Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Working With Composers You Commission

LINDA HOESCHLER: It is delightful to be with all of you here today. I come at this moderation from both a personal and professional passion—probably one stems from the other. For the last 25 years, my husband and I have been privately commissioning music. We have commissioned three to five pieces of music a year. Many times we get the privilege of working with choral composers. For about the last 11 years, I have been Executive Director of American Composers Forum, which Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus founded about 35 years ago. So, this is an opportunity for us to get to know composers whom I dearly love working with and find great joy experiencing and participating in their creative process. Hopefully today we will learn a little bit about how they approach their music, and then how best to perhaps work with composers when you are commissioning them, or if you are performing a new work of theirs and want some guidance from them about the pieces. So, we just heard Moses Hogan‘s piece a couple of hours ago, which is wonderful, done by the Michigan State Children’s Choir. A very impressive piece, Moses! Why don’t you talk to us about the text, the group, how you write differently for children…

MOSES HOGAN: This is a unique tribute, challenge, I would say. Philip asked me, “Moses, we would like you to do something a little different in terms of your normal musical offering.” And I said, “Well, you know, Philip, I have made a vow to at some level preserve the spiritual.” And he said, “Well, that’s very nice. We would like you to write something with a sort of a gospel flavor.” Well, certainly I am not at all opposed to gospel music, as it was part of my early upbringing. I grew up playing in a Baptist church. I started playing at a very early age. And as matter of fact, my father relates that I was talented when I was very young, so I thought I was playing by ear, because they said, “Oh, he’s so talented, he plays by ear!” It’s a Southern thing! But, that was my initial exposure to music. And so, I have never had the opportunity to document a written-out gospel arrangement and I thought that this was quite unique, having this be my first composition with a gospel flavor to it. But I have a great passion for the spiritual, as you know, if some of you have done some of my spiritual arrangements. So I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to educate, because many times as I travel around and I listen to people use the term “spiritual” and “gospel” interchangeably, and obviously, you know, there is a historical difference. We make every effort in classical music which I love, to let people know what the Renaissance period embraces in years, and then the Baroque period, and then the Classical period, and so forth as we talk about music history. But we tend now to group all of the African American music in one category—we want to call it all gospel music. And so what I decided to do with this, I introduced this gospel composition with a spiritual, a very famous spiritual entitled, “Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air.” And it would give music educators the opportunity, hopefully, not to just sing the song because there is a nice groove to it, but to use it also as a historical lesson, to talk about the spirituals, and how the spirituals influenced jazz and how the spirituals influenced the blues and ragtime and gospel music. And to give our young people, who are basically only familiar with gospel music, a real history lesson. And so, I took the text of the old, “Over my head, I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere,” and I used a couple of verses from that text, and then I reflected on what those words mean. And Philip used a key word in the invitation—to use gospel music. Gospel is the good news. And so, the text commands us to understand this wonderful feeling of music, there must be a God somewhere. So, I was motivated to just play with the theme, to say, well hey, the people that created this moving art form that we call the spirituals had to have music deep down in their souls. And I wrote that thought, and I began to develop the text based on “Over My Head I Hear Music.” And as music dominated my soul, and there was deep love, “There is music down in my soul, and it fills my heart with the joy of the Lord”—which is the basis of that entire text. Music is down in all of our souls, so this is something that I think can be sung by all races. And so, this composition simply developed in that way, and it was an opportunity for me to combine something that was traditional with something that is contemporary, keeping in mind the message of the text, something that I hope that you felt that it was exciting. I talked to the kids about it, and I said, “You know, you’ve got music and I can feel it. It is that expression that makes the song come alive.” And so, I think they did a wonderful job.

LINDA HOESCHLER: When you heard it, were there things you wanted to change about it? And did the chorus, the choir you worked with, give you any feedback about things that might make it easier for them, that they thought you would want to do differently next time?

MOSES HOGAN: Well you know, I have had the pleasure of not composing for an imaginary group of people, as most composers sometimes act with most choral music. I have been very fortunate and blessed to be inspired by the singers that I have to write for. In this case, I had a wonderful experience about 3-4 years ago; I had a first experience of working with children’s choirs, New Orleans Children’s Festival. And so, as a composer that has only worked basically with older voices, it was important for me, first of all, to know the limitations and be familiar with the colors of the voices. So I asked Mary to send me recordings, because I don’t like writing for imaginary choruses. And her recordings were so wonderfully crafted and I could hear clearly the timbre of their voices, and that served initially as the main motivation for me and my work, since I don’t write for imaginary choirs. That was a great motivation, just hearing their recordings and to help me set the text based on their voices.

