Tag: choral music

‘Singers and Musicians’ Part 2: On Conductors, Identity, and Musical Segregation

A group of singers

When I wrote the first post in this series, “Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters, I expected there to be a strong response from the people in my closest circle of friends and colleagues. I was not expecting the response to be quite so far-reaching. While I don’t know how many times the article has been viewed, my own Facebook post with the article was shared over 150 times—certainly a new personal record!

I think one of the reasons the article resonated with people so strongly is because it deals with fundamental issues of identity. These labels and categories that we construct to describe who we are and what we do are critical to understanding how we are viewed in both the music profession and in society at large.

A helpful exercise is to take an identity and think of the immediate mental image that comes to mind when you invoke it. Let’s take “conductor.” Picture a conductor in your mind. What does this person look like? What are they doing? What are they wearing? Who is in the frame with them?

If you have been subject to training in a music academy or conservatory (or if you’ve just been a witness to “classical music” in any form in the last 200 years), your first gut-reaction image of this person is probably male, probably white, probably tall, probably north of 60 years old, probably dressed in a tuxedo, probably gripping a wooden stick, and probably leading an ensemble of instrumentalists usually called an orchestra.

You probably wouldn’t initially think of someone like Lidiya Yankovskaya, the only female music director of a multi-million dollar opera company in the United States.

Or of someone like Francisco J. Núñez, founder and director of one of the world’s most accomplished youth choruses, who also happens to be a MacArthur Fellow.

Or of someone like Jeffery Redding, director of choral activities at West Garden High School in Winter Garden, Florida, who was just named the 2019 winner of the GRAMMY Music Educator Award.

That’s because when we use labels like “conductor,” we don’t usually think of educators, or children’s choir directors, or women. As we consider the word “conductor,” we have to work through the ingrained biases and assumptions about what they often or usually look like and what they often or usually do (which can easily be misinterpreted as what they are supposed to look like and what they are supposed to do). The above exercise is illustrative, because our first impressions have the power to reveal our own biases.

In the majority narrative, conductors work with orchestras (not choruses or wind bands), they work exclusively at a professional level (not in schools, churches, or civic communities), and they tend to look like the conductors of yesteryear: old, white, male, with gray hair and a strong belief that their interpretation was handed down to them by some divine power. The conductor as authoritarian maestro is a trope as usual and pervasive as it is tired and tiresome.

The problem is systemic, and it comes down to how we define “conductor.” Many definitions are woefully inadequate. Take for example the Dictionary.com definition, which states that a conductor is:

a person who directs an orchestra or chorus, communicating to the performers by motions of a baton or the hands his or her interpretation of the music.

In this reading, we ignore any ensembles that are not choruses or orchestras (even though the oldest professional musical organization in the USA is not an orchestra, but a band: “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, established in 1798).

While this definition thankfully includes women (which is an improvement, as many older definitions did not), it also perpetuates a false belief that there are only two genders, ignoring a wide array of possible gender identities. (An appropriate gender neutral pronoun to use in the above definition would be “their.” Here’s a quick primer on understanding gender, for the curious.)

Aside: Quixotically, the definition also states that a conductor can only communicate with a baton or their hands. To that, I say, Bernstein clearly must not have known what he was doing.

I like Merriam-Webster’s definition best, which states that a conductor is “the leader of a musical ensemble.” It doesn’t tell us who they are leading, or how they are leading. It doesn’t make assumptions about the conductor’s gender identity.

I believe that my article on the careless use of the phrase “singers and musicians” caused such a stir because it forced us to examine the way we define each of these two labels.

NOTUS and Indiana University Chamber Orchestra with conductor Dominick DiOrio after a performance of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross, March 2017. Photo credit: Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

NOTUS and Indiana University Chamber Orchestra with conductor Dominick DiOrio after a performance of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, March 2017. Photo credit: Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

In the comments I saw on Facebook following the article’s publication, I saw many individuals attaching an element of quantifiable musical aptitude or skill to their definition of musician. It isn’t that a singer is not a musician, but that a singer is not as much of a musician as an orchestral player. Or as soprano and IU doctoral student Alejandra Villarreal Martinez stated so eloquently in a Facebook thread:

If we have a pianist who maybe is largely self-taught and plays pop tunes well enough to be paid for making music at the mall, I’d still call him a musician next to the pianist doing Rach 1 with a symphony. They are both getting paid for their artistry, even if they are worlds apart in musical/technical “skill.”

With singers, I think making this distinction also perpetuates the [false] idea among singers that it’s okay to not be as good as instrumentalists, i.e. that we are naturally inferior at music. I had a music director when I was studying for my undergraduate degree who insisted that singers were musicians and had a very high standard. Now, I’m carving a niche for myself singing extremely challenging modern music.

But if you ask me to compare myself to a girl singing in a folk ensemble, who learns by ear but keeps up with the ensemble, I think we should still call her a musician. I think what I’m getting at is that making a distinction between singers and musicians is the result of ingrained institutional elitism.

In other words, when someone makes this kind of distinction, what they are really saying is: who deserves to be called musician?

Case in point: the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Even though the prize is defined very simply as “for [a] distinguished musical composition by an American,” there is a history of awarding the prize to only the very smallest subset of musical styles, essentially blocking entire strata of artistic activity in music from consideration. The Pulitzer Prize committee famously refused to award a citation in 1965 to Duke Ellington, relayed in this story about Wynton Marsalis’ 1997 win:

Since the inception of the prize in 1943—when composer William Schuman received the award for “Secular Cantata No. 2, A Free Song”—every Pulitzer-winning composition spoke in the language of European-derived, Western classical music. As for jazz, blues, gospel, country, spirituals, and every other genre the United States gave to the world, all had been excluded. Completely.

This caused a contretemps in 1965, when a certifiable jazz genius—Duke Ellington—was denied a special citation the jury had recommended to the Pulitzer board. The subsequent and continued exclusion of jazz, often cited as America’s greatest cultural invention, disturbed some Pulitzer board members and distant observers alike. But it took years of effort, hand-wringing, argument, and public discourse to change the trajectory of the music Pulitzer in 1997 [when Wynton Marsalis became the first composer of jazz music to be awarded the prize].

At the root of the problem lies the term “composition.” Who is allowed to claim the mantle of “composer”? Is “composer” an identity to be bestowed as some honorific title? Are songwriters (composers of words and tunes) or arrangers (composers who use pre-existing material) locked out?

Why is Bach (a prolific arranger of Lutheran hymn tunes) called simply a “composer” when Moses Hogan (a prolific arranger of African American spirituals) qualified as a “composer and arranger”?

I believe our art is made smaller by this segregation of identity and by this rationing of privilege. I believe, as Alejandra does, that the definitions of conductor, composer, and musician should be broadly defined to include all possible forms of music-making.

When Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018, everyone had an opinion, because his selection was historic. Hip-hop was not a genre that the Pulitzer Prize had ever recognized as having the potential for “distinguished musical composition.” In awarding this prize to Lamar, jazz violinist and Pulitzer jurist Regina Carter had the following to say:

It wasn’t a decision of, Oh, let’s just give this to a hip-hop artist, or to Kendrick Lamar, because of that. The piece stands alone. I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant work. I think he’s brilliant. Knowing that we were considering this, I felt really proud of us, the jurors, being able to realize that there’s other great American music and great American art forms besides what we’ve always been told is great.

Merriam Webster’s definition of composer is “one who composes; especially, a person who writes music.” It does not say that a composer is “a person who writes great music.”

The right to be called a composer belongs to Lamar as much as it does to a composer of symphonies, string quartets, or operas. And it belonged to him the moment he decided to start writing music to tell his story, not the moment he won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the same way, each and every singer should proudly claim the mantle of musician, each and every time they raise their voice in song.

On Networking: A National Conference Preview

Dominick at the exhibit hall in Minneapolis in 2017 with conductor Maria Ellis.

At the end of February, choral directors from all over the country will descend upon Kansas City, Missouri, for the biennial national conference of the American Choral Directors Association. Do not be fooled by the moniker of “national”; this is truly a global event for thousands of conductors, composers, educators, publishers, and other industry professionals from around the world. For five days, choral leaders will meet in one place and be inspired by performances, attend interest sessions presented by teachers they admire, and forge new connections that—for the composers present—often lead to new commissioning projects and second and third performances of just-written works.

I am grateful to serve ACDA as the chair of the Standing Committee on Composition Initiatives. In this role, I work with my colleagues—composer Susan LaBarr and conductors Andrew Crane and Nancy Menk—to consider how ACDA can better serve the community of composers that exists within and just outside our choral orbit. We’ve been working diligently for two years, asking ourselves how we can welcome new composers into our choral profession. The national conference is one of the best ways to do just that, as it serves as a perfect place to build new connections through networking.

It can be incredibly daunting to attend a national gathering like this for the first time. Composer Dale Trumbore has already laid out so eloquently the “how to” of negotiating the professional choral conference in a terrific blog post. I recommend it to you highly as essential reading in preparation for any choral conference, whether it be your first or fifteenth. She speaks with great clarity of insight, and I have learned much from reading her personal stories. I know you will, too.

Dale Trumbore

Dale Trumbore, inaugural winner of the Brock Competition for Professional Composers

Dale is also being honored this year as the inaugural winner of the Raymond W. Brock Competition for Professional Composers, “professional” to distinguish this competition from the “student” competition which will now be offered in alternating years). (Aside: Prior to this year, the Student Competition was offered annually since 1998. ACDA decided recently to begin offering a professional competition, in response to many remarks from composers who felt there were fewer opportunities for composers who had aged out of “young” or “emerging” status.)

Dale’s winning work In the Middle will be performed by The Aeolians from Oakwood University and conductor Jason Max Ferdinand on Thursday, February 28 from 2:00-2:45 p.m. in Helzberg Hall (Gold Track) and 4:15-5:00 p.m. in the Muriel Kauffman Theater (Blue Track).  You can preview this work below, performed by Brandon Elliott and Choral Arts Initiative.

If you’ve never attended a choral conference, I welcome you to join us! Below, I’ve included a preview of some things that composers will not want to miss at the coming ACDA National Conference, along with a few pieces of advice.

1. Hang (i.e. “network”) with other composers and conductors at the first-ever Composer Fair and Happy Hour.

On Wednesday, February 27 from 5-7 p.m. in the Kansas City Convention Center Exhibit Hall B, we will feature our first-ever Composer Fair & Happy Hour, a meet-and-greet opportunity for ACDA members to have quality face time with composers from around the world. Distinct from the exhibit hall area, the Composer Fair is a two-hour “pop-up” experience, where members can all gather in the same space and move from table to table, interacting with composers of many ages and backgrounds. Conductor members will gain valuable time with composers of the music they love, while also having the chance to meet a composer they’ve heard about but never met in person. This is a chance for composers to also meet conductors of ensembles they’ve admired.

Here is the list of composers who have registered to take part in this inaugural event, in alphabetical order:

Ivo Antognini
Kim André Arnesen
William Averitt
Timothy Banks
Sergio Barer
Eric William Barnum
Josh Bauder
Bud Wayne Bisbee
Matthew Brown
Richard Burchard
Peter Burton
Michael Bussewitz-Quarm
David N. Childs
Charles Dickerson
Dominick DiOrio
Melissa Dunphy
Daniel Elder
Bradley Ellingboe
Donald Fraser
Daniel E. Gawthrop
Stacey Gibbs
Howard Goodall
Amy Gordon
Joseph Gregorio
Jocelyn Hagen
Elaine Hagenberg
Marjorie Halloran
Mark Hayes
J. Edmund Hughes
Victor Johnson
Ron Kean
Lee Kesselman
Katie Allison Kring
Susan LaBarr
David Michael Layne
John Leavitt
Mary Lynn Lightfoot
Karen Marrolli
Richard McKee
Jacob Narverud
Kyle Pederson
Diane Laura Rains
Philip W. Riegle
Paul John Rudoi
Kevin Siegfried
Z. Randall Stroope
Roger Towler
Bruce Trinkley
Michael John Trotta
Dale Trumbore
Christina Whitten Thomas
Deanna Witkowski

Also, for very early rising composers attending the ACDA conference as well as choral directors/choristers interested in new music and in meeting a bunch of composers, there will be an informal meet-and-greet at the nearby Chez Elle creperie on Friday, March 1 at 8:00 A.M. with Laura Krider and William Lackey from the American Composers Forum and Frank J. Oteri from New Music USA. I’ll be there, too. But in order to make sure there’s room for everyone, please let us know if you are able to be there as soon as you can, so we can give the folks at Chez Elle a head count and also inform us of any food allergies/intolerances (e.g. gluten-free, vegan, etc.) so the kitchen can be prepared. Separate checks will be provided; see Chez Elle’s website for menu and pricing.

2.) Be inspired by performances of new music, such as “The Music of Chen Yi and Zhou Long: Legacy from the East.”

This may come as a shock to many composers, but the overwhelming majority (greater than 75%) of music performed at ACDA National Conferences was written in the last fifty years. Stop and admire that statistic for a moment. It’s quite impressive, and immediately shows as false the oft-cited claim that choruses are fearful of new or contemporary music. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From glancing at the conference programs in the Choral Journal (ACDA’s monthly magazine), nearly every choir performing at the conference has a work by a living composer (or several living composers!) on their program. Any concert you attend will feature new music. That being said, there’s one special event you won’t want to miss…

On Wednesday, February 27 at 6:30 p.m. (Blue Track) and Thursday, February 28 at 6:30 p.m. (Gold Track), the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory Singers (Robert Bode, cond.) and UMKC Conservatory Concert Choir (Charles Robinson, cond.) will give a featured performance of the music of Chinese-American composers Chen Yi and Zhou Long. The presentation will feature a wide range of choral a cappella and choral-instrumental music by these two dynamic and long-established composers. The performance will conclude with Zhou Long’s major work, The Future of Fire, for the combined choirs and wind ensemble.

3.) Go to interest sessions, but not all of them. Here’s a curated list.

The ACDA National Conference features a veritable smorgasbord of possible interest and literature sessions for attendees to witness. It’s impossible to go to everything, so don’t even try. (Literally, actually impossible.) So for your guidance, here is a curated list of some of these sessions, earmarked in the conference program booklet as “of possible interest to composers.” Reading the titles alone gives you a good sense of the diversity of perspectives present at this gathering.

