The Musical Magpie

Composer and amateur archaeologist Melissa Dunphy, GR’17, finds inspiration all around her—even beneath her feet.


Melissa Dunphy, GR’17, earned her Ph.D. in music composition from Penn, where she was also a Benjamin Franklin Fellow. Today she is a composer and citizen archaeologist and runs Mormolyke Press, a sheet music publishing company. (Image: Kendall Whitehouse, C’79)

 

What do Ayn Rand, the sounds of early dial-up internet, Nikola Tesla, and Abigail Adams’s “Remember the Ladies” letter have in common?

They have all served as subject matter for musical pieces by Melissa Dunphy, GR’17, a composer known for setting unusual texts to music. Dunphy’s body of distinctly contemporary work, which includes choral arrangements, electroacoustic compositions, orchestral pieces, and operas, explores American politics and culture, and it frequently leans into issues of social justice, gender, and power.

Her most recent opera, Alice Tierney, premiered at Oberlin Conservatory last winter, and was staged by Boston University and Opera Columbus before a recent performance at Rutgers. On the side, Dunphy is an amateur archaeologist, a hobby that’s expanded where she finds inspiration for her music. As it turns out, she discovers it all around her—even beneath her feet.

 

From Fragment to Full Opera

The idea for Alice Tierney came to Dunphy while she was researching the history of the home she and her husband purchased in 2014 in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia. An 1880 newspaper article she stumbled across described the death of a “dissipated woman” named Alice Tierney on the property, a death ruled an accident at the time. Dunphy was skeptical.

“It ties in to modern-era issues of police investigations,” says Dunphy. “I’m thinking of [all the people] whose deaths are dismissed by the police and not investigated. It was something that resonated with me.”


Scenes from Alice Tierney, Dunphy’s first full-length opera. It premiered in January 2023, was mounted again in April, and will be performed three more times before the end of the year. (Images: Courtesy of Melissa Dunphy)

 

To turn this news fragment into a fully realized opera, Dunphy and librettist Jacqueline Goldfinger imagined a scenario where four 21st-century graduate student archaeologists, each with their own inherent biases and backstories—like Quinn, who is invested in social justice issues, or John, who comes from a wealthy banking family—investigate the site and come up with different interpretations of the real Alice Tierney.

“It’s really about how historians and archaeologists tell stories about the past, and how that’s changed,” says Dunphy, who studied music composition at Penn.

Musically, the characters’ wide-ranging ideas about Alice allowed Dunphy to play with a variety of styles. A driving rock beat with a danceable bass line accompanies Quinn’s depiction, while John’s “sexy courtesan with a heart of gold” gave Dunphy license to delve into the 19th-century operatic tropes of La Traviata and La Bohème. Dunphy describes herself as “a bit of a musical magpie,” and that idea plays out in how the quartet of Alice Tierney characters express themselves.

 

Timely Advice

Born in Australia, Dunphy grew up with music: playing the violin and viola, singing in choirs, trying out folk and rock and other styles, playing in bands. She also enjoyed experimenting with unusual pairings of words and music. She recalls a high school assignment to set a text to music. Most students chose 19th-century poetry with a rhyming structure and a metrical pattern; Dunphy selected an avant-garde poem called “No Brian,” which consisted of the words “no” and “Brian” repeated with varying punctuation and capitalization. “I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to set various manifestations or permutations of this one phrase to music,” she says.

She discovered composition relatively late, beginning her undergraduate degree at West Chester University at age 24 after a long-distance courtship (with the man who would become her husband) prompted her move to the U.S. in 2003.


Dunphy created the Gonzales Cantata, a “large-scale choral work” based on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (Image: Kendall Whitehouse, C’79)

 

Dunphy’s singular approach to classical music first made a splash when her Gonzales Cantata, a senior project for her undergraduate degree, was performed at the 2009 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The large-scale choral work, with text drawn entirely from the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of former Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, received enthusiastic reviews from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Fox News. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who featured the cantata twice on her program, called it “the coolest thing you will ever see on this show.”

