Writing choral music

September 7, 2007


[Interview with with Roger Bourland by Vance Wolverton, 1994]

VW: How did you come to choral music or composing choral music?

RB: My earliest experiences with choral music were in church because my father was a minister. I recall singing in church with my family: my grandfather singing bass, my grandmother singing soprano, and my mother singing alto. I would try to sing tenor, which was kind of tricky for a little boy. I joined a boys’ choir in third grade in Albuquerque, which was unforgettable, and continued to sing in various church and school choirs. I was in rock-androll bands in high school and college and taught people their vocal parts by ear. Then in college I joined the Choral Union, directed by Robert Fountain. We performed Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the Spring Symphony of Benjamin Britten. It was bewildering to me, but when we performed with an orchestra in front of an audience, suddenly the music made sense and became a very magical experience.

VW: Who were your teachers andor models?

RB: Probably my greatest teacher was my exposure to choral music in church. None of my academic teachers were choral people. Choral music was always the “nerdiest” of musical arts for the modem composer. It was much “cooler” to write a cello concerto or a string quartet than a choral piece. I was Randall Thompson’s assistant in 1980, after he had a stroke. I handled his correspondence and some musical projects for him. He would tell me to move this voice here and that voice there and turn SATB into a piece for women’s choir, etc. That year, I wrote 12 hymns and showed them to Randall Thompson. He had interesting things to say about ranges, such as “don’t write too high for hymns, because typical people would be screaming if you write G’s for them,” and also taught me some nifty things about inner voices. One of the most valuable learning experiences for me was when I accompanied Mr. Thompson to a high school choral festival in Fredonia, New York in December of 1980, where they performed a concert of his music. It was touching to see how many people loved his music and how his music speaks to and moves people.

VW: What is your source of inspiration?

RB: I believe we are created in the “image” of God, and one of the qualities of God is to create. I believe all of us share in that creativity, whether through creatingchildren, compositions, learning experiences, or whatever. Another source of inspiration for me is studying patterns in nature. An example is a snowflake-there is symmetry, beauty, and a transitoriness. A composer’s creation evaporates in the air but lives on in the memory of the listener-much the way a snowflake eventually melts. Composing is a magical art.

VW: You have already mentioned that you sang in a boys’ choir and a rock group. Is there anything else that you would like to mention about your background as a singer?

RB: I have always sung. I sing all the time. Singing is a natural expression as well as a natural exorcism.

VW: Your pieces for women’s choir are of special interest to me. What has drawn you in the direction of composing for women’s choirs?

RB: As a college student I never liked the music the fraternities sang-the glee club stuff-it sounded so clunky and dour, whereas I found women’s choruses exhilarating and spiritual. I wrote a piece called Garden Abstract (1977) for six women soloists based on a poem by Hart Crane. The text focuses on the instant just before Eve plucks the apple from the tree of knowledge-that one hovering moment-an effect that I thought would be perfect with six women singers. That piece changed my life in that it helped me discover composing for chorus, as well as writing accessible music. I wrote more music for women’s chorus reflecting my love of Sacred Harp music and the poetry of Emily Dickinson-the Dickinson Madrigals, Books 1 and 2. The fourth composition for women’s chorus is the Alarcon Madrigals (which you asked me to write for the California State University, Fullerton, Women’s Chorus).

VW: Just to clarify/or the readers, the Dickinson Madrigals, Books 1 and 2, are for SSAA chorus, and there is now a Book 3 for SATB chorus.

RB: That’s correct.

VW: Your new pieces for men’s choir, including the most recent Letters to the Future (1 993) and Flashpoint/Stonewall (1994), have been very favorably received. What do you think primarily accounts for that success?

RB: First of all it’s an entirely new sound. I now have composed three cantatas for men’s chorus, synthesizers, bass and drums. A lot of directors who have worked with this ensemble found it invigorating to work with such a fresh new world of sound as opposed to an a cappella chorus or chorus with piano accompaniment. What is more relevant is that these are commissions from gay choruses who asked for very specific things. The first request was from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Jon Bailey, conductor, for a piece about AIDS, not a requiem, but rather a piece about surviving. This was to become Hidden Legacies, with lyrics by John Hall, composed in 1992. The next commission was Letters to the Future commissioned in 1993 by The Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago, Richard Garrin, conductor, who wanted a piece that reflected a variety of views about the future. Eight poets contributed poems or lyrics for the project. The third piece, Flashpoint/Stonewall, was commissioned by four gay men’s choruses (Seattle, Los Angeles, New Your City, and Washington, D.C.). Their request was for a work written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. History for many gays and lesbians begins at the Stonewall rebellion.

VW: What future directions do you see for your continued contribution to choral music?

RB: I would like to write some kind of requiem-a piece for SATB, soloists and orchestra-addressing death as a normal part of life. I hope to continue to write a cappella pieces because there is an unsurpassed magic in a cappella music. Human voices speak to other human beings in a way that no other instruments can. I do not intend to write only gay music for the rest of my life, but it is exciting to write for an audience for whom the music is relevant.

VW: You have used synthesizers in several of your choral compositions. What future technological developments do you see becoming a pan of choral music?

RB: I believe that choral directors, once they get over the initial fear of synthesizers, will begin using a variety of electronic resources. However, first I think the technology needs to simplify itself a little bit so it is not quite so daunting. It is challenging to work with electronic music. There are two different ways of working with electronic music-with tape, and with live synthesizers. At this point, I recommend that conductors hire a person to serve as a technician. The conductor can say “louder, softer, you’re late,” but not have to worry about any of the technical aspects. In that it creates a whole new sound world when you add a chorus, I think it’s a great future.