  • Choosing, Adapting, Composing, and Publishing for Middle School Choir
    Presenter: Emily Holt Crocker
  • A Conversation with John Rutter
    Presenter: Moderated by Tim Sharp, ACDA Executive Director
  • Finding Common Ground:
    A Panel Discussion on Conflict Transformation through Choral Music

    Presenters: Arianne Abela, Emilie Amrein, Micah Hendler, André de Quadros
  • Heartbeat and Harmony: Exploring Vocal and Choral Repertoire with Percussion
    Presenters: Susan Brumfield and Lisa Rogers
  • It’s About All of Us: The Collaborative Future of Choral Music in Empathy, Servant Leadership, and Selflessness
    Presenters: Geoffrey Boers, Clara Osowski, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Paul John Rudoi
  • Making it Plain: Transcribing Contemporary Gospel for the Mixed Chorus
    Presenters: Brandon Waddles and Brandon A. Boyd
  • Meaningful Improvisation in the Choral Rehearsal
    Presenter: Leila Heil
  • Performance Practice of Latin American Music
    Presenter: Cristian Grases
  • Programming for the 21st Century: Quality, Inclusion, and Diversity
    Presenters: Hilary Apfelstadt, Lynne Gackle, Eugene Rogers, and Jo-Michael Scheibe
  • Quality Accessible Repertoire for Intermediate and Small-but-Mighty Women’s Treble Choirs
    Presenter: Shelbie Wahl-Fouts
  • Tarik O’Regan: Orchestrating Voices
    Presenter: Tarik O’Regan
With Cameron Chase McCall and Dale Warland at the ACDA national conference in Salt Lake City, 2015. (Photo courtesy Dominick DiOrio).

With Cameron Chase McCall and Dale Warland at the ACDA national conference in Salt Lake City, 2015. (Photo courtesy Dominick DiOrio).

4.) The Exhibit Hall: Be overwhelmed, yes, but be present.

The Exhibit Hall is unquestionably one of the most overwhelming places to be at the national conference. Located this year in the Kansas City Convention Center, there are literally hundreds of exhibitors, from publishers and composers to tour companies and instrument makers, and it’s always very loud. The chaos of people moving in and out and about can be difficult if you’re not used to such activity.

But, some of the best conversations I have during the entire conference occur in this room, when I’m walking around with no purpose in particular. I’ve met conductors for the first time who have performed my music. I’ve run into composers who are present at the conference for the first time, hoping to meet a friendly face to show them around. On more than one occasion, I’ve started the conversation about a commission in the exhibit hall, and then I’ve followed up the next week with an email. So much business and connection happens on the Exhibit Hall floor, and I encourage you to plan unstructured time there to allow for such serendipity.

The exhibit hall is also the perfect place to meet with potential publishers. Representatives from all of the major publishers have booths in the hall, as well as many of the online distributors (MusicSpoke, Graphite Marketplace, etc.) that allow composers to keep the copyright to their scores. Go and meet with these people, and bring copies of your scores to share.

This gets to one larger point about networking in general: never be afraid to say hello, even if you don’t think you have anything in common. Taking that first step to make a connection with a simple hello and a handshake will lead, step-by-step, to a greater professional network of colleagues.

5.) Finally: Do something that has nothing to do with choral music.

Maybe you step away from the conference for an afternoon to go to a museum. Or maybe you decide that on Friday night, even though you want to go to a concert, it might be better to have a leisurely dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in years. Whatever it is, we can’t all be “on” for four days straight without going a little crazy, so step away for a bit and don’t feel shame in doing so.


If you’re already registered for the ACDA National Conference, great! I look forward to seeing you there. If you haven’t, it’s not too late. To do so, you first must join as an ACDA member and then register for the conference. Please note that the cost to attend, even with the cost (and benefits!) of annual membership, is cheaper than many other music industry conferences. The cost is well worth it.

If you are interested, online registration closes at 11:59 p.m. Central Time on February 18. Learn more at the ACDA website.

Conference attendance has been one of the great joys of my career, as it combines the best parts of being a professional with belonging to a community of colleagues and friends. I hope you will feel welcome to join our choral community at the ACDA National Conference this year and take part in the wealth of new music offerings that will be of interest to composers from all walks of life.

Writing for “The Chorus”: Text, Dynamics, and Other Occupational Hazards

NOTUS standing outside

As a composer-conductor who works primarily with new choral music, I encounter over 500 freshly minted new works for chorus each year. Sometimes, I am considering newly published works for potential programming; other times, I evaluate new manuscripts as part of a jury in a composition competition. At still other times, composers will send me scores via email and ask that I consider programming them.

Some of these scores are beautifully crafted, expertly notated, and idiomatically written. More usually, however, the scores will often make exceedingly unwarranted demands on the singers or include some rather basic errors.

In order to guide us all toward a more perfect harmony in writing for the chorus, and because writing for the chorus is often neglected in the training of composers at academic institutions, I am including below some of the most prevalent pitfalls that I have seen over and over again—even by some of today’s most reputable composers.

Point #1: “The Chorus” contains multitudes.

According to Chorus America’s 2009 Chorus Impact Study:

[A]n estimated 42.6 million Americans regularly sing in choruses today. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

You can probably surmise that not all of the 42.6 million Americans who sing in choruses are paid professional musicians. This leads us to our first consideration: for whom am I writing?

Unlike in an orchestra, where you can probably expect a section of violins to sound a certain way, a section of sopranos can be any one of a vast range of possibilities—10 trained opera singers, 16 Anglican boy trebles, 50 non-professional community singers over the age of 55, etc.—and it is quite critical that you have some awareness of which choral instrument you are envisioning before writing. As you might imagine, the fortissimo of an opera chorus will likely be very different than the fortissimo of a high school chamber choir.

Whether writing a new commission for a youth chorus or a professional chamber choir, recognize that your role in writing for the chorus is closer to what in fashion is known as “bespoke.” You are tailor-making a new work for a specific group of individuals, and those individuals may come from a wide array of professional or non-professional backgrounds.

The same is true in publishing: you probably wouldn’t submit a sacred anthem for mixed chorus and organ to a publisher that offers its catalogue predominantly to a secular, educational market.

So: before you do anything else, define “the chorus” for your situation or project. It will anticipate and surmount a whole host of problems before they even have a chance of existing.

Point #2: “The Chorus” is not “The Orchestra.”

Where many composers lack academic training in writing for the chorus, nearly all composers are expected to learn how to compose for the orchestra and its various instruments. Composers are taught the technical considerations of the string family—harmonics, bowing techniques, which strings are open, etc.—and about optimal voicings when combining the winds and brass into harmonic sonorities.

Composers also learn what is inadvisable in writing for the orchestra: namely, which pitches do not exist on certain instruments, the dynamic tendencies of certain instruments, why you can usually only write seven pitches for the harp, etc.

Here, then, are some regular rules for “The Chorus,” especially as they differ from “The Orchestra.”

1. Dynamics:

Most voices are naturally quieter in the lower register and naturally louder in the higher register. (Very few people naturally “scream” low in their voice; young babies, when they want your attention, will cry high and loud in their range.)

For this reason, it is very difficult to adequately balance a choral sonority when the sopranos are high (F5-A5) and the basses are low (F2, etc.), as the basses will naturally be softer than the sopranos. This is unlike an orchestra, where a dramatic crescendo may often be built with the low instruments descending (cellos, tuba, bassoons) and the high instruments ascending (violins, clarinets, trumpets, etc.).

Unlike an orchestra, the most effective choral crescendos occur when ALL vocal parts move to the upper part of their vocal range.

Four different chord voicings sung fortissimo: not good (SATB=G5,D4,B3,G2); better (SATB=G5,B4,D4,G3); best (SATB=G5,D5,G4,B3); and best with multiple voices (divisi: sopranos singing E5 and G5; altos singing C5 and D5; tenors singing F#4 and G4; and Basses singing B3 & D4)

Voicings beneath a soprano high G and how they will likely sound.

2. Breath

It is easier for a section of strings to sustain a sonority than it is for a chorus of singers. This may seem self-evident, but singers need to breathe to produce their sound, where string players need to breathe to stay alive, yes, but not to create sound with their bow.

When a chorus is clear on how, when, and where to breathe in music, the resulting performance is always more compelling and artful.

Two different settings of the word stars. In the first one, all sing at piano level the word "stars" on whole notes for four full measures without a breath (SATB = C5,A4,F4,D4). In the second setting, the pitch values are the same but only the sopranos sing "stars", with a crescendo and then a decrescendo halfway through and taking an eighth note rest in the penultimate measure and returning to their pitch intoning "m" pianissimo. The altos, tenors and basses intone "m" throughout and all also take a decrescendo in the penultimate measure with the altos taking an eighth note rest halfway through, the tenors taking an eighth note rest at the end of the first measure, and the basses taking an eighth note rest after the first beat of the penultimate measure.

Of course, a chorus can stagger their breathing—where some voices in the section continue singing while others breathe, and then they switch off—but there are limitations to this technique, too. It is easier to stagger one’s breathing without a noticeable effect during passages that have quieter dynamics and lower ranges. It is much more difficult to do so without noticing when louder dynamics and higher ranges are in play.

If you want to sustain a chord over a long period of time, consider planning the breaths and releases into the over-arching sonority and texture. Not only will it be more successful in performance, it will also probably be more interesting to the listener, too.

There is an easy solution for this: when you are writing choral music, sing every part as if you were performing it. Is it clear where the breaths should be placed? Are you having trouble sustaining a particularly long line? When you begin to put yourself in the place of the singer, your choral writing will improve.

3. Range & Tessitura

Singing high notes is difficult. Singing high notes over a long stretch of time is especially difficult and especially fatiguing, just as it would be if a composer were to demand the same of a brass player. Singing high notes non-vibrato, at a very quiet dynamic is exceedingly difficult. Asking a singer to do this for pages on end is simply cruel.

One of the most common mistakes I see in choral writing is a disregard for the tessitura of the singers. Tessitura—according to Wikipedia (I know)—is “the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range.” It’s not just an issue in the higher registers either. It is fatiguing for singers to be in any narrow range for a long period of time.

An extremely slow (all whole notes and fortissimo) parallel setting of the text: "Night has fallen on the lot of them." (Sopranos sing C5 B4 E5 D5 A4 B4 F5 D5 C5; alto sing B3 C4 D4 B3 C4 B3 A3 B3 E4 D4; tenors sing E4 F4 G4 E4 F4 E4 D4 E4 F4 G4; and basses sing A2 B2 C3 A2 B2 A2 G2 A2 B2 C3.) The ranges are all rather condensed and it makes much better sense to swap the tenor and alto parts so they are both singing in more comfortable ranges.

In composition, it is best to consider questions like, “How long has the section been singing in this range?” If you find that the tenors are only singing between D4 and G4 for six pages in a row, you should probably consider re-voicing their part. They will grow tired, their intonation will suffer, and they probably won’t enjoy singing your piece.

So, vary the range and tessitura of your vocal parts, especially for longer and more extended works.

Point #3: “The Chorus” does not have valves, keys, or slides.

From whence cometh the pitch?

While some highly trained choruses can perform any selection of pitches put in front of them, even the very best professional radio choirs in Europe often have to use tuning forks to find pitches in extremely complex music. It is to your benefit as a composer to make this job easier for the singers by skillfully preparing your score to be more successfully executed.

To be clear: I am not advocating for a “dumbing down” of your music. I am saying that we should be aware that a singer cannot just push down a key to find an F#. It is helpful to sometimes find other ways of forecasting the pitch prior to singing.

This may be apparent in the motives played by other instruments before a choral entrance, in the case of choral-instrumental music. In a cappella music, it might be a skillfully placed unison statement for the chorus before a treacherous 11-pitch sonority. Be resourceful but also kind.

A good rule of thumb: Can you, as the composer, pitch every note in your score accurately? If the answer to that is not “yes,” then perhaps consider a rewrite.

Point #4: “The Chorus” does have consonants, vowels, and other assorted phonemes.

Ah, text! Nothing differentiates a chorus from an orchestra more clearly than the use of words and all that they entail.

If you are not used to writing texted music, then some basic disclaimers are worth mentioning:

  • The vowel sound of any syllable is what occurs “on the beat” or “on the note.” So, if you write the word “Strength” on a downbeat, the “Str” will all have to occur before the notated pitch, and the vowel will occur on the beat.
  • Some consonants can be lengthened (m, n, f, v, s, z, sh, zh, etc.) and some cannot (t, d, k, g, p, b, etc.).
  • Chorus releases after notes usually occur on the rests in the music: so when a quarter note on the word “great” is followed by a quarter rest, the “t” sound will occur on the quarter rest following the word. (You do not have to notate this as the composer; the chorus will do this naturally.)

Further: It is your responsibility as the composer to know not only the meaning of the text you are setting, but even and especially the inherent stresses of the language. Nothing shows a novice choral composer more obviously than when the composer writes a motive for a text that inadvertently stresses the inappropriate syllable. Check your dictionary, especially when writing in a less comfortable language, to ensure that you are stressing each word appropriately in your setting.

One of the most common problems I encounter is when a composer hears the composite text of a part in their head, but does not think carefully about what each of the singers have to perform.

Two different settings of the text: "What must you bring?" In the first one, each section sings a different word and sustains it: basses singing "what" on a C3 for two measures, then tenors joining two beats later with "must" on F3 followed by altos singing "you on B3 at the beginning of the second measure and finally sopranos singing "bring" for a single beat two beats later. In the second setting the basses sing all four words on half notes with tenors joining for the final three words, altos the final two, and sopranos the last word, all on the same pitches as the first setting. DiOrio further comments that the first setting sounds like "Wha mu you bringstt" whereas the second one listeners can actually hear the full sentence.

In instances like this, the conductor has to reconfigure the arrangement of syllables to make the composer’s intention clear.

Finally, text is expressive. The chorus can communicate not just the text, but also the meaning behind the words. Make sure you, as the composer, have given some thought to how you would express the text—poetically, rhetorically, etc.

A good practice that works for many composers I know: memorize your text and speak through it regularly, until its natural rhythms, inflections, and lines begin to emerge. Do this before you set any of the words to notated music.

Point #5: “The Chorus” is made of people.

At the end of the day, a chorus is a collection of people. These people come into the rehearsal room with an assortment of daily experiences: one of the baritones may have just won an award, while one of the altos may have lost a parent. They both enter that room to have a communal singing experience that will connect them to others and give voice to where they are on that day.

Millions of Americans sing in choruses because making music is part of being human. To truly be successful as a composer of choral music, we have to recognize that all choral music is in some ways communal music. And all choral music gives voice—literal voice, with text—to our human experience.

So let’s be empathetic composers. Let’s put ourselves in the singers’ shoes. And let’s make the study of choral composition and its rudiments as usual in the academy as the study of string harmonics.

