An Introspective with Carolyn Yarnell
On September 30, House of Time will perform Four Seasons/Three Graces, our first program including a piece from the 21st century. (You can get tickets at this link). This past July in Carmel, California, I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Yarnell, the composer of Three Graces. Thanks to flutist, Stephen Schultz, who will also be performing Three Graces with us, we were introduced and got along instantly. Part of this was because we both had photography in common, but I somehow felt like I had known Carolyn all my life. We took a few drives together down the coast on Highway 1. (pictured on the left) I’d ask Carolyn bits about her life and about the Three Graces. I was making mental notes and imagining how her answers would influence the way I would eventually perform her piece.
We ventured out down Highway 1 and turned left onto Carmel Valley Road (pictured right). Sofia Gubaidulina and Avro Part played continuously on her CD player, probably looped 2 or 3 times. We chased the Soberanes wildfire that started in Garrapada Canyon just a few days before to try and capture its intensity with our cameras. We were turned away at an entrance to one of the only roads that fire fighters were using to make trips up into the hills. The road was closed so we turned around but still managed to get some good shots. The rough terrain and harsh landscape required extra crews to come in and bulldoze areas to get to the fire. It was not going to be a quick fix and its still burning to this day. It was mysterious and eerie and had a strong psychological effect on anyone breathing its air. You felt like you were wearing tinted sunglasses as the hue of the sky remained a continuous dusty gold.
"The air drips with ash, mists with fog, and smells like winter at the fireplace" - Daubek
It all was surreal. Carolyn and I captured some photos that day. A few of mine are interspersed here and Carolyn's are posted below in this interview, which I conducted later that day. Everyone has a story to tell and part of hers is below. Through music, she is able to portray the life that she is experiencing at a given moment. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
TD: What’s your inspiration for your own compositions?
CY: Just me. Just life. Whatever I’m going through at the time. No two moments are exactly the same.
TD: Does growing up near Yosemite influence some of your compositions?
CY: Yes, absolutely. I was an only child and really loved nature and being alone. I love beautiful things. Forests, oceans, sunsets, fires, waterfalls, rocks, flowers, all those things. I love stars, moons, planets, the sky.
TD: House of Time is really looking forward to performing your piece, Three Graces. When and why did you decide to compose it?
CY: I’m looking forward to House of Time performing Three Graces!! Thank you!! Three Graces was composed it in 1999 and was a commission by the ensemble American Baroque. (both oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz and flutist Stephen Schultz were in that ensemble at the time). Previously I had written More Spirit than Matter… for American Baroque as a Common Sense Composers’ Collective project, so I was thrilled to be asked to write another piece for this ensemble. I love early instruments!!
TD: Three Graces is in 3 movements: EVE, Eulalia, and Love Song for Emma. Can you tell me about what each movement represents for you?
CY: Three Graces was written for the three most important women in my life – my birth mother, grand mother and adoptive mother – all names beginning with the letter E. At the time, I had recently lost both my adoptive mother and grandmother, and my birth mother was always lost to me - so that’s where the inspiration came from.
Eve is the first woman created which represents my birth mother who didn’t love me and was horrified I found her. Eve is a turbulent piece (I was still angry back then, but not anymore). My birth mother kept me for 5 days, breastfed me, then left me at the adoption agency in Los Angeles and from there I went in the foster care system until I was adopted. I still remember the loneliness, the eternal feeling of emptiness, but this void generates creativity.
Eulalia was my birth father’s mother, my grandmother, who was thrilled when I found her. I was awesome to her – she was a jazz singer in her youth and wrote songs. Eulalia wanted to take me but my mother didn’t want me growing up in East LA. When my birth mother took me away, Grandmother thought she had taken me to the ocean to drown me. When I showed up 24 years later, Eulalia was thrilled to have me back in her life. She was an awesome lady.
