Q&A: Dana Lyn, Composer and Violinist

Dana Lyn is a Brooklyn-based composer, violinist, pianist, and visual artist whose work spans the gamut from multidisciplinary productions to traditional Irish fiddling to improvisation. As a composer, much of her writing centers around storytelling and narrative, using music as a way to illustrate larger concepts. Her latest album, A Point On A Slow Curve, was released in February 2022 and is inspired by Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting The Rose. Selections from the work will be presented during a free concert on Friday, May 6 at BRIC as part of this year’s Look + Listen Festival

Lyn and I met up in Brooklyn ahead of the performance to chat about the process of writing A Point On A Slow Curve as well as her larger philosophies about music. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Vanessa Ague: A Point On A Slow Curve has a long origin story with it. It’s based on a painting. How did you come to that story and set it to music?

Dana Lyn: I have a huge interest in visual art and I was reading a book about female artists, artists of all disciplines in the 1950s era, and this artist Jay DeFeo had literally just a paragraph in this book. And in the paragraph, they describe her as being well known for this painting that took her eight years to make and weighed a ton. So I just went down this deep dive about this painting and about this artist, about the community that she was part of. I guess that started about eight or nine years ago, in 2012. I hadn’t really been writing music for that long, considering that I’ve been playing music for ages and ages. But I came to writing on my own time. I didn’t study in college or anything like that. It just grew out of playing music here in Brooklyn and good friends and being a discerning type of music appreciator myself. 

All of my writing tends to be very narrative-like, I’m not gonna sit around and just turn out string quartets or anything like that, that’s not me. I like to tell a story. Ultimately also I always like to make records, because then you have a concept that’s a 45 minutes to an hour artwork. So I was thinking about what I’m gonna make the next record about and it took me a while to come to this realization that I would make it about this whole painting and the whole process of making it. That’s how I came to it. It’s a really fascinating story. You probably read about it.

VA: I did. It’s kind of unbelievable how this artist was able to accomplish something so grand over eight years.

DL: She also didn’t really think about it. I think that’s one of the things that I found fascinating about it, was that it was pretty unselfconscious. I don’t think that attitude exists today. Everyone wants to get noticed at this point. It’s so easy to put your stuff out there and everyone is fighting for attention. That was one of the things that I found really appealing about her and her scene. I don’t think she set out to do it this way. She just ended up at that point.

VA: Which is incredible, to just do it because it’s something that you want to do.

DL: Yeah, and I feel like we should all do that. However anyone feels is what they should do.

VA: Yeah. I’m sure there are lots of different processes that went into this project since it took so long, but what were some of the main steps to making it happen?

DL: Well, in the first phase, I had a quintet. We were working through the music and then we tried to record some of these tunes, three or four of them, in 2015, and it was terrible. It just really didn’t work out. It was a real learning process. I was quite defeated by it, and then I was like, “well, I think things have to change.” And I changed the band, actually. And then I recorded it again, I believe in 2018, and was still unhappy. 

So then I changed the band again and I changed the instrumentation. At some point I was in San Francisco going to the Jay DeFeo Foundation to ask their permission to base my record on this woman’s work. I remember just being on the train there, on Bart. Bart is really fast and there’s a lot of sound. At that moment, I was like, “yeah, I think it’d be cool to have some voices.” [laughs] 

So then I went through this whole phase of incorporating voices. I wrote a bunch of texts and it was just me speaking text and overlaying all of that. None of that is on the record, none of that survived. I started having thoughts like, “maybe there should be some singing,” and that came easily somehow. So that was 2018 and ‘19 when I added this whole concept. I tried to record a third time, but then the pandemic happened and I had to ditch all my plans. And then, I rescheduled everything and then I got covid. And then I had to ditch all my plans again. And then I finally recorded it.

VA: How is the visual art coming through in the music?

DL: There’s three movements that are based on the piece itself and they all have a couple of harmonic things in common. They all have a couple of really jagged motifs, kind of percussive ones. I was imagining the way she was making these, what I would call drafts, of this painting. She’s piling on the paint and then she was carving into it. So I was trying to evoke that. A lot of it, to me, was also trying to evoke actually what she was thinking and how she might be feeling or how I might be feeling if I’m struggling with something. The last piece is called “the Removal” and it’s about the day that the painting gets removed from her apartment. It starts with the text of a Latin Mass. So like, when someone dies. So those three movements are about the painting itself, all the other movements are kind about her and then also about me.

VA: How did you bring yourself in?

