Late March 2019: the ever-expanding world of new art and interdisciplinary collaboration!

I’ve had a whirlwind of a week, spending a few days in Philadelphia, then a week at YoungArts Los Angeles. It was so inspiring to be surrounded by some of the best artists of my generation and challenged to push my interdisciplinary inclinations even further. I learned so much about other art forms and enjoyed thinking about ways to integrate them into my practice as a musician and creative artist in the future. Almost too much talent gathered together at the beautiful UCLA campus! There was definitely something very special in the air.

I was also very happy to be reunited with old artistic friends. Shout out to Nico, Ben, Gracie, Scott, Karlie, and Tiffany! It was exhilarating to be able conduct my new (like 3-weeks-old new!!) piece commissioned for the 2019 LA Winners in Classical Music, and I so appreciated the musicians’ willingness to experiment with some unusual ideas (and to sacrifice their knees to hours of bombardment with tuning forks!). Pictures below.

Another bit of news worth mentioning: I was selected as one of three emerging composers to participate in the 2019 Cabrillo Conductors/Composers Workshop (friends in Santa Cruz are of course invited to attend the concert!). This is an incredible honor for anyone at any age, and especially exciting an opportunity for me, being on the younger end of under 30. I’m so excited (and a little intimidated, I’ll admit) to be able to work with the Festival Orchestra, Kristin Kuster, Cristian Măcelaru, Octavio Más-Arocas, the amazing other fellows, and the accomplished composers-in-residence. I will be writing a new piece very quickly, so wish me luck! In fact, I really should be writing music and not this blog post, so that’s it for now.

Best wishes and happy writing/playing/leading/being creative to everyone!


Week in Review

Thanks to the Tribeca Ensemble for a great performance of a new piece for string quartet and electronics last week! It isn’t too often I find myself playing the following instrument:

Enjoyed a thoroughly devastating Tchaik 6 with Utah Phil this week as well. Between the emotional exhaustion of this piece and the physical exhaustion of In C (next month!), I’ll be ready for the ensemble musician Olympics… #goingforgold (with artistic integrity, of course).

Meanwhile, the universe offers up a humorous moment of inspiration…

SPCO Week in Review

Pictures from a massively successful week with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Tito Muñoz!! Thank you to the SPCO for their warm welcome and unbelievable playing. #legends…

Plus, reviews are in:

For one all of 17 years old, Maya Miro Johnson is an astonishingly confident composer, judging from her piece that was premiered Friday, “wherever you go, there you are.” It’s a sparse yet involving work in which a sheet of metal stroked with mallets roars like a lion and moans like a whale as it engages in dialogue with offstage strings. Atypical sounds emerge throughout the work, leading me to believe that Johnson has an admirable imagination and a promising future.”
-Ron Hubbard with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press

Taking a bow on Friday night
Pre-concert discussion with Lembit Beecher
Pre-concert discussion with Lembit Beecher
Post-concert pic with Tito and Devin, one of my most important mentors and friends and a great composer in his own right! 😀

February Update!

Maya follows along with her score during rehearsal in St. Paul, MN - 2018.

Dear Friends,

Well, I was going to do a “highlight of the month” post, but then I realized there have been so many highlights this February, it’s been practically defaced with bright yellow sharpie!  So, in recapitulation:

I had a fantastic time playing violin with Wild Up and Chris Rountree on their Salt Lake City tour stop back at the beginning of the month.  It was an exciting program of diverse work representing the manifest influence of music on actual worldly change (i.e. political and social).  We played works including Rzewski, Eastman, Oliveros, Tenney, Knowles, and Wild Up member Adrianne Pope.  The most difficult piece was by far Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union, a masterpiece of chance-based minimalism.  It was especially difficult for me for a number of reasons, one of which was that I received the music only a few days before the concert.  Though I’ve written and studied such notation before, I’ve never actually played it, so this experience gave me a lot of sympathy for the players I’ve subjected to demanding aleatory!  As a classical musician, I’ve spent so much time training myself to prepare while I’m playing or conducting; be it cues, shifts, bow distribution, or tempo change (etc.), I’m always thinking ahead.  This is absolutely impossible with Workers Unions, and in fact is almost prohibited.  Reading fast-paced rhythms, remembering repeats and meter changes, AND making up the pitches simultaneously??  It’s a lot to ask and is a dangerously complex combination of otherwise simple things.  Ultimately, it was a rewarding experience to learn the piece and play alongside professional musicians.  We all failed and recovered together!  I’m grateful for their patience and endless energy. 

A page of from Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union

Visited Baltimore this weekend to audition at the Peabody Conservatory!  Unfortunately, didn’t make it to the Edgar Allan Poe museum, but I did go to the Walkers Art Museum in search of inspiration (found disturbing Medieval torture allegories instead, but hey, cultural experience).  Was also able to see a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert with the ineffable Conrad Tao, who not only paints the most colorful canvas one’s ever seen of any concerto, but also creates music with a deep figurative understanding of the universe.  Met with the composition department and the fabulous Joseph Young.

At the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (with a blurry but still absolutely astounding Marin Alsop in the background)!
Outside The Peabody Institute’s Miriam Friedberg Hall

AND last but certainly not least… my big weekend with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has finally arrived!!!!!!!! (and yes, I understand that is an excessive amount of exclamation marks, but a well-deserved indulgence in this case).  Rehearsals with the fabulous Tito Muñoz started today, despite blizzards and sudden illnesses, and we will have concerts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  I will be getting to do the preconcert lecture I’ve always dreamed of doing, as well.  The livestream will be available at this link and I would so appreciate your digital attendance!  Hope you can tune in.  😀 😀 😀


I’m an official guest artist, complete with official itinerary!
Being a guest artist…

Blog Post #1: On What We Owe Our Ideas (and other distantly related topics)

Hello, everyone!

