A Final Venture in Minnesota: Martha Sullivan Wins Dale Warland Singers Commission



Martha Sullivan

The Dale Warland Singers announced New York-based composer and singer Martha Sullivan the winner of the 2003 Choral VenturesTM program. Sullivan was selected from over 150 applicants from 36 states to receive a commission for a 10-15 minute work to be performed by the Dale Warland Singers during their 2003-04 season, which will be their final season as Dale Warland announced his resignation as director earlier this year. [Stay tuned to NewMusicBox for an exclusive interview with Dale Warland.] Since the inception of the Choral VenturesTM in 1987, over 75 works have been commissioned by the Singers, adding a significant amount of new repertoire to the choral music community.

Sullivan was one of 4 finalists selected after the initial evaluation process. All of the finalists were commissioned to write a 5-7 minute long work to be workshopped as part of the annual Choral VenturesTM Reading Session, which was held in May at Hamline University. The other finalists were Luis Jorge Gonzalez (Colorado), Jay Huber (Minnesota), and Frances White (New Jersey).

Sullivan, who began composing in 1999, was very impressed the wide-ranging aspects of the program. “It goes far beyond just recognizing the talents of four composers every year. It invites the composers to explore the larger context of choral music and how they might both contribute to it and benefit from it.” As part of the program, the four finalists are invited to Minnesota where they attend workshops and sessions that address topics like self-publishing, prosody, relationships with conductors, promotion, and general knowledge about the choral market. The time in Minnesota also allows the composers to get to know each other and share their music. “The main message I got from all this is that where new music and choral music intersect, there is a big and fascinating place, so why not go there?”

The actual reading of the works involved an audience-participation element in which audience members were able to react to the works being presented. Sullivan’s winning work, Nocturne I, was a setting of the 18th Stanza of Edmund Spenser‘s 24 stanza wedding ode, “Epithalamion.” For the newest commission, which will be premiered in November, Sullivan will abandon Spenser’s poetry for the sonnets of 19th century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Sullivan is looking forward to working with the ensemble again. “I’m really psyched about this commission! The group is a fabulous collection of singers, with tons of talent and enthusiasm. It’s an honor to work with them.” And she has certainly been impressed with their talent, she also points to the impeccable organization of the group as a key to their success. “The rehearsal process wastes no time!”

As a composer, Sullivan has been commissioned by the Gregg Smith Singers and Chicago A Cappella, in addition to numerous school and church choirs. As a singer, she has performed with the Gregg Smith Singers, the New York Virtuoso Singers, the Vox Vocal Ensemble, new-music ensembles at Yale and Boston University, and Toby Twining Music.

Between her plentiful summer activities, Martha Sullivan took a few moments out to write down her thoughts about the commission and offer some great advice for composers who want to write for choir.

AMANDA MACBLANE: I read in your bio that you have worked with the Dale Warland Singers before. What has been your experience with the ensemble?

MARTHA SULLIVAN: My experience with the Dale Warland Singers comes entirely from Choral VenturesTM. All the finalists were commissioned to write a piece for the reading back in May, so that’s the commission my bio refers to.

The Dale Warland Singers are fabulous in so many ways. The group sings with a very rich and coherent sound; it’s also clear and nimble and can turn on a time when the music calls for it. Of course you can hear all this on their recordings.

The organization of the group impressed me hugely. The rehearsal process wastes no time; singers get their scores a month before rehearsals start, and Dale gives the section leaders all the breath marks and so forth to pass on, so the basses (for example) never have to twiddle their thumbs while waiting for the sopranos to find out that they need to take a breath in measure 67.

The singers themselves are diligent and enthusiastic about working with composers. They are willing to try new things, too. One of the other 2003 Choral VenturesTM finalists had written a piece that involved vocal harmonics/overtones such as the Tuvan throat singers use, but, not being a singer himself, he did not know quite how to teach the technique to the group, so I was enlisted. It was really quite a joy to stand up there getting forty pro singers to say and then sing “near” over and over again, testing tongue shapes until they found the harmonics. The effect came over quite well in the hall, and I was stunned at how quickly the singers picked it up (it took me months of practice before I could get it under control for the Toby Twining project I learned the technique for).

