Composer Speaks on Persistence, Passion and Palindromes

By Purnell T. Cropper | April 4, 2013


Dr. Elizabeth Murphy’s graduate Humanities class “Music by Women Composers” hosted Dr. Cynthia Folio on March 27. As a guest lecturer and performer, the master flutist, Temple University professor, and award-winning composer proved compelling. This was partially due to her whimsically punctuating sentences about musical trills with the occasional (what else?) musical trill on the flute. (At one point, Folio whipped out a bit of a Moe Koffman piece, jazzily providing examples).

Folio’s passion and musical prowess proved magnetizing as students and professors inched closer to hear the faintest word or note she presented to them. Every bit of her “Arca Sacra,” a composition for the flute, was as precious as the name suggests. It eerily, longingly called forth to the audience in a series of “palindromes,” as the composer called them.  The same musical phrases were inverted and flipped to give the piece an audible symmetry. The lines were expressive, yet methodical, in a paradoxical way that only the hand of a true master could craft.

The attendees sat even further forward in their seats as the musician began describing her own personal experiences as a woman and a composer. Folio did not disappoint the class, which has learned about the struggles and tendencies of women in music over the course of the semester.  She gave her musical history, starting with the fourth-grade band. As the story goes, Folio was promptly told by her music teacher that she had “no hope.” This may have made a larger impression on her than she knew as she spoke of accepting the idea that women did not compose from a very young age. Folio endeavored to become a music theorist, a profession that appeared a bit more attainable.

Her father, a man with a distinguished army career, never intended for Folio to be in a position where she needed a career. But because his station was moved to Panama, Folio was able to get the education that allowed her to have the fullest career possible today. “I paid $5 for college,” Folio told the class. Mouths dropped. Panama, she went on to describe, valued music so highly that every effort was made to keep music schooling affordable.

This same education allowed her to create the powerful piece “When the Spirit Catches You,” a work inspired by the desire to understand what her daughter, Lydia, feels when she experiences a seizure. Lydia has tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a genetic disease. Folio played a clip during her lecture of the mother-daughter duo introducing the piece at the 2011 Hoyer Lecture on Epilepsy. It was a touching, poetically crafted display of one possible rewarding aspect of being a woman and a composer: being a mother and a composer.

Today Folio spends her days writing music for flutists, choirs and quartets. Her main piece of advice for the class was this: “Never throw anything away.” Nothing is unsalvageable.

The class walked away with a new sense of the industry, the craft, and, perhaps most importantly, one woman’s individual story of excellence in composition as well as in life.

Photo by John Hayes