DL: It’s stuff I do, and it’s because I felt an affinity with this person. I don’t really know if I can tell anyone’s story except my own. I wasn’t setting out to make any kind of weird documentary piece, so all the lyrics are coming from me and they’re dealing with the part of me that I think is similar to her as an artist and as a woman in the world and dealing with life and struggling with that.

VA: What are you excited about for the live performance?

DL: I’m excited to show a new animation and I just love playing with these people. I finally hit on the creation of things that I liked. It’s a little bizarre instrumentation. This is without the singers, because it’s really hard to wrangle all of those people. But we’ll finally do that live in October, finally. Everyone could do it. It was amazing. I actually found a date that everyone could do.

VA: I can’t believe that.

DL: It is so hard!

VA: I know. So there’s gonna be animation, you mentioned?

DL: Yeah. Not a lot because it takes a long time to make. I learn while I’m doing it, it’s just nice to have something like that I get better every time I do one. There’s still so many things I don’t know how to do—I only just started using Photoshop. It’s a very manual way of doing things and I did a lot of it during the pandemic when I couldn’t play music. My idea was like, “oh, I’ll make one for every movement and then at the end, I’ll have nine videos and maybe a whole movie.” But then, of course, this is going to take me a really long time. I’ve been working on this since February, so if I average one every five months or something, that’s still four or five years.

VA: When you put it that way, that is a long time.

DL: It’s a long time. I’ve always been into these types of projects. I didn’t do it, but I had this idea when I was in my late 20s that I would record a piece of music every year and then have a record at the end that expands my adult life. But all the technology kept shifting. Now it’s really easy, but at the time, it was different, so I ditched it. Now you could just do this on the phone. But I actually only got a smartphone last year, so I wasn’t privy to that.

VA: What pushed you to do it?

DL: Oh, well, my flip phone was dying and I’d had it for 10 years.

VA: That’s much longer than you can have an iPhone for.

DL: I know. I was determined. I had gotten to this point, though, where I couldn’t receive texts from people. I couldn’t take an emoji. So I was in the habit of calling people up and being like, could you not put any emojis in there, or could you not use punctuation? I think the punctuation is fucking it up. And it just got to be this thing where everyone around me was just like, this is so ridiculous. And then group texts would just completely destroy my phone. It got to the point where people would send texts and I would try to open it and the phone would just turn off. And then the pandemic happened. For work, I have to get tested all the time and everything’s with a QR code. I don’t have a tablet and I was just like, “what am I supposed to do? Walk around with a computer and look for a Wifi signal?”

VA: Yeah, the QR code has really taken over.

DL: It’s for everything.

VA: It’s funny, because I think when those first came out, we were all like, “this is useless. Why was this invented?” And then during the pandemic they just resurged.

DL: You can’t do anything without it. So yeah, that’s why I caved in.

VA: Going back to thinking about how we’re using our phones more and more to make music, I feel like I’ve talked to quite a few people who have just felt like they can make music more spontaneously now.

DL: I think that’s great but it’s totally not the way I write music. I also really like to improvise so it’s not that I’m against spontaneity in the least. I really care about the craft of making something. I studied classical music and my brain is really attuned to western classical music, even though I don’t play it and haven’t played it since I graduated from college 25 years ago. But I still need things to be considered. When I improvise there’s a lot of stuff that I’m playing that is kind of shitty, for lack of a better word. Composing gives you time to actually really think about how you might want things to go and there’s plenty of room for leeway. I write moments where people can be themselves.

VA: Do you often play with the same folks now?

DL: I do play with the same people a lot. And, you know, new people come and go. It feels like I’ve played with the same people now, just also because the pandemic just just kept us in our own little circle.

VA: That’s true.

DL: The other thing about it is that right now, I’m still not going out, or I’m going out very rarely. So I just stopped meeting quite as many people as I used to and my life is not as social as it was two years ago. But I’m not really that gregarious a person and it took me a while to find people I was comfortable enough to play music with. I feel like music is such a personal thing and I think maybe why I was a musician is not not so much to be a performer, but someone who likes to make stuff. 

VA: You started composing a little later, after studying performance. What made you want to start composing?

DL: Well, I went to music school to play violin and piano. I quit the piano because I kept being told to concentrate on one thing. So then I concentrated on one thing and then I was not where I wanted to be in the classical music world. I really love a lot of different kinds of music and I also wanted to play a lot of other things. I went to Oberlin, which had a lot of other kinds of music happening besides what’s going on in the conservatory, so I was able to try things. 

