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A Composer Opens Up Her Creative Process, Online

Composer Hannah Lash, a member of the YSM faculty, is composing her first symphony and blogging about its creative process
September 30, 2015

The New York Times | Phillip LutzHannah Lash, composition faculty

As a professor at the Yale School of Music and a working harpist, Hannah Lash enjoys plenty of interaction with students, colleagues and the public. But when it comes time to compose, she typically holes up in her New Haven home late at night and keeps to herself.

“The creative process needs to be protected,” she said, “on a level where you create a membrane around yourself when you’re writing that’s impenetrable.”

So it is all the more remarkable that as she writes her first symphony, Ms. Lash, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s new composer-in-residence, will be shining a light on the work in progress, inviting comment on social media and in live forums.

“As the process goes on, we will be able to respond to the audience’s questions and needs as they arise,” said William Boughton, music director of the orchestra, with which she is collaborating on the effort, known as the Lash-Voynich Project. In writing the piece, Ms. Lash will draw inspiration from the so-called Voynich manuscript, a codex whose origin is in dispute, except that it was probably created in Europe in the 15th or 16th centuries. Named after the book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912, the manuscript has largely defied decoding. Its 240 parchment pages, filled with bizarre drawings and cryptic text, may be a work of magic, of science or, perhaps, of a hoaxster.

Out of that immersion, Ms. Lash, 33, will produce four movements, the first of which, 11 minutes long, is to debut on Oct. 1 in Woolsey Hall on Yale’s New Haven campus, along with war horses by Dvorak, Sibelius and Grieg. The last three movements will have their premieres in spring 2016, fall 2017 and spring 2017, when the complete work will be presented. It is projected to run 35 to 40 minutes.

As the project unfolds, Ms. Lash will be blogging at newhavensymphony.org/lash-voynich-project. She will also offer updates on her progress on both the orchestra’s Facebook page (facebook.com/newhavensymphony) and Twitter feed (@NHSO). And she will meet the public at preconcert lectures and special events, as she did this month at a gathering at Yale’s Marsh Botanical Garden, where she discussed the connections between plants and the symphony’s first movement, “Herbal,” which is inspired by the colorful floral washes that adorn the manuscript’s pages.

Ms. Lash’s decision to open up her creative process was partly rooted in advocacy for long-form composition. “It’s important for the public to be able to see that the act of creating a symphony isn’t something that is of the past,” she said.

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