The Choral VenturesTM program itself is something very special. It goes far beyond just recognizing the talents of four composers every year. It invites the composers to explore the larger context of choral music and how they might both contribute to it and benefit from it.

We went out to Minnesota and were happily wined and dined and workshopped. We got to know each other over coffee and meals and a session of sharing our scores and recordings with each other, this last coordinated by the tireless Frank Ferko, a prior Choral VenturesTM winner and last year’s composer-in-residence. Then we were treated to a workshop with generous people such as Stephen Paulus and Michael Dennis Browne, covering topics ranging from self-publishing to how to get to know a poem well enough to set it to music (read it aloud… many times).

Choral conductor Kathy Romey was also there to set us straight about querying conductors and thinking about the choral market; it’s a hungry market, with many participants and many ubiquitous genres, such as sacred music. Writing useful music serves the groups who sing it and allows for an audience almost by definition. Gayle Ober, the Singers’ executive director, also described for us how the group’s commissioning of music goes farther than just Minnesota audiences: if another group does a Choral VenturesTM piece, they must ask permission of the Dale Warland Singers first, but then they get the benefit of a well-known name associated with their program, the Singers get that name spread to a wider audience, and of course the composer gets another performance, so everyone benefits.

The main message I got from all this is that where new music and choral music intersect, there is a big and fascinating place, so why not go there? Choral VenturesTM provided us with insights and tools galore (heck, they even gave us a contact list of groups that program new music; how generous can you get?)… What a gift.

AMANDA MACBLANE: The work that you submitted to the competition is based on a stanza of Edmund Spenser’s poetry. For your commission, do you plan on continuing in a similar vein or do you have something different in mind?

MARTHA SULLIVAN: Back when we were still talking about a Spring 2004 performance, my plan was to finish the set of songs based on stanzas from Spenser’s “Epithalamion.” The Singers had seemed to enjoy the first song of the set last May. Of course with this being the last year of the in-town concert series, there has been some program juggling, and the group’s needs have changed, program-wise. The new piece has been moved to the Thanksgiving concert (1 and 2 November), and it will have a text more in line with a Thanksgiving theme, and more allegro bits (at Dale’s request) than Spenser was inspiring me to write. I had a quick phone conversation with Dale about all this back at the beginning of July, on the one day I was home between my return from San Diego and my departure for upstate New York, so, since I hate packing, I procrastinated by reading any likely book of thankful or autumnal poetry at hand, working my way through Wallace Stevens, Milton, the Psalms, and half the Norton Anthology of Poetry (I’m a fast reader) before hitting upon Gerard Manley Hopkins. The piece will consist of fragments from his sonnets. And it will be done by the third week in August. Ah, the joy of deadlines.

AMANDA MACBLANE: You are also a singer. What do think the most important compositional considerations are for writing for chorus?

MARTHA SULLIVAN: There are several important ones, and I have strong opinions, but you asked, so here goes!

