Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time
Composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker has been a fixture of the choral music community since working with the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s. Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.
It is difficult to think of anyone more loved by the musicians with whom she works than composer, arranger, conductor, and teacher Alice Parker who has been a fixture of the choral music community for eight decades. Since becoming an arranger for the legendary Robert Shaw Chorale when she was fresh out of college in the late 1940s, Parker has devoted herself almost exclusively to music for the voice, since she strongly believes that people find their common ground through singing together.
During an inspiring conversation over Zoom, Parker explains how our lives become enriched when we can share a communal music-making experience.
When we sing something perfectly lovely together … and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.
Sadly though, as she also points out, singing is no longer something that most people do: “As a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. … [W]e simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.”
Music has been a presence in Alice Parker’s life since growing up in Boston in the 1920s, attending concerts by the Boston Pops as a little girl, attending an African American church sing while staying with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, and hearing African-American lyric tenor Roland Hayes sing spirituals in a concert in the 1930s. Soon after she began taking piano lessons, she started to compose her own music, though her teacher had to find another instructor to help her write it down. But Parker doesn’t think that made her special.
“The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift,” she claims. “I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.”
Parker formally studied composition at Smith College before studying choral conducting at the Juilliard School, deciding to switch majors because she did not want to compose the music they wanted her to compose.
“They were trying to get me to write 12-tone music,” she remembers. “I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.”
Perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Parker’s lifelong humility is her devotion to creating music for and with community groups rather than for big celebrities. She has no interest in writing music unless it serves a purpose, as she explains:
If someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose.
Although she was writing music up until 2020 (you can hear a performance of her glorious hymn “On the Common Ground” which is embedded in the transcript below), her deteriorating eyesight has made it impossible for her to either enter notes on staff paper or even on a computer. But she’s enjoying spending time with her four great grandchildren and has become obsessed with Wordle.
We simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
My general prescription for the healing of society is that we establish a Department of Peace in Washington to go beside the Department of War.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
When we sing something perfectly lovely together ... and it really clicks, you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
If you can speak, you can sing. And the singing may come first.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Music is only sound. It is nothing else but sound. We spend a whole of our education talking about sound and not making sound.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Somehow I was able to withstand the strong conditioning that I got certainly when I got to college, and was trying to major in composition, and they were trying to get me to write 12-tone music. I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn't do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong. ... Things in nature don't exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I am not telling my music where I want it to go. I'm listening for where it wants to go.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
The ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift. I think everybody would if they were encouraged to.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
There is absolutely no difference between brain tissue from male and a female. It's just my feeling about race is actually close your eyes, and can you tell whether it's a black person or a white person, otherwise from the language? You can't. Color has nothing to do with it. Nobody chooses where they're born. ... You come up where you are. What you can do is of course enormously influenced by your surroundings. If your parents say right away, "Well you can't do that; girls can't do that," you're pretty much taken for granted or else you're a terrible rebel and you risk the ire of your society all around you.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I've always said if someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don't see any purpose for it. In a church, there's loads of purpose. It's all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you're in the good schools, there's lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there's almost always purpose.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I think music is food for the ears, just as food is food for the stomach. And I want to feed people's ears. I want to nourish them through the music. I'm not interested in scaring them or frightening them, or stretching them beyond their beliefs. I need to find the thing that they will just love.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Somebody called me an entertainer once. I said, "I am not an entertainer." Music isn't an entertainment art for me.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
I think so many kids have never heard their parents sing, just for the fun of it. We don't sing as we do the dishes. We always did when I was little. We don't sing as we do chores because there's always some background music on. And nobody's really listening to it. I think the way to get people back into it is just simply to get a roomful of people singing or a family.
Alice Parker, composer & conductor
Read the Full Transcript
Alice Parker: Feeling the Same Emotion at the Same Time
Alice Parker in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Wednesday, February 9, 2022–10:30am
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I’ve always been so inspired by you and your work, and your energy, and your enthusiasm and the way you bring music to so many people. And this wonderful thing that you’ve frequently said, that we sing because we have to. I think that is such a powerful statement. But of course, the other part of it that you’ve said is why we don’t sing is the terrible question now.
Alice Parker: Yes. Well, of course, the pandemic is the obvious answer. But as a society, as a culture, we don’t sing. I use as my model, the birds. Of course they can’t talk, so they do all their communication through singing. Not all, I’m sure there are some expressions involved as well, and actions. But we simply have gotten so dependent on having music there without our having to make it ourselves that we have forgotten that the value of making it ourselves is far beyond what the music is about.
FJO: One of the things that’s so terrifying at the moment we’re in now, this strange moment–I say moment, but it’s two years, right?–is that music and singing is such a basic human activity and such a basic social activity. And this fundamental thing that we do with each other has become a dangerous thing.
