Meet the Artist……Kathleen Ryan, composer and pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and make it your career? 

I have just been making up music since I was very young and have kept on.  Music inspired me.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

Musical life:  music of Gershwin (my first love), Schubert, Copland, folk songs, blues, and basically every sound I’ve ever heard; plus my piano teachers Barbara Lister-Sink and Alice Shapiro.   And almost most importantly, my dear friend the late Geoffrey Golner, a piano-playing theoretical physicist who loved music, had a very discerning taste, and encouraged me even when I believed “doing music” was useless!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Recognizing that I am actually a composer!  I think of myself as a pianist who makes up music.  It has taken me a long time to realize that a pianist who makes up music is a composer.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

The special challenge:  Creating music with my authentic voice while also discovering what the person commissioning the music really wants.

The special pleasure:  The kind of back-and-forth that Keith (Porter Snell) and I had while I was composing ‘Verbs’ for him.

Which works are you most proud of? 

Well, ‘Verbs’ generally, especially the preludes Tangle, Shatter, Release, Bless, and Forgive.  Of the solo pieces I’ve created for myself,  What the Stars Saw on the Prairie, and Something Water, Something Light.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

Gershwin, Schubert, Copland, Tavener, Keith Porter-Snell, Barbara Lister-Sink, Lee Bartley.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

You have a wonderful gift and an opportunity.  Respect yourself, respect your audience.

I believe that most people need more beauty in their lives.  We musicians inspire and uplift our listeners when we are able to express both joy and sorrow through beauty.  It’s not about inflicting our own pain or other ugliness on our listeners.  They have given us a great gift of trust by listening to us (especially those of us who create new music—our listeners have no idea what we might be offering!)  Music can offer a doorway to insight, comfort, joy, peace.

Please note:  I’m not talking about avoiding dissonance!  I’m talking about always reaching for the most refined expression possible, using all the musical resources available to us, which of course includes dissonance.

What are you working on at the moment? 

A suite for piano (2 hands this time) for a wonderful young pianist, Meara Oberdieck; and a chamber ensemble for piano left hand and two violins, for Keith Porter-Snell.   Also, writing down all the improvisational pieces I’ve made up over the years, aka my repertory.  Oh, and editing the print version of ‘Verbs’ for the second edition.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 


What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Morning tea on my porch, watching the mountains across the way and listening to the breeze and the birds, followed by piano time.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My Steinway, or possibly my special mug for my morning tea!

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Playing piano for people.


Kathleen Ryan’s ‘Verbs’, a set of 24 impressionistic preludes for piano left hand alone, composed for Steinway artist Keith Porter-Snell, is available now.

In addition to practicing scales and classical repertory on her way to earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, Kathleen Ryan played snare drum in a marching band; wrote and performed singing telegrams; improvised music for avant garde dancers; composed a folk rock opera based on the Tristan and Isolde legend; and sang and danced in a hippie liturgical drama presented at the Ohio State Fair.

After a brief (very brief!) fling as a folk singer, and a somewhat longer interlude as a classical pianist, Kathleen began searching for ways to “sing the piano” — that is, transform the piano into a medium as intimately expressive as the human voice.

“When I am composing,” she says, “I don’t necessarily hear music inside. Instead, I experience a subtle dissatisfaction until the sounds my hands create match the deeper emotion I feel within.”

Read Kathleen’s full biography here