  • Voices Like To Move. That’s Rule #1, for choral or solo writing for voice, and it’s pivotal to the singability of a piece. The reason sopranos hate singing Beethoven (or his choral works, anyway) is that he tends to stick them up on a G above the staff, howling words at a generous forte for long stretches at a time, until he gets bored with that and moves them up to an A. Even in the middle of the vocal range, the voice can get tired or stuck—I love Minimalism, but chanting numbers on the B above middle C for 16 measures at a time makes my tongue cramp up. That’s just embarrassing…
  • Tessitura. I’ll discuss this with reference to the soprano range; transpose what I say down a whole step or minor third for mezzos, maybe an octave lower for tenors, an octave and a third or fourth for baritones, and as much as an octave and a sixth for true basses… So. Yes, sopranos enjoy singing notes at the top or the staff, say from F up to B (or higher, if they are pro singers), but they do not like to live up there for long. If the group or individual you are writing for says their usable soprano range is middle C to high C, fabulous! But also ask what the best tessitura for the part will be—usually on the staff, from F sharp up to E. Keep the bulk of the writing there, move the voices around a lot, and make all the excursions up to the heights you want, but don’t buy a cabin up there—high notes are a day trip only. This topic is an important one to discuss with the singers you write for, particularly if you want to hear your piece sung more than once.
  • Phrase Length. Can you yourself sing through a vocal phrase you have written without taking a breath? If yes, then great. If not, is the group you’re writing for big enough that they can stagger the breaths? Note that singers often don’t enjoy staggering, because it makes them feel like wimps if they can’t get to the end of the phrase in one breath. A favorite voice teacher of mine (Joan Heller) once had a tuba player ask her to teach him to sing the entirety of a certain Schubert song all in one breath. I don’t know why he wanted that particular skill, but I certainly understand the impulse to be macho about breathing. And I think composers shouldn’t encourage it! When singers have enough breath, they give a better performance.
  • High Notes and The Issues They Raise. Singers like to sing melismas on the highest notes in their ranges. The preferred vowel is [a] as in “Father”. An open o as in “hot” is also fine. The e in “wet” does not always sound good, mostly because any 10 singers will come up with 10 slightly different versions of the vowel; avoid it unless you know the choral conductor is a vowel nerd. Some singers (such as me) love to sing the [i] in “police”, but most don’t. I recommend avoiding it on high notes. The [u] in “June” is likewise to be shunned in extreme ranges. The [æ] in “cat” is fun to sing in medium and low ranges, hard to make beautiful in high ones (ask sopranos you know how they feel about a certain aria in Floyd’s Susannah if you doubt me). What about consonants, you ask? Well, as I said, singers prefer melismas up high. If you must write words up there, realize that the more tongue action or lip action is involved, the harder the consonant will be to pronounce in extreme ranges. B and P, for example, are relatively easy; v and f are harder, requiring more use of the lower lip. Try it yourself and see: say “pill” and “fill,” then try to sing them on a high note… Test any text you are planning to set in a high range by singing it yourself, high in your own range.
  • Disjunct Versus Conjunct Motion. Voices can always negotiate stepwise motion easier than skips. I sang the Bach Missa Brevis in A a couple of weeks ago, and there’s one bit in there where the voices have to sing arpeggiated sixteenth notes in an allegro section. It’s doable, but not readable accurately the first time through. It takes real practice. Skips are fine when they are not too wildly fast; it also helps to change the direction of the line after you write a skip (are you listening, J. J. Fux?) For a good example of angular, skippy writing that also uses fast sixteenths (but in conjunct motion), look at the allegro part of Anne Truelove’s first big scene in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
  • Scansion and Prosody. English is an accentual–syllabic language. We have accented and unaccented syllables. We have patterns those syllables divide themselves into, and we can analyze them: Twinkle, twinkle, little star is stong-weak, strong-weak, strong-weak, strong. You do not need to have studied scansion enough to identify that as trochaic tetrameter to set it to music. You automatically know that you wouldn’t set the “twin-” of “twinkle” on an upbeat, because it’s strong. Nor would you set the unaccented “-kle” on some note that’s emphasized either by falling on a downbeat or being the climax of a phrase. Prosody is how you line up the text with the notes; it’s good to pay attention to it and work with the language rather than against it or in spite of it. I agree with Michael Dennis Browne who recommends speaking the text over and over again until you can really feel it and know it and set it appropriately. Of course I can hear you pointing out that Stravinsky often didn’t set music according to the scansion of the texts, and neither did many French composers, but I notice that Stravinsky’s Russian pieces really do work that way (Russian being another accentual–syllabic language), even if his Latin ones don’t (Latin scansion is extremely fussy), and French is an oddity because it is not accentual–syllabic at all. Nevertheless, composers such as Ravel and Poulenc and Messiaen are absolutely meticulous about the lengths of syllables so that the music reflects the particular rhythm of the text, with a typically French combination of smoothness and precision.
  • Knowing the Voices You Are Writing For and Asking Questions. Individual voices are so different from one another, and choirs have different sounds (compare any gospel choir to any men-and-boys choir of an English cathedral, for example). I believe in writing for particular singers or groups; I like to imagine singers I know singing certain solo lines, and if I don’t know a singer before I write, I will ask questions about range and tessitura and also request a recording. The same goes for choirs. And one of the most important questions is this: How much rehearsal time will you have on this piece? With very good readers, you can get a reading of a piece on short notice, but you won’t get a real sing of it until they’ve had enough rehearsal time to absorb it properly. Try to make the difficulty level commensurate with the rehearsal time, so that you get a performance, not just a reading (thank you, David Conte, for this valuable bit of advice).
  • Details of Various Voice Types. Some orchestration textbooks describe voices with the same sorts of details you see in discussions of particular instruments, such as which part of a voice’s range carries best over an orchestra (for example, a dramatic Wagnerian soprano carries fine in the octave above middle C, while a lyric coloratura can’t be heard so well over a full orchestra until about an octave higher, so the composer has to orchestrate delicately). Blatter’s textbook goes into detail. I recommend keeping it or another similar reference handy.

