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Meet our composer, Elizabeth Younan

Elizabeth lives and works in Sydney, Australia, and was the first Australian composer to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Her piece “...your heart dreams of spring” was featured on the album Alone Together by violinist Jennifer Koh, which recently won a GRAMMY for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. 

How did you get involved with the Lost Women of Science Initiative? 

One of my composition teachers at the Curtis Institute of Music, Dr. Jennifer Higdon, forwarded the job posting to some composition alumnae. I auditioned by quickly writing some samples in response to prompts—and one of those samples is now the series theme song.

Why is the mission of Lost Women of Science important to you? 

The mission of the Lost Women of Science podcast is incredibly important to me, as it raises public  awareness of key female scientists. This creates a rich dialogue between past and present, as girls and young women of today are inspired by the knowledge that dedicated women before them have achieved remarkable things. This resonates with me as a composer, as we are facing a similar reckoning with the past…

From your experience, where does the field of composing stand in terms of gender diversity? 

It is improving, rather like women in science. There are so many female and female-identifying  composers of diverse ethnicities across centuries who have been lost, but are now finally receiving the  awareness, praise, and credit that they deserve. There are many wonderful initiatives that seek to rectify the gender and racial imbalance in composition. Like LWOS, these initiatives also spark the conversation of how society views the past and present contributions of female musicians, and address and challenge tokenism. I look forward to the day when inclusion is a norm that is intrinsic throughout society. 

How is scoring a podcast different from composing standalone music? 

Though they share the goal of communication, they achieve it via different means. While concert music seeks to draw the listener in and take them on an intriguing journey with twists and turns, podcast music serves a subtler but equally important function: supporting and enhancing the spoken word. It is easy to write something surprising in concert music; I think the harder skill lies in writing music that doesn’t detract from the spoken word, but is still interesting and communicative in its own nuanced way.  

What can music do for a podcast? 

Music can transport the listener to a different era and a different place. It can emphasize emotion, and it can also create irony and subtle humor. It can paint images of tubes and flow charts, impending war and the ENIAC... 

I also enjoy the interactions between the music and [host] Katie [Hafner]’s narration, which create an internal rhythm. Overall, music can help tie the season together through the use of leitmotifs (a recurring musical theme or idea). 

When you’re writing music for a story, how do you communicate ideas through sound? 

Every musical decision—instrumentation, range, dynamics, pitch, harmony, rhythm, tempo, articulation, texture, color—is influenced by the effect or emotion that is needed. These elements alone don’t communicate much, but in tandem, they reinforce each other. 

For example, Katie talks about the Monte Carlo method [a mathematical algorithm that uses statistics] in Episode 1, “The Grasshopper” and Episode 4, “Netherworld.” And each time she does, the same piece of music plays, exploring the theme of chance. The short piece is influenced by shuffling cards—soft, delicate repeated staccato notes in question (low register) and answer (high register) on the piano—and rolling dice—fluttering scales high in the violin’s register. 

What was the inspiration for your piece “…your heart dreams of spring?” 

“…your heart dreams of spring” was one of many pieces commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to capture the duality of intense suffering whilst continuing to look for hope in the future. The work’s title comes from a line by the Lebanese-American poet, philosopher and painter Khalil Gibran: “And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart  dreams of spring” (The Prophet, 1923). 

Jennifer’s album “Alone Together” was a sincere artistic response to what we were experiencing as a global collective. Ultimately, we wanted to remind everyone that although we were alone in isolation, we were going through this together. We marvel at and deeply thank those who, despite unimaginable physical and mental exhaustion, kept working to help the sick, as well as all essential workers and carers. 

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