Nailah Nombeko: “I always start from some type of concept”

Nailah Nombeko is a composer from New York. She was born in a family of musicians and wrote her first score at the age of 5. According to her site, she “attended the Preparatory Division of Manhattan School of Music, LaGuardia High School (Music and Art) and she received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Mannes College of Music with additional studies in orchestration at The Juilliard School.”

At her site you may find several types of videos: at some of them musicians perform her scores, at others she is practicing piano compositions of classical composers like Rachmaninoff and Kapustin. Also there are psychedelic videos by Carmen Kordas with ambient soundscapes designed by Nailah Nombeko.

Nailah Nombeko

What role does music play in your life?

Music has always been an integral part of my life. I used to write as a child but during my teenage years I stopped and focused much more on my studies as a pianist. In my late twenties, I began to feel a desire to create once again, so I returned to composing. A few years later I found the Orfeo Duo (I knew the pianist from my days at Mannes) online and saw that they had a call for scores so I submitted a few of my pieces to them which they liked and decided to perform. It’s from that point on that I started composing a lot.

So I guess, music is your main job now?

Yes, I compose professionally and teach music. Recently I had some very interesting projects, one was a commission from Sparks and Wiry Cries where I wrote for Karen Slack and another commission from the Ethel Quartet. Those were major highlights for me!!

What is the process of professional composing like?

That’s a really interesting question! When I am writing for someone in particular I definitely have to think about who I am writing for. When I write for a specific singer I have to consider their voice type. It can be tricky because every voice is so unique, each voice has its own character. If something in a composition did not sit right with the voice then I went back and rewrote a particular passage. This was a very different experience from the one I had composing my Blake songs which were not commissioned. I did not write them with a particular singer in mind.

How does the customer usually explain the task?

I was commissioned by the Ethel Quartet as part of their “HomeBaked” commissioning series where they select four composers to write new works for them. There was no set concert theme.

When I worked with Karen Slack the concert theme centered around the Metoo movement. The songs on that program were inspired by that. She gave me a few poems to choose from written by a poet based in Philadelphia. The poem really dictated the mood.

Does the Metoo movement inspire you in general or you worked around it because of the commission?

I think the Metoo movement is important and that music can help to mark certain moments in history. The concert theme was already set when Karen approached me and I’m glad to have written music that marked the time period and what was happening.

Ok, if you write without a commission, what do you start from?

When I am not writing for a commission I usually draw from art, a word and some type of non musical concept, or from life. For example, when I wrote my piano piece “Waterlilies” I drew inspiration from Claude Monet’s painting “Water Lilies.” I tried to find a musical way to embody that painting. Another example is a piano piece that I wrote entitled “The Chase” which was inspired by my two cats (I no longer have them) and how playful and mischievous they were. Sometimes I improvise at the piano and find an idea that I want to develop.

When do you understand that the process is finished?

I know the process of writing is finished when I have nothing more to say.

What is more comfortable for you: when you have a concrete theme or when you are free in it?

I like both. I always start from some type of concept whether it’s a commissioned piece or not. Even if it’s just one word like a tornado. In the opening of my piece for the Ethel Quartet I envisioned a tornado brewing and developed from there.

In the interview with June Middleton you’ve said that the largest ensemble that you’ve written scores for was a quartet. Why? Have you ever thought about a full orchestra?

I enjoy writing chamber music. When the opportunity arises for me to compose for a full orchestra I will gladly take it. My main compositional output at this point has been composing for solo piano and voice.

We are talking about scores only. At your site I have found videos by Carmen Kordas with your music. How were they created?

The video was created first then I added the sound design. There are no scores for this, I added sound effects to the videos. I get certain sound effects by taking my audio recorder and recording a variety of sounds such as rain, thunder, wind, etc.  Also I purchase sounds that I cannot collect myself.  I really enjoy the process of going out into NYC and recording the various sounds.  For example, if I want the sound of a NYC train then I would go into the train station with my recorder and record trains coming and going. If I want the sound of traffic and car horns honking then I would go to a busy part of NYC and record. Sometimes I create the sounds at home myself. Once I record the sounds or purchase them then I edit them to my liking and work on the musical material to add. I do all of this with Logic Pro X at my keyboard.

Have you ever thought about a career in popular genres of music?

I never thought of a career in pop music, but I like and appreciate all styles of music.

What is your last work now?

Last year I recorded my “Short Songs to the Poetry of William Blake” which is a song cycle that I started about 10 years ago. They were recorded by musicians Sarah Comfort Reed, Sara Paar, Michelle Horsley and Marcia Eckert. They really interpreted my music and Blake’s poetry beautifully.

10 years! Why so long?

Initially when I wrote them I wasn’t thinking about recording them. I was content with them being performed. After a few years I had the desire to record them but did not have the resources to do that properly until last year. I’m really glad I did!!

Where could our readers find it?

They are currently on iTunesAmazon, Spotify and CD Baby.

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