Thursday Spotlight: Erika Foin

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in California with non-musical parents and actually started quite late with music. In college I was a double major with creative writing, and it took me two years before I committed to composing in graduate school. I went to the University of Minnesota, lived in Boston for 8 years, then moved to Portland, Oregon.

Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.

I would say my earliest influence was Copland, followed by lots of Jean Sibelius, followed by minimalism, particularly Philip Glass. In the past ten years I’ve also become increasingly interested in folk music & forms, particularly Irish music.

Where and how do you get your ideas?

My ideas are always organic. I almost never write so-called “pure” music – that is, a set form without outside influence, such as a symphony or sonata. I always use some other artistic medium as a form for music – poetry, an image, a memory. So in some way it is all “programmatic,” following a story or idea, although I often don’t share the inspiration or the storyline, as that would sometimes just distract from the music itself.

What materials do you work with? Describe your technical process.

My materials: one old purple mechanical pencil, bought in Minneapolis in 1996 and called “the lucky pencil.” Photocopied empty staff paper for the instrumentation I’m currently writing for, generated in a software program called Sibelius. A very old electronic keyboard from 1987 that acts as a note input entry into Sibelius only (nobody wants to hear the sounds that that keyboard generates!).A notebook where I write out the genesis of the project and what I want to achieve before writing any notes. And the William Blake Creative Process Tarot, which I cast as a first step before beginning on any of the prework for the project.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?

I work full-time and have two children. I actually just emerged from taking five years off from composing to focus on parenting. I find making the mental space to write under these conditions very challenging. I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to write out notes before I’ve fully finished thinking about what I’m trying to achieve, it doesn’t work out so well. The best part about writing music, I think, is that it doesn’t exist without the help of others (unless you work in electronics). It’s truly a collaborative effort with other musicians, and the end result is almost never how you imagine it.

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

My best advice is to listen to the advice of others that is useful and ignore the rest. Certainly I’ve learned a lot from teachers and other musicians. But in the end, I’m not happy with a piece unless it makes me happy. Please yourself and write what speaks to you. Oh, and really, you’ll be happier if you don’t expect to be profitable – that’s just a bonus.

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