“Singers and Musicians” and Why Our Language Matters

A cohort of singers on outdoor steps

There it was yet again, this time in an article written by a living composer in October 2018.  It stuck out like a four-inch crease in a freshly ironed shirt. While it may first appear—like so many other biases—to be simply a polite substitution, it actually carries a condescension that comes from a long history of implied assumptions that communicate “separate and certainly not equal.”

Not even The New York Times is immune from this double standard. Quite to the contrary, you’ll come across the phrase hundreds of times if you spend just a few minutes scouring their archives. You’ll find it in headlines and reviews, in news articles, letters, and obituaries:

  • An article on the Bayreuth Festival from 2015 includes the line: “Plaques just outside the Festival Theater poignantly memorialize Bayreuth singers and musicians who were persecuted by the Third Reich.”
  • The headline from a 2001 obituary reads: “Alix Williamson, 85, Noted Publicist for Singers and Musicians.
  • A news article on the Metropolitan Opera’s union and management negotiations from 2014 includes this gem: “Outside the opera house on Friday, the day began with about 150 singers and musicians from the Met’s chorus and orchestra holding a demonstration, with a melodious score, in Dante Park, a small park opposite Lincoln Center.” (Aside: yes, I recognize that this is complicated by the names of the unions themselves—i.e. the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the orchestra players, and the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the chorus and the principal singers, as well as other professionals including the stage managers—but there is no good reason to use this language when referring directly to the artists themselves and not to their union representation.)
  • And there it was as recently as October 2018 when Nico Muhly was describing his new dramatic work: “My role, as I understand it now, is to be an editor and custodian of the document Nick and I created, and to guide — but not prescribe — the various options the singers and musicians have in expounding it.”

To be absolutely certain that no one misses my point: singers and musicians are not mutually exclusive categories. All singers are musicians, but not all musicians are singers (some are players, some are composers, etc.).

Language matters. When we use the phrase “singers and musicians” in one breath, we communicate—even if inadvertently—that they are mutually exclusive categories. In other words, singers are not musicians.

That’s a problem.

This subtle but false dichotomy reinforces many of the assumptions that singers are forced to confront in their careers: that they are not as musically literate, that they came to their career through a path of sub-par training, that they lack the ability to hear and understand the underpinnings of a musical score, that they have to hire a vocal coach to teach them their part, etc., etc.

We hear it in the subtext beneath the “Eureka!” stories about famous opera singers being discovered, endowed with a beautiful voice but lacking any formal training. (Woody Allen troped on this quite famously in his 2012 movie, To Rome with Love, where a mortician’s perfectly developed operatic tenor is only revealed when he’s singing in the shower.)

It is further reinforced by the history of choral-orchestral music performance, where an important tradition still flourishes: a professional (read: paid) orchestra of players and a non-professional (read: non-paid) chorus of singers combine to perform some of the great warhorses of Western art music (your Beethoven 9s, Mahler 2s, and the like). In this reading, musicians are trained professionals, while singers are those other people participating in the performance who could not have learned their part if it were not taught to them by a chorus master (which, it should be noted, is another problematic name for someone who can and should simply be called “conductor”… but that’s an issue for another article).

All stereotypes are grounded in some kernel of truth, and you may indeed encounter singers who conform to and confirm some of the worst stereotypes. But in my experience as a conductor-composer who has worked with literally thousands of singers, the vast majority of them are individuals who have dedicated years of their lives to studying the art of performance and the craft of music: i.e. musicians.

As a conducting faculty member at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, I lead NOTUS, a select vocal ensemble that is unique among collegiate choirs, as we have a singular mission to perform, commission, and record the works of living composers. As you might expect, we regularly perform contemporary music that is exceedingly challenging. We recently released our first commercial album, NOTUS: Of Radiance & Refraction, which features five world premiere recordings of works that we commissioned from IU faculty members. Listen here to a movement of John Gibson’s In Flight, for chorus and electronics, featuring soprano soloist Kellie Motter:

The thirty-or-so student singers that I work with each year are musicians in every sense of the word. These young people can sing pitches out of thin air from tuning forks. They can tune (and express!) 10-part chords. They can sing melodies with complex polyrhythms and syncopations. And they can do all of this while communicating a poetic text clearly and distinctly. (You might surmise that I’m quite proud of them. You’d be right.)

I prepare these students to be responsive to the musical gesture. I ask them to come to rehearsal already familiar with their musical part (no spoon-feeding their pitches with the piano). In short: I expect each one of them to be as professional a musician as the first oboist in an orchestra is expected to be.

I believe that we confront this bias head-on by making sure that we do everything we can to hold singers to the same musical expectations as our players, especially in our training institutions. I take comfort in knowing that I have many colleagues in this profession who believe the same, and who are also training their singers to be as responsive as the best orchestral players.

Excitingly, the choral repertoire has been expanding and transforming over the last fifty years as this artistic shift in our professional expectations of singers has led composers to imagine new choral musics that were never possible before.

In Sweden, Eric Ericson and his Chamber Choir redefined excellence in choral performance on an international scale with their recordings. They performed music more complex than any other choral repertoire then-written and helped establish careers for composers such as Sven-David Sandström and Lars Edlund. (Here’s the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir performing Sandström’s Agnus Dei consisting of gnarly tonal-ish clusters that float in and out of each other:

Today in the USA, Donald Nally and The Crossing are exhibiting new levels of choral artistry and technical mastery in the performances they give to works by composers such as Ted Hearne, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, David Lang, and Lansing McLoskey. (Here’s The Crossing performing Ted Hearne’s Animals:

Roomful of Teeth and Brad Wells have embraced the “choir as rock band” aesthetic, combining vocal traditions from across the globe to create stunningly otherworldly works by their singer-composers Eric Dudley, Avery Griffin, and Caroline Shaw. Listen to RoT sing Shaw’s “Allemande” from her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 voices:

And for inspiration beyond measure, look no further than Francisco Núñez and the extraordinary Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Through their Transient Glory program, they have commissioned some of the most interesting, diverse, and eclectic contemporary music for youth chorus ever written, from the likes of Paquito D’Rivera, Joan La Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Michael Torke. And these young people ages 9-18 sing as good as—and in some cases better than—any professional choir. Here they are singing Michael Gordon’s Every Stop on the F Train:

Yes, these groups are made of ‘singers.’ They are choirs, or vocal ensembles, or choruses, collections of people who make noise together with their vocal cords or whatever else you want to call them. But these ‘singers’ are making some of the most adventurous new music being written today, and you can be damned-sure that they are also musicians of the very highest caliber.

So enough. Let’s embrace some new language.

We could say “singers and players” or “vocalists and instrumentalists.” Or maybe call them all “performers” or “artists.”

Or how about just “musicians?”

Exploring Timbre in Choral Music

Full Disclosure: many of the samples I share in this article are from the See-A-Dot Music Catalog, a company for which I am the director.

Unlike many aspects of the experimental music world, choral music in the western classical realm has historically avoided employing a variety of vocal timbres in any given piece, usually defaulting to the inherited English choral cathedral tradition. By contrast, string players are readily prepared to perform a variety of sounds on their instruments from sul tasto and sul ponticello to pizzicato and scratch tones. But while this kind of experimentation with sound used to be unusual in the choral world, it is now becoming more common.

In choral music, timbral varieties are generally confined to specific styles and genres.

It’s not that choral singing as a whole does not employ a variety of timbres: singers sing differently in a gospel choir than when singing in an Anglican church; musical theater and opera choruses ask for very different vocal production, and that’s just sticking to the most common styles in the United States. If we back up even further and look at ensemble singing from a global perspective, Bulgarian choirs use an entirely different timbre from singers in West Africa, Sardinia, and India. But these timbral varieties are generally confined to specific styles and genres of music. Modern recording and communication technology has brought a new level of awareness and exposure to vocal timbre to a large group of people, and there is an increasing interest in playing with the sound possibilities of the voice influenced by music of other cultures—from yodeling to Mongolian throat and overtone singing. I believe the future of choral music will embrace timbre as an integral component of sound making.

I give credit to Meredith Monk for pioneering music for vocal ensembles that focuses on the different sounds of the voice, perhaps above and beyond the individual notes and rhythms. For example, Dolmen Music has an entire section where the soprano line gradually changes from a more open, “traditional” sound to a very bright nasal technique, and that transition in timbre is the main driving force behind the drama of that section.

Like the above example by Monk, much of this choral music is wordless, putting the focus on the voice itself as an instrument, rather than the musical interpretation of the text. Here is an example from the composer Toby Twining, who is also a versatile vocal performer familiar with a variety of techniques. Twining treats the voice like an instrument and incorporates a slew of different styles and techniques into a single composition.

While the piece certainly isn’t easy, it has been performed by college and community choirs around the country. Twining has also recently written new pieces for Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble popularizing the incorporation of techniques from global singing styles into Western music. While most of the music written for them is extremely specialized and likely not performable by large choirs, avocational singers, or even most semi-pro ensembles, there is a growing body of work that incorporates a variety of timbres and techniques in such a way that is accessible to avocational and student singers.

There’s a growing body of work incorporating a variety of timbres that is accessible to avocational and student singers.

I’d find it silly to not include my own most performed piece for choir, which is an example of timbral exploration for choirs. Hymn to Aethon uses four different timbres, ranging from dark to bright sounds, and it’s the use of timbres and rhythmic groove that provide the bulk of the aural interest, not the harmonic content which mostly revolves around melodies and open fifths.

I believe what contributes to the popularity of this piece is the relatively simple harmonies (it’s only 4 parts with almost no divisi) and straightforward rhythms making it relatively easy to perform without compromising its interest. I’ve taught this piece to unauditioned college groups and professional ensembles, and in both instances, the rehearsal process relies on rote learning, vocal play, and listening rather than note learning, blend, and lyrical interpretation. I think exploring vocal timbres will play an increasingly important role in the future of choral music as a way to expand the expressive palette available to choirs without relying on the harmonic content of the work.

The Future of Choral Music

Here’s a common experience I have as a publisher of choral music: I’ll receive a piece with all the hallmarks of a composer who knows what they are doing. The piece is well engraved, follows the rules of voice leading, is idiomatically written for the voice—and is dull. But then I’ll do a little sleuthing and find samples of this same composer’s instrumental music, which will often by contrast be lively, engaging, and innovative. Nothing drives me battier than to see this separation between the two mediums, and I’ll often write an impassioned reply to the composer asking why they are so apparently willing to stifle their creative voice when it comes to choral music. Nine out of ten times, they respond with something akin to “thank you for giving me the permission to write the music I want to write.” These experiences have lead me to the belief that while there is plenty of newly composed music for choir, it is not part of the same contemporary conversation around new music as its instrumental and solo counterparts.

Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs.

It’s no shocker to say that the choral and instrumental worlds have evolved quite separately over the past century. Highly chromatic or atonal music is rarely written for choirs, and the deep exploration of timbre found in instrumental pieces from later in the 20th century has mostly been ignored in favor of the pervasive choral sound inherited from the English cathedral tradition. Not only have the two worlds evolved separately, but their cultural importance is weighed differently as well. Using the Pulitzer Prize as one limited metric, it’s worth noting that, until The Little Match Girl Passion in 2008, an a cappella choral piece had never won the prize. This fact is confounding if we consider that choral music is thesingle most popular activity among adults in America. It is estimated that 32.5 million adults in America sing with a choir on a weekly basis and that ensemble singing is the most popular arts activity among adults in the United States. While the majority of choirs are religious or school ensembles, it is conservatively estimated that 12,000 of US choirs are community and professional groups. That’s 10 times the amount of community and professional orchestras in the United States. It’s entirely possible that the Pulitzer committee shares the same perspective as much of the new music world, that choral literature is not in the same “high art” category as its orchestral counter-part. And to be fair, the largely avocational nature of choirs contributes to the cultural sense that, as a whole, it need not be taken as seriously as instrumental music.

Choral music performers are hungry for new types of exploration.

Thankfully, choral music in the 21st century is undergoing a cultural renaissance. More and more ensembles are bringing together musical innovation in the choral world, and ensembles are performing music that points composers in a new direction. These composers are exploring and expanding what is possible in the choral medium without being stymied by the avocational nature of many of the performers. There has, perhaps, never been a better time to make a national, and even global, impact with choral music. The choral world is one of the most accessible avenues for the public to stay connected with “classical” or “concert” music, especially when it comes to the work of living choral composers, where there is still a mass appeal from the young to the elderly. The medium is hugely popular, it is being taken more seriously than it has for the past hundred years, and the performers themselves are hungry for new types of exploration.  There is a wonderful opportunity to use choral music as a way to expose a wide swath of Americans to the adventurous side of today’s new music conversation by getting people involved as performers, not just passive listeners.

In the series of articles that will be posted here in the coming weeks, I will explore: how the choral world is changing artistically, logistically, and creatively; what factors into that change; and where we all might be headed. I’ll also describe how technology is changing the social and business world of publishing and what methods composers can employ to bring experimental musical ideas to a wide demographic of people without alienating the majority of avocational singers in the choral world.

Crowd Out

Crowd Out w/David Lang

The beginning

Early in 2015, I asked Donald Nally to join me as co-music director for a Chicago performance of David Lang’s crowd out, a work for 1000 untrained voices, written in 2014. It would be the work’s US premiere.

What is the power of a crowd?

When creating this piece, David had asked himself: What is the power of a crowd? What do we as individuals gain by joining with others? What do we lose? crowd out is his answer. Performers are scattered around a large venue, initially indistinguishable from audience members. They whisper a crowd-sourced text. Whispers turn to speech, which turns to shouts, which turns to song. Is this a celebration? A rally? Sports fans at a game? A congregation?

I approached the Chicago Humanities Festival about presenting the work, and in 2016, Illinois Humanities came on board. The work of these organizations complemented one another: Illinois Humanities, whose work brings together communities from across the state to “share ideas that matter,” would gather participants for crowd out; Chicago Humanities Festival, which presents a major annual festival of arts and ideas, would organize the day-of performance.

The project also received a $50,000 grant from the City of Chicago.

Donald Nally, co-music director
I’m interested in creative artists who are questioning how we receive information, how we interact with people. David is at the forefront of that. A piece that is by a crowd, about a crowd.

David Lang, composer
Twenty-five years ago, I was doing a project in London. I wandered through the neighborhood of Islington, where the Arsenal football team had their stadium. I was walking by right as a soccer match was about to begin. And someone was outside selling tickets. You entered this arena, there were 60,000 people, and they’re all singing, yelling, screaming. And occasionally there are these songs that every single person seems to know. A bunch of ordinary people making this music together. Everyone was welcome.

Bindu Poroori, Illinois Humanities
Crowd Out Chicago was an opportunity to develop relationships and have conversations about the state of the arts in our neighborhoods. We didn’t just want to engage with music groups, we wanted to engage with other community organizations. To be part of the conversations. None of us knew exactly what it was exactly going to look like. We just jumped in.