AP: I know. That is terrible. It should make us value it even more when we get back to it. But right now, what should give us enormous comfort and health, and get us through this is forbidden us. My life feels very diminished. Not only because I can feel my voice at my advanced age slipping away, as I don’t use it every Sunday at least to sing hymns and I am not teaching, and not meeting students, and not doing all the rest of my life. It all just came to a crashing halt as we were separated. We need to learn from this, to value this as one of the most, most precious kinds of communication that we have and to afford it much more honor than we do generally in our society.
When I say honor, I am thinking of the incessant background music that’s everywhere. I listen to public radio a lot, and it’s annoying me now that they put music behind their news stories. They put it behind their advertisements. Nobody is listening to what’s happening to that music as it goes from a news item to an advertisement, to dead space, which is often filled by the most awful music–some kind of mechanical sound, and it goes on and it all is giving my mind this very confused-like looking at a screen where there are pictures that have no relationship to each other. Succeeding themselves so quickly over the screen you don’t get a chance to focus on any one of them so that you stop listening. And I think that we’re a society that doesn’t listen in that sense that I’m talking about. So that we’re really hearing what the other person is doing and honoring them by listening and then honoring them by giving a response that actually answers their question rather than is just a general um hm.
FJO: It’s scary, because as a society, democracy is all about listening to each other. And having different points of view. And coming together. And finding ways to come together, even if you don’t necessarily agree on every detail. Music, I think, teaches us to listen better than anything else.
AP: It does.
FJO: Without that, I fear like our whole society is in jeopardy.
AP: Well, we are certainly in a very difficult space now. I think that one of the reasons for this, that is different from any past pandemics, or similar situations, is that we have this boon of communications through the internet, through electronic means. And it should be a boon, but every one of nature’s boons is accompanied by its opposite. And we have gone so far to the opposite of misusing it. And until we find some way of controlling it so that misinformation is not spread even more, much more widely than information, because it’s so easy to dramatize the misinformation and just concentrate on things which are catastrophic or deadly. You never see a news article about a neighbor who’s just done a good thing for the neighborhood, or has helped someone, or something like that. All we hear is catastrophe after catastrophe after catastrophe and misdeed after misdeed after misdeed. We’re brought up on a diet totally of unlawful behavior, kind of glorifying the drama, the movie-like aspect of the police chase, or the arrest, or the horrible mistreatment one way or another.
We have not talked about peace at all. My general prescription for the healing of society is that we establish a Department of Peace in Washington to go beside the Department of War. Peace never has a fundraiser. Peace just gets exactly the same budget that the War Department gets. And we spend as much time and energy promoting peace as we do promoting war. We think of what the budget is that we spend on destroying each other, or destroying the environment, or destroying the world. It’s just horrendous and we sell this as the only way of solving our difficulties. We should be talking about music.
FJO: Well, you know, it does connect to music. I think it does because you talk about the news stories, that you always hear the horrible story. You don’t hear the wonderful thing the neighbor did. Maybe one of the wonderful things the neighbor did is the neighbor performed music, sang in a chorus, wrote some music…
FJO: These are the things that don’t get on the news. We never celebrate the music that’s being made in that way as if it’s a news event.
AP: Yes. That’s very true. And we have also managed to kind of monetize the arts so that we value in music what makes the most money. And you and I know that choral music is fairly far down on the list of what makes money. In fact, it is a drain. You’re always spending money if you’re involved with music making; professional or amateur, it all takes money. But you don’t make money at it. You do it because you love it. We just worship the monetary value so much, so that what we really value is the commercial or the hit song, or something rather like the pop song that just reaches millions of people right away because it is using a language that is just minute, off the top of the musical language, instead of using the depths of what we know to be the world’s fund of music. And I’m not really just talking about Western music, but the basic well of melody, which is folk song from all over the world. Which is the way it all began, and which it all depends on. And we’ve just gotten so far from that. We think that orchestral music is much more important than singing, and that any kind of popular music group or band is much more important than the church choir. We just have this value system that continually puts down the things that nourish us as a community. What music can do in that wonderful way to bring us together, to make us feel as if we are really related to the people sitting on either side of us. When we sing something perfectly lovely together, not necessarily the B-minor Mass or something that needs a lot of rehearsal, but a hymn, or a folk song, or a children’s song, we sing it together, and it really clicks, and you have this marvelous feeling of brotherhood in the room. We are all human beings. We are all feeling this emotion together at the same time. And this is uniting us. We are not separate.
On the Common Ground, a 2020 composition featuring Alice Parker’s words as well as her music performed by the St. Olaf Choir conducted by Anton Armstrong.
FJO: Well, maybe the music that gets to be so popular, reaches millions of people, it’s not only because of what the musical content is, it’s because there are dollars behind promoting it. There’s a whole industry behind promoting it.
FJO: What if there was an industry behind promoting people making their own music together, if that was something that was somehow encouraged? But I think what happened, and this is what I’d like to talk to you a bit more extensively about, is a lot of people nowadays are ashamed of their voices. They’re embarrassed to sing. So many people say, “Oh I can’t sing.” Well, unless you’re missing your larynx, you have vocal cords and you can sing.
