When she was living in Cleveland, Ohio, studying to become a composer, Monica Houghton found that what she missed most about Nevada was its blue skies, wide open spaces and grandiose mountains. She had gone to Ohio initially with a specific project in mind: an opera set in Virginia City, based on the writings of Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille. She finished that opera, The Big Bonanza, and found that she had to return to Reno, the place where she found the most inspiration from nature.
Houghton grew up in a musical family. At first, she resisted learning piano, being forced into lessons at age 6. All it took was a Bach fugue and a Beethoven sonata for her to truly awaken to music.
“That was when the lights came on,” said Houghton.
Growing up in the 1960s also provided Houghton with a diverse range of music that opened her eyes to strange possibilities. Everyone from Joni Mitchell to the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix fascinated Houghton and allowed her to imagine less orthodox ways of putting sounds together, an orientation that would reveal itself in her work decades later.
Although music has always been a part of her life, Houghton has only been composing for the last 20 years. Locally, her work has been performed everywhere from the University of Nevada, Reno, to the Nevada Museum of Art. It has been performed in Ohio and Oregon, and as far away as Shanghai.
Houghton is inspired, as she puts it, by the “Three Bs”: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but her work itself isn’t strictly classical. Her compositions are moody, elemental meditations that are alternately cacophonous and harmonious, at times ethereal, always striving for a wide range of sound and feeling. Most of her works are written for relatively small arrangements of strings, woodwinds and piano. These pieces are mind-bending explorations of tone. They can be everything from serene to downright terrifying.
“People have described it as haunting, evocative,” said Houghton. “But I never try and consciously address a feeling through my work. How do I put it in words? It feels something like Tom Hanks in Castaway, pounding on his chest, saying ’I have made fire!’”
Evading categorization is somewhat stock-in-trade for musicians of all kinds, but listening to Houghton’s work, it’s clear that her style attempts to push the boundaries. She uses discord in novel ways, by transforming something discordant into something melodious, and then turning it back again. Things that are initially menacing, ominous or creepy can turn into something pretty, and vice versa.
“The one thing I would say unites my work is a sense of spirituality,” said Houghton. “I see music as a way to transcend the individual. Music brings people together.”
For someone so interested in wide open space, Houghton’s music can often feel very claustrophobic. The cluttered elements provide contrast with more contemplative, spacious arrangements that incorporate many different world influences. Graduating from Harvard with a degree in Chinese Language and Literature imparts some Eastern influences on her style that can be heard from time to time.
An avid hiker, Houghton recently returned from walking coast-to-coast from the Irish Sea to the North Sea in England. In music and in life she chooses to walk down unfamiliar paths, just to see where they end up. Of her compositions, Houghton has said that she prefers to explore regardless of the result.
“Often it goes nowhere,” said Houghton. “But sometimes it goes somewhere.”