Lisa Swerdlow, composer

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

My father was a significant influence in my early years. He loved Parisian music, so every Sunday at our home in Los Angeles, he made sure we had “Sundays in Paris.” He always told us he felt transported to Paris. He taught me to believe that music can transport you to places you’ve never lived or experienced. As a young pianist I favored Beethoven and the romantics, along with Burt Bacharach, Harry Belafonte, and many in the “New Folk Music” scene. In my adult years I was influenced by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Keith Jarrett, Claude Bolling and George Winston.

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

How to use social media and streaming services to promote my music. I am technically “challenged,” and the demise of CD’s has been very sad. I am frustrated by the “one-offs” that streaming services provide. I feel composers are getting short-shrift by this platform. I spend a great deal of time composing each piece and instead of people listening to a whole album, a playlist curator may pick just one of my pieces; that piece will get lots of streams while the rest is ignored. Sad…

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?

I haven’t worked very often with other musicians since my days playing in bands. I would like to work with ensembles again. I have worked with a cellist and violinist for several of my compositions. I really enjoy the dialogue that musicians have with each other. I work with an orchestrator now, but all the instruments are digitally sampled. He’s fantastic to work with.

Of which works are you most proud?

My Coming to America Concerto (released on September 17, 2021) is my most challenging endeavour and one that I am very proud of. I composed this to reflect on my Grandparents’ journey from Russia to America between 1907-1910. It is the story of immigrants journeying to the shore of America. It’s my Magnum Opus to date!

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I love composing in minor keys as they are the language of dramatic and deep emotions. I love the use of crescendos to heighten the tension, but always bring the music back to a resolution.

How do you work?

I have a Roland LX-7 in my studio that I use for composing. I have my blank staff sheets, a sharp pencil, a good eraser and my Finale scoring program on my desktop nearby. I can spend 4-5 hours without food when I am engaged in composing. When I have something 75% complete, I go downstairs to my Yamaha C3X grand piano and see how well it sounds acoustically.

What do you do off-stage that provides inspiration on-stage?

I live in a beautiful rural area of Northern California, and I walk a lot. I get inspiration from the wildlife and flora that live here. I also grow a big vegetable garden with lots of flowers, and that is my happy place. I am also inspired when I travel abroad, but unfortunately with COVID I haven’t had a chance to travel much. The changing seasons are also inspirational to me.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is when other musicians like my music, and I’m recognized as a talented composer and artist. It’s very rewarding when people tell me how much my music has helped them or provided them with a healing balm.

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

Let the music lead you, don’t try to lead it. Forcing a song to happen will only lead to being dissatisfied with what you’ve composed. Ignore the critic in your head and don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other composers. You bring your own sound into form; let that be your gift.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I am performing this November at the Grass Valley Center for Arts near my home in Northern California, and I’m looking forward to that. I have really enjoyed small venues like piano stores that host concerts. I played at a Yamaha dealer in Franklin, Tennessee and a Yamaha store in Ottawa, Ontario and really like the ability to have a rapport with my audience. I prefer the smaller venues where I can connect with audiences, although I have played some larger venues.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?

I think people think of Classical music as stuffy and unrelatable. Neo-Classical or Classical Crossover can be the bridge to getting people to tune into more complex forms of music. Many streaming services are limited in their genres, and they need to expand to include the above. I think that schools need to also teach more music appreciation classes that invite the students to delve deeper into the composer’s musical story.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Riding my horse through a beautiful forest.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Sitting with good friends and enjoying some good wine, listening to lovely music in the background. And…composing!

What is your present state of mind?

I’m feeling some anxiety about the state of the world. But on a personal level I’m feeling optimistic that all will sort itself out.

Listen to Lisa Swerdlow’s music here


Lisa Swerdlow is an accomplished pianist and composer who lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she grew up in a progressive Jewish family. Her mother was an elementary schoolteacher and her father worked in the garment industry. Her childhood home was full of music thanks to her father’s piano, accordion and mandolin playing.

Lisa studied classical piano from the age of six playing Fur Elise by Beethoven for her first piano recital at seven. She began writing and performing songs on piano and guitar at sixteen and went on to study music theory and compositon at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods.

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