First and foremost, Ayala Asherov is a storyteller. As a composer of everything from pop songs to symphonies to film scores, Ayala’s works have been shaped by Israeli and Southern cultures. As an educator, she teaches songwriting at the College of Charleston, and she uses her program Music Tells the Story to share the art of composition with marginalized communities of the Lowcountry. Months ago I had the chance to interview Ayala and learn more about her unique history with music and what it’s really like to be a composer living in the South.
You grew up in Israel. How did you end up in South Carolina?
After graduating from Berklee College of Music and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I knew I wanted to go back to Israel to pursue a career in music in a familiar place. A few months after I returned to Israel, I met a man who was originally from Israel but had moved back to the states to practice medicine where he was trained. We fell in love and I moved back to America, this time to South Carolina where he was practicing. I realize now that I am an explorer—not as a traveler but as someone who explores through real life experiences. I have lived in South Carolina for the last 15 years.
When did you start composing music and when did you know you wanted to pursue it professionally?
In high school, I had to study a lot of poetry and literature. I found it much easier to learn the poetry if I made it into a song, and that’s how I actually began composing—I set everything I came across to music. Then I started writing my own lyrics and I became a songwriter. The more I wrote songs the more I realized that I was looking for a more in-depth relationship with music and wanted to expand my musical knowledge. That naturally drew me to study composition.
You compose in a wide variety of styles—pop, contemporary classical, etc.—and for a wide variety of media—from film scores to concert music. Do you have a favorite? Why?
My favorite style is usually the style of the project/piece that I’m working on at that moment. But sometimes my favorite style is not exactly the one I’m currently working on, and I can’t wait to finish what I’m working on, so I can get onto the next thing….but that is, I think, the nature of being a creative person.
Are there clear lines drawn between pop and folk music and “more serious” art music? How do you differentiate between the genres, or do you?
I believe that at the end of the day, one has to be happy with what she has created and feel that it’s dramatic and passionate enough to engage the listener. The genres are different and the audiences are different, but all hearts want to be moved and all ears want to listen. I try to engage listeners’ hearts and ears in every piece of music that I write.
How has living in the South influenced your music?
I lived in Columbia for years where I was fortunate enough to meet many wonderful performers. While there I could also concentrate on my chamber music, and one of my works (“Three Rivers” for clarinet, viola, and piano) was inspired by the Congaree, Saluda, and Broad Rivers that the Midlands center on. I think if I had been in a bigger city I wouldn’t have been able to focus so much time on one genre, and it led me to produce an entire CD devoted to my chamber works.
In Charleston, where I live now, I was able to work with Mark Bryan of Hootie and the Blowfish and produce an album of songs. I’m very proud of that album and living in the South inspired much of its content.
Women are largely underrepresented in classical music—as composers, conductors, and even performers. How does being a woman affect your role in this industry, or does it at all?
I try not to focus on what’s hard and what I might not be able to do. I would like to think and hope that everything is possible for me as a composer no matter who I am—as long as my music is good and speaks to the heart of the people!
What is Music Tells The Story? Why is it so important for students to be exposed to “classical” music?
When I first moved to Charleston, I was shocked by the lack of support and funds for students in low-income areas, so in 2013 I founded an educational program called Music Tells the Story.
Through this program, I visit underprivileged schools in the Lowcountry and have students write their own unique stories that I then set to music. I find that instead of forcing them to listen to classical music, it’s much more effective to remind them of the “serious” music they hear in the films or video games they already enjoy. After the experience, they’re much more likely to seek out classical music on their own because they’ve created a personal connection to the genre.
In order to keep audiences in the classical halls, I believe that we have to continue to educate young students and make sure that they love this kind of music. That’s the only way they will continue to support living, working composers.
What are you working on right now? What’s next for you?
I just returned from a festival of new music at the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The musicians played a brand new piece of mine for cello, violin, and viola based on quotes by John Muir and a poem by Robert Frost. I’m also about to start teaching again at the College of Charleston, and I received a grant from the SC Arts Commission to continue Music Tells the Story for another year. I was also given a short film to look at to possibly score later in the fall. Also, a new cycle of songs is in the works for voice, bassoon, and piano, set to poems by Israeli poet Rachel. I’m very excited for all of these opportunities.