FJO: But people are afraid they might be out of tune, whatever that means. Or they don’t have the right breath control, or the right range, or the right tone quality. That they’re somehow inadequate because they don’t sound like the thing they think is the perfect thing, which nowadays might be auto-tuned. It might not even be something that’s real.
AP: It’s part of what I meant when I say we have denigrated singing. We have reduced it, taken it away from its beginnings. I love to go back and ponder questions like who was the first human being that sang consciously? And did that come before speech or after? I have a feeling it’s maybe before, and I think that maybe it begins with a mother and a baby, or a father and a baby, holding that tiny, little bit of new life next to your chest so that it can feel that the vibrations that it has lived inside of for nine months, that beating of the heart, that pulsing of the blood. So that you have in this voice, this kind of tone of voice that people who love children and love animals always use in speaking to animals. It’s not the tone of voice we use when we’re reciting the times tables or a school assignment or reading a news item. It has a love and a caring in the voice, and it’s usually pretty gentle. It’s not loud, and it’s very, very close. It’s one person to another person. It’s not standing up on a soap box and yelling; it is the opposite.
I often find as I lead a large group of people singing that I’m telling them, come down, I’m not asking for volume. I’m asking for mood, for quietness. And the quieter you get a large group of people singing, the more wonderful that sound becomes. The more penetrating, as if it’s entering into all of your pores, and your whole soul is coming out to unite with other souls. I have a picture that I thought of long ago, as I think what a song does to a group of people. I just remember in physics class in high school when the teacher showed us iron filings on a plate, and then brought a magnet near them, and the iron filings were all over, just messed up, and the magnet came near, and they all went bzoot, right together. That’s what the song does. It puts us all pointing in the same direction, at the same time, so that we’re feeling the same emotion at the same time. And those folk songs plumb every possible emotion. It’s just miraculous what it does, and we don’t use that at all. We use music as propaganda, or we do the pumping up kind of march or a big pop song, or a protest song, or something or other like that. The opposite of the mother with baby kind of picture.
FJO: But how do we get people to get over their inhibitions. Their embarrassment? Their feeling that they’re inadequately singing?
AP: Vocalism, in the sense of voice lessons and reaching some ideal about singing, I leave that aside when I meet with a group, and it’s often a school group or a church group. They may have done some singing together, but nobody has come and talked about the song, and what the song is coming from. What’s the mood of this song? Who is singing? What are they trying to communicate through the music? Not necessarily the words, though they could be helpful. But what is the music itself trying to do? Is it saying run, jump, skip, laugh, cry, love, hate? It can say all of those things. We have to listen for that. And then we have to listen to each other. And I often get, after I’ve led a sing, and I’m acting like an idiot in front of the group, I’m acting out the song, I’m exaggerating the mother with the baby, or the march, or the dance, but I’m listening to the group, and all of a sudden, you get that feeling of the iron filings going in the same direction. That people are really listening. And once they start listening, it acts in a funny way like a magnet. It draws people in. I often hear people say after I’ve done a sing, did you see old Mr. So and So? He never opens his mouth in church. Or, my father was singing. He never sings. But they have forgotten about themselves because they are absorbed in the song rather than in their own inadequacy.
I concentrate on getting people to sing that don’t think that they can. I found one person once who could not reproduce a scale. I tried for three hours on a long car trip to get him to sing a scale with whole and half steps. And he really couldn’t. I think he had never been sung to as a child. He never got that basic scale structure in his head. But that’s the one person I found that obviously could make a vocal sound. He could match a pitch with a little practice, but he couldn’t do this. It would have been a real job to get him to sing. And he didn’t want to sing, because he was totally convinced of his inadequacy, which is probably what was holding him back in trying to learn what I was trying to teach. But no, I totally agree. If you can speak, you can sing. And the singing may come first. I learned so much from watching my children: what they know when they’re in the cradle. I had songs that I would sing to the baby way before they could talk, but after they could smile. And they would just go like this when I’d start to sing it–their whole body quivering because they wanted to hear that song. They loved that song, and they recognized it right away. So they’re born knowing this huge amount of stuff. When we put them in school, and we try to teach them middle C, and we try to teach them to read music. “If we have a whole country that can read music, we’ll have a musical country.” No. Hindemith pointed this out back in the ‘30s. We’ll have a whole country that can read music, but it has nothing to do with sound. And music is only sound. It is nothing else but sound. We spend a whole of our education talking about sound and not making sound.
The Musicians of Melodious Accord under the direction of Alice Parker performing Alice Parker’s hymn “Peace Be Within This Sacred Place” from the 2016 GIA CD Where Heart and Heaven Meet: Hymns of Alice Parker.
FJO: I want to take it back to the ‘30s. I want to take it back to the ‘20s. I want to take it back to your childhood. Because you talked in the beginning about recordings, that recordings replaced people making their own music. I love recordings.
AP: Of course. I do, too.
FJO: As you can see, I live in an apartment filled with recordings. The ability to hear all this music from all over the world, from all these centuries, is such a blessing. And what I don’t have, I can hear on the radio, or on the internet …
AP: Right. Right.
