The Heart of a Composer: Melissa Gordon Rhine

By Kathy Pate, National Music Chair


Composers fall into a unique class of creatives. A bird singing, humpback whales singing, crickets chirping, the sound of wind blowing, or a tragedy can inspire a melody to be sculpted into a symphony, a sonata, a song to be sung, or a hymn.

While drawing from knowledge of musical form and theory, music must be inspired by a deep, mystical source for the finished composition to be original and appealing. Composing involves translating this unseen force into the language of music to convey a sound, a feeling, a dynamic, a story.

A visual analogy of this dynamic can be seen in Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where God is touching Adam’s hand to give him the spark of life. The resulting, inspired music can provide lyrics to be sung, or it can simply use instruments to tell the story and evoke a certain response in the listener or performer.

Melissa Gordon Rhine

Melissa Gordon Rhine

Pen Woman Melissa Gordon Rhine (Atlanta Branch) recently finished a musical that was inspired by Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel’s memoir titled “Night.” She was deeply moved to compose a suite of seven songs after reading his book.

When she shared these songs with an accomplished musician friend, he encouraged her to expand them into a musical. Having never written a musical, Rhine was reluctant and asked him why.

He replied, “Because there are people who do not believe the holocaust even happened.”

The process took on a life of its own, carrying her along for eight years until she completed “Night and Day” in July of 2018.

“It came from the ghosts of those who died,” she said.

Shortly into this process, she wrote to Wiesel about the musical and he responded almost immediately, two months prior to his death. He encouraged her, saying, “Your work helps to make a difference in creating a new kind of century. …Continue to think higher and feel deeper.”

Rhine says that she cannot explain how her creativity happens.

“It starts with a feeling, a sound, an observation, an experience or inspiration,” she said. “Allowing ourselves to create is an act of bravery and a gift to ourselves that we must allow ourselves to let go and receive.”

Her creative process was highly influenced by Julia Cameron (author of “The Artist’s Way”), who wrote, “Why do you treat the artist in you like a child locked up in the basement?”

Rhine teaches music and performs regularly with her group, New Territory, and spends much of her remaining time composing. Like many composers, she is driven to write music. At one time, she had a weekly slot on a radio program that was called “The Heart of the Matter: The Process of Creativity,” and for 10 years was a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammy awards).

Rhine enjoys sharing her love of music with those who would benefit from hearing it. She produced a CD titled “Confessions of a Housewife Chapter 1 — Listen to the Sounds of Your Soul” for Alzheimer’s and hospice patients and their caregivers. This is a combination of standards mixed with her own compositions, which have been well received in her performances at various nursing homes and the Plymouth Harbor Day Program in Atlanta.

A composer translates the essence of a situation or dynamic into musical expression. Melissa Gordon Rhine translated a horrific time in human history into a musical, human love story. Composers must, in the words of Elie Wiesel, “continue to think higher and feel deeper.”