LIBBY LARSEN: I was delighted to hear you use the word “education” as part of your inspiration for your piece because I too think of choral music as a chance to resettle audiences… In my mind I think of the third audience as the performers. And I often think of choral music, because it needs words, as a chance to offer to the performers, and then again the performance audience, the opportunity to look into something, whether it be the spirit or whatever. And when Philip offered me the opportunity to compose a work for the symposium, he also offered me the opportunity to work with the Okubo Mixed Choir of Tokyo. Clever man, this Brunelle! One of my great passions is American English, and I work very deeply to try to understand the etymology of the language of American English, and then how our finest poets work very deeply with that language in order to express whatever is the lyric poetry and the culture we are evolving at this moment in time. And so, Philip asking me to work with a choir whose first language is Japanese posed an interesting problem for me, right at the base of where I create. I began to think about what this opportunity for third audience communication could be. And I began to research texts. And I came across an extraordinary volume of texts (I have to put on my glasses to read this—I’m getting old), which I found in a book entitled, May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow — An Anthology of Japanese-American Concentration Camp Haiku. I love it; I am humbled by it. I try to write it and have no success. Mine are all very surface, and when I read haiku I didn’t know that there was poetic movement in the World War II internment camps. And so, I settled into reading the whole volume, and by the end of the reading I was a changed person for having understood how poetry sustains us, as music sustains us—through times in which our regular street vernacular, our choice of words just to express to each other on a daily basis really cannot carry the spirit of the day or the depth of the emotion of the experience. And so, I set myself the task of making a selection of haiku from this volume and I selected a number of the haiku, thinking to make a compilation under the title, May Sky, which is the title of my piece. But then, I began to think about the fact that these haiku had been translated into English—very beautiful translations—and it struck me that I ought to also set them in Japanese at the same time and create a motet of the English translations and the Japanese, and that stopped me dead in my tracks immediately because I do not speak Japanese and I needed to begin to understand how the language works and also the musicality that can be found within the language. I stalled out for a while, and had several conferences with Kathy Romey about my stalling out. Many times a commissioner will ask a composer how things are coming, and we will answer, “Fine.” You know the feeling? And often that means, I haven’t got a note on the page, but don’t worry. But if you answer “fine” three times in a row, then the commissioning person often knows that “fine” means, I’m stuck and a delicate conversation is being placed at that moment in time. And they are always the most fruitful conversations, if everyone remains open. For me, it was that I just couldn’t reconcile the rhythm of Japanese with the rhythm of American English. American English is a very percussive and rhythmic language. Our lyricism really is not in our pitch, it is in how we construct our sentences rhythmically; we are a very lyrically rhythmic speaking people. And so, I struggled with it, and I finally found a solution for the piece so that it is set in both English and Japanese. The process of working with the choir is a wonderful process. I had asked for CDs because I too don’t write for imaginary choirs. I can’t imagine an imaginary choir, actually. And so I got CDs and found this extraordinarily rich sound, very unlike the American choral sound, and a kind of elegance that I haven’t heard in Western-based choirs. And I used the CDs mostly as inspiration for working with the choir, until yesterday, when we began to work in person. It was an extraordinary, delicate blossoming of the piece. I cannot think of a better way to describe the process that we went through yesterday. The piece is absolutely perfect, perfectly prepared and the tempo was lovely. I, like so many composers, listen and say, “Could we take it just a little faster?” And so we took it a bit faster. But what was a humbling and ecstatic experience for me was listening to the English in the setting. The English was there, beautifully spoken; yet it wasn’t yet being sung. We worked very carefully. I asked a friend of mine, Charles Buckley of the Kansas City Chorale for help. Because we had about 15 minutes in order to teach shadow vowels and shadow consonants connecting a D to a T, “sound of,” and we found the lyricism in singing in English, which really is hard in English. And the piece began to flow in a way that haiku flows. The image of the haiku—I didn’t really talk about what I found in the words, so I will just be very brief about it—but I expected to find a heaviness in the subject matter when I started reading the book, just because of the situation, which is an extraordinarily shameful situation. And I expected to find a heaviness. I expected to find anger. All the things that I would have felt in that circumstance. But instead, I found barbed wire tuned to the filaments of spiders. I found light and wind and air lifting the spirit well out of whatever retaining fence had been put about a bit of land. And I think I finally began to understand haiku, by being able to relate culturally a little bit more through the haiku written by Japanese American poets in World War II.