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The Ivory Trade

Amy Scurria, composer, on the science of writing music, teaching kids and evading Kenny G.

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As a Sunday brunch crowd comes and goes at a West End eatery, Amy Scurria is sipping a diet soda and wishing she didn't have to endure lite jazz on the restaurant's sound system.

"I've never figured out why people are attracted to stuff like that," she says. A two-beat pause follows. "I guess that sounds stuffy and grumpy." While Scurria comes across as neither, she, like a lot of people who take music seriously, hates to hear it used as background sound.

Scurria is a composer of classical or art music. At 33, she's amassed a sizable catalog of works for piano, chamber ensembles, chorus and orchestra. She's won prizes, received commissions and had her music published (by Theodore Presser Co. and Adamo Press) since she was a teenager. She has degrees from Rice University and Peabody Conservatory and will begin doctoral studies at Duke University in the fall. She doesn't have much in common with the creators of audio ear-wash.

Or does she? A brunchmate suggests that the Kenny Gs and Yannis may have set the stage for the Amy Scurrias by breaking people of the habit of thinking that music always comes with words and in four-minute sound bites. It may be ear-wash, but it's instrumental, and some of it lasts as long as a movement of a Beethoven symphony. Contemporary instrumentalists have reintroduced long-form abstract sound to the musical vernacular; indirectly, they may help composers of Scurria's generation find an audience. (Preferably, an audience not eating burritos while the music is played, though.)

Scurria came to Richmond three years ago to marry Zane Corriher, then a student at Union Theological Seminary. She is better known to most in the local music community for working at Richmond Piano than for her compositions. In February, Sarah Hatsuko Hicks conducted the Richmond Symphony and Richmond Boys Choir in a movement from "We Are Met at Gettysburg," a piece Scurria wrote with Steve Heitzig on commission from the Philadelphia and Minnesota orchestras. Otherwise, Scurria's time in Richmond has been, she says, "a hiatus" from composing for public consumption, one that will end when she begins doctoral studies in composition at Duke University in the fall.

Scurria moved here from Philadelphia. "Fresh out of grad school, I got a very nice job doing outreach for the Philadelphia Orchestra, helping establish a music program in inner-city schools," she says. "It was like opening a door to a magic room. Seeing kids from deprived backgrounds — some who've never had more than junk in a vacant lot to play with — get their hands on musical instruments was an inspirational experience, for me as much as for them."

At first, the kids were just noodling, improvising and finding out what sounds they could draw from the instruments. "That's just what I did as a kid," Scurria says. She started at 8, teaching herself to play the piano. "I started writing music about the same time. I would improvise for hours and hours, and sometimes something worth keeping came out of it." Twenty-five years later, she says, "improvising is still a big part of my composing."

Creating music, Scurria says, "is very magical and inspired. But it's hard work to get the sounds out of your head, organize them, get them into a form that other people can play and listeners can absorb. The more you understand the process, the more you can appreciate the work. That's the intellectual part of classical music."

But it's music, not calculus. "You don't need to understand the process of composing, or to understand it from my viewpoint," she says. "My music is made with feeling, and it's meant to make you feel something." S

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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