FJO: When you were growing up, radio had already begun. Recordings already existed, but they didn’t dominate in the same way that they do now. They were relatively recent phenomena, and I think a lot of people thought they weren’t as good. Whereas, now people think the recording is better. So you were actually alive during that shift in perception.
AP: I was. And I had a teacher at school that said that he thought that recordings are just going to be the end of real music making because it was all going to be transferred over to that sphere. I think music is much bigger than we are. And music will be around when we’re not around. So it behooves us to enter into it, rather than trying to dominate it. Let me go back a couple of centuries. Those stories of Handel or Mozart, or somebody sitting up all night to copy a score that had to get returned to somebody else the next day because otherwise they wouldn’t have it unless they copied it themselves. Or being, say, at a Schubertiade, if you were around Schubert, you came, dropped in to see him, and you had your violin case with you, and pretty soon there’s a whole group of people making music.
The thing that the recordings do is make us not value it. We can start it when we want to start it. We can stop it. We can talk over it. We can go out to the kitchen and get a drink and come back in while it’s still playing and not worry about what we missed. If we had a string quartet, individual players sitting in our living room, playing, we would not treat it that cavalierly. So I think that that’s the kind of thing that gets lost–the listening to what is happening right now. Primary listening I call it, that you’re hearing what is actually happening right now. Not what you wish was happening, or what you would hope would happen, or that you’re deploring what you’re hearing right now, whatever your emotional reaction is. But you are taking it in, in exactly the spirit in which it is offered, and not judging on behalf of an ideal which is that ideal of the perfect performance. We never, ever hear a mistake in a recording. As if the ideal is to have perfection. I think that is new to our century, too. That there’s this, if we have it right, if it’s right according to the page, as a composer, I hate that. We adopt the page as the arbiter. This is where it starts. This is the basic music that we’ve got to start with. As a composer, I say, “Oh no. It’s not!” Because that is not where music starts for me. Music for me starts in my head. And I hear it in vivid technicolor. Nobody ever makes a mistake in my head when I’m visualizing one of my pieces. Everybody is right in it together and making perfectly wonderful music, and my job is to transcribe it.
And when I’m writing it down, all the time I’m writing, I think, “Oh, heck, there’s no way that that quarter note can convey what I hear in my head.” Because there’s so much more behind it than the little quarter note. So it’s as if I’m hearing in technicolor, and what I’m trying to, when I get a page done, it’s as if I’ve reduced it to a sandbox, or something or other like that. I don’t know what it would be, that I’ve taken all the life out of it. I’ve killed the butterfly in order to find out what makes it fly. And I can put it together again, put it up on the board, pin it in shape. But it’s not living. It’s that living sound that I want. So I gather students. What I’ve been doing the last 30 years is my fellows gather, groups of eight or less, and sometimes it’s as small as two or three, around my table. And we never go to the piano. We never turn on a machine. We make ourselves all the music.
And it has to be done in a way that is communicating to other people. It has nothing to do with correctness to the page, or keeping a steady beat, or even tuning in the sense of a piano tuning, rather than a violin tuning. The voice is endlessly adaptable. A good blues singer, for instance, is using all that space between the notes. And it is so expressive. The opposite is like cartoon kind of simplicity that the music, if we have it match what’s on the page, then we can’t ever have imitation because people will get mixed up if they hear different words at the same. Phooey. We hear different words at the same time all of our lives. I don’t know, I’m off on one of my rants again. Don’t get me started.
FJO: I totally love it. It’s wonderful. But I wonder with you saying all of that, getting back to your beginnings, what was your earliest exposure to music? What did you first hear? How did you hear it? It had to have been live music. Not recorded, or not radio, I would think.
AP: What I’d heard first was singing at home. Neither of my parents were musicians. Both were very active church music people. They knew lots and lots of hymns. They knew lots and lots of folk songs. I was started off in a family where we sang all the time. We always sang before we went to bed. We sang around the table at meals. There were three ministers in the family, and there were always particular hymns that I love to this day that I associate with the whole family being together. So it’s what I call a basic mattress in my musical mind of impromptu singing, occasional singing, singing because we’re together. And having that also in school and also in church. My classroom teacher sang with us all the way through primary school. We didn’t have a music specialist coming in. They all sang, just as mothers all sang, because it’s such a marvelous way of getting kids to do something they’re not ready to do at the moment. But if you sing a marching song when you’re trying to get them ready to line up, they’re going to line up much quicker than if you don’t. And if you could sing a song to quiet them down when they’re too noisy, it will work a whole lot of the time. We’ve so gotten away from that with thinking they have to learn all of these facts about music in school, rather than actually singing. They don’t sing much in school at all. They don’t sing folk songs. That’s again a way over generalization.
But let me go back to my childhood. My parents were very set on educating us all and they started us all off on piano lessons when we were about five. ‘Cause my mother had always wanted that, but they didn’t have a piano when she was growing up. So she took some lessons after she was married to get us started. And they also took us to the Boston Pops. We lived just outside of Boston, and we always would look at the programs for the next week and decided which program we wanted to go to. And we would go in, and take a picnic, and sit on the steps of Symphony Hall, and eat our picnic so we could go in the minute the doors opened. Second balcony in Symphony Hall then, get this, 25 cents a seat!
