may feel an instant affinity with the terrain, we may grow to love it later on, or we may never feel at home, however, the experience of exploration allows us to discover more about not only music, but ourselves. Whether I’m creating my own music or translating someone else’s “dots on a page” into sound, I strive to share a story, an emotional landscape, a miniature world that connects with the listener, even if my only audience is me. I hope that each of you will find the process of inhabiting the musical worlds that await you exciting, fulfilling, and joyful. If you strive to do your personal best, the process may be challenging, but the rewards are many.
I mentioned avoiding “shoulds,” but here’s an exception: music should be healing, both to the musician and to anyone with whom it is shared. I fervently hope that each of you will be fortunate enough to find the truth in this statement for yourselves.
Maria Thompson Corley