Love Song for Emma, is for Emma, my adopted mom. We had a very close relationship but also quite tragic. She was in her late 40s when I was adopted. She had difficulty in conceiving, had lost two baby boys, she’d always wanted a baby more than anything in the world - so when she finally got me she was ecstatic! She gave me tons of love, bought me everything I wanted, she truly saved my life, but also played terrible psychological games with me. She would pretend she was dead on the floor when I was a toddler and young child, and wait till I was completely hysterical - just to make sure I loved her – which I did. It was hot and cold with her, dramatic. She said I was the answer to all her prayers but then she’s say she wished she’d never taken me. She was dying my entire teenage years of hypochondria – but hoped we’d live forever together in heaven. We’d either be screaming at each other, or sleeping together… CrazyTown!
TD: How old were you when you knew Eulalia?
CY: I went on the difficult search for biological family as soon as I turned 18, and a few years later joined The Adoptees' Liberty Movement Association (ALMA). All birth records are sealed in California, so it took about six years of active searching – so I was like 23-4 when I found them.
TD: Where did you write Three Graces?
CY: San Francisco, where I was living at the time.
TD: Three Graces won the Rome Prize, an award that allowed you to go to Rome, yes?
CY: Yes, living in Rome for a year was amazing. I submitted 3 pieces; a chamber piece, orchestral, and a solo piece. Three Graces was the chamber music.
TD: What did you do in Rome?
CY: I did as the Romans! My studio was the exact place where Galileo unveiled his telescope for the first time, on the highest hill in Rome, Gianicolo! The funny thing is I wrote two pieces in Rome. Horizon for orchestra - David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony, New York commissioned and performed it, and The Same Sky, for Kathleen Supové - a 19 minute piano piece with computer and a video of the sky and clouds projected inside the piano. Both pieces were premiered while I was in Rome and both pieces have to do with the sky. At the time, I hadn’t realized Galileo unveiled his telescope for the first time in my studio! It was a beautiful alchemic coincidence.
TD: Did you like living in NYC? How would you describe the compositions you wrote there? In what ways does your environment influence your compositions?
CY: Oh, I love NY. I lived there six years, it was from when my son was in kindergarten to 5th grade.
Well, Love God was both inspired by and written in New York, but that is the piece I can think of. Before I moved to NY I had a Fulbright to Iceland for over a year. I was gathering my intellectual and physical materials while I was in Iceland, and in NY I was writing the music from resources I had gathered. Love Song for Emma actually stems from the ideas I was having in Iceland. Iceland was phenomenal. It opened up possibilities in my art and music. I went there for isolation, just to be on my own and do my own thing. I started painting with volcanic sand, almost 3D-like. I brought some sand back with me so I can still use it in my paintings now. I gather a lot of resources from nature. In Iceland I got the inspiration for Living Mountains, an orchestra piece premiered in Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies. It reflects my experience on the glacier Vatnajokull. My time spent in big mountains, glaciers and the ocean are resources that I draw upon frequently. So in NY, I was basically writing from memories of Iceland.
TD: Do you find that your photography and artwork influence your compositions in any way?
CY: Yeah, they’re all interconnected. I’ve paired some of my paintings side by side with my photography, and they look very similar. You can tell the same person is behind it all. Even though all my work is different, whether its abstract, realistic, fantastical, dissonant, tonal, violent, or serene; on the surface it may look or sound different but you can tell its really all the same person there.
TD: You mentioned today you are moving on to spiritually evolved music. What does that mean?
CY: I think it’s a simplification, and introspection. It’s something I need, and I don’t care if anyone else appreciates it or not. I’m not doing it for money, but because somebody must do it, well, I need to do it, for my healing. It’s a stripping away of ego just letting go to get to the truth of how I feel.
TD: You’re writing it for you, it's spiritual for you?
CY: Yeah. I’ve been wrestling a lot with my music, and with life. As an artist, the most important thing is to have the music make poetic sense. My real life makes absolutely no sense, it’s a complete travesty - and I go over the circumstances over and over like a broken record trying to figure things out in my mind – but it’s not happening. This music is an introspective landscape. In this music I can reflect, focus and redeem – find compassion and understanding and truth. It’s the only way I know.