AP: So we could get all of us in, and we would dash up the stairs to the top, the balcony which you would be in for your 25 cents, and dash to the place of the seats that were right over the stage, over the percussion people. And that was where we absolutely loved to sit. And we would listen to all this music, and then on the way home, we would talk about it, and decide which piece we liked the best. And my mother would go out and get a recording of that piece, probably by the Boston Pops. So we were really being educated. We never went to the movies when we were little. The first movie I went to was David Copperfield, and that was after my mother had read aloud to all of us the whole book. Which was two volumes.
FJO: Like 900 pages or something.
AP: Yes. Exactly. We were really educated to the hilt. I was just terribly fortunate. They were encouraging me all the way along. So I was surrounded by all kinds of music. There was a very active music society in town that people come in and sing and I remember a wonderful black tenor coming around; this was in the ‘30s, so this was very early. Roland Hayes. And he was speaking to this audience which was very much suburban, Boston people. They had paid his fee and engaged him to come and they listened with great respect, and he was teaching us about spirituals. So that went way back in my upbringing. But also, my mother came from Greenville, South Carolina, and when I was four, they sent me down there for a whole winter to live with them because she was a having a fifth child at home. I was the second. I loved my grandparents, and they had a black cook who took me to church with her. I certainly would have gone to the Presbyterian church for Sunday morning service with the grandparents, but [I went with her] for a Saturday sing or a late-afternoon sing of some kind or other. I remember the sound of that black group together, and she would sing as she worked around the kitchen, and I would listen. So I had that sound in my ears from the beginning.
Somehow I was able to withstand the strong conditioning that I got certainly when I got to college, and was trying to major in composition, and they were trying to get me to write 12-tone music, because that was what was around in the late ‘40s. I was resisting like crazy. I simply couldn’t do it. And I had the satisfaction of living long enough to realize that I was right, and they were all wrong in the sense that what really lasts is not necessarily tonal music, but modal music. Somehow or other, that peculiar mixture of whole and half steps is much closer to musical truth than any system that is drawn out of equal half steps or equal whole steps. That’s too much. Henry Ford making everything exactly match. Things in nature don’t exactly match. The leaves on a tree are all the same except each one is different from each other one. And the snowflakes are all different. And the way water behaves is always different.
I just dwell so on that multiplicity that is around us that is all the time in nature. And I want my music to feel as natural as that growth, say, of a flowering plant that starts from a seed, and you could never guess from looking at the seed what the flower might be going to be. And it puts out a shoot; it can only do what it is programmed to do. It doesn’t get a choice: “Well, I want to put a branch out here or a leaf out here, or I want to be blue.” It has to do what is in it from the very start so that it grows up, breaks the ground, begins to differentiate out, a stem, then another branch, a little branch, finally a bud, a blossom, maturity, and decay. So it’s the whole life form within that one thing, and what it teaches me more than anything else is that I want my music to feel as totally following natural forces as that is. I am not telling my music where I want it to go. I’m listening for where it wants to go. So like trying to control water. I have a little mountain stream right across the road from my house that I hear all the time. How it goes into quiet pools and stays very still. And then when the winter comes, and it begins to freeze over, and then it gets snowed over, and then it makes holes in the snow underneath, you hear it underneath, and see it covered. It’s just an incredible thing that’s always there, and it’s always moving. I want my music to move as naturally as that. I’m not pushing it somewhere. I’m not making it go somewhere it doesn’t naturally want to go. So I’m listening in that sense. I’m listening down into the heart of where that music is. And I think that the great music out of the Western canon, we love it because it does exactly that. Those composers have been able to master this sense of allowing the music to go where it wants to go.
FJO: Before, when you were describing composing music, I loved how you described it as transcribing sounds that you were hearing in your head. That it wasn’t like you were creating these sounds, but those sounds were there, and you were trying to somehow capture them. When did you start composing music? How young were you?
FJO: Does that first piece survive?
AP: Aw, I doubt it. I was playing the piano and I learned how to write it down. My piano teacher couldn’t help me write it down. She was a nice, educated, college graduate woman, but nobody had ever come to her and said help me write something down. But she knew where to send me, to somebody, so I had about four lessons with this other woman, and that was all it took. I was always making up songs when I was little. And so did my kids. They were all making up songs; they were changing the songs that they knew–the children’s songs, the learning songs, alphabet songs, and things like that–with shrieks of laughter as they would do an inappropriate change to something or other.
The child’s aspect towards the materials of music I think are exactly the same as their aspect towards, say, an easel setup with red, yellow, orange, green paint in front of it with a brush in each color. They don’t look in front of the page and think, “Oh, what am I supposed to do” the way a grownup will. They just reach in and pick up a box and make color on the screen. I just love the story of the child who had done a really lovely painting of a row of flowers. And the teacher just loved it and said, “I am so pleased with that,” and then she went around the room with other people, and she came back, and the child had totally covered it with muddy gray. And she said, “What did you do?” And she said, “Well, they’re all underground. They’re just waiting to come up.” I just thought that was so wise. Isn’t that marvelous?