Though buoyed by this attention, when Dunphy began her doctorate that fall, she was nervous about how the Penn ecosystem would receive the Gonzales Cantata. “I didn’t talk about it with my professors for a long time,” she says, “because I wasn’t sure if it fit into this very academic music department with these very storied composers.”

Emeritus music professor Jay Reise set her mind at ease one day after she had submitted a “very academic, very esoteric, not particularly accessible” piano work for his class that she imagined was in the Penn tradition. Over a cup of coffee, Reise asked her why she was writing this way. “He said, ‘You just had this huge hit with the Gonzalez Cantata and it’s clearly something that you love, so why aren’t you writing music that follows that passion?’” Dunphy recalls. “I breathed this huge sigh of relief.”

 

Underground Discoveries

Following Reise’s advice has brought Dunphy a successful career as a freelance composer. She has an adjunct teaching position at Rutgers, but the bulk of her work comprises commissions from choral groups, chamber groups, and solo vocalists, plus the occasional opera. “I enjoy teaching students,” she says, “but I love my freelance career and the freedom it offers.”

One advantage of a flexible schedule, says Dunphy, is that it allows time for what she calls her “very robust hobbies,” which, since buying the property on Callowhill Street, includes amateur archaeology.

As Dunphy recalls, it happened like this. She and her husband had a vision to turn their building into a performance space, with living quarters above. As they began pre-construction excavations, they discovered a series of underground privies that contained fragments of bowls and platters and other household items cast out by the property’s 18th- and 19th-century occupants.

Dunphy was instantly fascinated. Part of her abiding interest in these archaeological remnants, she posits, comes from being both an immigrant and a child of immigrants. “My parents were immigrants to Australia from China and Greece,” she explains, “and it’s impossible for me to research my own family genealogy because they are from countries where I don’t speak the language. But then suddenly, holding these objects, I realized there’s a different kind of genealogy that I can research, which is my position in the timeline of the city of Philadelphia.”

“Being open to serendipity and gifts from the universe and then being able to take those and go deep and run with them...not many people have that, but Melissa does.”

The ongoing (and, Dunphy concedes, borderline-obsessive) research into the ceramics she has unearthed and the lives of the people who lived in her neighborhood has led to a blog, a hugely popular podcast, a network of ceramics experts and professional archaeologists whose advice and opinions she regularly seeks, and conference invitations. Thousands of potsherds and reassembled ceramic vessels now inhabit the horizontal spaces of the Dunphys’ home, and a database is currently in the works.

Ultimately, Dunphy says, they have plans to open a small museum adjacent to the future performance space to exhibit the ceramics. “I want to get the collection downstairs where people can see it and revel in it and think about it and then use the online virtual database to learn more about it and connect the different pieces to the different periods in Philadelphia history,” she says.

Dunphy’s high level of insight and competence in multiple areas of art and culture—she has also worked as an actor, model, and voice over actor—is part of what makes her so interesting as an artist, says Karen Rile, who teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the Creative Writing program and the Department of English, and who has followed Dunphy’s career closely.

“It gives her access to connections you wouldn’t necessarily see if you’re only in music or politics or archaeology,” says Rile. “Being open to serendipity and gifts from the universe and then being able to take those and go deep and run with them and take what is important from them and create something valuable—not many people have that, but Melissa does.”

Dunphy’s “archaeology habit,” as she calls it, may need to take a backseat as she prepares for another career highlight: The BBC Proms—the U.K.’s beloved summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts—has commissioned her to write a piece for musical ensembles VOCES8 and the King’s Singers to premiere at London’s Royal Albert Hall in July. “I grew up in Australia watching the last night of the Proms on TV, so this is huge,” she says. “I didn’t think that could be me one day having a piece performed at the Proms, and yet here I am.”

Closer to home, Dunphy feels gratified to have found a way to bring Alice Tierney’s story to light. “Whenever my buckets of potsherds and glass in the apartment tinkled unexpectedly, I’d say, ‘That’s the ghost of Alice telling me to do something.’” Where this musical magpie’s curiosity will take her next is anyone’s guess.

 

By Judy Hill