Heidi Hewitt, Chicago Humanities Festival
The scale, the partnership, the amount of players, that made it one-of-a-kind for us. I was a bit skeptical. I know how small Chicago Humanities Festival is, and what an undertaking it would be.

Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
I come from a background as a stage manager in musical theater, and the largest thing involved seventy preteen tap dancers…which is its own bout of chaos. But nothing like this!

Co-director Donald Nally and I discussed possible venues for crowd out over several months. Indoor, outdoor, stadium, park, mall. All had pros and cons.

Donald Nally
There is nothing wrong with the way that the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group produced [the premiere of] crowd out [in a shopping mall], but I had an aversion to the idea that the piece would be involved with commercial activity. We wanted to find an organic setting where a crowd didn’t feel unnatural, where one could choose to be in the midst of the performance, or find a place to observe.

Crowd Out Nally conducts

All images: David T. Kindler, courtesy of Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities

Illinois Humanities set itself an ambitious goal: draw participants from all fifty wards of the city of Chicago. Each ward would have a “member ensemble,” but all city residents would be welcome to join. Each ward-based group had its own group leader. Illinois Humanities structured each ward’s rehearsal as part-conversation, part-rehearsal.

Bindu Poroori
We [contacted] choirs, art groups, after-school and church groups across the city. There were days when all we did was walk around a neighborhood, put up flyers, talk to the alderman and knock on church doors. We now know the distributions of denominations, about how people come together in different parts of the city.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna, group leader, Hubbard High School
Any time I have an opportunity to expose my students to something out of their neighborhood, that will give them a new experience, I jump on it. And I thought they might love that it is so unique and weird.

Bindu Poroori
We were looking through the lens of this piece, asking what it means for people to cross neighborhood lines, what it means for people to come together, and why they might be interested or hesitant about a project like this.

Michael “Mike” Jones, group leader, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
A thing that was important was giving them the experience to see something new and different. To go with the kids to meet in Millennium Park. I assumed they were all youth groups. Then to understand that it was everybody, all ages, cultures, genders? It was a great melting pot. I felt really proud for my kids.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The thing that drew me is that it was going to bring people together, to be representative of all fifty wards of Chicago.

Jefferey Thomas, Group Leader, The Hideout
It wasn’t my desire to put together a choir of really bitchin’ singers. I believed I could teach it to the most eclectic community group of people who could sing, or not sing, who were strangers.

I look at the world that we live in right now…I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me.”

David Lang
I look at the world that we live in right now, and I try to compare it to experiences I’ve had in choirs. I never said when singing in a choir, “I hate the person who is standing next to me, I don’t like them, so I’m going to wreck their part.”

The music of crowd out is unusual in that there is no musical score, but rather something closer to a script. The work is divided into eight parts, and in each part David describes waves of activity that take place across four colored groups of performers (called “strands”). For instance, the work opens in this way: “ALL 4 STRANDS: each person independently, speak in a whisper at first and gradually move to normal voice, at a normal pace, repeating sentences in order, with varying lengths of silence between each sentence: I draw deep breaths, I feel more confident and calm…

Donald Nally
It’s a score that you look at and are not sure how it’s going to play out. In a more conventional composition, at any given time you can say “The texture is _____.”

Jefferey Thomas
Theater improvisers would be great group leaders. Cheerleaders would be great group leaders. You don’t have to be a trained singer. Even an alderman would be a group leader. Community organizers and activists would be great group leaders.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I teach high school on the south side, and my students aren’t exposed to much in the classical world, let alone in the contemporary new music world. My first reaction to the piece was, “My students are going to hate this.”

The crisis

Gathering a 1000-strong choir from across the city was no easy feat.

Crowd Out diversity

Bindu Poroori
There were five million moments when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. FIVE MILLION MOMENTS.

David Lang
During the making of this piece I realized the value of having something difficult that you need a community of people to accomplish. It is something very beautiful and powerful to me, people coming together to solve a problem.

Bindu Poroori
A lot of the stasis happened early. It seemed like a behemoth, and I didn’t know where to start. I was scared to have the first conversations, going in with the anxiety of “Who would want to do this?”

Kait Samuels, Chicago Humanities Festival
You can’t explain [crowd out] in five minutes. You can’t be like, “We’re going to sing ‘Carol of the Bells’ by the Christmas tree.”

Jefferey Thomas
I ended up with several members [from another ward’s group]. They told me that their choir dropped out. And I asked why, and they said, “They didn’t understand it.”

“What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”

Bindu Poroori
If you want to do a project in a city as ethnically diverse and segregated as Chicago is, then the first question needs to be, “What does it mean to bring this weird piece of contemporary art by a white dude and take it to a bunch of black and brown people all over the place?”

Michael “Mike” Jones
You know what I called it in my mind? Performance art. I thought it was really cool and different, and I thought, “How do I get my kids to buy in?” I told them about the piece, and you could see that confused look on their faces.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I started [rehearsing] the singing first. It was catchy, [the students] could open their hearts to it. When I started introducing them to the text, it was tough. I teach some kids who have tough lives, and the words are isolating.

Crowd Out kids

The text for Parts 4 and 7 includes these phrases, to be shouted: “I feel anxiety,” “I feel awful and I wish to be alone,” “I feel like rushing into tears,” “I feel so alone I could cry.”

Jefferey Thomas
That’s a problem with the libretto. It is kind of jarring. To sing those words, “I’m obsessed with being at the center of attention” in almost a plainchant way.

David Lang
crowd out is very introspective, and it can be a little bit of a downer, because it’s very serious about who you are, what you lose when you’re in this crowd.

Bindu Poroori
When I first started carting this piece around, it was with my implicit endorsement. A group would say, “There are things in this piece that make me feel uncomfortable,” and I felt on the defensive. I wish I’d said, “Here’s this controversial piece, that doesn’t speak to everybody. Now that you’re here, what does it evoke in you?”

Michael “Mike” Jones
[Musical Assistant] AJ [Keller] was really the deciding factor. His strength and confidence, and the way he was able to interact with the kids. Once AJ gave them background and substance, we were able to move forward. You could see them nodding their heads.

Bindu Poroori
At some point in February we made our naive timeline of how things were going to shape up. By May, all fifty groups and the entire schedule should have been put together. And it was a barren wasteland in May. One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.

One thing I learned, if you’ve got to throw away the timeline, then, honey, throw away the timeline. Don’t let a piece of paper throw you on the ground.

Heidi Hewitt
We didn’t know until July what the final timeline would be, and there was some mystery around what the number of participants would be. There were trust issues [between Illinois Humanities and Chicago Humanities Festival] that we had to overcome.

Bindu Poroori
In May, the Fyre Festival brouhaha was happening, with people turning up and nothing there. I remember thinking, “This is what crowd out is going to be.” It’s going to be me faking for a very long time, then October happening, and people being like, “Bindu, did this fail?”, and me being like, “Yes, it did.”

Donald Nally
I live my life going, “It’s okay if it doesn’t work this time.” A bunch of times I take similar risks, and not every one can be a home run. Once in a while I have to walk away and say, “Well, nobody died.”

Rehearsals took place at the ward level, then each group attended one of four “dress rehearsals” in the week before the performance.

Jefferey Thomas
At the Hideout [dress rehearsal], one person in another group criticized everything I did: “You know, there’s a space in here, and a space in here.” I thought that was wrong, to interpret it in this strict way. He was thinking of it as a “choir piece”, and that there are standards and traditions that must be observed. All the baggage that comes with performing “high” works of musical art. But crowd out is a piece for a crowd!

Bindu Poroori
As we got into the rehearsal process, as we realized that people coming together were so different from one another, it meant that the piece itself took on a thousand different meanings.

Crowd Out Full crowd

The performance

The performance took place on October 1, 2017, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, in front of Cloudgate, known to locals as “The Bean.” Donald Nally directed, with the help of six assistants holding cue-cards. Before the performance, there was an hourlong rehearsal in the nearby Pritzker “bowl”.

Donald Nally
With crowd out, we didn’t actually know how things would sound until we were in “The Bean” whispering. It was like rehearsing a wind octet without four of the players.

Michael “Mike” Jones
It was exciting from the time we gathered at our school. We took a trip to McDonalds, and the students got what they wanted to eat.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The energy of being out with so many people! They were feeding off one another.

Heidi Hewitt
It was a full day of activities, of people getting to know each other. I feel like that is part of the piece.

Michael “Mike” Jones
When we were in the Pritzker, gathering, I wish that we’d had a warm up person or an emcee or a video, to get our minds working together: “Hey, everyone ready for crowd out?!”

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
The [short final] rehearsal at the [Pritzker] bowl was more exciting than [the performance], because the sound was different there and it was the first time my students heard all 1,000 people together.

Donald Nally
We had to move quickly in our bowl rehearsal. I would have liked to run the piece, feel the form and structure of it, but we couldn’t do it. There were a lot of cooks in that kitchen.

Heidi Hewitt
When everyone was in the bowl it felt like it was in the 700s, but once we got to “The Bean,” it was so full. It had the power of a thousand.

Jefferey Thomas
Before the performance, people said, “Tell me about this piece. Can we do it?” All of a sudden, someone said, “It’s starting!” And I said to the new people, “Just stand here and watch.” They performed it without knowing the piece.

Donald Nally
The piece began, and it wasn’t just whispering, but also commenting on the whispering from people who weren’t in the piece. And they became quieter, really listening to the whispering.

Kait Samuels
People would come up to me and were like, “Where is the choir performing?” And I’m like, “All around you”.

Bindu Poroori
There were crying children, there were people trying to wiggle in front of “The Bean” to take a selfie. A woman was walking around with a cardboard cutout of Bernie Sanders. Someone overheard a tourist tell his friend, “I don’t know if I like this or I hate this, but I’m not going to forget it.”

Michael “Mike” Jones
I was surprised at the focus of everyone. The only word I can think of is “engulfing.” That’s what I tell everyone when we’re doing performances: When you get like people with the same goal in mind, you’re going to have success. No matter what your color, or age, or ethnicity, or background, the art will bring you together. Art is for all.

Kait Samuels
The gentleman with the hat, the very enthusiastic group leader [Jefferey Thomas], was just a joy to watch.

Crowd Out fun

Jefferey Thomas
I’m wearing this crazy suit and acting like a nutball. I was so focused on my group that I couldn’t focus on the larger work. I don’t even know what the piece sounds like.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
I challenged myself to try to keep [the students] on their toes, avoiding rote monotony. When we’d do call and response, I tried to make things different.

Donald Nally
The people shouting together were surprised at the power they had. I was reminded of David Lang’s piece Statement to the Court. He said that while writing the piece he would stand in front of his computer and just shout.

Jefferey Thomas
I was having a conversation with my ensemble. In [the shouting of] Part Seven, I realized that the group was mocking me. I wanted them to taunt me more, really let me have it.

Sharon Quattrin Campagna
One of the first comments my students made was, “I wish we were singing more.”

Bindu Poroori
The words on paper have a sense of sadness and loneliness, but when 1000 people were shouting or singing, the words were transformed.

Donald Nally
People commented that I looked like I was having such a good time in a melancholy piece. But it’s such a joyful thing to stand in one of the great public parks and invite the direction of this love and energy.

Bindu Poroori
Emotionally it felt so different from different parts of the crowd, with the amounts of casualness or non-casualness the groups were bringing.

Donald Nally
crowd out is a really intimate piece. It doesn’t look that way on the page, but people came up to me afterwards and said, “I really became very emotional.”

Kait Samuels
I heard a few people say, “Oh, I’ve never been part of a flash mob until now!” It took a lot to not be like, “It’s NOT a flash mob. It is a PERFORMANCE.” But, I thought, hey, at least you’re here, and you’re excited.

Heidi Hewitt
It was very powerful to watch David Lang participating with a group he didn’t know, and smiling, and proud.

David Lang
I went around to every single group and sang with them during the performance. I think I got to experience everyone from every ward of Chicago, from professional people to little kids. I think in a way I had the best experience.

Jefferey Thomas
I bet as a composer that would be amazing, to walk around your own forest of sound.

Michael “Mike” Jones
I was really proud of my kids. If they saw audience members who looked interested, they would say, “Look at this,” or “Follow this.”

Heidi Hewitt
It was lovely having the sign interpretation in and around the piece, and an app made it possible for deaf or hard-of-hearing people to select each “strand color” and follow along.

Bindu Poroori
Illinois Humanities now has this network of cultural organizations, venues, and community groups—a little phone book to help with collaborating across the city. We’re also going to be sending out a survey, and I’m working on a report that brings together notes from the community gatherings.

Crowd Out success

The participants of Mike Jones’ Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy were spurred by their experience with crowd out to create their own version of the work.

Michael “Mike” Jones
They want to call it “singled out.”

Aquantee Hendricks, Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy
When we arrived, we were some of the only people of color there, and we thought, “It would be funny if they understood how we feel sometimes in a crowd.”

Michael “Mike” Jones
They want it to express what it feels like to be one of the few African Americans in a place. You see another African American, and you give that head nod. We’re all looking for solidarity, whether it is gender, age, race, creed, or color.

Aquantee Hendricks
At first we were just playing around. They started thinking of concepts, the way it could look, how it could start. Incorporating pieces we already have. It started making sense.

Michael “Mike” Jones
I’m excited that it’s student driven. My hope is that it grows, and organizations like Encore [a choir of seniors] would ask, “What does it feel like to be a senior in a crowd?” Or [a group of women], “What is it like to be the only woman in a world where white men make all the decisions?”

The Man With Qualities: Remembering My Friend, Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017)

I feel as though I knew Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017) long before I actually met him.  Our good friend Doreen Rao would say, over and over again, “You must meet Daniel.”  Or she would occasionally start talking about him as though I already knew him. To say that he had achieved a certain kind of legendary status in my mind before we even met is no exaggeration.  Now, after his untimely death, while it is still too fresh for me to contemplate, I’m trying to remember everything I can about our friendship.

Disclaimer: I only knew Daniel for 15 years. He lived in New York, in Napa Valley, at Yaddo, at Wurlitzer. He traveled and sometimes lived in his hometown of Elgin, Illinois, where he spent his final few years. I’m sure there were others who knew him better, longer, in different ways. We shared a close community of friends from our Choral Music Experience (CME) and Boosey & Hawkes worlds, and I had the privilege of copyediting much of his published choral music.  But I do believe that we shared special bonds—as composers, as Boosey & Hawkes and CME composers, as Midwesterners, as sons, and as, well, just as guys.

