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28 August 2014

New directions for Mary Mageau

from orchestral composition to writer of poetry and fiction

Mary Mageau Image: Mary Mageau  

Ruth Lee Martin caught up with Mary Mageau, who celebrates her 80th birthday on 4 September. Mageau drew a line below her compositional output after her 2006 song cycle Remembering Albany, but far from retiring from artistic life, she has reinvented herself and found a new audience as the writer of poetry and novellas. See Mageau's website for a web photo diary and more information.

Composer Mary Mageau turns eighty this September. All the platitudes about time passing so very quickly sit ready to jump off the tip of my tongue. It's been sixteen years since I last spoke with Mageau. At that time, in 1998, I was undertaking a doctoral thesis that examined the way in which female composers negotiated their orchestral world within an Australian context. I was interested in understanding what drove many women to compose in a field that was problematic for any living composer, never mind for a woman.

As I began my research those many years ago, Mary Mageau struck me immediately as a composer who had an extraordinary amount of drive, having written about nineteen orchestral works. She was a composer who despite the inherent difficulties of composing for large-scale forces was regularly commissioned, performed, recorded, reviewed and awarded prizes. I remember how, when we were talking about the thrill of orchestral writing and at the same time bemoaning the amount of energy it consumes (I was in the throes of composing my second orchestral work), I asked her why she wrote so many orchestral pieces. She laughingly replied:

'I'm addicted to it! A performance takes only minutes, but when the orchestra comes through with your ideas it's absolutely wonderful! It's a very spiritual experience that feeds the soul. For me at any rate, it is the pinnacle of a composer's career…'1

Mageau combined her love of the orchestral genre with a determined and methodical approach to composition. She was a composer that I very much admired. I felt, quite rightly, that I, and other emerging composers, could learn much from her - not only in regards to compositional elements, but, perhaps just as importantly, in how to be clever as a composer in maximising your chances of success in terms of performances and commissions.

What became more and more obvious, as my research into female orchestral composers unfolded, is that success (in the above terms) depended greatly upon the way in which each composer approached the act of composition itself. For some their orchestral writing was generated purely by the creative instinct, and a need for creative exploration, while others, such as Mageau, combined this need with a definite strategy in terms of scoring, length of work, technical difficulty, commissioning body, and so forth. They engaged with a variety of musical communities and built fruitful networks, writing works for specific performers, conductors and orchestras. In being strategic they maximised their chances of performances for each of their orchestral works, and also the chances of gaining further commissions.

A brief overview of Mageau's life shows that this pragmatic approach to composition was with her from the start of her musical studies. Mageau is an American/Australian composer and harpsichordist born on the 4 September 1934 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was in the late 1960s that Mageau became seriously interested in composition, taking an elective in the subject with Leon Stein after the completion of her Bachelor of Music degree. She was drawn to the orchestral genre because of the large range of sound and colour possibilities. In August 1997, she said2 of orchestral writing:

'Oh the orchestra - with its range of colours and resonance - so wonderfully able to express big musical ideas! I love it because it has always been so challenging to keep this huge body of musicians all playing, while being able to express one's ideas on a large canvas. It has always been my favourite medium to work within.'

It was a strategic decision to study at the University of Michigan. Their Master's degree requirement called for the submission of an orchestral work, and Mageau felt that this was one certain way of obtaining an orchestral performance! She had the good fortune to study with Ross Lee Finney who, through his encouragement and nurturing, was to become an important mentor. Also important to her orchestral development was Leslie Barrett whose strength lay in the way he taught compositional craft.

In 1974 Mageau moved permanently to Australia and set herself up as a composer in Brisbane. She found it an ideal place: a place that nurtured new compositional talent and embraced new musical ideas. There were also opportunities for performances of new orchestral works, and she knew she could grow as a composer in this field.

'In 1986 I took a firm decision to devote the next ten years of my life to writing orchestral music… I felt that I should do this because large-scale works were under-represented in my catalogue and because opportunities for orchestral performance existed in Queensland'3, said Mageau in 1997. This statement regarding the opportunities that Mageau found for orchestral performances in Brisbane certainly shows up in the data from that time that I collected as part of my research.4

By 1990 and with several orchestral scores behind her, Mageau found the composition of her Triple Concerto immensely satisfying. She had a new-found confidence and was feeling very secure in her orchestration. In her own words, this was the piece 'where all the ducks lined up and I finally got it right'. The Triple Concerto took Mageau and the Darling Downs Piano Trio to Europe to record with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. The piece was released on the Vienna Modern Masters CD series.

She was also very proud of her piano concerto The Furies, composed in 1994 and premiered by pianist Wendy Lorenz and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Of all her orchestral works, this is the one that perhaps Mageau feels closest to (and the one that I think is a wonderfully expressive and masterly piece of orchestral writing). In this work she provides a potent image of female power, drawing on the ancient Greek imagery of three avenging female Furies.

