“I try to put the spirit before the ego in my writing as much as I can.”
In 2011, Lisa Ann Marsh made a vow. After being invited to a friend’s house concert—where she presented her own composition, Suite for Flute and Piano—she decided to embrace her dream of being a composer, a dream she had deferred to pursue a career in nursing.
“There’s a certain amount of vulnerability and insecurity if you’re planning on performing your ideas or having people listen to them,” Marsh says. “So I decided that I was going to give myself 10 years before I made any real assessment about whether or not this was something I was any good at or should continue spending all this time on.”
After a decade, Marsh—who is a pianist with the Marsh-Titterington Piano Duo and a member of the piano faculty at Portland State University—has her answer. “This is the tenth year,” she says. “And this year, I decided, ‘Yep, I’m going to keep doing this. This is part of who I am.’”
In reality, music has always been part of who Marsh is. Raised by parents who listened to Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, Marsh eventually found her own sonic obsessions, which range from Joni Mitchell to the punk band X. They helped form the creative bedrock of her compositions—along with her ceaseless devotion to optimism and spirituality.
“I’ve lived a long time,” she says. “And I think there’s a whole spiritual world that’s around all of us that we all have a potential connection to that has been clouded by capitalism, by mechanization, by greed, by all these things that weigh us down.”
Whether she’s using an opera to explore how grief might be transcended or an ice xylophone to convey the devastation of climate change, Marsh’s music helps alleviate that weight. I recently interviewed her about five pieces that illustrate the evolution of her career—in both tangible and intangible ways.
Marsh’s opera is about Arthur, a man who is guided through grief by the Nine Muses of Greek Mythology after the death of his wife and his child. The opera, which features a libretto by Barbara Conable and Matthew Zrebski, tells a tale so vast that it has yet to be completed. Act one was premiered on its own and act two is currently in the works.
“Arthur does indeed find solace and he does find love [in the end], and there’s a very positive and hopeful resolution to the opera, which wasn’t necessarily the case at the end of act one. It’s kind of a cliff hanger. People are like, ‘Wow, is he going to be suicidal? Is he going to find any happiness in his life?’ The idea is that these muses appear to Arthur in his dreams and they’re like real people and they’re instructing him how to live his life—these beings that have come from another time that are helping him through this great suffering. That in itself, in my mind, is sort of a supernatural event.”
Distillation was presented as part of the Crazy Jane Misbehaves concert, which shares its name with the W.B. Yeats-created character of Crazy Jane, whom Marsh and the other women of the organization Cascadia Composers adopted as their muse. By invoking the spirit of Marsh’s days as a member of the punk band Metro Dog, the piece explores how laughter can conceal emotion—an idea embodied by the cackling, delightfully unhinged vocals of Renée Favand-See.
“It was the first time that I presented in a concert venue with something electronic. Obviously, I had been in this punk band, I’d been a singer and sung through microphones and had crazy electric guitar things going, but this was the first time I tried to be like, ‘Okay, here’s a concert. Let’s take an electric guitar…and let’s run the voice through the guitar pedal so there’s echo and reverb and distortion.’”
“[Renée Favand-See] was a little bit unhappy with that performance, because she felt like her voice was a little bit too raw, but that’s exactly what I wanted. Something that I wanted to take from my days as a punk singer was this idea that the more imperfect it is, the better. The more you let go and don’t even know what’s going to happen, that’s what’s going to make people go wild for it, rather than this predictable [sense of], ‘This is what it’s going to be.’”
Will We Remember (2017)
Marsh’s meditation on climate change features four songs: Deep in the Veins, Blue the Color of Eyes, Pollen Adrift and They Once Lived Here, which includes motifs from the chants of the Selk’nam people, an extinct indigenous tribe native to the Patagonian region. With its inventive use of ice instruments, Will We Remember is one of Marsh’s most audacious compositions—and a testament to her desire to imagine a better world for her two granddaughters.
“It turned out that the ice xylophone really was the centerpiece, for me, in a lot of ways. Because I had started writing the piece and I was talking to my handyman [now-retired craftsman Joe Johnson] about it and he goes, ‘Well you know, in Iceland, they make ice instruments and they perform concerts inside of igloos.’ So he made these ice molds and built a stand for me and then we did the show twice.”
“The day of the show, [Johnson] came in and used some sort of a knife to sort of shave them down and pitch them. Then, of course, we had to get right out and play it because it starts to melt onstage—and ditto with the ice wind chimes. You have to get it out there and do the piece and either let them melt or get them back into the freezer. I wanted people to hear the beauty of the ice. I wanted them to be transported to a glacier-like place, but then also be aware of the fragility of it—the fact that our ice caps are melting.”
Composing for cello, flute, percussion and piano, Marsh captured the wonders of Utah’s Horseshoe Canyon; Orkney, an archipelago in Scotland; and the Wave, an area of Northern Arizona covered by sandstone carved by water and wind over millions of years. The piece was inspired by Marsh’s travels with her husband, photographer Brian Marsh.
“My husband and I bought a really nice camper van about eight years ago. It’s an off-road, off-grid vehicle, and so we made it our mission, because he’s a photographer, to go to places that most people didn’t go to or couldn’t get to and see parts of the landscape that were really remarkable, but very remote. I would always take some score paper and I would also take my computer, which I could have in the van. I’m there and I’m noticing what I notice and how I’m feeling and—this is going to sound kind of weird—but what kind of messages I’m getting, what’s the vibe.”
“With the Wave and the way that that sandstone is wavelike, that was translated into how I wrote the motifs for that particular movement. They were meant to imitate what the landscape looked like. And at Horseshoe Canyon, [there are] pictographs [that] are just so stunning. It’s not like Western art where it’s so unbelievably lifelike. It’s 4,000 years old and you’re sitting looking at it going, ‘Who were these people? What were they thinking?’ And the figures that they drew, they truly look like aliens, and you’re thinking, ‘Wait, maybe there were aliens here when they lived here. Who knows?’”
World Unknown (2020)
Created during the pandemic, World Unknown is the epitome of Marsh’s capacity for hope in the face of anguish. Using percussion, piano and synthesizer, the piece takes listeners on a journey through several movements, which chart a course from despair to belief.
“When I’m conceiving of a piece—and this is the same as when I’m performing a piece another composer writes—I have in mind what I call ‘the energy arc,’ which is the arc of the emotions and the energy that are being presented. So for this particular piece, the apex of the turmoil is Hot Winds, which is the middle movement. We start with Rising Seas, which is a little bit despondent and scary. [It’s followed by] Quiet Cities, which is like spooksville. Before the social justice movement [that followed] the murder of George Floyd, the cities were dead quiet. It was scary.”
“And then, just because I am an optimist and because I believe in the goodness of humanity—even though it’s not always shown, particularly now, by all people—I needed The New Dawn. I think that the naysayers and the doomsday prophets and doomsday prophetesses, they’ve given up. They’ve given up hope, and for me, there’s always hope.”
“I can’t predict what the world’s going to look like in 100 years. I mean, I hope we still have our planet, I hope we still have a human race, but I do know that there’s so much possibility in the human mind, in human civilization. I believe that there are supernatural powers that all human beings have that we have not yet completely identified or tapped. One of them would be universal compassion and empathy for each other. I believe that every human being has that capacity.”
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