VW: How do you think choral conductors and composers can most benefit one another’s efforts?

RB: I think that composers must realize that choral conductors like to make the piece their own. Sometimes this can drive composers crazy, but we as composers have to realize that choral music is a collaborative art just like doing film music, working with human beings living with the music. Likewise, the conductors need to be willing to stand up and say “this isn’t working.” They can serve as facilitators until the orchestra or ensemble is added and they perform it for an audience. Once performers see the audience reaction, they experience another part of the composition.

VW: What separates a good choral composer from other choral composers?

RB: Too many twentieth-century composers treat singers as instruments. A good choral composer realizes that a chorus is a confluence of people singing together, each with their own melody.

VW: Tell us about your publishing.

RB: July 1 is the first anniversary of my new publishing company called Yelton/Rhodes Music Publishers. I have been associated with E.C. Schinner since 1979 and had an exclusive publishing contract with them, but there is no one on the staff with the expertise to deal with electronic music. I prefer to have control over that myself so I can advise people directly. Another function of this company is to provide music for GALA choruses (standing for Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses).

VW: How will choral conductors learn about the pieces you are publishing?

RB: I will advertise them in all the major choral journals, as well as the GALAgram, the publication for GALA movement.

VW: What is your process for selecting texts for your compositions?

RB: After I (or the commissioner) decide what the topic is, then I read volumes of poetry. Next I look for poetry with lyrical or rhythmical aspects which spark my imagination or provides inherent imagery.

VW: What kinds of texts do you find most appealing?

RB: I like texts that are provocative, which say something about our lives, something we can relate to as human beings. I look for texts that mean something and that speak to the heart.

VW: I f you could change one thing about the way conductors interpret your music, what would it be?

RB: I think conductors tend to find their own tempi because that is how they make the piece their own. If the composer is really uncomfortable with these alterations, the conductor should oblige.

VW: When you attend a performance of one of your pieces, how does it feel to sit in the audience?

RB: There is a commercial for Maxell tape with a guy sitting in a chair listening through a pair of speakers with a huge fan blowing on him to give the effect. that the speakers are blowing him away. That’s the way I feel. I grab the armrests, plant my feet on the floor, and feel like I’m taking off in a jet. But there is also the expectant father syndrome-there is absolutely nothing you can do, so you cross your fingers and hope that all goes well.

VW: In your mind’s ear you have a concept of how a composition will sound. Have you ever found that the conductor’s interpretation of one of your works pleased you more or less than how you imagined it would sound?

RB: Yes. There are times when I can write a movement so fast, that I’ll forget about it. Then when I hear the piece performed it suddenly comes to life, and I realize I had never viscerally heard the piece. On the other hand, if I hear a performance where it’s just not going right, I don’t have a problem saying that is not what I had in mind at all.

VW: Do you listen to choral music? What are your favorite choral works by other composers, especially your contemporaries?

RB: I listen mostly to my own music, to what I am working on, so that I have heard my pieces thousands of time before anyone else hears them-sort of giving them a test of time. I also listen to John Adams, Stravinsky, and some of Beethoven’s choral music, such as Michael Tilson Thomas’ The Late Choral Music of Beethoven [Columbia Records #33509].

VW: How would you describe your compositional style ?

RB: Robert Winter (musicologist at UCLA) tells me that it is “decidedly post-modem,” meaning that I draw from a variety of sources and mold it into a language that is unique to me. I draw from rock-and-roll, Stravinsky, Gregorian chant, ethnic influences, sacred music, and secular music, combined with all the music I have listened to during my life.

VW: What ideas are you trying to express about yourself, life, truth and beauty through your music?

RB: One of the most important patterns there is in the universe is gravity. Gravity manifests itself on a physical level in that we are all pulled to the center of the earth, which is pulled toward the sun, which is pulled toward the enter of the galaxy, which is pulled toward the center of a cluster of galaxies. Likewise, there is gravity in people, where “birds of a feather” will flock together. When a chorus works together for a year or season, there is a gravity that brings them together. If that gravity is working, the audience taps into this circuit and a wonderful spiritual and biochemical experience takes place. Therefore, music can bring people together. In that sense it reflects nature and society-working together toward a similar goal of trying to communicate a piece to an audience. I thought about being a minster a number of times in my life, but I figured it would be better to be a composer where I could really say what I felt and wouldn’t have to be tied to a particular doctrine. As Berlioz said, “When words fail, music takes over.”

VW: What is your view of the place of choirs and choral music in our society?

RB: In my opinion, choral music that speaks directly to as well as entertains and uplifts its listeners is the most successful. Music that is overly difficult and self-indulgent misses its mask. Choral music is unique in its ability to speak to the human spirit, and composers have an almost sacred responsibility to write for the human voice with great care and sensitivity. Great choral singing is the closest thing to the music of heaven that this planet has to offer.

VW: Is there anything else that you would like this group of readers to know about you or your music that I have not asked you?

RB: I think it’s important that a conductor have a vital relationship with a composer, creating new music and revitalizing our art so that the art form does not die out. If it just becomes a museum ensemble I think we are in trouble.

[Reprinted from Chorus! magazine, November 1994. Photo: Donald Neuen conducts the premiere of Roger Bourland’s ROSARIUM, 1999]]

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