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Bardagjy, Paul. "Spiral of the Galaxy" by Mark Quinn.

How do you translate visual art into sound? Grace Ma is a second-year student working towards her master's in composition at UT's Butler School of Music. Her piece Quintuple Helix will be performed at Sound in Sculpture this Thursday at the Dell Medical School. She shares some thoughts about her creative process with KMFA's morning host Sara Schneider. 

What is 'Sound in Sculpture'?

It's a concert that features newly-composed works by UT composers, and they are composed to particular sculptures that are part of the Landmarks collection on campus. So this year, we're going to feature the sculptures on-site at the Dell Medical School. There's the newly-installed Marc Quinn piece Spiral of the Galaxy that I'm writing for. And that's going to be really exciting.

Before composing your piece, did you do a lot of reading about the work and the artist, or did you just study the sculpture and go from there?

Both things were happening, actually! You have your first moment of inspiration, or chemistry, when you first see the sculpture and say, “I want to write for this!” That was the case when I saw Quinn's work. It was absolutely amazing. Then you sit down and try to delve into the work, the creative process of somehow translating this visual piece of marvel into music, then you start doing the more bureaucratic work, researching and thinking and planning out. So yeah, both processes were happening.

So tell me what happens in that initial moment of inspiration. Do you look at the sculpture and hear a fragment of melody?

I didn't necessarily have any particular music in mind when I saw the sculpture. It was visually so appealing, and the texture and the way it stood, how big and majestic it is. These things gave me these big, brassy, loud musical gestures and outlines. It was fairly clear to me from the start that it would be for brass quintet. So we have two trumpets, a horn, trombone, and tuba. They are all students at the Butler School of Music, and they are doing fantastic, and I'm really excited to hear them perform on Thursday.

Did you attempt to depict the sculpture in your music in a concrete way?

That's always the interesting problem of translating one artistic medium into music, because music is so abstract, it's not like words when you can tell something very specific. I decided to try to capture the spiraling qualities that are on the conch shell. Also the fact that there's something from nature that's being encoded into this piece of art, I thought that I'd pick an organic mathematical sequence, and work that into my music. This is the first time I've seriously worked with numbers in my music. So the triangular number sequence is what I used to sort of map the structure of my work.

Can you name some composers who have influenced you, in this piece, or generally?

Generally speaking, the composers I really look deeply into, are often quite contrasting with the kind of stuff I write. I've been obsessed with Chopin's music ever since I was seven years old. That might have something to do with the fact that I've been trained as a pianist from an early age. I also really love Stravinsky, Corigliano, Saariaho, and all that stuff. Of course it's quite different from this sort of fanfare, very fast, very brassy, sort of John Adams piece that you'll hear on Thursday. I take inspiration from many sources. Sometimes it's a very irrational translation or feeling of my creative process.

How long have you been composing?

I started playing the piano when I was four years old, and around the same time I started improvising at the piano. I would make up my own little tunes and repeat them over and over. I don't know if you consider that composing. You can have your own take on that! My Opus 1, shall we say, was when I was eleven years old. So, slowly but surely, I'm building up my portfolio. I didn't really take my first composition lesson until I was a senior [in high school], or maybe even first year undergrad.

Did you have an 'aha' moment, as in THIS is what I want to do, or did it just sort of grow?

I think it just sort of grew. At a very early age I knew I wanted to be a composer; well, a musician to start with, and gradually I sort of decided that composition was going to be my thing for me to be creative, to be able to express ideas in music, and not just copycat, just playing other people's work, which can also be rewarding as well, and can be creative, in a different way. And definitely much more physically demanding.

Name one huge challenge about this project, and one thing that has been really rewarding, or even revelatory.

A huge challenge in this project was literally translating a very visual and fairly concrete image into a fairly abstract language, that we call music. That was quite daunting for me, and really took me a lot of time. Because this sculpture was 3D printed from an actual seashell that you could hold in your palm. Now it's this huge thing. So there are some very literal and direct elements in there. And to think, how on earth do I express some aspect of that in music, is quite an interesting challenge. And I think coming up with the parameters that I did, and then still composing a sonically satisfying and structurally satisfying piece, for me was very rewarding.   

Check out Sound in Sculpture this Thursday at the Dell Medical School, with music by Grace Ma and four other young composers based on works from the Landmarks collection. Visit for more information! 


WHAT: Sound in Sculpture
WHERE: Health Learning Building, Dell Medical School
WHEN: Thursday, April 13th, 2017 at 6:30pm and 7:30pm
HOSTED BY: UT Landmarks, Texas Performing Arts, the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music, and Fusebox Festival