Interview with a real-life composer!

By Sara Peach

How does a person become a composer? Do you have to be a child prodigy, like Mozart was? Where do melodies come from? Composer Dayton Kinney, a doctoral student in composition at Duke University, answers all of those questions and more in a conversation about her new work, called “The Orchestra Pit.”

Dayton Kinney

“The Orchestra Pit” is based on a children’s book of the same name by Johanna Wright. The Durham Medical Orchestra will premiere the new music on December 10, 3 p.m., Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Durham Medical Orchestra: How did you decide to become a composer?

Dayton Kinney: It was mostly by chance. Something about music had always interested me as a child. I kept asking Santa Claus for piano lessons, and finally at nine years old I began piano lessons. At 12, I began taking a college-level class.

Composition was not on my radar until after I took a college-level ear-training class. The instructor, Alla Elana Cohen, became my composition teacher. Because of a chance opening in her studio, and due to my progress in her class, she offered me a spot in her composition studio when I was 14 years old. It changed my life because from that moment on, I just wanted to be a composer and nothing else.

DMO: You hear stories about composers in history being quite young when they start to compose music, like Mozart was. Is that typical nowadays, or is it more normal for people to become composers later in life?

DK: It’s a mixed bag. There are some people who begin composition very young – at the elementary-school level. Sometimes they begin composition after they’ve had a career of performing. But for me, it happened when I was a teenager.

DMO: Are there any composers who you feel have particularly influenced your music?

DK: No, I can’t I can’t say any one particular composer has influenced me, because I take my inspiration from a variety of sources.

DMO: Like what?

DK: Such as creating musical direction and gestures from everyday actions and movements in my environment. I could be interested in the way someone walks. I would watch the person walk across the street, watch how many times they stop, their pace, their breath. Maybe they’ll turn around. Maybe they take a turn to the left or turn to the right, and musically I’m creating my patterns and melodies based on interpretations of those movements.

It could also be people having a conversation and being inspired by the inflections of their voice. My music tends to have multiple different melodies and themes interspersed and interacting with each other, so that it’s almost like watching multiple conversations or actions at once. I liken it to a not-so-busy day in a cafe. You can hear a couple of different conversations at the same time.

DMO: So do you like hanging around in coffee shops looking for inspiration?

DK: Oh, it’s everywhere. Sometimes, I will be inspired by leaves rustling on a walk or drops of water hitting a piece of metal – not just the sound that it creates, but also the rippling movement of that drop of water.

DMO: How do you actually go about composing your melodies?

DK: Melodies? Oh, that’s never an easy question for any composer!

I tend to take walks. I think about the text. Or, ‘what is an interesting tune that would catch someone’s attention?’ I try to think about them on my own, with just a piece of paper or my computer. And then I try them on the piano – a couple of different ideas. So, it’s kind of going back and forth between something that I am composing in my mind and trying it out on the piano, while trying several iterations of these ideas.

DMO: What were your goals in transforming the children’s book “The Orchestra Pit” into music?

DK: I had this in mind for children, making sure it’s accessible to children – but also enjoyable for adults.

I wanted to make sure that the moments were obvious, for humor. There are pauses. There are very poignant moments. There are jokes that children would understand and that the adults would enjoy, too.

I thought it’d be fun to do slide whistles, harkening back to cartoons I grew up with, like “Tom and Jerry” and various other cartoons from early Saturday mornings.

DMO: Are there any moments in the music that you’d like the audience to listen for?

DK: I would highlight the beginning. I am building up a sense of something silly and everyday, when the snake is going about its business and hasn’t quite gotten lost yet.

Another favorite portion of mine is when the snake first realizes that he/she has stumbled upon the orchestra pit. I love that section of creating the sense of awe and wonder, of pulling back the curtains – and the snake is amazed, and recognizes they have fallen into the orchestra pit.

Want to hear the rest of “The Orchestra Pit”? Come to the DMO’s concert on December 10, 3 p.m., Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University.

Interview: What it’s like to have your book turned into a work of classical music

By Sara Peach

If you come to the DMO’s upcoming concert (and you should: December 10, 3 p.m., Baldwin Auditorium at Duke), you’ll hear a new work that is a bit like a modern-day version of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

It’s called “The Orchestra Pit,” by Duke composer Dayton Kinney, and it tells the story of a snake that wanders out of its snake pit and into an orchestra pit. There, the snake meets all of the instruments of the orchestra – and startles the musicians.

The new composition for full orchestra and narrator. It’s based on a 2014 children’s book of the same title by Oregon-based author and illustrator Johanna Wright. For the premiere of the new work the DMO has a treat planned: Wright will be in the house to serve as the narrator.

