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"Lean Back and Release," Molly Joyce's debut EP for New Amsterdam Records, gathers two compositions similar in length and scope, for violin and something other: live and pre-recorded electronic sounds, acoustic and MIDI violin parts, a sound engineer lurking behind the scenes.
Joyce chases intersections between the seen and the unseen, how solo performances aren't really solo performances, the way backing tracks push back on a performer, and maybe a few other ideas.
"I want to push myself as an overall artist," Joyce says. "I want to try to create a whole artistic output that's not just musical. I feel like I'm constantly trying to pursue as many different collaborations as possible with artists across genres."
Joyce, 24, a Juilliard-educated composer from Pittsburgh, is in her second year of graduate studies at Yale. Last year, Joyce's "Rave," an 11-minute piece for piano and pre-recorded electronics, appeared on "AORTA," an album by pianist Vicky Chow. (Pitchfork's Seth Colter Walls referred to "Rave" as a "winner.") With "Lean Back and Release," Joyce's music will likely receive even more acclaim.
Both pieces on "Lean Back and Release" explore trajectories. The title track, played by violinist Adrianna Mateo, introduces minor-key fragments in the instrument's upper register that gradually descend ("release"), as two backing tracks — one, a slightly distorted pizzicato sound (inspired by a Flying Lotus song), and the other a sort of delay-soaked arpeggio — provide harmonic support, rhythmic propulsion and an overall sense of shape.
"Shapeshifter," played by Dutch violinist Monica Germino and sound engineer Frank van der Weij, is about control; as the piece progresses, a live violin part and a backing track (a blend of acoustic and MIDI violin) swap roles.
"The violinist finally has this pizzicato, but it's also in octaves, which is added by the live engineer," Joyce says. "She has finally taken over the backing-track material, but she's still controlled by the hidden engineer."
Before arriving in New Haven, Joyce spent two summers interning at New Amsterdam, a N.Y.C.-based label specializing in boundary-smashing indie-classical releases; as a paid employee, she now manages its social media presence and website.
"I love being involved [with New Amsterdam] in any way I can, because it's definitely my favorite record label," Joyce says. "I'm super-biased, but a lot of their releases have really changed my music and my life. I feel like I want to work for them forever. I'm super indebted to them."
While working at New Amsterdam, Joyce's employers became familiar with her music.
"Some of them came to my senior recital at Juilliard," she says. Joyce quickly recognized the importance of having a recording out — "something with your name on it," she says. Even with industry connections, Joyce had to prove herself.
"I had to officially submit these pieces and get them approved," Joyce says. "I was always hesitant to show my music to them when I was still a student. It's always changing. But they definitely heard some pieces of mine."
After arriving at Yale, Joyce felt the pull of live performance. She began DJing parties and playing sets on a vintage Magnus toy organ in warehouse spaces and art galleries. Her first full-length album, she says, will likely center on her 20-minute toy organ set.
"I'm obsessed with the sound, and it also fits with my body really well, because I have a weak left hand," she says. (As a child, Joyce's hand was nearly amputated after a traumatic car accident.) "It feels like the instrument was made for me."
Joyce has five toy organs in her collection.
"They're all so different," she says. "I love that it's just this mechanical thing with these plastic reeds powering this amazing sound. I love physically playing it with my hand, but I also feel like I'm DJing, like I can dance a little bit when I'm playing."
As a composer, performing live lets Joyce experience what it's like to be on stage, "to hopefully impress or have some effect upon an audience," she says. "I also think there are many different sides to me and my personality, and obviously my musical personality. I have a different mindset for each one."
And as graduation approaches, Joyce says she's thinking more and more about her future path.
"I want to try to give back in some way. I'm really interested in exploring musicians with disabilities and how to give back or inspire different kinds of performances."