AMANDA MACBLANE: What other projects will you be working on this year as both a singer and composer? (I am also curious to find out exactly what you are doing this summer!)

MARTHA SULLIVAN: Ah, the traditional “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essay!

At the beginning of the summer I flew to San Diego with New York’s Bach Choir, the group that does Vespers with Bach cantatas a couple times a month. We were there for a huge convention of Lutheran church musicians, and we sang Bach motets one-on-a-part and gave workshops. It was pure heaven. We also sneaked in some time at the San Diego Zoo, definitely worth seeing when you are in the area. We did not sing to the giraffes.

When I got back, I had my quick talk with Dale about texts and deadlines, then headed up to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, NY, for Gregg Smith’s Adirondack Festival of American Music (AFAM). My job up there was to sing, be a featured composer, teach voice lessons, and write occasional translations of things as one of the designated language nerds. It is worth readers’ while to write Gregg because the second week of the festival is all about new music, with concerts of works by featured composers as well as a reading session that one can pay to attend. It’s quite affordable. The Gregg Smith Singers serve as guinea pigs and will happily tell you what works and what doesn’t in any choral score you bring. Gregg is an adamant booster of new music, and someone worth sending music to at any time, since he programs new works on his New York City concert series during the year. The summer festival is still the best way to get his attention, though, with all the fresh air upstate and concentrated music every day.

I am hoping that Dale Warland will want to do some teaching along the lines of AFAM or of the late great Robert Shaw’s workshops, too… I am not sure he wants to get into the tangled logistics of such a project, but what a boon it would be if he did!

As I write this, I am procrastinating on the packing to go up to Bard College for the Bard Music Festival tomorrow; I’ll be one of the chorus people singing works of Janacek, Mussorgsky, and Szymanowski. I love doing this gig. It’s another scenic escape from the city, the music is generally unusual (and programmed in the context of other music of its time, much of it pretty obscure), and we get to sit behind the orchestra, where I can always observe interesting things about orchestration, particularly the use of percussion. In the last movement of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, for example (that was summer of 1999), there’s a tam-tam placed horizontally on a stand, like a big serving platter, and the percussionist plays it by dropping a heavy iron chain into it. Who knew? This year it’s Janacek’s
New York Continuo Collective. I’ll also keep singing with my regular groups such as the Gregg Smith Singers.

Composing won’t stop when I finish Dale’s piece, of course; I have a piece to write for Seattle’s hot choral group the
Esoterics, and a few other commissions percolating.
Laurendale Associates will publish my set of rounds for young singers (based on tongue twisters about animals) under the imprint of Linda Ferreira, the children’s choir guru. I’m looking forward to all this.

Really, it’s not lack of focus. Everything could lead to something useful, from the brassy rhythms of the tap classes I always hear at CAP21 to the child I met in my building’s laundry room last week (she read
Harold and the Purple Crayon aloud for me; has anyone written a children’s opera on any of the Harold books? It’s food for thought.)

AMANDA MACBLANE: Is there anything else that you want to add?

MARTHA SULLIVAN: I’m really psyched about this commission! The group, in case I didn’t make it clear, is a fabulous collection of singers, with tons of talent and enthusiasm. It’s an honor to work with them.

I should mention that I didn’t start composing until 1999. I am so grateful to several groups for the encouragement and the energy with which they’ve presented my music, particularly the Gregg Smith Singers (who gave me my first choral commission), Chicago A Cappella, Equal Voices, and the St. Bart’s Choir, in addition to the Dale Warland Singers. Choral music done well is such a direct thing—there is no instrument between the singer and the music, just the voice and the body resonating. So I think vocal music is particularly powerful. I can’t thank all these singers enough for bringing my music to life!