AP: You hate to think of the pretty picture being muddied up, but the child is thinking the right way. That’s the way their minds work. So the ability to compose is not a huge, unusual gift. I think everybody would if they were encouraged to. And I was encouraged to, right from the beginning.
FJO: That’s so wonderful to hear. The reason I bring this up is the other day I was listening to the solo piano music of Clara Schumann, which is a very tragic story because she wrote this wonderful music when she was a teenager, and then there’s a note from one of her diaries saying, “I thought I could do this thing that men do and women don’t do. But I guess I really can’t. I thought I would be the one who could do it.” And she stopped writing music, and the music she wrote was extraordinary. But she was discouraged from doing it because there was this idea that if you were a woman, you didn’t write music. You raised the children and you helped your husband.
AP: That’s exactly right. Why weren’t there women composers? Well, the husband was lord and master of the house, and if you had a baby every year, you had no time to do anything like sit and write music. Also, you’re physically exhausted. Those women often died early-30s, late-20s. They didn’t live long enough to do that. Clara was absolutely marvelous, and so was Fanny Mendelssohn. The same kind of story with their parents realizing the ability, but unable to get free of the societal thing that said that women can’t do this. There is absolutely no difference between brain tissue from male and a female. It’s just my feeling about race is actually close your eyes, and can you tell whether it’s a black person or a white person, otherwise from the language? You can’t. Color has nothing to do with it. Nobody chooses where they’re born. You can’t say, I chose to be born into a white family, and therefore, I’m superior. You aren’t. You’re like that little plant. You come up where you are. What you can do is of course enormously influenced by your surroundings. If your parents say right away, “Well you can’t do that; girls can’t do that,” you’re pretty much taken for granted or else you’re a terrible rebel and you risk the ire of your society all around you.
FJO: You were able to create without being a terrible rebel, as it were. You were encouraged to create, which is very unusual at that time.
AP: Yes. It was. My mother was a businesswoman. She set up her own corporation after she was married and ran it. And my father was a businessman, but they were very enlightened. They brought up five children. None of us went into any profession where we made any money. That was the main trouble with that kind of child rearing. They were able to make enough themselves to give us a perfectly marvelous upbringing. I so value that.
FJO: And you know, talking about combating prejudices, expectations, what people think, for years you worked with the Robert Shaw Chorale as an arranger and the extraordinary thing about that chorale is it was an integrated chorus. There were white and black singers.
FJO: That chorus challenged the terrible discriminatory behaviors of that era. There were all these restrictions on where you could perform. It’s hard for people to believe that it was only a little over half a century ago.
AP: I know. Right. Not only where they could perform, but where they could stay. There were salesmen hotels, dreary downtown things. I remember one story the kids told about being in a hotel where the toilet was down the hall, and in your room there was a sink sticking out of the wall. And one of the kids leaned against the sink, and it came detached, and the water spurted out of the pipes. The sink just fell on the floor, because it was so old and so flimsy. These were the places they had to stay. That changed very much over those twenty years of the Shaw Chorale–the professional chorus, which was ’48 to ’68.
The big thing about that for me was that was right after college. I majored in composition in college, and by the time I finished, I was so discouraged about what I was writing, I almost didn’t want to write. And I had always written without any particular thought. It was just perfectly natural, like sitting down to write an English essay. I could sit down to write a piece. By the time I was finished, they were trying to get me to think logically about what I was doing, and I was resisting that like crazy. And I realized if I went on as I planned to do for graduate work in composition, I would be miserable. So I had to change my major, and what could I do. I decided on choral conducting because I had my own octet in college; we sang madrigals and other things that I wrote arrangements for. And some original pieces for. I’d always loved choral music.
Shaw was just beginning to be known and I had a chance to work with him at Juilliard. And the thing I loved about that was those 20 years with him was he was working with folk song. He had a contract with RCA Victor that said that he wanted to be able to record the great choral masterworks. And they said all right, for every one of those that you do, you’ve got to give us one that will sell. He had just done Christmas carols which were the gold standard; that just sold more than any record had ever sold before, I guess. And so they wanted more of that–folk songs. We were restricted to music there was no copyright limitation on. It wasn’t to be accompanied, because players cost more than singers.
It was a whole album at a time. So the first album I did was Easter carols. I didn’t even know there were Easter carols. I went to the New York Public Library, which had a perfectly marvelous room back down in the 42nd Street building and found loads of things, took melodies and texts back to Shaw. He showed me very clearly that it had to be a perfectly gorgeous text, and a perfectly gorgeous tune, or he was not interested. So I learned to be very fussy about what I picked out. Then I would do a set of sketches to bring into him. And then we would go over those with a fine-tooth comb.
