Name: Monica Pearce
Nationality: Canadian
Occupation: Composer
Recent Release: Monica Pearce's Textile Fantasies is out October 14th 2022 via Centrediscs.
Recommendations: The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt; Suite No. 2, Op. 17 by Sergei Rachmaninoff

If you enjoyed this interview with Monica Pearce, visit her official website for more information and music. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

When I was in school, I played piano and worked my way through Royal Conservatory of Music books.

I was always interested in the “List D” pieces, which were the pieces written in the 20th Century (I think now they are “List E”). I remember playing Canadian composer Larysa Kuzmenko’s “Mysterious Summer’s Night” and being so intrigued by these strange harmonies that I hadn’t heard or played before.

When I wrote my first piece in university - a weird little etude for piano and oboe - I can remember the exact feeling when the musicians first played it. That feeling of creating something and having someone else make it their own and express it - I wish I could bottle it.

When you compose something, it's an individual experience. Still, it is also profoundly connective - once something has been created, the work ties together the composer, performer and listeners in an exceptional way.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

I don't always pay close attention to what happens in my body when I listen, but I do notice and love that the music I hear in the day follows me at night into my dreams. I process music while I sleep and feel it in my brain - the patterns, shapes, and colours all coalesce. If I have been composing, sometimes it is my own music, or if I've been in rehearsals, it might be a friend's work.

When I ran an ensemble in Toronto, I would sleep the wildest after rehearsal days. But other times, it will just be a song I had listened to on repeat on a run, getting processed through my dreams.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I felt very behind when I started composing. I started in my third year of undergrad and fell in love with writing music. I applied for my Masters, and thankfully, I got into the University of Toronto. I wrote and heard so much music, but it was also a confusing time trying to figure out my voice amid all the noise and expectations.

When I graduated, I was writing, but after a while, I felt my work was not progressing in a satisfying way. I started taking lessons with Linda Catlin Smith, and that's when I discovered my next direction.

Linda has a beautifully creative mind and is very generous as a person, and I finally felt like I could talk through some of the ideas I was trying to write. She encouraged me to be myself, be weird, and follow my curiosity about my musical material. She also helped me to listen to my own voice. When I was stuck with a compositional problem, I would take the time to investigate it and trust my instincts.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for harpsichord called “toile de jouy” for a good friend (Wesley Shen), and Linda was at the premiere. Afterwards, she laughed and said, "That piece sounds exactly like you … it was very funny!!"

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

I like to try things. I'm inquisitive, and I don't mind taking risks. I'd rather deal with any unattended consequences of going down an interesting path than stay still and wait. I like setting parameters, but only because it gives a framework to play in. But, I can also be pretty critical, and I usually decide whether I like something or not quickly.

This aspect serves me very well in my music because if I don't like the creative direction I am going in, I can move on without losing a lot of time or confidence.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

Follow your curiosity. Improve your skills through trial and error. Connect regularly with people who know more than you.  

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a "music of the future" or "continuing a tradition"?

In school, I thought a great deal about originality and innovation and what those words meant in crafting a personal style. But, that kind of thinking was pretty paralyzing because I was thinking more about what other people thought was original and innovative. This tendency is natural and something I think every composer goes through in some way, and it's probably amplified in academia.

As I've gotten older, I think less about trying to be original and more about being true to my artistic voice, connecting more deeply with performers, and trying to improve my skills as a composer.

Ultimately, I want to find joy and challenge in writing music - I only have so much control over my music once it's out in the world.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

My closest relationship with music has always been through the piano. I love the resonance it provides. It is the most essential tool I use for amplifying my imagination to match different instrumentations.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

I have a day job as a grants manager, so most of my creative work is done on the weekends. The days I work on composing are the hardest and the best.

On a typical weekend day where I am working on a piece, I sleep in pretty late, get up slowly, make myself a pourover, and have breakfast. I read on the couch for a bit, usually a chapter from a non-fiction book about psychology or personal development, or maybe a biography. Then I might do just a tiny bit of procrastinating by dealing with emails or a medium amount of procrastinating by going for a run - but eventually, by early afternoon, I sit down at the piano and start to work.

I begin to play around and sketch out material in my composition notebook. If I am starting something, it's tough to figure out the direction or generate material I like and want to develop. If I've already started, it's lovely; I can slip back into the piece and start figuring out its puzzles. I usually work for a few hours and take a break for lunch and more coffee. Later in the evening, I'll do a little more work but less intensive - putting in dynamics, articulations, and things like that.

Then I wrap up, pour myself a bourbon, and watch a show or movie.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

I had a project for the Lancaster-based Naked Eye Ensemble in 2018 for their Time's Illusion project.

I wrote this piece at an interesting time in my life, when I was engaged to my now husband and was awaiting visa news so that we could finally live in the same country. Written for piccolo, bass clarinet, percussion, piano, cello, and audio playback (stereo), “processing times” was based on the USCIS current processing times page, something I refreshed daily over months of waiting for any news on my K-1 Fiancé visa.

For this work, I thought a lot about repetition and the frustration of waiting. I visited the National Clock & Watch Museum in Lancaster, recorded and listened to many recordings of clocks, and experimented with small objects to create percussive sounds. I wrote sketches, improvised on things, and eventually mapped out the work's structure.

The resulting work is about how the passing of time has such a slippery, hard-to-grasp feeling – at times incredibly slow and frustrating, and other times ungraspingly fleeting.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

I tend to consider composing to be a pretty solitary experience. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the possibilities of the work, and what I might like to try. The actual writing takes a lot of focus which I find works better without much outside influence.

One of my favourite recent projects was a perfect combo of solitary and collaborative. I worked with a UK-based pianist - Kate Ledger - on a series of piano and toy piano studies based on physicality and restriction entitled studies in restriction. Because of the multi-movement nature of the work, we would meet after I had a draft of each study to discuss and workshop it.

This collaboration made for a fruitful experience because I could talk with her about my ideas for the subsequent study while exploring those ideas in context with the current study we were working on. Her ideas influenced my approach to the studies, and that collaboration deepened the work.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

Generally, I feel that the role of music in society is to help with quality of life. It can help people feel more deeply and can make people feel more connected to others. It can tell stories, capture moments, and be a tool to express something abstractly that can't be expressed any other way.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

Writing music when you are falling in love is the best experience. So many new connections and thoughts and questions about how you see yourself and the world - it's a great time to explore all those secret messages.

After a loss, I find it hard to write music, as writing can be a vulnerable experience.

It requires that you look inward; sometimes, I have no interest in doing that if it's during a painful period. I try to be kind to myself on that front.

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

Music and science are intertwined in that they both start with questions.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

What can be so magical about experiencing music–whether creating, performing, or listening–is that so many layers of interpretation are possible, influenced by many factors like mood, context, and whether you are alone or in company with others. How your blood pressure is one day versus the next makes you hear and feel things differently.

The ability to ascribe meaning based on what you, as an individual, need or want - that's harder to experience in more everyday tasks. There is a meeting between the individual and music in an abstract place that can be so random and unpredictable.

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

No explanation, just glad it exists so we can all enjoy the magic.