Composition made accessible

A discussion with "Miss You Like Hell" composer Erin McKeown

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Photo courtesy of Scott Snyder | The cast of "Miss You Like Hell" working with composer, Erin McKeown

On Saturday, Feb. 26, the department of theatre and dance hosted a discussion and talkback with Erin McKeown, the composer of the first departmental mainstage production of the semester, “Miss You Like Hell.” 

At 2:00 p.m., community members, including some of those involved with the production, filed into the Baker Center for the Arts Recital Hall, filling the majority of seats in the space. McKeown emerged from the double doors at the bottom of the hall, and was immediately full of energy and enthusiasm about musicianship and craft from the very start of the lecture.

McKeown, an internationally recognized musician, writer and producer, began at the beginning of her writing process, explaining the development of a solid working relationship between herself and co-lyricist and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes, playing a few popular songs that inspired the style and phrasing of “Miss You Like Hell” initially, including “Heaven on their Minds” from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” 

“The biggest thing for me was that it was a surreal experience getting to listen to the person who created the musical you’ve been working on for a long time.”

-Lorenzo Antigua ’24

“Quiara would come to my place, or I’d go to hers, and we’d just lie in the grass, and we’d write everything down—whatever words or phrases or jumbled ideas came to us,” explained McKeown.

As far as detailing the process of songwriting from a musicianship standpoint, McKeown provided audience members with a hands-on walkthrough from the ground up. After pulling up and describing her preference for and experience with Logic Pro X, Apple’s cutting-edge audio engineering software, she gave a free, easily-accessible alternative in GarageBand, which she explained is built into the system of every Mac.

“My process always begins with rhythm,” said McKeown. “Once I discover the pulse, I’m able to better imagine the melodies, and that’s how I find myself best able to set the text.”

The audience then listened to a stripped-down version of the song “Lioness,” a powerful solo sung by the character Beatríz in the show, and McKeown even brought the audience’s attention toward phrases that resembled harmonic aspects of “Heaven on their Minds.”

“Beatriz is so vivacious and so full of life, and wants to live every moment of her life to the fullest,” said Rachelle Montilus ‘24, a member of Muhlenberg’s cast of “Miss You Like Hell.”

“The biggest thing for me was that it was a surreal experience getting to listen to the person who created the musical you’ve been working on for a long time,” said Lorenzo Antigua ‘24, a member of the “Miss You Like Hell” company. “When I’m in a musical, it becomes the center of my life for a couple months, and I end up living in the music and the story. It always makes me wonder what the motivations of the composer are, and it was striking hearing how complex some of the musical ideas really were, and how simple others were.”

All in all, McKeown’s messaging was undeniably supportive and encouraging of young songwriters of all experience levels, and she emphasized throughout the discussion that a product of any caliber is attainable.

“Remember that no song is precious,” said McKeown, at the close of the discussion. “You’ll write hundreds of songs in your career, and some will land and some may not, but what matters is that you continue producing. I’ve learned so much from every production and workshop, and even if I didn’t know how to orchestrate certain sections of the score or ran into a compositional roadblock or something, I always knew that there were other artists I’d be able to learn from.”

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