Interview with Composer Melinda Wagner

Melinda Wagner headshot


Celebrated as an “...eloquent, poetic voice in contemporary music...” [American Record Guide], composer Melinda Wagner’s esteemed catalog of works embodies music of exceptional beauty, power, and intelligence. Wagner received widespread attention when her colorful Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, and she currently serves on the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music.

On March 1, the Grossman Ensemble will premiere Wagner's composition Limbic Fragments. Learn more about Wagner below, and read her thoughts on Limbic Fragments, memories, and her experience working with the Grossman Ensemble.

In what ways does the compositional structure of Limbic Fragments relate to the human limbic system?

The structure of Limbic Fragments is rather free-form and doesn’t really relate to the human limbic system per se. I was thinking more of the brain’s capacity to store memories, and the “rush” we all get while experiencing intense emotions, whether they be good—or less good.

You’ve written previously that stored memories are alive, continuing to evolve independent of us, and that this is an essential part of the creative process for composers – the ability to recall not only the sounds around them, but also their own incipient, evolving ideas. What aspects of memory do you find to be essential in the creative process for performers, and how might your piece reflect that?

I’m not a performer any longer, but I’ve observed that gifted, professional players store a lot of information from one rehearsal to the next. Many improvements, corrections and adjustments are made overnight, often during sleep. The “alive-ness” (plasticity) of the memories allows musicians to hone and perfect the piece during the course of putting a concert together.

Describe Limbic Fragments using only three words.

Fast, petulant, hyper.

A lot of your previous well-known works are concertos – your Pulitzer Prize winning Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion, your Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, and your piano concerto Extremity of Sky, among others. The Grossman Ensemble’s unique makeup features every instrumentalist as a sort of “soloist.” Did you conceive of Limbic Fragments as a concerto-esque piece for 13 soloists, as an orchestral work, or as something different altogether?

I didn’t really have the idea of a “concerto” in mind, but I did want each player to have a satisfying part that could really be dug into (some parts are quite soloistic).

When you heard the Grossman Ensemble perform your work for the first time, were there any moments that surprised you or uncovered a new layer of the piece?

Yes, there were some surprises! Thanks to the luxurious workshop model, I tried some things that I hadn’t tried before (for example, pronounced “air” sounds, etc.). I’m actually quite happy with these, and I will use them again in future projects!

What has your overall experience been like working with the Grossman Ensemble?

Working with the Grossman Ensemble has been wonderful—truly, a highlight of my life and career!!

When you’re not actively composing, what do you like to do in your free time to relax and stay inspired?

Ah—free time…if I only had more! I love to read, spend time with my family, play the piano, swim (I swam competitively as a kid), go to museums, and I like to make things…