For maybe 10, 12 years after leaving school, I actually only played fiddle music. Specifically, traditional Irish fiddle music. I did a deep dive into that. I’ve been to Ireland 30 times. I play a regional style that no one plays anymore because everyone died and kids don’t live there anymore. So anyway, I had this whole life for my 20s up into my early 30s. And then at some point, I tired of it and I felt kind of shitty about that because I thought, “oh my god, here I am being fair weather again.” But honestly, I also was just like, “I miss all the other stuff in my life that I cared about.” I was listening to John Zorn when I was 18 or something. I wanted to go back to the other things that I cared about, the other musical things that I did, so I did. It took a long time. I had to relearn how to play. Are you a musician?

VA: Yeah, I’m also a violinist. So I know re-learning is so difficult.

DL: I was in first position for like 12 years. I didn’t read a piece of music and I didn’t shift out of first position for 12 years. And then I was like, “okay, we’re gonna try to shift to third position now.” Getting the technical thing back was really, really hard. When I was 19 I played way better than I do now. But I was looking for my own thing and I was looking for my own thing here. I had deconstructed my playing, I’d stopped using vibrato, I have a really different kind of sound than classical people. I just needed more tools, I needed to get out of my rut of playing. 

At some point in those years, I started doing some string arranging, working with songwriters, that kind of thing. I started studying counterpoint and harmony with an old, retired theory teacher and I did that for seven years. Every week I did homework. I took it very seriously. And with him I wrote fugues and motets and themes and variations. Then I started writing my own stuff. It’s just been really slow. But it just came to a point where it’s like, “I think I could do this.” It was just for my little projects. And then weirdly, I got a commission in 2014 that I didn’t ask for or expect. It was for Brooklyn Rider. They were deliberately looking for people who didn’t write classical music and who weren’t part of that world to write them pieces. So I wrote them a piece and I slaved over it. After that I started writing more and I ended up getting some commissions. So, it was pretty organic, and no one told me to do it.

VA: That’s great.

DL: I’ve been busy to write, though. I’m carving out a chunk of time in the summer to not do anything except write for myself. It’s nice when you just have your own terms.

VA: You mentioned earlier that you really love making records. What is it about the album that you love?

DL: I think it’s just because I love records.

VA: Are you a collector?

DL: I have a lot of records and I don’t stream. [laughs]

VA: It’s good. You’re not contributing to the Spotify industrial complex.

DL: No, I don’t have a Spotify account, I don’t stream, I don’t even download. I buy records and I buy CDs. I have a five disc CD changer that is on every day. Since I was a kid, it’s like, records are my favorite thing. And you know, some people love short stories—I do too. But I actually like a novel. Short films always make me want more. I like a movie, just like I like an album. I think it’s a great way of being able to express things. It’s like, this is my offering.

VA: So you’re gonna take some time off this summer to compose for yourself. Is there anything else that you’re looking forward to?

DL: I have another little trio with Marika Hughes and Charlie Burnham. We were supposed to play last weekend at the Greenwich music house, but it got canceled, so we’re trying to reschedule this for a month from now. And if that happens, that’ll be great. I play with a guy named Stew who’s a playwright really, and a songwriter. He wrote a musical called Passing Strange about 10 years ago. We have a gig in May also, and that’s our first gig in like, a year, because he has been covid-shy. So yeah, I’m looking forward to those things. And then looking forward to having my time back and writing some stuff, because I’ve got my ideas happening, and then the proper CD release with the singers in October.

Also, I’m going on tour with Taylor Mac. He’s a performance artist. He’s probably best known for making a 24-hour show. We toured that show for a couple years, and there was all this touring that was canceled from the pandemic, so this is our first tour since the end of 2019. So that’ll be great. It’s a really great group of people.

VA: That’s so much! That’s great.

DL: It is a lot. I have a job, too, so I make sure I go to work. Our attendance is what’s required. I play a Broadway show and so you have to maintain a certain attendance level to keep your job. But something always comes up. I’m a movie goer and I love seeing live productions, theater, music. I’ve probably seen more plays recently than anything else. I’m making up for lost time because I was so musically oriented before I ever saw play and now I’m like, I must see everything. 

VA: Sometimes experiencing other arts can be inspiring.

DL: Oh, yeah. I think everything informs everything else. Every time you learn something new, all the stuff you learned before applies to the new thing.

A Point On A Slow Curve will be presented at Look + Listen Festival on Friday, May 6. Tickets are free and able to be reserved here.