With her early years surrounded by much of the world’s finest music and art (being the daughter of a diplomat who called Washington, D.C. and Ottawa home), composer Alyssa Ryvers went through some pivotal moments on her spiritual and musical journey which recently have merged into one fount of creativity, filling her scores with wonderfully appropriate colours and blessings alike.
Having heard and reviewed much of her recorded work including the first CD (Drunk on Dreams, 1998—a collection of early songs and lyrics that foreshadow Ryvers’ grasp of orchestration and special ability to bring words to life: “Youth protects us ‘till the dream-film lifts from our eyes”—few lines have been so prophetic), instrumental commissions—notably Synergy for violist Kevin James who captures every nuance and shading in up to nine simultaneous lines, two film scores for director Nancy Nicol (cross-references below) and a sneak peek at Metta (a massive project which wants to delve into the 128 classes of Buddhist consciousness or “realms”; in the three segments already crafted, the mix of incantation, real-life sound clips and a highly developed sense of proportion already insist that the wherewithal be found—a.k.a. commissions—to ensure this work is soon completed), JWR took the first opportunity available to sit down with the New York-born composer when their busy schedules finally provided the chance to be in the same space at the same time.
JWR: We’ve both spent a lot of time in Ottawa. I can remember playing my first professional gig at the St. Louis Hotel in Hull at the tender (and under!) age of 16. Seems like that was an important year in your life as well.
AR: Yes, at 16 I left home to move in with my boyfriend, began learning the ropes as a sound engineer and supported myself serving drinks underage in Hull. I was attending Glebe Collegiate but had to drop out [later getting her diploma via adult high school]. I was writing folk songs, and living a pretty straight life—getting it together. Eventually I enrolled in a Futures program and began training in a recording studio. At eighteen I made the commitment to music—it would be my one constant thing. I realized that music had saved my life and that I owe it; it’s a responsibility. Apprenticing with [head sound engineer, National Arts Centre] Bob Allan was fantastic. I began hearing the spiritual nature of sound [an aha in itself]. Next, I went to Carleton University and studied [composition] with Deirdre Piper. She is such a skilled teacher, encouraging me to make a really small adjustment, but that felt like hitting the target with a spear. As well as music, I was writing a tremendous amount of poetry. With a commission for [soprano] Gloria Jean Nagy and Kevin James [the aptly titled “Come Out” and “If I Could”], I was speaking through structure for the first time. To relax I turned to math [a composer’s natural ally in many aspects including sequences, proportion and rhythm]. With so much sound around me and experiencing such unforgettable performances as the Taiwan Dance Troupe, I eventually had an aha with my ears. After working at Hinton Animation on such projects as the Nutcracker Prince and learning the craft of dialogue breakdown [matching every consonant and vowel to frames], I fine-tuned my ears still further: Sarah Vaughan never sounded the same again. Now I had no option: I wanted to be rock star!
JWR: Culminating in the ten tracks of Drunk on Dreams, where the orchestration/accompaniment [including violin, viola, cello, flute, sax and vocals] sometimes tops the tunes.
AR: (smiling) You’re sounding like my producer. I wrote all of those songs without understanding what hooks and formulas were—trying to speak through classic and jazz styles. I’ll never forget him saying, “What you’re writing is not popular music, dear.”
JWR: What caused the shift from singer-songwriter to film scores? Was there another aha along the way?
AR: It was an awkward transition. At every stage of my career I’d had a great teacher or apprenticed with a master, but I’d never studied with a film composer like you [NFB’s legendary Eldon Rathburn—cross-references below] and I didn’t have the arrogance to just jump in. I began working more as a sound editor and I listened and watched; it was very nourishing—osmosis, like being in an art gallery. After the SARS and SAG [Screen Actors Guild strike] there was even less work than before [now living in Toronto], so I had to compromise and accept location recording gigs. Without a monitor, I felt completely in the dark and it became more and more difficult to locate the spiritual spot. On my first film with Nancy [Politics of the Heart] I started as the sound person. But once she got to know my background as a composer, she asked “What is Alyssa doing behind a boom pole?” And so, even with no one to apprentice with and the inevitable “pressure on women” I wrote the score and that led to other opportunities. One Summer in New Paltz, which I deliberately wanted to sound like Copland [and succeeds admirably], became my aha piece. I wrote the entire structure on a single sheet of paper, then began writing the music and sending parts of that along to Nancy to download. Our true spirit of collaboration made me grow. The melodic lines come out of the sutta (blessings) and I’ve integrated them all over.
JWR: From your experiences to date and the prospect of Metta, how do you see your future?
AR: I’m going to continue to collect commissions and write differently. Now, I feel I’m in control when writing film. I’m going to try to create something that’s really skilfully done and connected with our society. If it doesn’t sound good, I’ll just work harder. The more you work at it, the more you learn about life and develop a better understanding.
JWR: With so much already “understood” we’ll look forward to hearing more from your continuous evolution. Let those commissions be fully subscribed! JWR