The American Composers Orchestra’s newest video educational series, Sonic Spark Sings, explores the songwriting process. This series features a unique approach to songwriting, one where students are empowered to think creatively about the one instrument that we all share: the voice. Throughout the video series, musical concepts such as melody, rhythm, harmony, and structure are broken down in a clear, focused, and easily digestible way. In a recent conversation, JL Marlor spoke with us about what it was like developing this series.
What was the initial vision behind this video series? What has been learned since its release?
I as a performer and composer take quite a bit of inspiration from the voice. In my youth and as a young adult, I sang in choirs and bands, so in a sense, my self awareness as a musician was born in learning about my voice and what it is capable of. It’s my favorite thing to write for as a composer and songwriter; I wanted young students and educators to understand how powerful and expressive the voice is, in melody, rhythm, and harmony. When American Composers Orchestra (ACO) asked me to create these educational videos, I thought about the students who are stuck at home and wanting to create something but do not have an instrument handy, you can create all you need to with the voice, and I wanted to show exactly how to do that.
You cover quite a bit of material throughout this series. Could you talk a little bit about how you chose to break it down? What do you hope students, educators, and life-long learners will gain from watching your videos?
I wanted the videos to be as graspable and customizable as possible, and leave ample room for play and experimentation in the students’ songwriting. So, I separated it into what I believe are four main components of creating a song: Melody, Rhythm, Harmony and Structure. I showed how each of these elements can be created with a voice, and come together to make something creative and fun. Through these videos, I hope students will leave feeling empowered to record themselves and create music that is expressive to them with minimal equipment needs. The beauty of these videos is that a student could learn to write their very own song with only a computer and a pair of headphones.
What is the significance of using just the voice to create a whole song?
You’d be surprised that a lot of music you hear on the radio today uses the voice in this way! Of course we hear the voice in a melody, but in a lot of songs there are harmonies, rhythms, and chord progressions that you’ll hear that are made using sounds a voice can make. Think of Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes”. She uses an amazing harmonic progression with her voice to set the tone for the song, and you hear the voice being used as a rhythmic element in a lot of rap and hip hop. It’s an incredibly dynamic and varied sound that is great for a variety of contexts. To create this series, I was especially inspired by the solo performances of Kimbra, who uses only her voice and a live looping pedal to create her music. Ultimately, I wanted to show that all you need is a voice to create spectacular music.
How does this intersect with the other aims of the series, such as music composition and developing your own musical voice more broadly?
For me, my voice influences the way that I communicate my compositions. It has always been an important starting point for my work and imagination. I think that by looking deeply at the voice we can find incredible possibilities in our creations. If you can work with your voice well it opens a world up to create so many types of music.
How does the series introduce and break down the compositional process? What do you feel are the most important aspects for your viewers to understand?
What I always try to drive home is that composition is not writing something amazing in one fell swoop. It is about layering detail on top of detail, building upon each layer until you’re creating something beyond what you thought you could. I wanted to create a series where it shows just how easy and fun it can be to create music.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about this video series?
Everyone has their own, deeply personal, and unique voice. Using it is an act of expression and heart. Even if you don’t think you can sing well, by using your voice to create rhythms and harmonies you can discover that you do have a voice that is capable of creating incredible music.
You can check out the video series here.
JL Marlor (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist, composer, songwriter, and educator known for her narrative-driven large-scale vocal works and chamber music. Her work examines the intersections between the collective and the individual as it relates to protest and social change, drawing heavily from Slavic women’s music, riot grrrl punk, plainchant, and American protest music. Called “refreshingly bold” by OperaWire, JL has written for Wet Ink Ensemble, SparkDuo, The DeCamera Singers, Mivos Quartet, OperaRox, LoftOpera, New Music Gathering, and has had her works performed at the Boston Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, The National Opera Center, BANFF Center, Westminster Choir College, Smith College, and BRIC Arts Media.
JL Marlor. Photo by Maya Bouvier-Lyons.