Too many ideas, too little time!  The numerical inequality between these two has got me thinking recently about what we owe to our ideas: 

What is our duty to inspiration?  How do our values, both learned and inherent, affect our hierarchical treatment of ideas?  What makes a “good” concept in an arbitrary system?  Does calling “the spark” by a romanticized name establish anti-productive tropes?  How much is allowing mutations to an idea via time and effort a form of concession?  Is fermentation always a benefit?  Or does it ever sour an idea?   Method vs inspiration?  Technique vs instinct? 

So many nebulous dichotomies!!

I think the mistakes most young composers make regarding the proportioning and distribution of material stem from a primal fear of not being able to recreate inspiration in the future.  Perhaps it is not so much this as simply a limited concept of the future itself.  Indeed, the hardest thing about the editing room (for anyone, really, but especially for inexperienced artists) is confronting all the strips of film on the floor, so to speak.  Young composers forget that those scraps can be used still, can be preserved or re-calibrated, can even be turned upside down and inside out.  Somehow, we think they’ve been defiled if they’re not included in nascent exactitude immediately in our latest project. 

I’ve dealt with this illogical instinct in a number of ways, and perhaps am just now coming to grips with it.  My last orchestra piece sort of embraced the anxiety of shortsightedness, to a certain extent, and perhaps its oversaturation with conflicting ideas and unreconciled material was its most convincing element, in a way.  “There is no form” became itself a form, each idea generated organically by the last.  More recently, I’ve really been trying to narrow in on the lowest common denominator between each gesture in a piece, and align that molecular function with the idea I feel the piece is expressing overall.  Essentially, I try to figure out what each piece is “about” while writing it, and trim all excess material that blurs this gestalt past the point of subtlety into obscurity.  This is harder than it sounds!  Sometimes, not even I can figure out what the fundamental message of my own piece is, from which all other included material derives.  It’s almost like working backwards from the frontal lobe into the deep recesses of one’s lizard brain, in a way.  It is really this struggle to comprehend the complexity of the intellectual concept one feels suits a work that is the true process of composing.  Everything else one must learn (technique, notation, presentation, etc.) is important but ultimately extraneous.

I believe that the surface material of music is not so much important to its character or validity as its gestalt, as I described above.  Music I dislike is music that frustrates this sensibility by putting too much of its message (and let’s be honest, every piece is a messenger for something, even if that mitochondrial DNA is purely, abstractly sonic in intention) in its surface.  As a teacher once told me, 1:1 is the most boring ratio.

(So here we are, back to proportions again.)

Perhaps this “go big or go home” approach to material is minimalistic?  It certainly values rhetorical clarity, though this doesn’t necessarily correspond to simplicity in my mind.  I think we commonly conflate mastery of idiom with true creative genius.  Not so!  The former is a stepping stone to the latter, but is cruder in nature, since it can be taught relatively easily.  The latter includes the former but is an inherent ability or a unique state of mind which one inculcates, often in opposition to the norm.

Speaking of norms… it’s application/award season and I’ve been thinking a lot about how we judge each other through our work.  I’ve come to understand that commercially successful (but not necessarily meaningful) music puts all its effort and force into its surface, the most functional location for easily recognizable brilliance (in our current definition, mastery of a tradition).  I certainly don’t eschew this entirely- I am, after all a musician with interdisciplinary interests, not a performance artist.  And it’s true, conventions do exist for a reason, through a kind of aesthetic natural selection; who’s doing the selecting, however, has been shifting over the last century to such a degree that I believe it is not only a good idea for a composer to reconsider the place of convention in his/her music, but also a necessity.  A recontextualization of convention on a case-by-case (or in music, a moment-by-moment, gesture-by-gesture, note-by-note) basis is called for in a number of fields.  For example, I’m quite frustrated right now with orchestra pieces that sound like orchestra pieces, string quartets that operate like string quartets, wind quintets that act like… whatever the hell a wind quintet is (?).  Opera is perhaps the only thing that may never be stagnant, perhaps because no one really knows what opera is to begin with (haha).

And yes, perhaps I have the luxury of boredom with conventionality, but it is also possible that we owe our ideas more than the air-filtered lip service which is so common today in classical music; that true meaning in this benevolently indifferent universe is a rare butterfly not sought to be pinned and displayed in a placard but preserved and celebrated in a sacred space.  Perhaps our own self-censorship is killing our creativity.  Perhaps big ideas don’t need capital letters and perhaps they do- but what they need most is honesty and genuineness.  Ideas don’t have an agenda, nor do they have a lifespan; however, they do have a context, and those left uncontributed to that context may lose their potency, their ability to communicate meaning and engender dialogue.

But I digress.

On the more practical side, I’ve personally started taking better care of my ideas.  Until present, I’ve kept the scribbled vestiges of momentary inspiration in nooks and crannies, cracks and corners.  Scattered in various notebooks and digital files, they’ve become a cumbersome assemblage that inhibits my (already latent) organizational skill.  So, I’ve started compiling all my errant musings into a single document.  I’ve found the immediacy of this archive to be incredibly helpful in making connections between ideas which have been tugging at the back of my brain but somehow not making their way to the foreground.

This file, however, should come with a warning label: “READ AT YOUR OWN RISK OF OVERWHELMING INSPIRATION!”  I’ve now got 8 pieces in the works (never gonna happen, but a girl can dream), in addition to concerts being prepared (and overly long blog posts being written).  Fun times.


Write/play/lead on!