When the time finally came for us to meet, I began to understand. This was a rare man indeed. We met in 2002 at the CME Choral Teacher Training Institute, held that year at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. By then, I had heard other stories about Daniel from New Yorkers who knew him and his music.  When I asked conductor Francisco Nuñez about Daniel, he just smiled and said, “Daniel……you don’t know Daniel? You have to meet him.”

It was a late night in Maynooth after a whole day of teaching and singing. A group of us had found an empty room in a dormitory with a few bottles of wine and this man, my age, with what my children immediately dubbed a “perpetually astonished” look, was in the front of the room, reciting Pushkin poetry in Russian from memory.  Oh my.  At various times I heard him recite dozens of poems for memory: Yeats, Cummings, Sandburg, Pushkin. I think he was always no more than a few seconds from breaking into poetry. Maybe a millisecond.

All week we had been studying and rehearsing Daniel’s Irish Cantata, Out of the Mist, Above the Real. The music was penetratingly beautiful and seemed to be steeped in its Irishness.  But Daniel was from Elgin, Illinois.  He was educated at the University of Illinois and The Juilliard School in New York. I later found that he had gone on a pilgrimage in Ireland while the piece was in its conception phase. This piece became a romantic soundtrack for my daughter Lindsay and her husband Chris Lees, as it wove its way from the Dublin CME performance to their proposal and their wedding day.

Daniel was passionate about, well, everything.

Daniel was passionate about, well, everything.  When he liked a poem, he memorized it. He fell in love, poem by poem.  But that’s the way he was about most things. Every time I asked him what he was reading, he would say The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I would answer that he had read it before. And his response was always the same: “But Lee, it is so wonderful!” If he loved a cup of coffee, then he adopted that coffee shop as his own, and Mike as his own personal barista. If he had a great glass of Prosecco, it was always going to be Prosecco. He enjoyed—friends, music, dinners, celebrations, ceremony, performances—like no one else I’ve ever met.  He was loyal to his friends, and it took a lot to turn him away.  He was a man who lived in perpetual astonishment or, one might say, in italics.

When I asked Daniel to write a choral piece for my New Classic Singers, I apologized for the inadequate fee. He answered that this was his “coming home to Illinois piece,” setting Carl Sandburg poems and dedicating the work to his Illinois family and friends. We agreed on a length of four to five minutes for the piece; I was so excited that he would be writing for our group.  Eventually, the piece stretched to a four-movement, twenty-minute piece.  Fortunately, knowing this was probable, I had saved room on our program for something longer. Daniel often complained about being perpetually behind in his writing (like many composers). We agreed that if he held to the proposed length of his music, he’d never be behind.  But that wasn’t Daniel.

Because Daniel lived FULLY. Not excessively, but fully. I think he fully enjoyed every meal we ate together, whether it was a modest meal of take-out chicken in his kitchen or mine or an expensive meal in an Italian restaurant. Each bottle of wine, each glass of Scotch, every bowl of nuts was the best.  And he always took the time to remark about how wonderful it was. He was the most gracious guest and host. He came to my mother’s Passover seder twice, with each trip up to Milwaukee and back to Chicago filled with the eager anticipation and then the avid memory of the occasion, the conversation, the food.

Daniel Brewbaker and Lidia Bastianich holding glasses of red wine at a dinner table.

Among Daniel Brewbaker’s dearest friends was the celebrated and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich. Here they are sharing red wine and a meal at Bastianich’s New York restaurant Felidia.

Like most composers, he loved listening to performances of his music and loved the people who performed it. But he also loved the world of being a musician, whether it was in New York, Napa Valley, Elgin, Chicago, or anywhere else. I can still hear his imitations of musicians he had known—especially his teachers Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, and Gordon Binkerd. All the imitations had a similar accent, but they were performed with glee and captured essential wisdoms he had gleaned on his path. What he loved about living in Manhattan was how close he was to great art, culture, and music. And to people.  It seemed Daniel knew everyone in the New York music world.

Daniel loved the world of being a musician, whether it was in New York, Napa Valley, Elgin, Chicago, or anywhere else.

Daniel was a devoted son.  We talked often about our relationships with our mothers—since we were born only three days apart and had mothers of a similar age.  As his mother, Ruth, grew increasingly infirm and he was torn between his New York life and his Elgin mother, we talked often about the choices he faced. As an only son, he was keenly aware that her world revolved around him and he did his best to be there for her in her declining years.  As she lay dying in their Elgin home, he asked me to come say Kaddish for his mother. For Daniel, a born Midwestern Lutheran and an avowed Buddhist, there was no limit to the accumulation of the spiritual wisdoms he loved.

He never failed to tell me how lucky I was in my life, especially my dear children, whom he loved. He was in love with many people—other composers, teachers, women—and freely expressed that love. And he was well-loved by his childhood friends from Elgin, who proudly revered him as their native son composer.

I could go on (more than I already have).  He was a dear friend. He was a gifted and talented composer, with the lyrical inspiration and the well-honed craft to back it up. I admire and love his music. His music had an ardent, unforced lyricism, and extravagant harmonic language.  He even loved counterpoint in an age which often doesn’t. He was a voracious lover of life, in all its facets. He was not the most practical person I’ve ever met (!), but he lived with grace, style, and appetites for the beauty of life and its joys. One was never at a loss for conversation when he was around.  One had the feeling that every dinner, every concert, every party was the event of a lifetime for our friend Daniel.

Daniel even loved counterpoint in an age which often doesn’t.

In a world which might value achievement more than soul, quantity more than quality, and prose more than poetry, Daniel was those things for me and I think anyone who met him. Celebrities were drawn to Daniel, and he to them. I think all of us knew how special he was.  He was, truly, The Man With Qualities. At the end of the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote says, “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.”  I think for Daniel, it was adding some measure of poetry to the world.  He certainly added it to mine.

Lee Kesselman, Robin Kesselman (holding a doublebass) and Daniel Brewbaker.

Daniel (right) with me (left) and my son Robin Kesselman (Principal bass, Houston Symphony) in Elgin, IL December 2015

On Being a “Choral Composer”

female chorus

When I finished graduate school for composing nearly six years ago, I decided to structure my life and livelihood around the pursuit of a full-time composing career. I took stock of where I’d had the most success with composing, and at that time, I was selling the most scores and hearing the most performances of my choral music. Maybe assessing the commercial viability of my music sounds crass, but my motives weren’t purely financial. Writing vocal music comes fluidly and enjoyably to me, for the most part, more so than writing for (non-vocal) instruments. Given how much I love working with language in music, too, I often find vocal music the best medium for what I hope to express through my composing. I find an easy grace in writing for the voice—and by “easy,” I mean this: all composing is still work, of course, but this is the work I most love to do.

Structuring my life post-grad school, then, it made sense creatively and financially to focus on writing for voice, and more specifically on writing for chorus. I knew I’d eventually return to writing for instruments; I just didn’t know when or exactly how it would happen.

In the years since I decided to pursue writing for chorus, I’ve been asked if I consider myself a “choral composer.” I do, and I don’t. I’m happy to use that label if I’m in a situation—say, a choral conference—where I’m pursuing more opportunities to write for chorus. Other times, I find myself resisting the term, defensively reminding someone that I write for other instruments, too. Sometimes I get the impression that contemporary choral music is perceived as “lesser” than new instrumental works, at least within the new music community. When asked what kind of music I write, I usually mention my instrumental writing first and add that I compose often for voice, almost as if there’s something shameful in being defined primarily by my choral writing.

Over the last six years, I’ve written more than twenty-five works for choral ensembles, ten or so art songs, two pieces for voice with chamber ensemble, one piece for speaking chamber ensemble—there’s text, yes, but not singing—and five pieces purely for instruments, with no vocal element whatsoever. I wrote three of these non-vocal works within the last six months, in an effort to return to writing chamber music, and the transition has been a bit rough. Writing instrumental music doesn’t come quite as easily to me as writing art songs and choral works. My chamber music is not as well-known as my choral writing, and to be perfectly honest, sometimes I wonder if it’s not as good. To be fair, at some point in the process of writing every one of my compositions, I’ve been convinced that the piece in question is absolute garbage—it’s an unfortunate part of my process, not a reflection on the music itself.

All of that said, do I regret structuring my last six years around writing almost exclusively for chorus? Not a bit. I’ve accomplished the goals I set for myself when I graduated: several of my choral pieces have been accepted by and are now available from major publishing companies, and I’ve found viable ways to self-publish my other works as well. I’ve worked with several professional choruses and excellent conductors and released an album of my choral works. I know how to negotiate a choral commission, and I feel confident in my rate and the value of what I write. All of this feels like success.

I’d urge any other composer contemplating a full-time composing career to ask the same questions I considered six years ago: What work do you most enjoy doing? What work of yours have others already recognized as excellent? What medium or mediums stand out as the best fit for the ideas you feel compelled to express in your music?

For me, the answer to each of these questions is still choral music. It’s only when I find myself working on several pieces with a similar instrumentation in a row—say, three pieces for high school-level a cappella SATB chorus, all four to six minutes long—that I start to question my decision to focus so intently on choral composing. I’m sure I’d have the same feeling writing two works of similar length and style in a row for orchestra or for string quartet. Worrying that I might be repeating myself within my work and running low on innovation is what feels tiring, not the genre itself in which I’m composing.

As a result, I’ve found “niching down”—composing in one specialized field for a number of years, in order to build up a reputation and career in that field—to be a solid career choice, yes, but also a complex one. The question of whether to settle in one genre for a year, for a few years, or for an entire career comes down to this, I think: There’s only so much room to grow in your art if you’re not continually pushing yourself.

To avoid burning out and for my work to evolve, I need to seek out projects that don’t conform to what I already feel most comfortable creating. It’s good to stay a little uncomfortable when it comes to creativity. I need to look for variety in the projects that I take on, staggering similar projects across a wide span of time. And as long as I feel compelled to write vocal and instrumental music, I need to do both.

I’ve been considering all of this as I set long-term goals for the next few years, too. I very likely can’t continue to build a career as a “choral composer,” write and record an album’s worth of solo piano music, and compose two new works for orchestra at the same time, or even during the same year. Over the span of a few years, or a decade, or even a whole life spent writing music, though, there’s more than enough room for all of these goals to co-exist. We can focus on one field of music, then branch out to another. We can “niche down,” and we can embrace one identity (“choral composer,” “band composer,” “film composer,” etc.) for however many seasons that identity serves us, as long as we remain open to whatever music—in any genre—calls us to write it next.

Mary Jane Leach: Sonic Confessions

A conversation at Leach’s home (a former Catholic church) in Valley Falls, New York
November 6, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

More than 20 years after being in the audience for a concert by the New York Treble Singers devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach, I still have vivid memories of it. It was one of the most magical performances I’ve ever experienced. While the breadth of a full SATB chorus was missing (all of the singers were sopranos), it was more than compensated for by the depth of focus on a specific segment of the pitch continuum. Perhaps more significantly, although there were only eight singers on the stage it sounded like many, many others. Eager to hear this music again as well as anything else by Leach I could find, I tracked down Celestial Fires, the one CD of her music available at that time (on Phill Niblock’s XI Records) and was delighted when a second disc, Ariadne’s Lament, was issued by New World Records a few years later.

Since then I got to know Leach personally and, as a result, came to understand how her music works. The peculiar acoustic phenomena I witnessed during that first concert were largely the byproduct of beats (a ringing pulse that throbs in your ear when two pitches are only a very small interval apart from one another) and of the additional sum and difference tones that occur when certain combinations of pitches sound together, based on the prominence of particular harmonics in any given timbre. There’s a particular presence when those additional “ghost” tones result from pitches produced by the same instrument or voice, e.g. the eight sopranos of the New York Treble Singers. So, as I came to know more of Leach’s music and chanced upon pieces for four bass clarinets, seven bassoons, or nine oboes, it all started to make sense. But it was only when we went to visit with her at her home, a decommissioned Roman Catholic church in a small town about a 30-minute drive from Albany, that her process became crystal clear.

“How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in a space changes it drastically,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them—what do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note?”

Multiples pieces (works scored for an ensemble consisting exclusively of the same instrument or for a soloist performing along with previously recorded multitracks of him- or herself) form a considerable percentage of Leach’s compositional output. Leach has also compiled a massive database of multiples pieces written by other composers and has made it publicly accessible via her website. One of Leach’s favorite multiples pieces by another composer is The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc, a 1981 tour-de-force for ten cellos by African-American proto-post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990). So entranced was she by this piece when she first heard a recording of it, and was subsequently so stymied in her efforts to find a score, that she devoted years of her life to tracking down scores and recordings of as much of Eastman’s music as she could (much is lost forever), shepherded New World’s seminal 3-CD Eastman collection Unjust Malaise, and co-authored (with Renée Levine Packer) Gay Guerrilla, the first book-length study devoted to Eastman which will be published on December 15, 2015. Devoting so much time to the music of someone else took its toll on her own composing and she was forced to put on the back burner one of her most ambitious projects—a multilayered opera based on the original Ariadne myth (in which Ariadne emerges as a feminist hero rather than a somewhat clueless victim). Now that the book is done, she’s wholeheartedly plunged back in. In a strange way, the two projects (Eastman and Ariadne) are somewhat similar in that both are an attempt to right an historical wrong.

As she pointed out, “So much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by.”

As for why she got so deep into salvaging Julius Eastman’s musical legacy, she mused, “I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music.”

Leach has been a firebrand for social justice since at least the age of 11 when she was labelled a heretic by a minister after pursuing and ultimately winning a debate during her Sunday school class. Given that bit of history, it might seem strange that she’s spent the last decade living in a church, but as she was quick to point out, being able to immerse herself in a church’s extraordinary acoustics on a daily basis has been extremely satisfying.

“Churches always sound good, you know?” she beamed with a slightly mischievous grin. “I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. […] I clapped and sang, and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on.”


Mary Jane Leach standing outside the entrance of the church she lives in; a stained glass window is visible through the door.

Mary Jane Leach welcomes us to her home.

Frank J. Oteri: For years I’ve always felt that much of your music has almost a—for lack of a better word—sacred quality.

Mary Jane Leach: Hmmm, maybe spiritual is a better word.

FJO: Okay, but the reason I specifically used the word sacred is because there’s something about your music that sounds somehow not of this realm. You hear it and it transports you. I certainly feel that way when I listen to your music, and I identify that same feeling with a lot of sacred music traditions from around the world, whether it’s Vedic chanting or polyphonic masses from the Renaissance period. Your music seems to be channeling a similar energy. And, lo and behold, you actually now live in a church.

