Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Barriers Between Composers and Performers

AUDIENCE QUESTION: My question is directed to the personal growth of a choral director. Every time I hear composers talk on the radio, I am always intimidated because they seem to know so much about things other than music. Musicians usually go to summer school and go to music school and their whole education they study music theory and history, and they sort of pull all that out. And when we go back to school and start going to literature courses…

MOSES HOGAN: That’s is an interesting perception. I will take just three minutes to even share my experiences. You will reflect with each composer you will simply ask the question, “What makes you a composer? What gives you the opportunity to make you feel that you have something to say about what it is that you are writing?” I don’t come to it from the perspective that I know everything. I don’t think there should really be a difference between where we are as composers and who we need to actually make what we write happen for us. I look at my efforts to compose and document music. I started off writing for a group of persons without ever having an attempt to publish any of my arrangements. I had choirs since 1980 and we had the same values about preparing the music that I use with my choir now, and it really wasn’t until I met Jean Brooks at a music conference in 1994—because I was a pianist–that I felt that I had something to say about the music that was certainly important in my life. And so, I look at it as my own personal conviction. I am careful to offer my opinion. I had an opportunity to perform during the 1996 World Choral Symposium in Sydney with my choir. A gentleman interviewed me about spirituals and gospel, and I was just running around here, talking about everything, and an article came out the next day in the paper and said, “The Gospel according to Moses!” So I know what you mean. But indeed it is not the gospel; it is a reflection basically of my experiences and my personal growth. And I am delighted to work with singers who also share the same love that I have for the music that I have written, whereas it appears that some composers will know everything, I know that really is their motivation, and that is the way that such a person comes off—that is a problem with that individual.

LIBBY LARSEN: It seems that sometimes there is a perceived barrier between the composer and the performer. Sometimes there is a barrier set up by the page. The conversation generally seems to be around controlling the page, interpreting the page. Am I making any sense? I always feel a little sad about that. I have already told you I hate bar lines and meters and the like. It seems that many of us, composers, have grown up with the mythology that we are “other.” That we are somehow other than performers or conductors or musicians. And I think that this mythology is an invented mythology. It is also very convenient if indeed you are shy. Many composers are introverts and really are shy and learn to be extroverted in order to facilitate performances. But this barrier that somehow there is an otherness that is mediated by the page does not need to be there. Simply, don’t do that now! The page is meager from the composer’s point of view; our notation system is meager at best. And we try to put on the page some representation of what this is that we feel about the music, and, for me, I cannot speak for every composer, but for me, I look at the score as just the beginning step of the dialogue.

LINDA HOESCHLER: Moses has a comment, and I would like to then maybe get into a conversation that will less answer your question, but to talk about how to be a commissioner. I would like you all to leave here wanting to commission your next five pieces. It has been one of the great joys in my life, and I would like to talk about ways that we can make it easier for each other.

MOSES HOGAN: I just have something that I would like to add a little bit in talking about this very interesting experience several years ago. At the end of his career, I met William Dawson. I met him in New York, and he invited me to his hotel room. I didn’t understand it then, but sometimes composers feel wounded on some level, and I will share this with you. He knew I had a choir. He proceeded to go over 11-12 of his arrangements with me in detail. He gave me a headache, I gotta tell you. I didn’t understand what exactly that meant then. But he said, “Well, young man, I know you have got a choir, and so when you perform these arrangements, make sure that you do the following…” And so I thought he was really quite bitter, but there was an element of frustration there. And as it relates to his arrangements, whenever he heard them, evidently somebody wasn’t doing exactly what he had written for them to do, and I know the interpretation of many spiritual arrangements we take great liberties, as conductors. We will leave out a measure, repeat a measure, leave out a note. How many of us have ever thought about changing Handel‘s Messiah or any one of the chords, or something like that? My hands would shake if I thought about it. I mean there is a beautiful chord that Handel didn’t use, but sometimes, maybe there is a frustration. There is this barrier. “We are not going to do what the composer wanted, but we are going to do what I feel like doing, so we’ll just take this out.” That’s somewhat of an issue. And I will always say to those people, especially of the spiritual, “If you feel less strongly about the spiritual and change or leave out a measure, you write your own arrangement!” And that’s simply the way to approach it. But sometimes, I do know of several composers who feel that even if you buy his choral music, you will say, “Oh, I’ll just change this rhythm, or I should just change this note. I am happy to leave off…” I did see one person like this who commissioned me ten years ago.