He was demanding things from me that my own teachers, whom I respected very much from college, never ever thought of. Where’s this singer going to breathe? How’s the singer going to find the pitch for this next entrance? How long does this note really want to be? You’ve just written a whole note, and it stops at the bar line. Does it want to be shorter than that or longer than that? So I was starting to look at it much more from the point of the point of view of the singer. He wanted the materials that he presented to the singers at the first rehearsal to be so clear that nobody had a question. Nobody had ever taught me to look at music that way before. The combination of that and then these folk materials as we did album after album of folk materials from all around, got me out of what was being taught in the schools–the very abstract 12-tone, or any other kind of system, music. I was being put back into this age-old thing. I had 20 years of pressures away from what was being taught in the schools. And I didn’t compose for 15 of those years. I didn’t compose a single thing. And when I finally started again, it was things for children’s choir, because then I didn’t have any responsibility towards writing the music of the future. Once that dam broke inside of me, within three or four years, I was writing whole cantatas, whole suites of music, finding wonderful poetic texts that I wanted to set and could set. I would hear the music in the poetry as I read the poetry. It was a marvelous counterbalance to what was being taught in the academy. And I have always leaned on that side because I believe so strongly that that’s certainly where my gift lies.
FJO: Well, another thing that you’ve said that is very key for you is that for you music has to serve a function. You’re not interested in creating music that just exists in the abstract. It has to have a purpose in people’s lives.
AP: I’ve always said if someone offered me a whole lot of money to write a big, important orchestral piece, orchestral-choral piece, to be done in Carnegie Hall, I would turn tail and run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I don’t see any purpose for it. In a church, there’s loads of purpose. It’s all around you all the time. In school, there can be, or there cannot be, but if you’re in the good schools, there’s lots of purpose. And certainly in the community groups, there’s almost always purpose. Like the singing that you get at Christmas time, or the singing you get on the Fourth of July, or on Veterans Day, the singing that reminds people of who they are and where they come from and helps them to re-establish those connections. I’ll give you one more analogy, which is food. I think music is food for the ears, just as food is food for the stomach. And I want to feed people’s ears. I want to nourish them through the music. I’m not interested in scaring them or frightening them, or stretching them beyond their beliefs. I need to find the thing that they will just love.
FJO: One thing I’ll say though, to counter that, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music of yours is a piece you wrote in the 1980s, Echoes from the Hills–beautiful settings of poetry by Emily Dickinson. And there’s this wonderful recording of it with Lucy Shelton, and in fact, it’s probably my favorite recording of hers.
AP: Oh, my goodness.
“My Faith is Larger Than the Hills” from Alice Parker’s song cycle Echoes from the Hills sung by Lucy Shelton with instrumentalists Paul Lustig Dunkel, Jean Kopperud, Stewart Rose and the Manhattan String Quartet conducted by Alice Parker which was re-released on the 2017 Gothic CD Alice Parker Heavenly Hurt, poetry of Emily Dickinson.
FJO: It’s extraordinary, but it’s this work of art piece that exists above and beyond whatever function it may have. It’s this aesthetic, beautiful thing that exists in the world. And I think there’s a place for that. And you certainly created this gem.
AP: But that was a commission from our little concert series up here, the Mohawk Trail Concerts in my little church in Charlemont that I attend. And a summer series of six concerts over two months. That was chamber music started by a violinist, because there were people that loved to play together there. They asked for this for the tenth anniversary of the group. And Lucy had sung with us before. Lucy was a family friend. And I loved Dickinson, and they needed a piece for a concert. So it wasn’t just nothing, and I loved Dickinson and as I read the Dickinson poems, I could hear all this music around them.
I’ve written so many pieces like that that are a suite and then putting them in order. All those 20 years with Shaw, I was writing three-minute pieces. And I discovered writing a longer piece, I was no good at writing a seven- or eight-minute piece. I made a nine-minute piece by stringing together three three-minute pieces. And then you had something like an opener, a middle, and a close. You had something that would draw people in. And then you had a song movement, a slow movement, or something like that, and then you had a presto, or a gigue, or something at the end. So it’s working with very simple, natural forms. And I find again that natural forms are so simple that they can contain endless variety within them. And if you try to start with endless variety, which as I look back on the academic teaching, trying to write 12-tone music. They were trying to get me to write the leaves on the tree without having any idea of what the tree was instead of starting with the seed and the trunk, and the branches, and the leaves.
FJO: Every piece of yours I’ve ever heard is a vocal piece. Are there any instrumental works?
AP: Yes, I wrote all the music for my college graduation: the marches, and things like that. I have a couple of pieces, but they never were published. I never submitted them anywhere, because I didn’t have room for them. I’ve written a couple of string quartets. Again, for string quartet friends, but I never spent enough time at it to get totally familiar with it. I’ve written four operas, and all of them have voices and instruments, but in each case, it is 11 to 13 instruments. It’s not a whole orchestra because of the balance problems. I never got familiar enough with the orchestra. I never lived with an orchestra the way that I lived with the Robert Shaw Chorale.
FJO: Even though you were up in the balcony for those performances with the Boston Pops.