MJL: Yeah, I have a history with churches. My mother was a church organist for a while and we lived next door to a church when I was in grade school. We’d go in during off hours and I’d lie on the floor and absorb the sounds while she played the organ. That was kind of a start. Then I lived in a church in Cologne for a couple of years. And churches always sound good, you know? So I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. The real estate agent said, “Let’s just check it out.” And I said, “If it has an organ, I really want it.” And so we got here, and we had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. It is pretty big. And we walked inside, and I clapped and sang, and said, “Wow, I want this.” And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on. But it’s not just churches. There’s this same kind of ambience in, say, Grant’s Tomb, which they ruined once they put those central columns in the cylindrical rooms and put in the flag display cases; it took away that sweet spot. Friends and I would always go there and play around with the acoustics, but once they renovated it they spoiled it for that.

FJO: There are also places in Grand Central Station that are that way.

MJL: Yeah, and the tunnels under Central Park. Almost any tunnel is like that.

Mary Jane Leach playing a church organ.

Mary Jane Leach testing interval combinations on an organ. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: But in terms of how it relates to you and the music you write, it was interesting that as soon as I said sacred, you pointed out that you preferred the word spiritual because, at least from what I glean from knowing you all these years, your music is decidedly not religious music.

MJL: No. That’s why it’s so ironic that I’m in a church. I’m pretty anti-religion, or anti-organized religion, for the obvious reasons. I was actually branded a heretic in sixth grade Sunday school. There were a series of debates and I took the anti-Christian side. It was going on for maybe three weeks or more. I began bringing in adults and cross examining them and everything. And the minister gave a sermon about me—how I might have won the debate, but I’d lose in life. I wasn’t really listening to him; I was too busy going through the hymnals singing songs to myself. But when I was about 30, it kind of dawned on me what had happened, and I realized that I’d avoided getting into arguments with people because I subliminally realized I’d been branded as a heretic for getting in an argument and winning it. That’s a pretty heavy thing to lay on an 11-year old.

FJO: But it’s interesting that as an 11-year old you channeled that out by thumbing through the hymnals. Even though you weren’t attracted to the dogma, you were attracted to the music.

MJL: Oh, definitely. I even have a hymnal downstairs. There’s some really good music there. I think a lot of people wouldn’t go to church if they didn’t like the music so much.

FJO: So is church music what first got you interested in music?

MJL: Not really. I mean, I sang in choir and played in band and stuff. But I hadn’t really thought about being in music until my senior year of high school. I had wanted to be an architect, but back then you could openly discriminate against women. I went to interview at Cornell and the guy literally told me that they didn’t accept women because they would just get married and drop out. Now they might have the same policy, but they would never say it to your face. Then he said, “What do you do?” And I realized that I played music all the time. Well, I thought, maybe I should go into music. I started it in college, and I had a very bad teacher, so I became a math major, and then I became a theater major sophomore year. But while working at a summer equity Shakespeare festival doing theater, since I was a musical person, I would be asked to play Elizabethan music. So I got into music through that, which is why it was so interesting for me to do Dowland’s Tears, because Dowland was one of my gateway composers, besides Bach.

I didn’t start writing music until I guess freshman or sophomore year in college. You know how in [music] theory [classes] you get to write examples? Every time my examples got played, everybody kind of perked up. So through music theory class, and then theater, I got into writing music. In theater you do everything, whether you’re qualified or not. Writing music was just something I started doing and I sort of took it from there. I grew up in Vermont and we didn’t know that there was such a thing as composers back then. Seriously.

A reproduction of photo from a newspaper of 12 uniformed young people playing clarinets.

This tattered clip from the Montpelier-Barre Times-Argus contains one of the earliest music-themed photos of Mary Jane Leach as a member of the clarinet section of her middle school band. Can you find her?

FJO: Dennis Báthory-Kitsz hadn’t started organizing the Vermont Composers Day yet.

MJL: No. He came to Vermont the year I left, in 1977. The cultural highlights were high school band concerts and things like that. Vermont is very cool now. There’s a lot of good music going on. But there wasn’t when I was a kid.

FJO: But somebody was writing pieces for that high school band.

MJL: Sousa! Actually one of the highlights was the All-State Festival, when we did a band arrangement of a Bach piece. I really liked that. But I wasn’t exposed to much classical music at all. More jazz and pop and folk, stuff like that. I still have a lot of friends in folk music and bluegrass.

FJO: : The earliest piece of your music that you list on your website is Note Passing Note, which is from 1981—four years after you left Vermont. It’s a piece that already clearly has your aesthetic signature as a composer. Was there earlier work from those intervening years that you don’t want to put out there because you feel it doesn’t quite represent who you are? What was the moment when you felt that you had begun writing your music?

MJL: Actually, the way it started was learning from happy accidents. A lot of things that I’ve come to do came about because of accidents. I was in this group with Charlie Morrow, Daniel Goode, and a bunch of other people called the New Wilderness Ensemble. There were also a lot of people who weren’t musicians or composers and there were funky instruments, so we were always having tuning problems; it drove me nuts. I had just started playing bass clarinet. I’d always played clarinet before, but I started bass clarinet. I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t me who was playing out of tune. I had a tape machine, so I thought I could sing a note in what singers call a straight tone and tape that, then play my bass clarinet and see what happens, see if I can play in tune and stay in tune.

Then I began playing. I’d go off pitch a little bit and it would start beating. I’d never experienced that before. At first, I thought I’d broken my speakers. But then I realized what was going on and that was kind of the beginning of what I’m interested in—working with sound phenomena, which also might be tied into that whole spiritual thing because it’s tied into frequencies and something intrinsic in the physical world. One of the earliest pieces that I did was Note Passing Note. I envisioned it for two taped parts, one coming out of each speaker, and then I’d do a live part. I went into the recording studio and I realized that I had written these parts where I sang a note for three minutes without breathing and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like; it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to breathe.

Ever since then, I’ve organized my pieces around the breath. A lot of people who’ve heard my early music say it sounds a lot like Phill Niblock. And it does, except that he cuts out all of the breaths and it ends up almost more electronic sounding. That’s big—tying it into something physical like the breath. I always put in breaths now, especially with long pieces, as much for keeping the pulse going. There were times where I could have extended a note for longer, but I want the attack of an entry so that the pulse doesn’t become mushy, which also helps if you have tape pieces and you want to know where you are. If it’s just this long drone, it’s impossible to keep it in synch.

FJO: It’s interesting hearing you say that it all goes back to the breath, which is something that some composers ignore at their peril. Of course, singers are always conscious of their breathing. If singers can’t breathe, they can’t sing.

MJL: And they’ll let you know about it, too.

FJO: But this is also true for instrumental music. Obviously wind instruments have to deal with the same physical reality of needing to breathe between phrases, but I think there’s even a better flow in music for stringed instruments when players are able to synchronize phrases with their breathing. Of course, you don’t need to be conscious of that breath when you are playing a stringed instrument, but I think there’s something transcendent than can happen when you are.

MJL: It keeps it human, for lack of a better, more profound word.

FJO: But you came to this aspect of composing through performing, because it was a physical phenomenon you discovered both in your own voice and, I imagine, also when you played clarinet and bass clarinet.

MJL: Definitely.

FJO: I’m curious about how some of things that you started to realize were happening when you were performing wound up becoming so important to you as a composer—the beating, difference tones, and other sounds that occur that are not actually played by the performers.

MJL: I guess the first piece that dealt a lot with beating was Note Passing Note; the way that I performed it was walking through this space, between the speakers, manipulating the sound. I wasn’t trying to get any specific combination of difference tones. I was just bathing in the sound. How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in this space changes it drastically. But it wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them: What do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note? I basically built up the piece that way.

An excerpt from the musical score for Mary Jane Leach's composition 4BC for four bass clarinets.

Excerpt from 4BC. Copyright © 1984 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bass clarinet is a little different than almost any other instrument because it has the third partial come out more. So that piece works specifically—there’s a continual combination tone happening on top, then there are sometimes lower ones that are happening. That’s the only one where I had something so continuously happening. But the more I kept working, the more I knew what was going to happen. So I wrote a piece, which is kind of the next piece in that cycle, for alto flute and my voice called Trio for Duo, and I discovered that my voice basically sounded exactly like the alto flute. So I exploited that sound quality of my voice and the alto flute sounding so similar. I can tell because I can hear Barbara [Held]’s breath and her attack on the flute, but otherwise I wouldn’t know who was who.

FJO: What’s interesting about that piece is that you were dealing with another musician. It wasn’t just you anymore.

MJL: Right.

FJO: One of the peculiar things about music is that even though it is an art form that consists of sounds, it’s transmitted—at least in the Western classical tradition—through visual notation. Aural ideas get communicated visually and the goal is for those ideas to be replicated by somebody else as faithfully as possible to the original conception of the composer. But a lot of what you have been exploring all these years exists beyond the kinds of sounds that notation was designed to convey in a precise way.

MJL: Yeah, I know.

FJO: So how do you convey that information to someone else to get them to do what you want them to do?

MJL: Well, in the case with Barbara, it’s just the nature of the instrument. I originally did a longer version of the piece with Barbara. Then Newband wanted to do it, but when I got ready to perform it with [Newband’s flutist] Stephanie Starin, they said, “We never do pieces over ten minutes.” So I revised the piece a little bit. Stephanie performed it with me and she created the sounds, but she didn’t realize they were happening. She called me one day when she heard it on the radio, and she said, “I’m hearing all of these high pitches. Is it distorting? Is there something wrong with my radio?” Even though she had produced the sound, she didn’t know that that was the point of the piece.

FJO: So you don’t explain it in the score? You just notate it and what happens, happens?

MJL: Yeah, because it does happen. There is a difference, though. I know people who write things by just adding up the frequencies or subtracting them. But I found that that actually doesn’t really work. It works in principle, in theory, but not in actuality. It really takes trial and error. Of course, panning changes things as well. Not so much in those early pieces where the parts had basically the same thing happening, but in pieces where there’s more of a bass part, and each part has its own range of notes.

One thing I did want to mention is that conventional Western notation is kind of like algebra, but the reality is more like calculus, where you have the variables and they’re constantly changing. So even though you think you know what it looks like, a lot of people only hear what they see on the page. There’s actually a lot going on that either people don’t hear or they’re unaware of. For me and for people who write music the way I do, the scores look deceptively simple. But performers find out that there’s a lot more. It doesn’t sound as simple as it looks and it’s not as easy to perform because you have to have spot-on intonation. I’ve had students at Manhattan School and Mannes both perform my piece for trombones. I think at first they thought it was kind of insulting to be playing all these whole notes, but then they found it wasn’t all that easy because you have to have a really good sense of rhythm and you have to have a really good sense of pitch. It’s almost an endurance thing. You know, it’s very difficult.

An excerpt from the score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bare Bones for four trombones.

Excerpt from Bare Bones. Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But I want to play devil’s advocate a bit here, maybe at the risk of being labeled a heretic. Clearly these are the phenomena that you’re curious about and this is what you want to have happen. You notate them as simply as possible, and these sounds occur which makes your score actually clear to some extent. But shouldn’t you make it a point in the performance materials to tell people that these sounds will occur and that that is what you’re actually after, especially if someone as versed in new music as Stephanie Starin thought that there was something wrong with her radio or with the recording? Or are you also going for an element of surprise with the performers? Is that part of aesthetic?

MJL: No, no, no. I think by now people know what to expect. But Stephanie wasn’t familiar with my work, and I hadn’t done that much work in that realm before.

FJO: But what about those students at the Manhattan School and Mannes? They might not know what to expect because they’re young musicians and they’re probably getting exposed to your music for the first time. They don’t know all of the composers who are out there and they probably never encountered a score like this. They’re making their initial judgments based exclusively on what they’ve experienced before, so all they see is a bunch of whole notes and they have no idea that it’s really so much more than that.

MJL: I can’t remember now, but usually I have some kind of paragraph or instructions with scores that explain what I’m looking for so that people don’t freak out. I’m not trying to put anything by anybody. But I’ve actually found that people don’t even need to be instructed. Stephanie was sort of an outlier, because I think everybody else hears what’s going on.

FJO: I shudder to say this because I obsessively dote on program notes, whether they’re for my own pieces or if I’m asked to write them for other composers’ pieces, but musicians often don’t read the program notes; they just go straight to the score. So if it’s not written directly on the page they’re playing from, they probably won’t see it.

MJL: Well, sometimes I do put it on the page. I’ll put a little asterisk on the bottom of the page. But one thing that kind of evolved from that was that when I finally got a notation program, I was able to write pieces for instruments I didn’t play. The bassoon was the first one that I was able to do that for. I did experiments to make sure certain things were actually happening using MIDI playback. Then I did a little test with multi-tracking, just to make sure that my MIDI playback was being realistic in terms of what to expect. And it worked. What I was able to do with this was that instead of just having one combination note, or difference tone, patterns started happening. I would play certain combinations of notes, and all of a sudden other patterns would be happening naturally. So I thought, “Well, what I’ll do next is notate that and see what that will do with the rest of the notes happening.” I would listen for patterns that would happen and notate them, then go on to the next thing to see what would happen with that.

Mary Jane Leach at her work desk with manuscripts, an electric keyboard and a computer monitor in the background.

Mary Jane Leach working on a score in her former New York City apartment. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: It’s somewhat in the same spirit as Alvin Lucier’s experiment in I Am Sitting in a Room but a completely different way of approaching it.

MJL: It’s almost the opposite of that.

FJO: From there it makes sense that you were so attracted to this whole notion of writing for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: It was also practical because it’s easy. I originally was doing pieces that I could do and I had access to a four-track and then an eight-track machine. That was how that evolved; I could perform it. Bam! It wasn’t until, I think, 1987 when I was talking with Dora Ohrenstein, and she said, “These pieces that you have for eight-track tape, you could get eight singers to perform it.” It never occurred to me. So I became a choral composer after that.

FJO: So all those vocal pieces were conceptualized as pieces for yourself?

MJL: Not all of them. Green Mountain Madrigal I wrote for myself. Ariel’s Song I wrote for myself. Mountain Echoes, I didn’t write for myself because it would have been really complicated to do because it has all these dynamic changes and that would be hard to do one track at a time. But I did Bruckstück for myself, too.

A shelf full of boxes containing reel-to-reel tapes.

In a side room, there’s a shelf filled with reel-to reel tapes of some of Mary Jane Leach’s multiples compositions.

FJO: Wow, is there a recording of that with just you?

MJL: There is, but it’s kind of gotten corrupted; there’s a hum in it. I made an eight-track version at STEIM in Amsterdam, but I was using used tape and I think there’s something that just didn’t quite work. Something over time has intruded on it, so it’s not really useable. I might be able to go some day and try to doctor the tapes, but I’m not sure.