At the Australian Women's Music Festival held in Sydney in 1997, Mageau gave a public address on her attitude towards the orchestral field, and on specific strategies she has used to enable her to achieve her compositional goals:

'...in '86, I conceived my core musical identity as a symphonic composer. And whenever anybody asked me what are you working on, I always told them "ten years of orchestral music". I am convinced that because I believed in myself in this way (...) I attracted orchestral opportunities to myself... Initially I wrote concertos and I did this by cultivating and creating interest in good quality soloists who were themselves attached to musical organisations or universities. Therefore I made every piece a win - win situation. My music featured their skills and included their input in the compositional process.5

Despite the success of her orchestral composing, by 1998 Mageau was feeling the strain of delivering so many large-scale works:

'…orchestral writing eats up so much of your time. The orchestral medium is a very difficult medium to be working in and requires much concentration and emotional energy. I didn't begin to write orchestral works until my children began school. You work on it alone and it takes months - it is a very lonely task. The scoring is immense and there are numerous corrections to deal with - it is very detailed work.'6

I remember, towards the end of my interviews with Mageau, how I asked her what her plans were for future orchestral works. She replied that she didn't want to write any more and felt she really needed a break.

'…I get tired sitting for all that long time to score and putting all those thousands of spots on paper. I feel my eyes need a rest. You just want to get off your bottom and go out in the garden and dig up some earth - do something different…It [orchestral composition] takes a lot of emotional and psychic energy. There's a time to work to fulfil the dream and there's a time to let go and take a well-deserved rest.'7

Sixteen years on, it is fascinating to go back and find out what Mageau has been doing with since we last spoke. I was surprised, at first, to discover that, true to her words, and despite her dogged determination and love of orchestral forces, she no longer composes for orchestra. In fact she no longer composes at all. Her last Australian commission came from Musica Viva in 1999 for a string quartet for the Auer Quartet. Her last overseas commission was a song cycle commissioned in 2006 by the Loux Music Publishing Company. This, her final work, was titled Remembering Albany and scored for contralto, treble and tenor recorders and piano.8

In the early 2000s, Mageau put composition to one side to give herself the space and time to pursue other creative endeavours. She felt the music scene in Brisbane was changing, from a lively and welcoming scene that promoted and embraced contemporary music to a place that seemed more preoccupied with profit margins and ticket sales. She also lamented changing musical tastes that saw pop music influences infiltrating many areas of music.

Writing had been a long-term love for which she never seemed to have enough time, and so she set to work writing poetry and fiction. Mageau quickly found success with two publications of her poetry9. She says, in comparing composition and writing:

'Both are solitary disciplines that demand large blocks of creative free time to complete. Music composition is part of a re-creative art, thus requires performers, conductors (sometimes), venues, rehearsals, etc., to finally be experienced in a performance situation. Recording may follow to make re-hearing able to be enjoyed. Writing, however, doesn't require the large forces to be experienced, and the finished product is experienced in a more intimate way…'10

That's very true. Compositions need to be mediated by performers, and so the work cannot be experienced directly as others always need to occupy the space between the composer and the listener. And it's not only an interpretive space, but it's also a logistical space as it requires significant effort and expense to perform - particularly in regard to an orchestral work. With writing, however, that space does not exist and so the immediacy as well as the intimacy of the work is enhanced. Writing, for Mageau, is still a solitary discipline, but it is easy to understand the attraction of creating something that can be experienced in such a close and immediate way by her readers.

These days, Mageau has a regular blog 'Nature as art and inspiration' that features her nature photography and poetry. On this site, the inspiration and creative energy that she draws from nature is amply demonstrated.

'Nature has always sustained my creative process by providing that place of physical stillness and beauty that allows me to move into my right brain, creative side very quickly… We live in the rural countryside, surrounded by state forests that are enclosed by several large rugged mountains. It's a place of great natural beauty that inspires and articulates my personal creative process.'11

As the years have rolled on, Mageau has allowed herself the freedom to explore her creativity from different perspectives.

At eighty years of age, and after a musical career spanning over forty years, it is heartening to see she is still driven to produce new creative works. Perhaps the driving force now is somewhat more relaxed and allows space to think and reflect, but it's still there, as strong as ever. She says:

'Much as I loved music, it's also very expansive to work in another creative field - and so Mary, the author and poet, will keep moving forward in her new direction.'12

Mary Mageau, we wish you a wonderful eightieth birthday - may it be filled with joy, happiness, family, and friends. Most of all we wish you well in whatever new forward direction your muse takes you.


1 personal communication with the writer on 29 August 1997
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 It is perhaps a little known fact that between the years 1994 and 1998 the Queensland Symphony Orchestra programs had a very high representation of female composers. 33% of the total number of Australian composers represented in the QSO's repertoire lists were women. When placed in context of the number of women composers represented by the AMC at the time - 17% - this was well above what might have been expected. (Martin, Ruth Lee 2000, 'The Dark Corner: a study of the dynamic dialectic between women composers and the Australian orchestral milieu', PhD thesis, the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia)
5 personal communication with the writer on 29 August 1997
6 personal communication with the writer on 20 October 1998
7 ibid.
8 email communication with the writer on 15 August 2014
9 Mary Mageau's poetry has been published by Red Moon Press in Winchester, Virginia, the MET Press in Baltimore, Maryland and Blemish Books. Her poetry also appears in Gusts, Atlas Poetica, Eucalypt, Take Five, Paper Wasp and Yellow Moon. Her eBooks are available through Amazon's kindle store, through Cli-Fi books and in Australia, through DoctorZed Publishing.
She has written four novellas: The Trousseau, An Antique Brooch, In the Eye of a Storm, and Vanquished.
10 email communication with the writer on 15 August 2014
11 ibid.
12 ibid.

Further links

Mary Mageau - AMC profile (biography, works, recordings, events)
CDs of Mageau's music (AMC Shop)
Mary Mageau's blog Nature as Art and Inspiration

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