AP: Oh, I loved them, but it was so much easier and so much more gratifying to do chamber music. The piece that came out with the same recording as Echoes in the Hills, called Songs for Eve–it’s poems of Archibald MacLeish–that I think is the best piece that I’ve ever written. That was way back in the ‘80s, but that just came out right. Seventy minutes for vocal quartet and string quartet. The basic assumption is that everybody is an equal musician, and everybody gets their chance to shine in this piece, which is 26 short movements within it. There will be one piece for baritone and cello. And another piece for trio of voices and a trio of instruments. And every now and then the whole group together. So that it keeps shifting around. That was just so much fun to do.
FJO: You’re still writing music, yes?
AP: Well, no, I’ve had to stop. My eyes are so bad now; music paper’s just terrible. The lines go every direction, and when I try to put a note down, it blends, at least a line and a space away and a half inch to the right of where I want it to go. So then writing at the computer, again the same thing that I have just looking at the email now. I’m looking at my iPad now, and seeing your face. I can see your face well enough, but it’s still blurry. When I try to look at any of the instructions around the edges of machine, they are so tiny. Even with a magnifying glass that I wear around my neck, I still can’t read them. Numbers are almost impossible. And this is getting much worse all the time. So I’m faced with not being able to read, and I realize I’ve read all of my life, all kinds of books. But I’m now living on Audible books, which I thoroughly enjoy. And also, I can still write at the computer. I can go like 60 as I always could, but I have to be terribly careful that my hands are in the right place, or I do a whole page of gobbledy gook. Or a sentence of gobbledy gook or something or other where my hand has landed on the wrong part of the keyboard. So it’s hard as you get near the end. My new tiny passion is Wordle.
FJO: You got caught up in that!
AP: I did. Yeah. I can usually get it in three or four. but I can’t do a crossword puzzle, because I can’t put the letter down in the right place. And I can’t read the clues. I do Sudoku on the iPad, but that’s not as much fun as words.
FJO: Wow. It would be wonderful if there was something like that for music, so that you could still do something with making music.
AP: Well, it would, except that I’ve done that for years and years and years. And my mind now is full of memories, so I keep trying to nail down different things about what it was like to live in New York. What it was like to bring up kids in New York. What it was like to balance the needs of the children against the needs of the artist. I’m enjoying my children and enjoying my four great grandchildren right now.
FJO: Well, one thing that you did very recently that I wanted to talk to you a little bit about is you established the Alice Parker Fund. It’s a gift to African American composers. We talked earlier about who gets to be performed. Who’s in the canon? Who gets told they can write music? And whose music gets to be heard? And I think we’re trying to address this now as a field, and we’re a long way away from where we need to be, but initiatives like this are helping put things in the right direction.
AP: Thank you, Frank. It’s for African Americans and also the Latinx community because I’ve been so enriched in my whole life by their music. By the spirituals. And I’ve had four trips to South America and absolutely love the music making down there, where there’s no difference between a folk song and a composed song. You can’t tell which it is. And people sing. They go sing a concert, and then they go out and sit around a table and have some wine and cheese, and they sing the whole concert again. They don’t need the music. They don’t need anything. They just sing because they love to sing. Brazilian folk song music absolutely defies notation. It is just like a dance; it slithers. Then the spirituals. The basic materials are so solid. They’ve been pulled out of human experience. They weren’t written as amusement. Somebody called me an entertainer once. I said, “I am not an entertainer.” Music isn’t an entertainment art for me.
FJO: So a final question for you then, and you alluded to this earlier. You said we all have the ability not just to sing, but to actually compose music. What can we do, those of us who are deeply involved in music, who’ve made music the focus of our lives, what can we do to make more people all around us aware that this is something that could be a bigger part of their lives as well? The world would be a better place. I really believe that.
AP: I go right back to what I do, to leading these sings. Getting a group of people together, whether it’s a church congregation or a community group, or a group that’s pulled together for a specific occasion like after one of our warlike adventures, when we just are in a suddenly find ourselves in a war, and everybody finds themselves in church, wanting to sing to kind of console themselves for being in this ridiculous situation. We get together and sing. We’ve got to leave the electronics behind. I’ve refused to do a lot teaching over the web. I want the small group of people right around me at the table. And we communicate by singing, not with music before us; we use it to refer to afterwards. Exploring what melody is. Exploring what actually goes on as we sing.
As we learn a melody from one another just by ear, or as we explore a melody that we know and I say, “Harmonize anyway you feel like it.” If people are all listening, and deeply into the way that they are singing the melody itself, it’s amazing the wonderful things that we improvise. And then they’re gone. It’s like those Indian sand paintings. You rub them out after you’ve arranged them; they’re not meant to last. They are meant to be explorations into sound at that moment. I think so many kids have never heard their parents sing, just for the fun of it. We don’t sing as we do the dishes. We always did when I was little. We don’t sing as we do chores because there’s always some background music on. And nobody’s really listening to it. I think the way to get people back into it is just simply to get a roomful of people singing or a family.