FJO: It would be amazing to hear the difference between that and it being done by a group of singers.

MJL: Well, the really nice thing about working with live singers is that you have the breath and you don’t have that kind of rigidity that you have with tape, especially when you’re doing one part at a time. Sometimes I would just do parts of parts at a time, depending on the range. Green Mountain Madrigal was the first eight-track tape piece that I did for myself. And I learned a couple of things: I learned that I had to tune everything to one pitch and not change halfway through. Originally everything was in C. Then I changed it to F, so I tuned everything to F. People like George Lewis and Jim Tenney would notice those things. And the same thing happened with the bassoon piece when Shannon [Peet] recorded it. We had only three hours to record. I mean, like no time. And she said, “I don’t think I can start playing the low note first. I’m afraid I’ll blow my lip out.” And I was like, “I really think you should.” “No.” So she recorded the octave first. And then bless him, Jim Tenney said to her, “It’s out of tune, Shannon.” So we went back and redid it later, and tuned to the lowest note and then it was okay.

Then there’s one other thing I was going to say about recording, which is really interesting. When Barbara and I recorded Trio for Duo, we did it all in one long take because it’s all overlapping. There was one note that we hit a lot, which was the resonant frequency of the room. It was so disorienting because all of sudden I was singing, and then, when you sing that one note, it felt like the room had just filled with Jello and you were swimming in it. It was the weirdest thing, and it was very disorienting.

FJO: But I imagine that none of these works are really improvisatory.

MJL: No.

FJO: If they were, and you found that resonant note during a performance, it could totally change the shape of the piece.

MJL: Well, I had an interesting experience. It’s not quite what you’re talking about, but similar. I was doing this performance at Franklin Furnace. I was doing more experimental performance art things at that time and I was playing my bass clarinet without the mouthpiece, I think, or without the reed, and someone was projecting animation on me. I’m part way through the performance and I hear people chuckling. I’m thinking, “Hmm. I didn’t think I was doing anything very funny.” So I just kind of stopped, and I realized there was a dog in the next building that was howling. So I started playing with the dog. I did a little riff and then he would do a little riff. Then I would do another little riff. At the end, Bill Hellerman came and said, “Where’s the tape?” He didn’t realize it was happening in real time. He thought I arranged this thing and it was part of the piece. [That dog was] one of the most sensitive musicians I’ve ever worked with. He really was! He knew when to stop. Then he would listen, and then he would do something. It was this back and forth thing.

FJO: But you could never recreate it. It was a one-time deal.

MJL: And I thought the concert was recorded, but it wasn’t. I’d give anything to hear that tape.

The flyer for Mary Jane Leach's Franklin Furnace performance featuring a photo of MJL playing bass clarinet and wearing sunglasses. The poster includes the following text: "MARY JANE LEACH - COBY BATTY - PHYLLIS BULKIN - VOCALS - CLARINET - ANIMATION - FRANKLIN FURNACE 112 FRANKLIN ST. MAY 5 8:30 $2.50"

The original flyer for that Mary Jane Leach performance at Franklin Furnace.

FJO: You’ve created a lot of pieces of music for multiples of the same instrument. And on your website you also have a list that you have compiled of all the pieces you have been able to find out about that other composers have written for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: I’m way behind on that list.

FJO: Still, there’s no other resource like it. A multiples piece is actually a very peculiar kind of piece of music.

MJL: Well, there’s more than one type of piece. There’s the type of piece that I write, which is interested in exploring the timbre of the instrument. And then there’s the type of piece that’s written for flute festivals or cello festivals where everybody gets together and plays but they’re not interested in the sound phenomena, per se; they’re just interested in having a piece that ten of them can play together.

FJO: Sure. But the thing that’s even weirder about these pieces is where they fit in terms of scale vis-à-vis solo, chamber, and orchestra pieces. If a multiples piece is done by one player and all the other parts are pre-recorded, then it’s a kind of solo piece. But it’s a solo piece that is much more than just the solo since the one has become many. However, if it’s done, as you described, at a festival with a bunch of people, it’s almost orchestral in that when you get beyond a certain number of folks there will need to be a conductor, and sometimes these pieces are enormous—like Henry Brant’s piece for 80 flutes, Wendy Chambers’s piece for 77 trombones, or Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas. Yet since it’s all the same timbre, the music is not really orchestral in terms of timbre variance and also there’s always one person to a part. So then, perhaps, it’s a strange kind of chamber music. So multiples pieces share qualities with solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces, but ultimately they really are their own thing. And despite you making a distinction between your pieces and the kind of multiples pieces that get done at festivals and instrument conventions, I imagine a piece like, say, Feu de Joie, which was originally done by a solo bassoonist playing against six pre-recorded bassoon tracks, could be just as easily done by a group of seven bassoonists. It would be a somewhat different phenomenon, since it would involve seven different people and everyone has a slightly different tone. But would that be a fair representation of it? Or does it need to be done by one person over-dubbing multiple times?

MJL: Interesting that you should mention this because I have this piece for nine taped flutes and a live solo part called Dowland’s Tears. It was originally conceived just to be a recording. Manuel Zurria was putting out a CD of pieces around the theme of the Lachrimae of Dowland, and he was asked me if I’d be interested. This struck a chord since Dowland was a gateway composer for me. So I wrote this piece for nine taped flutes and sent it to him. I wrote it pretty quickly for me, and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days. And I’m thinking he probably hates it. A couple days later, he wrote me, and said, “I love the piece. I’ve recorded it, and I made a video to go with it and I’m performing it three times next month.” So, at that point I really needed to write him a solo part, because I don’t like these music-minus-one things where the live part always sticks out like a sore thumb or doesn’t stick out at all. You know, it’s kind of submerged. So I like to always have the taped parts be uniform and then have a little flexibility in the solo part so it can float over the other parts.

But recently it has been performed by four different groups of ten flutists. It was first performed in Finland at a flute festival. Camilla Hoitenga conducted it. Then it was performed in Amsterdam with Eric Lamb playing the solo, and they repeated it in Cologne in September. Then it was performed in Canberra at the Australian Flute Festival. It worked a lot better than I thought it would actually.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Dowland's Tears for 10 flutes.

Excerpt from Dowland’s Tears. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Were you there for all of those performances?

MJL: Only the one in Cologne. And that was interesting because it was performed in the church that I lived in [previously]. Eric’s a phenomenal player. He was pulling people along with him kind of like that thing you do in tai chi when you harness, you pull along the slow people and you slow down the fast people. There was this interesting kind of ebb and flow going on with him and some of the performers; it was really interesting to watch and sonically it worked pretty well, too.

Photo of 13 people, many holding flutes.

Mary Jane Leach (far left) with the ensemble of flutists who performed her Dowland’s Tears in Cologne. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: Do the exact same acoustic phenomena occur when pieces like this, which you conceived for a single live musician and a speaker system, are performed in real time by a group of live musicians who are separated on stage from one another?

MJL: Yeah. And sometimes things happen that I don’t even expect. For instance, I had written Ariel’s Song to perform myself, and I did make a tape of it. But when the [New York] Treble Singers started performing it, I listened to a tape one time, and there was this part where I thought they came in early. But what happened was that there was an actual sound phenomenon that started happening that I’d never counted on. So sometimes more happens rather than less happens.

FJO: And that’s okay?

MJL: Yeah, it’s fine. I’m not a tyrant. I love having things happen that I didn’t expect. I don’t want things to be controlled enough that nothing happens. You want to make sure something happens. But if more happens, I’m happy with that. Sometimes you can learn a lot from musicians.

FJO: So aside from these extra things happening that you are okay with, could something happen that you wouldn’t think was okay? What would constitute something that would just be a bad performance?

MJL: Okay, I’ll tell you. During Dennis [Báthory-Kitsz]’s festival in 2001 in Vermont, he wanted to have my 4BC. Lots of times when I would perform it, I would usually perform it with slides so that it wasn’t just listening to a tape; there’d be slides and then I would also play a note that was happening to emphasize it. So there was this guy who said he would do it. I said, “Just play what you hear.” You know, the notes that you hear. But he was hearing some kind of jazz thing. It was torture, because he was listening to a different drummer I guess. You have to be really specific with some people. When I said play whatever you’re hearing, I didn’t mean play what you’re imagining you’re hearing. That was a really awful experience.

Then another time—Godfried-Willem Raes has the Logos performing center in Ghent and also teaches at a conservatory in Brussels. In Belgium, it’s kind of weird. They have a conservatory in Brussels and then they have a conservatory in Ghent. But all the clarinetists go to one place and all the tuba players go to another. So they have this imbalance of instruments, and they’re always looking for pieces that can be played by all of their tuba players. So he had my piece for bass clarinet performed by tuba players. And of course it didn’t work because the overtones are totally different on a tuba. Those poor guys. You play for 19 minutes without breathing, I mean without a rest, and nothing was happening. At the end of the tape the last guy went “Boo bwooph.” Their lips were blown. And I’m sure they thought, “Well, what is this all about?” It wasn’t the piece at all. And it was programmed by Godfried, who’s a clarinet player, so he should have known.

FJO: They just went ahead and did this without asking you?

MJL: Yeah. It was just a student performance, though; it wasn’t a concert performance.

FJO: Right, but they somehow got the score.

MJL: I think I had left the score with Godfried when I’d done a concert there one time.

FJO: Well, this seems like a good place to transition to where I’d next like to take our conversation and that’s to pieces for variable instrumentation—which in some ways are the exact opposite of multiples pieces. In a piece for a group of bass clarinets, you can explore certain sonic phenomena that are specific, which won’t occur if the music is played on different instruments instead. But in a piece that could be played by any combination of instruments, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And yet, your piece Lake Eden, which could be played by any combination of instruments, still clearly sounds like your music.

MJL: I wrote it for Relâche. We were doing this summer institute that was at the Charles Ives Center, even though it really had nothing to do with Charles Ives. Anyway, musicians would have maybe an hour or so of rehearsal. Then they would perform it. So I had to write a piece that didn’t need a lot of rehearsing and a couple of the musicians weren’t really great readers. I was intrigued by Terry Riley’s In C, but the thing that I didn’t like about it was it just keeps building and building; I wanted a little bit more of an ebb and flow. So I had different sections; it was kind of a perverted rondo. I had whole notes that could be either three, four, five beats, so things wouldn’t always line up vertically. But—I don’t know if anybody knows this—the phrases that I used were basically the same phrases that I used in 4BC. But they were all over the place—in different ranges, whereas in 4BC all the notes were just within an augmented fifth.

FJO: But to the question of variable instrumentation—it was originally done at Relâche’s summer institute, but it’s been done in different places since then with different combinations of instruments. There’s a wonderful performance of it posted to YouTube that was done in Boston earlier this year. The thing about In C is that no matter what instruments you use to perform it—whether it’s six pianos, a wind band, or a rock band—it’s always the same piece somehow. The same thing seems to be true for Lake Eden. So I wondered, since so much of what your music is about is the specific acoustic phenomena that happen as a result of timbre, how is it still so clearly your music even when you take timbre specificity out of the equation?

MJL: I don’t know why it still sounds like me. I guess because I used the same process. I used the same process that I did for 4BC. The phrases are literally the same. I just plucked them out. So it just kind of shows you that everything can be reduced down to very little in the end. If you look at Beethoven, he uses the same rhythm all the time; he does it in such a way that you don’t even realize that he’s using the same rhythm throughout the entire movement. How can you reduce something down to its bare essence then realize that something that seemed like there was so much there is actually not a lot? I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

FJO: In a way, it’s what makes the piece so fascinating. Because even though the bass clarinet piece didn’t work on tubas, Lake Eden is designed to theoretically work for any combination of instruments, arguably even an ensemble of just tubas. So why does it work? And are there ways in which it wouldn’t work?

MJL: I had had certain restrictions in terms of how many times you repeated something in a pattern of going back and forth. I’d say do this four times, or five times. When it doesn’t work is when the performers have ignored the timing restraints. Then it just kind of mushes off into sort of not my piece at that point. The only time it didn’t work the way I like it to work was because it had gone on too long. In the Downtown Ensemble, Phil Corner always loved to extend things beyond what you thought they should be. So the piece became kind of flabby.

FJO: Phil Corner recently released a recording of his performances of Satie all performed at speeds that sound four times slower than anyone else has ever played them.

MJL: Oh my God!

FJO: They’re incredible performances, and they’re fascinating even though they are totally unexpected. That’s Corner’s aesthetic, which is really pure minimalism. But while your pieces share a lot of sonic common ground with minimalism, especially in terms of surface sonorities, perhaps they’re ultimately not minimalist in conception.

MJL: I would say maybe a couple of the early pieces were minimalist in conception, but not since then. Is there such a thing as musical DNA? I don’t know. Maybe you could test all my pieces and they’d have the same DNA. That’s something I’d never really thought about all that much. I should have.

FJO: No, you’re doing stuff that works. Don’t think about it now; keep doing what you’re doing! Even though I’d still like you to describe your process.

MJL: Well, I’m going to sound very flaky because it’s very organic and the pieces kind of create themselves. No matter how much I want to plan them ahead, they kind of write themselves. The way I write is almost like knitting. In knitting, if you drop a stitch, you have to rip everything out to the point where you dropped the stitch. I write very slowly note by note, and I don’t write things in sections and then insert things. If I write too fast, sometimes I will just lose the thread and I’ll have to go back to the point where I lost the musical impetus.

A stained glass window

One of the windows in Mary Jane Leach’s home.

FJO: Since so much of it is rooted in acoustics, how much of it is done by testing at a piano or with your own voice and how much of it is done in the abstract, hearing it all in your head?

MJL: Actually I do it all on computer with MIDI playback.

FJO: That’s how you test things?

MJL: Well, yeah, except that now I’ve tested things so much that I pretty much know what’s going to happen. I’ve done all kinds of studies: What do two of the same instrument sound like when they play in unison? What do three sound like? What do four sound like? What do five sound like? What do six sound like? What happens when one of them plays another note? What happens if it’s in the middle, in terms of panning? I’ve gone through all the permutations. After a while you kind of know what’s going to happen, so you don’t have to keep doing studies. It’s like doing scales. You do them mindfully for a long time, and then after a while you just can do them. It just becomes second nature.

FJO: You’re almost saying the exact opposite of what so many composers have said about MIDI. For you, MIDI actually does replicate the things that you want to hear.

MJL: And it’s pretty reliable, too.

FJO: But tons of folks say stuff like, “Don’t get a false sense of how these instruments behave by using MIDI.”