The DMO caught up with Wright by phone to talk about her own background in classical music, how that inspired her to write “The Orchestra Pit,” and what it’s like to hand your creative work over to a composer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Durham Medical Orchestra: How did you decide you wanted to create children’s books?

Johanna Wright: I actually made a few kids books when I was pretty little. I was probably seven or eight when I first started stapling them together and putting stories together. I was probably 11 when I really decided that that was something that I want to pursue.

DMO: One thing I really love about your book is that it’s similar to “Peter and the Wolf,” in that the readers have a chance to meet each of the instruments in the orchestra. Was introducing children to the orchestra part of your motivation for creating it?

JW: It was! I grew up actually playing the violin. I played in a youth symphony in high school. And every spring or fall we would play “Peter and the Wolf” and have all the schools in the district come and listen. And I just loved it. They would do this cool thing with the orchestra where they would make these pathways through the orchestra, so the kids could come and watch the orchestra while we played. It was just a really memorable time for me and so I always loved that piece. And I was absolutely thinking of that when I made “The Orchestra Pit.”

DMO: You’ve also said you had a flash of inspiration while you were at a live musical performance. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

JW: I had really wanted to make an orchestra book for a long time. I just couldn’t think of a good hook or something that would connect it in a way that was fun.

I was watching the Portland Cello Project. They are a group of musicians that play the cello, and they do different arrangements. Sometimes they’ll play Nirvana covers, and sometimes they’ll play classical. But I was at a performance of theirs, and it just clicked for me. I was working on another story about a snake, and it was just like peanut butter and jelly in that moment, when I was like, ‘Wait, these guys can go together, where there’s a snake that ends up in an orchestra pit.’ And I thought that was really funny. It just was a fully formed idea and that was awesome. It doesn’t always happen like that.

DMO: It’s so interesting to me that your book was inspired by music in these different ways, and now it’s being transformed back into music.

JW: I know! It is so exciting for me! I can’t even. I can’t even. It’s so great.

DMO: What is it like for you to hand your creative work over to a composer?

JW: Oh my gosh, it’s just thrilling.

The book process takes a really long time. I wrote the story way back in 2009, and it took many years before it actually hit the shelves. It was a long process there. I feel like if you have a creative project that is fresh, it can be trickier to let go of wanting it to be a certain way. I haven’t thought about “The Orchestra Pit” in the more recent days, so this is just so exciting to see what happens.

DMO: And we’re excited about it too. What do you hope that the audience might take from the performance of the Orchestra Pit?

JW: I hope they get the joy and the fun of music that I had, especially hearing something like “Peter and the Wolf.” I like the idea of it just being kind of more fun and open and loose and exciting and inspiring people and kids to look further into the orchestra and music.

DMO: Orchestras have a reputation for being very serious and highbrow. The players wear formal clothing, and you’re supposed to be very quiet and listen carefully, and to me, part of the humor of your book is looking at your paintings of very serious musicians kind of freaking out because there’s a snake. I wonder if that was part of your intention to poke a little bit of fun at serious classical music.

JW: Yes, exactly! I think that’s definitely just part of my personality. I love playing in orchestras so much, but I also feel like I’m a pretty goofy person. So I liked being able to bring those two elements together and hopefully have that resonate with kids and parents. Sometimes, I feel like people feel like they can’t be a part of something like that if they aren’t a certain way, and I like mixing it up a little bit, because of course you can be silly and fun and enjoy classical music as well.

DMO teaches kids about orchestral music

On April 1 (no fooling!), the Durham Medical Orchestra hosted a wildly successful children’s concert, with the support of the WCPE Education Fund and in partnership with Lakewood Elementary School, the Emily K Center, and Girl Scout Troop 1158.

The DMO gratefully acknowledges the support of the WCPE Education Fund for this event.

Photo credit: Eric Monson

The concert began with an introduction to the orchestra and to the different instruments and instrument families.  Conductor Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant guided the audience through several examples of orchestral music, from Markowski’s Joyride to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and finishing up with several popular works like music from Frozen.

Children (and their families!) learned about different musical terms, how music can change speed and volume, and how the conductor helps the orchestra play together, using the same styles.  Some lucky children even got the chance to do their own conducting!

Photo credit: Eric Monson

The concert wrapped up with a raffle of door prizes and an instrument petting zoo, where children could try out different string and wind instruments.  We are grateful for the participation and donations from the following local organizations and businesses:

Children who attended the concert took home a DMO pencil, a kazoo, and a special booklet we created to help them remember what they learned.  The booklet includes lessons about orchestral music and games and activities that reinforce how fun it can be to play music!

The DMO is happy to share this educational booklet openly.  The booklet is available for download below, and it is being distributed with a Creative Commons license (specifically a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license) to encourage others to continue the important task of inspiring young musicians.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the DMO by emailing communications [at] with any questions.