C:T talks to New York-based pianist Molly Morkoski
Charles Wuorinen's Blue Bamboula performed by Molly Morkoski
Tell us something about your background.
I’m a pianist living and working in New York City. I moved to NYC on September
01, 2001 and, needless to say, that time was the most important historical moment in this city’s history. I have many memories of that time, and all the
years since, which give me ample reasons to be here and to stay here making
In the months that followed 9/11, however, it was relatively unclear to me
whether I should stay and make New York City my home. But, in March of 2002, I became involved in a relatively new series at Carnegie Hall on the “Elliott
Carter workshop” directed by Oliver Knussen, and subsequently, several other
workshops since. I also became involved on their “Making Music” series and
have had the opportunity, as a result, to meet many acclaimed composers, conductors, and performers and have made lasting, life-long bonds with several
composer peers. As I worked to create a life in music in NYC during the years
following, I continually reached out to many of the musical friends (now living in NYC) that I had met during my academic and festival years. It has never ceased to amaze me how small and generous the musical community is.
Tell us about your life prior to New York City.
I grew up in a small, mountain town in North Carolina. I started piano studies just before I turned 7 years old, and became more serious about my studies around 11 or 12, when I decided that I wanted music to be my life and career. I went to an undergraduate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and, after successfully completing it, went directly on to a master’s degree program at Indiana University in Bloomington. After that, I went to study and earn my doctorate degree with Gilbert Kalish at Stony Brook, NY. I attended many of the more famous American summer festivals such as Aspen, Tanglewood, and Norfolk and a few other more specialized new music festivals along the way, like Bang on a Can’s North Adams festival. Towards the end of my doctorate degree, and after working one summer with John Adams and David Robertson and a few of the Ensemble Contemporain members in Aspen, I applied for a Fulbright to apprentice with EIC in Paris and was awarded the grant and the opportunity to go and live abroad. It was a tremendous experience living in St. Germain-des-Près and experiencing the music scene and the life in Paris. After the experience of city living for the first time, I decided to move to New York City, which I did.
How did you become interested in contemporary music?
I first became interested in contemporary music during the last years of my
undergraduate program. I had two very close friends who were composers and
they were constantly introducing me to new pieces. Their joy and excitement
for contemporary music really drew me in and opened my ears to new ways of
hearing and thinking about music.
When I left Chapel Hill for Indiana University, I had only been in Bloomington for 3 weeks when one of my undergraduate composer friends recommended me
to play a huge concert of all new music with an excellent contemporary violinist, Mark Menzies. The performance of this vast and varied program inducted me to the larger group of composers at Indiana University. These composers and their music became the predominant part of my two years study, playing in different new music ensembles and premiering many of their new works. Since then, collaborating with living composers has continued to be a large part of what I do as a musician, and I have had the good fortune of working with many of today's greatest living composers. I hope to continue working with established and emerging composers in the future.
What excites you about a piece of music - what keeps you interested?
What excites me most about music, particularly about the piano writing is a
rich harmonic language. Too often, contemporary composers do not delve,
or dare, enough into harmony when writing for the piano, which is exactly
one of the most distinguishing factors of the piano. While I love great rhythms
executed in powerful percussive piano parts, I always look for explorations of
the piano's range and its harmonic presence and then try to employ innovative
pedal technique for coloristic expressions of these harmonies. I'm finding I have grown to really enjoy music by the impressionistic composers, Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, and any other music with a rich and dense harmonic language, like Messiaen, for example, who really resonates with me. Composers who are not
afraid to write with interesting harmonies and with layers of piano sound are
composers that really pique my interest and ears. Combine harmony with a lyrical line (even if fragmented), a diverse rhythmic sense, and an interesting
overall architecture, and a piece of music is near divine for me.
And what turns you off ?
The very short answer to that: playing inside the instrument. Because I'm 5'2",
reaching over the desk and keeping the pedal depressed can be a bit awkward.
I have had the great pleasure of playing many of George Crumb's magnificent
works and I find his music, like most of us do, a real treasure trove of sounds.
What bothers me is when the writing for playing inside the piano is not well
integrated into the whole of the work, when it is used as a gimmick and is not
vital for the musical purpose. That’s when I find it tiresome to work with, and
generally speaking, it usually does not add anything substantive to the piece
What areas of piano writing are still fruitful for exploration?
That is a tough question. I am not sure that there are things left unexplored to
this point. Rhythm has been stretched and minimized and turned inside out,
as has harmony. We've done most of the extra musical things one could think
of with the piano. I would be delighted to hear from any composer that has
something they want for a pianist to look at and try out, especially if it’s truly original. As I mentioned, I love great harmonic writing for the piano and I do love a strong rhythmic sense. This includes new ideas of combining the piano sound with other instruments to create unusual timbres and perhaps expanding the harmonic language to include sounds less “well-tempered.” Anything is possible with ears bent to imagination.
What are your plans for the future?
As for future plans, I would very much like to combine sonic design and visual art components with solo, or chamber music, to enhance the recital experience in a multi-media format. I am actually working currently on a number of collaborations with a visual artist based in New York, Makoto Fujimura. We are presenting a program of Messiaen’s Preludes and other works of Debussy with video images of water, birds, and the coastal areas of several Japanese islands not destroyed by the terrible tsunami, which are being projected onto rare Japanese silks made with gold. These silks and screens will be surrounding and suspended above the piano where I will be playing live. In the future, Mako and I would like to add a sonic design element to the "Vingt Regards" and that idea is currently in the development stage. Adding multimedia components to some music, even older, more traditional music scores, could serve as a way of guiding people towards a better understanding and appreciation for a piece. This process would also engage more of the senses and, perhaps, connect with listeners who are used to experiencing music of other genres this way.
Tell us about your plans for a disc of Gabriela Frank's music.
I am a co-founding member of the chamber ensemble Meme, and we are making
a recording of Gabriela Lena Frank's music. The disc is a collection of works for chamber ensemble with piano along with her solo piano sonata, Sonata Andina.
This disc will be unique in that it is a disc of world-premiere recordings. There is even a brand new work for piano four-hands that Gabi and I will play and record together! We are very excited about this archival disc, and having multiple Grammy award winner Judith Sherman on board with us as our producer, makes us even happier as a group. The disc is scheduled for release in early 2013.
Meme is so thrilled to be partnering with Gabriela, as it is one of our aims as a music ensemble to find and highlight works by worthwhile living composers. This disc and project has already won the support of the Copland Recording Grant
and is partially funded. We are looking to raise the remaining funds through the
generous help from friends and supporters. Please click on this link, if you would like to know more about the project and help contribute to it. And to find out more about Meme, please do not hesitate to be in touch with me. The artists of Meme would welcome the opportunity to work with more composers and create more projects like the Gabriela Lena Frank disc.
Do you accept unsolicited scores? And, how can people find out more about you?
I have recently released a solo disc on the Albany Record label entitled “Threads.” This project is the culmination of several years of work and it
represents a little piece of that “small community” of music that I mentioned at the beginning of this interview. I am very happy to have had the privilege of making a first solo disc and hope it will not be the last.
Yes, I am always happy to receive scores from composers. Please feel free to
contact me by visiting my website at www.mollymorkoski.com