MJL: Well, the only thing that doesn’t really work are glissandos. I’ve been working with glissandos a lot lately, but that I have to just leave to my imagination. Of course, glissandos are going to vary by performer anyway, so it’s probably good that I’m not wedded to an idea of what it’s exactly going to sound like. But I pretty much know what it’s going to sound like at this stage of the game. Still, MIDI is really valuable to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of stuff if it hadn’t been for it. The only thing that is frustrating is I wish you could get it to do syllables. They don’t even have really good vocal samples. I know what it’s going to sound like, but I know it’s going to sound better than what it sounds like in the MIDI playback. But with instruments, it’s pretty reliable. Especially the ones that are sampled instruments. When I wrote the piece for bassoon, I had a little Casio thing and I programmed in the sounds so that it would have a certain harmonic profile like the bassoon had. It wasn’t a sampled sound; it was a digitally created sound. But it still worked.

FJO: Some instruments sound better than others. The winds generally sound pretty good.

MJL: Clarinet doesn’t.

FJO: Yeah, but you’re more sensitive to that since you’re a clarinetist.

MJL: But I think most people agree that the clarinet doesn’t sound very good in MIDI.

FJO: Cellos sound dreadful I think.

MJL: Yeah.

FJO: But the piano, surprisingly, sounds okay—better than you would think it would, given the complexity of its sonic envelope. Perhaps this would be a good time to talk a little bit about your piano concerto. We’ve been talking about all these pieces for odd one-of-a-kind combinations—seven bassoons, eight treble voices. Most of the time, if you’re writing music that’s done by other people and not by you, you’re reliant on ensembles that have a more standard instrumentation—string quartets, wind quintets, orchestras, SATB choruses. Before we started recording, you were telling me that you came to writing choral music from writing pieces you overdubbed with your voice and that now those pieces are done by choruses quite a lot. But they’re not standard choral pieces, because they were created through this other means.

MJL: Yeah, and it’s very interesting because, for instance, when the Treble Singers perform one of my works on a program of their own, and not on a program that’s all my music, it usually takes them about half a piece to get into gear. If it’s an all-Mary Jane concert, they don’t have any problem with it. But when they have to shift, because it takes a certain kind of intense concentration to sing, it really takes about half a piece for them to get in the groove and sound okay.

A conductor and ight sopranos singing in front of music stands at a church.

Virginia Davidson conducting the New York Treble Singers during their September 1995 concert devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: That could be a big problem in a concert. Maybe it always needs to be the first piece on the program so that they’re in that mindset from the onset rather than coming out of singing something else. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to have an all-single-composer concert. If it’s a new music concert, your piece has to co-exist with a bunch of other new pieces that can all be in completely different compositional languages, which could make it harder for both the players and the audience to latch on to any of it. But most of the time, if you’re writing for a standard ensemble, your new piece has to co-exist mostly with old pieces. If you’re writing for, say, orchestra, your piece is almost always going to cohabitate with standard repertoire; your piece will get played alongside Mozart and Beethoven or Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And the musicians will play it and the audience will hear it in the context of that older, much more well-known music. Orchestra music is very different from music for ensembles of all the same instrument and also very different from open scores that any instrument can play. Orchestra music is very much about all the different instruments having specific, often regimented roles. You’ve written a piano concerto. That’s a standard form with a long history behind it. I’ve only heard the MIDI version of your piece, but I found your approach to orchestration very unusual in the way that melodies transfer from instrument to instrument and, as a result, can be perceived differently. There are some other orchestra pieces that do that, but it’s somewhat unusual to use the orchestra as a palette that way.

MJL: Well, Beethoven does, but on a lesser scale. He might have the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet play something, but he doesn’t go through the whole range of the instruments. In the second movement of the Seventh [Symphony], he has that little phrase that goes between the instruments. And I got the idea for that little opening riff from a Mozart concerto because [my piano concerto] was originally going to be performed on a concert with a Mozart concerto. But then I just let all the winds have it. Not the brass or anybody else. It seems like such a natural thing to do.

FJO: But in most concertos, the focus is usually mostly on the soloist.

MJL: Yeah, which I didn’t do very much.

FJO: It’s sort of an anti-concerto.

MJL: That’s because it was such a short piece. I wanted to use the orchestra and the piano doesn’t interest me that much, even though I love playing it. So I didn’t want to have this whole big piano show-off thing and then have the orchestra play for two minutes. I wanted it to be part of the ensemble. Maybe we can do another movement where the pianist gets to do a little bit more. A version of it was done about five years ago.

FJO: It had a different title at that time.

MJL: Yeah. It was just a place holder. And they recorded it, but the engineer erased it before it had been transferred. I was not a happy camper about that. It was supposed to be performed this September in Bari, but it’s been postponed until May. I’m going to get to go, too; since I was already there [when the festival was cancelled], they’re going to pay my transportation.

FJO: That’s nice. That’s like the rainbow at the end of all the clouds with this piece—an accidently erased recording of the premiere, a cancelled performance after you’d made the trek to Italy to hear it.

MJL: I know. And the conductor—I knew that he had conducted at the Met and things like that. So I thought he was just a standard conductor. But it turns out he was the conductor for the premiere of [Morton] Feldman’s Neither. So when he said that it was an intense experience conducting it, now I can say he probably meant that and that it wasn’t because he was such a traditional conductor that this probably was kind of weird for him. And he knows the flute player from Rome that I’ve been working with.

Mary Jane Leach playing a grand piano in a church.

Mary Jane Leach playing the piano at home. (Photo by Jon Flanders, courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: When you write a big piece, you have to be so dependent on all these other people. There are all these variables. It’s a far cry from the very personal way you developed your compositional language—working by yourself with a tape recorder or working with individual musicians. You have such a wide range of sonorities to choose from, but other aspects are much narrower.

MJL: Not having very much rehearsal time, too. So you can’t write something that’s so complex that it can’t be performed, or performed well.

FJO: But one of your long in-progress projects is extremely ambitious—the Ariadne opera, and I imagine it would have to rely on tons of people.

MJL: Well, actually not tons. A lot of singers and then a string quartet.

FJO: So you’re not going to orchestrate it beyond that?

MJL: No.

FJO: I suppose for practical purposes?

MJL: But also I like string quartet and voice; I think it’s a nice combination.

FJO: I agree. I’m curious about what drew you to the various versions of the Ariadne myth and specifically wanting to deal with earlier versions, which is much different than the famous myth we’ve come to know.

MJL: In some of the early pieces, I was dealing with the traditional myth, and then I came across Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer who also wrote mystery novels under the name of Amanda Cross. One mystery book centered on this famous author who, à la James Joyce, had this magnum opus like Ulysses, but his was [based on] Ariadne. So I got really interested in that. Daniel Goode and Ann Snitow knew Heilbrun, so they put me in contact with her and I asked her, “Do you have any recommendations or further information?” She said, “Everything I know, I put in the book.” So I was left on my own to do some research.

I started looking into all the earlier Greek texts about Ariadne, or just even things that would apply to my imagination of what was going on. It was very fascinating because so much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by. It’s been a long, long project.

FJO: What’s the goal for it?

MJL: I hadn’t worked on it for a while. I was realistic enough that I didn’t want to spend years writing a piece and getting one performance of it. So I’d been writing it in discrete sections so each section could be performed on its own. I just kind of got back into it because I had been involved in putting out this CD of Julius Eastman’s music, and then editing a book on him, and that has been very time consuming, so I had gotten sidetracked from the Ariadne project. But when I was in Italy this summer at Civitella Ranieri, I got back into it, so I wrote another piece in the cycle and half of another one. So now I’m kind of gearing up for that. I really like what I wrote, if I might say so myself. I’d kind of forgotten about it, because other things had come up, like the piano concerto, but I’m getting back into it now.

FJO: One of the reasons I’ve always really identified with you is all the advocacy work you’ve done for other composers, so I’m glad you brought up the Julius Eastman project and the difficulty of making time for your own work while you were immersed in that. This has been a strand in your life all along. You were in charge of XI Records where you produced all these extraordinary recordings while at the same time trying to create your own work in that space. To a lesser extent that multiples database you put together is another example of your advocacy.

MJL: That’s how the Julius project started; I was looking for his piece for ten cellos. So that was how I got sucked into finding his music.

FJO: What’s interesting about your advocacy for Julius Eastman is that it has taken him to a whole other level. His music has started to reenter the canon largely through the work that you did to bring this stuff out into the world. You were involved with the 3-CD Julius Eastman set on New World Records that was released ten years ago, and you wrote a huge article for us about him at that time. Since then there have been all these performances and now there’s a book. This person who was literally a footnote in history—not even a footnote—has emerged not only as an icon to several different groups of people but as a major figure of the latter half of the 20th century in America, a groundbreaking proto-post-minimalist composer.

MJL: Post-minimalist before there was minimalist.

FJO: Right. Exactly. And someone with a very unusual life and personality. But part of it is you knew Julius Eastman.

MJL: Yeah, but not very well. I didn’t hang out with him a lot or anything like that.

FJO: So what made you so committed to getting this music out into the world, serving his legacy and doing justice by it?

MJL: Well, I really loved that cello piece. That was the piece that I knew. I was teaching at CalArts. They wanted me to teach a course on real instruments, because so many of the composers there were dealing with computer and electronic music. I thought a good way would be to do pieces for multiples, so you could luxuriate in the sound of ten cellos or seven bassoons. It was fairly easy for me to track down the master of the tape [of Julius’s cello piece] because the cassette that I had been given was part of a radio program. And at the end, it gave the engineer’s name, and the names of all of the performers. And the engineer was an old boyfriend of mine, who recorded Green Mountain Madrigal and 4BC and some other things. So I contacted him and he had the tape, but he didn’t have the score. I thought it can’t be that hard. It turned out that it was very hard, but I was stubborn.

Then, Bryan Rulon made me aware of how Julius’s music had disappeared. It had literally been thrown out on the street. I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music. I’d also made a commitment to New World [Records] because I mentioned trying to find his music and they were really interested in him. I felt I’d given my word. Then when the CD came out, various people tried to take credit for it, as you know. I kind of bristled at that, but just kept things going and kept waiting for someone to pick up the baton and do the next step, but so far nobody has.

There was just a weekend symposium in Philadelphia by the Bowerbird. Some of us were older, white people who knew Julius and then there were some younger black people—musicians, historians, theater people, and intellectuals. Jace Clayton was there, and he said, “I’m having a real problem with all these white people talking about these pieces.” And I said, “Well, I would love someone to do it. I don’t see anybody picking up the slack. If you want to do it, that would be great.” I was kind of annoyed at that because what’s the alternative—not doing it?

A page from a manuscript of a musical score by Julius Eastman featuring indeterminate notation for singers, trombone, and flute.

Mary Jane Leach was very eager to show us the most recently rediscovered Julius Eastman manuscript, the score for his 1970 composition Thruway.

FJO: But I wonder, to bring it back to your work: when you get so involved with another project, when are you able to let go and get back to your own music?

MJL: Well, I pretty much have at this point. People contact for me for various questions, photos, or scores. That’s not so difficult. But I pretty much stopped. It was very interesting because we had a big deadline for the galleys for the book the day that I left for Italy. So it was like a real dividing line. It was like, okay, I’m done with that. Now I’m going to take care of myself and be selfish and write my own music. Let somebody else worry about it. But it’s hard to say no sometimes, because I would hate to have it fall through the cracks again. I want somebody to take over who would just do it and not just six months later be bored and let it slip.

FJO: Throughout our conversation you dropped suggestions about people who were gateway composers for you—John Dowland and Bach. Since your piece Bruckstück was inspired by Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony—

MJL: —Whom I didn’t like until I wrote that piece! There’s this visual artist, Jack Ox, who did a whole series of paintings based on an analysis of Bruckner. I can’t remember if it was just the Bruckner Eighth, but I was commissioned to write a piece to go with a gallery opening of the paintings. I’d never liked Bruckner much because this guy who had really weird musical taste loved Bruckner, so I figured I wouldn’t like him. I know, it’s sad. My musical experiences are contemporary music and early music; I’ve been kind of working my way into the middle. So the kind of music that everybody knows is the music I know the least. So I didn’t start off liking Bruckner. I got to like him. I didn’t dislike him, I just thought I wouldn’t like him.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bruckstuck for eight female voices.

Excerpt from Bruckstück. According to the performance notes, “Everybody should sing the same vowel. A series of vowels can be decided on, so that the whole piece isn’t sung using only one vowel sound. Each note should be held for its entirety with entries clearly articulated – not staccato, but clear, so that the rhythm and pulse of the piece is
evident. Phrases have been indicated primarily so that breaths won’t be taken in the middle of
them.” Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: It’s interesting that this music was inspired to go with an exhibition of visual art that was created based on Bruckner. The music inspired the art, and then the art inspired this other piece of music that tropes back to that other music. But you mentioning this also gives us the opportunity to talk about something that you hinted at earlier, and that’s the video art that you’ve created to go along with your music. How important is the visual to the perception of the aural for you?

MJL: It’s really not important; it’s just an added element. I think the pieces can stand on their own. When I performed just solo concerts, I think the visuals helped because it just wasn’t one person performing with tape, there was something for people to look at. One thing that ties into my whole process was that I spent a summer working with theater gels. You can cut them in two and they fit perfectly in slide projectors. One summer I mounted all the commercially available gels and I put them in “chromological” order. It was a little like doing the sound studies. Once I’d done it, I knew what combinations of colors and saturations would happen; the same thing that happens in light and in color happens in music; you combine two colors and you get a third color. All the primaries in color have their secondaries in pigment and the secondaries of light are the primaries of pigment and vice versa.

FJO: It’s like visual difference tones!

MJL: Yeah, and saturation and volume change that way, too. It’s interesting, when I first moved to New York, I was working off Broadway as a lighting technician. There was this wonderful lighting designer named Arden Fingerhut and we had lots of talks about how much music and lighting have in common. One of my best friends since junior high school is a lighting designer, too, and the first time he went to one of my concerts where I used handmade, painted slides, he goes, “You’re doing lighting.” Not everything I do with visuals is color based, but I do work with slow dissolves and how things gradually change or transform into something else.

FJO: Will video projects be used for the final composite Ariadne opera?

MJL: I haven’t thought of that all. I’m thinking visually, but more like as a costume designer or a set designer because I have a theater background. But not the lighting or color combinations yet.

FJO: There has to be a production of it first. And, of course, you have to finish writing the piece.

MJL: I also want to direct Measure for Measure. It’s one of my dream bucket list things to do.

FJO: Another project that’s going to take away time from composing.

MJL: Yeah, but it’s creative.

A couple of pots and a tea kettle sit on top of a stove, various containers and other kitchen paraphernalia are to the right of it and on a shelf above it.

And yes, there’s a kitchen in the church, too.