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Born a secret, far from what might have been home, Baby Girl was formally abandoned in Los Angeles at the age of 10 days. A Seventh-Day Adventist couple in the Sierras adopted her, furnishing her with a name, Carolyn Yarnell, and, at the age of 5, a piano. Best-friend piano.

“I could practice whenever I wanted to,” she remembers at an Irish pub in Laguna Beach. “Which became more and more and more. I could be . . . not disturbed. My parents knew nothing about music.”

It’s fun to make things your parents don’t understand. Some consider such fun fundamental to our evolution. Others associate it with Satan. But we all agree that it wasn’t until age 12 that Yarnell started writing music.

“Writing it down,” she explains. “One of the things that made me compose was that I was a very bad sight-reader. I’d think that I saw something on the [manuscript], something that wasn’t there. It’s still that way. And it’s that way with reading books, too. I’ll read some amazing sentences and I’ll think, ‘Wow, that was really great.’ But then a couple weeks later I’ll look at it, and it actually says something completely different.”

Bad sight-reading, dyslexia, rebellious nature and all, Yarnell studied with John Adams, Elinor Armer and Andrew Imbrie at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before further tutelage under Druckman, Bresnick, Maw and Rzewski at Yale. She found a comfortable religion: “Bach is God. He’s very intellectual and emotional, but in a detached, kind of universal way. It’s not like a . . . a self-pitying kind of music.”

Bachy riffs appear throughout last year’s Sonic Vision, Yarnell’s first solo CD, but mostly in supporting roles, defining perimeters of her lush, visually evocative terrains. Rolling, powerful landscapes of intense, often intensely beautiful sound. Mysteriously coherent mixtures of synthesized orchestras and Baroque chamber music played on period instruments — flute, oboe, viols, harpsichord. Minimalist idioms meet up with cascading Romantic passages and go high-tailing it through a Baroque forest of Minimalist trees, above which somber jigs of high-wire woodwinds balance on fat cello strings. Or maybe a Romantic mini-mall next to a Baroque strip-mall, with an empty Minimalist parking lot between them. A big, drippy, psychotic circus of electronica suddenly thuds up and starts doing figure-eights until the Baroque Police arrive to chase it away.

The first track, “The Same Sky,” began as a multimedia performance piece. “[Pianist] Kathleen Supové commissioned it, through Meet the Composer. She wanted to make a CD of that piece and some others, so she approached Tzadik [John Zorn’s record label]. John Zorn said that he couldn’t do it all, but that he loved ‘The Same Sky,’ so he wanted to do that piece.”

 

“The Same Sky” was originally written for solo piano, computer, and video projected inside the piano. “We made a special stick that held the lid open at almost 90 degrees, and a special canvas that fit tightly over the lid, and then the video was projected from inside the piano onto the screen.” The video was created by software designer Eric Wenger (Bryce, Videodelic), who also did some of the effects and processing on Sonic Vision.

Since 1993 or so, Yarnell’s been composing with Performer and Finale software. “Before that, I did everything on the piano, by hand, writing it out. Which can be very expensive and complicated for an orchestra piece — getting everything copied, doing all the proofreading. I write very complicated music. On Sonic Vision, it’s only chamber music and computer music. But I write a lot of orchestral music.”

Unfortunately, such music can still be prohibitively expensive to its creators, even after it’s been performed. “John Zorn wanted to use ‘Living Mountains,’ one of my orchestral pieces, commissioned by the American Composers’ Orchestra and recorded at Carnegie Hall. I called up the orchestra to see how much it would cost to put it on the CD.

“Guess how much.

“No, higher: $51,000 to use a 15-minute orchestra piece that I got paid something like $10,000 to write. So I can’t afford to use my own music.” Perhaps the Guggenheim Foundation Award that Yarnell received in April will help cover similar upcoming expenses. “But, you know,” she sighs, “I can’t complain. It’s great to have an orchestra piece done.”

CAROLYN YARNELL | Sonic Vision (Tzadik)


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