February 2022
A Life in Music
Composer and Wanderer Mary Lou Prince

When I was training to be a teacher, I learned that to make history interesting and alive, you teach it through biographies. Dates and places don’t make the profound impression that we get from seeing the unfolding red thread of someone’s life. We have here in Prescott a composer and musician who has led a remarkable life.

First performance in Japan, with teacher Michiko Itoh, 1986

Mary Lou Prince, currently the music director for the Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, has lived in Prescott since 2019. The route she took to get here has been circuitous and fascinating.

Mary Lou grew up in Los Angeles and was fortunate to have a musical mother who began teaching her piano at age four. As a child she would constantly stray from what she was supposed to be playing and make up tunes. Her mother was initially frustrated, but then began writing these little “things” down. Mary Lou still has these notebooks of her earliest “compositions.”

Classical piano lessons didn’t interest her, but at around age 14 Mary Lou began studying with a jazz organist. She learned how to work with chords, change keys and arrange music. Living in Los Angeles afforded her many opportunities to hear live music, and she was able to attend concerts of classical, jazz and popular music, all of which had influences on her composing.

Knowing she wanted to pursue a career in music, Mary Lou attended Brigham Young University, but did not follow a traditional course. The day she started her freshman year the college announced it would offer a composition major. This was quite exceptional, as usually music students interested in composing would start out in music theory and then move into composition later. Mary Lou was very happy with BYU as a music school, and her teachers were excellent.

Kanazawa, 1998

Composition students had to write and present a new work each week in a composer’s symposium. For her graduation requirement Mary Lou had to compose a full-length recital for soloists and ensembles. For this she wrote a children’s suite for piano, a song cycle based on a set of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a bassoon sonata, a piano sonata, and a suite for viola and cello. She went on to complete a Master’s degree and wrote a symphony for her thesis.

Her accomplishments as an undergraduate and graduate were impressive enough to make it possible for her to spend a year in Paris studying with the renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, who in the course of her long career taught such diverse composers as Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Elliot Carter, Phillip Glass, and Daniel Barenboim. Boulanger imparted a deep reverence in Mary Lou for the mystery that is music. After a rich year working with Boulanger and soaking up all she could of Paris, Mary Lou moved back to Los Angeles and began teaching music and working as an apprentice with film composers.

In 1983, looking for a new direction, Mary Lou and her partner Patty Willis were offered the opportunity to live and work in Japan. From friends who needed to return to the US they took over jobs rewriting scholarly papers by Japanese academicians. They both studied Japanese and found great joy in learning about their adopted culture. Being a musician possessed of a healthy cultural curiosity, Mary Lou took up learning the koto, a 13-stringed harp that is one of the traditional instruments of Japan. Her teacher soon suggested that she write music for this instrument, which led to a whole new chapter in her career. She and Patty, who had a background in writing for the theatre, created plays that included music for koto and shakuhachi, the bamboo flute, gaining them considerable national recognition.

Mary Lou received a commission while in Japan to write a piece for koto, Japanese flute and percussion, to be performed for a centennial celebration of a beloved literary figure. She would play the koto, and the flute and percussion would be performed by two traditional women musicians. She learned that every instrument in Japanese music has its own system of notation, and the commission proved to be the most challenging one she ever took on.

On the Kanazawa Noh Theatre stage, 1988

Mary Lou and Patty continued to produce work together, and were given special permission to perform a play that Patty wrote, based on a medieval folk tale, in theatres used solely for performances of noh, a highly stylized, traditional form using masks and closely defined movement. This opportunity was unprecedented, and the two were interviewed on the local equivalent of the Today show, with articles about their work appearing in nationwide press coverage. The event was so well received that they performed in noh theaters across Japan for several years.

Mary Lou speaks warmly and with much gratitude for the 24 years she spent in Japan. The support afforded artists there made it possible for her to produce many new works, and her interest in and use of traditional instruments was welcomed with great enthusiasm. She and Patty were even offered permanent Japanese residency, but ultimately decided to move back to the US to be closer to aging parents.

After moving to Tucson in 2007, Mary Lou became the music director at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. She began composing songs for the small choir to perform and, surprise!, the choir began to grow. It was here that they fell in love with the Sonoran Desert, and in response to the climate crisis they wanted to create songs that would remind people of their love for the Earth.

Mary Lou composed the music and Patty wrote the lyrics for the song cycle Songs of the Earth, first performed in the chapel at the Tumacacori Mission by candlelight, and later at the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City by a 150-voice choir representing over 20 faith traditions.

To actively engage that love of the Earth, Mary Lou and Patty designated the proceeds from every performance to alleviating suffering in the world. Performances raised money for homeless veterans housing in Tucson, the Red Cross for tsunami relief in Japan, “Save Our Canyons” in Salt Lake City, and the Colorado River Project.

This quality of looking toward those in need is another red thread in Mary Lou’s life. In 2007 she and Patty read an article about an undocumented migrant, who in attempting to cross the border found a small boy standing near a car wreck. The boy’s mother was trapped in the overturned vehicle and died before help could reach her. The man decided on the spot that, even though it would mean deportation for him, he couldn’t leave the boy alone in the desert, so he gave him his jacket and stayed with him overnight until he found hunters who could call an ambulance for help. He was then promptly sent back to Mexico. Patty felt that this story needed to be told, so she wrote a one-woman play called Man from Magdalena, and Mary Lou composed the music for it.

With Patty Willis in Man from Magdalena, Tucson 2010

Patty took the parts of five characters, using minimal props and costume items, and Mary Lou performed the music on the piano with a cellist. They have donated all net proceeds from performances of this piece to KIVA, a nonprofit microlending agency that arranges loans to small-business owners all over the world. Proceeds from the performances have underwritten hundreds of loans to people in Mexico and Central America.

Mary Lou has composed many significant works since returning to the US, including another collaboration with Patty, a ten-song cycle called Women of Courage, which celebrates Eleanor Roosevelt, Recy Taylor, Etty Hillesum, Helen Keller and many others, and was performed as a benefit concert for women refugees. They were commissioned to write the theme song for the Parliament of World Religions opening ceremony. Mary Lou composed Topaz for string orchestra and harp, inspired by the Japanese-American relocation camp of that name in Utah.

This piece was also chosen for performance at the Nadia Boulanger and Her Students Festival in Tucson last fall. Her most recent composition, a suite for koto and cello called Pilgrimage, premiered in Prescott last August. Mary Lou continues to lead the choir at Granite Peak UU, which has continued to grow despite Covid-related limitations. Her warmth, humor and commitment to music as a lifegiving element are much appreciated by the community.

To learn more about Mary Lou, go to marylouprincemusic.com or visit Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 882 Sunset Ave. in Prescott (prescottuu.org). Sunday services begin at 10am.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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