We hope this Commissioning Corner article will inspire future conversations and allow you to learn more about the work of some of our local compositional voices. All interviews took place between March-April 2021. Composer submissions are included in the order they were received.
Bryan Blessing and Peter J. Durow
In your role as a composer and/or conductor, how do you ensure your music is accessible to the performers and audience? If possible, can you give an example of a piece of music or program idea that highlights inclusion?
Accessibility is certainly contextual – vocal ranges? Gender inclusivity? Difficulty level?
As a composer, I always write for the specific ensemble who is commissioning. The goal is their success, which ultimately ends up in the composer’s success. No one wants to hear a poor performance of a good composition. This is not to say, however, that the composer shouldn’t challenge the ensembles for whom they write, but rather, not write music at a difficulty level that is beyond the abilities of the ensemble in question.
In addition to addressing difficulty levels, I think education and equity play a role in the music I choose to write – – which can sometimes make people uncomfortable. For instance, I recently wrote a piece for the Portland State University Choirs, “Chris and Gabe,” that was a setting of a coming out conversation between a mother and her son who is transgender. A few singers were uncomfortable singing about gender identities that lie outside of their imposed norms. On the other hand, one of the singers in the ensemble wrote to thank me for writing music that reminded them that they were worthy of being loved for who they are. They had indicated that the piece gave them the courage to come out as a person who is trans. There is a good bit of choral music that talks about unconditional love, but very few works that specifically tell the stories of persons who are trans. Telling/singing the stories of marginalized persons through choral music normalizes those narratives for both the singers and the audiences.
In my work as a composer, I infuse my concert music with elements of pop and folk music. One of the reasons these other genres are so popular is the repetition of melody and specific lyrics like a chorus or a hook. A song form that uses repetition gives the listener a sense of home, and gives them something to hold onto as they listen, expecting certain things around each corner. Yet as I reach out to them with familiarity and repetition, I also ask them to meet me in the middle. I believe that it is my job to also thwart these expectations and keep the listeners on their toes. You have to know the rules in order to know how to break them.
I love to include singers in the decision-making process of lifting the music off the page. It’s important in their development as musicians. Singing isn’t math, and we’re asking students for more than to correctly repeat back the information that we’ve given them. I was writing for a consortium of 7-8th grade TB choirs and wanted to find a way to bring an element of play into the score. For “A Red, Red (Noun)” I took the over-used Robert Burns poem “A Red, Red Rose” and turned it into a Mad Lib, where each choir gets to create their own version of the text. I’m giving these young singers ownership over the music and including them in the process of bringing the piece to the concert stage. Hopefully, it’s an experience that will hook them on singing in what can be a difficult time in their vocal development.
Whether I’m writing or programming for a particular choir, I always keep the strengths of the singers in the front of my mind. How can I best highlight those? A big part of my identity as a composer who was first a singer and music educator, is that I have always wanted to write music which singers enjoy singing and audiences enjoy hearing. To me, that is the basis of accessibility.
A piece of mine that speaks to that inclusion is “Everyone Sang”. It was originally commissioned by Calliope Women’s Chorus, the second-oldest feminist women’s choir in the country and was premiered at the 2016 National GALA convention in Denver. Later I was asked by Jane Ramseyer Miller, the director of One Voice Mixed Chorus to compose an SATB version for them. Although the text by Siegfried Sassoon was written in honor of Armistice Day and depicts the unbridled joy at the end of the First World War, the final line: “the singing will never be done” hints at the true work that is yet to come. I chose to repeat this line many times, even encouraging the audience to join in the song, and the long road to peace and justice.
I love choral and vocal music that stretches anyone who comes in contact with it, whether musically or as human beings. But I also love when pieces are accessible without watering down the material. So I’m always trying to consider how my work can do BOTH of these things. When I’m writing, I make sure to sing every part many times so that I can confirm the lines are idiomatic and not impossible to get comfortable with. I also make sure to take days away from my writing process so that I come back relatively fresh to what I worked on before. If it doesn’t feel right, I trust my gut to tell me why. Most importantly, I make sure there is always a focus on the “why” of writing the piece, so that through any accessibility or musical choices, there’s a clear reason for the piece as a whole.
A good example of this is the newly commissioned “Breathe on Me” I wrote for the National Lutheran Choir in the fall of 2020. At the time, we were all grappling with many different things including Covid-19, confronting law enforcement brutality, health care inequality, mental instability through lost human connection, and more. I wanted to make sure whatever virtual piece we created together was not only accessible for audiences hearing it from their homes for the first time, but had a statement about breath at large covering all these topics. The result–which includes a fairly accessible choral part coupled with an “a cappella” accompaniment track consisting of my voice adapted though my loop stations–offers a way to include almost everyone who comes across the work. I hope “Breathe on Me” continues to support choirs during this unprecedented time, however they want or need to express themselves.
Accessibility can mean a variety of things for an audience and performers. It can mean that a piece is accessible with regards to text and music for diverse performing groups from children’s choirs to professional ensembles and can be sung in a variety of spaces from churches to community choirs. My piece, “Sweet Radiant Mystery” is accessible in this way.
But accessibility can also help us understand the topic of inclusion on a deeper level. My work “Boxes” (SSAA and piano), which I’m excited to announce will be premiered by the Atlanta Women’s Chorus next spring, uses the accessible musical language of Broadway styles to nudge us into a broader understanding of inclusivity. Because the musical style is familiar to our ears, we can listen more closely to the text and the message embedded within.
We’ve all felt what it’s like to not fit into societal boxes. The push to conform can be powerful. Think middle school lunch, cocktail parties or first time conferences! How many of us were teased for being too feminine or too masculine, or for just not fitting in? What if you feel like you don’t fit in and you don’t know why? Or you shop for and try on clothes in the section of the store that feels most like you, and you get chastised?
“What if being me means living my dream to be who I’m meant to be? True to myself, true to the world, true to me.”
I’m a cisgendered woman, I use she/her/hers pronouns and, even though I prefer jeans over dresses and find make-up to be a mystery, I’ve always felt comfortable as a woman. I knew when I began writing the text for “Boxes” that it was not my story alone. If “Boxes” was to be accessible and inclusive, I needed to reach out to my friends who experienced the world differently than me. Friends who see themselves as gender-queer, non-binary or transgender. Because I reached out, I was gifted with the opportunity to open my eyes and my heart. Friends gave feedback on my text and invited me to interview them. Their comments are reflected in the lyrics and their stories accompany the score.
“Boxes” was commissioned by ADCA-MN for the 2020 9th-10th grade SSAA Honor Choir, but was taken off the program following the completion of the work. (The text and score were approved and I was compensated for the piece.) ACDA-MN felt that the limited time an honor choir had to rehearse did not allow for the discussion that the work deserved. While I was sad about the loss of the premiere, I respect that ACDA-MN had a right to make that decision.
What happened after I received this news was revealing to me. I felt shame. I felt like I had done something wrong. I had “colored outside of the lines.” Societal pressure is powerful and that old feeling from middle school came back to me. It was an “Aha” moment and a small glimpse into the daily lives of people who are gender-queer. It was incredibly difficult for me to share the news with my friends I had interviewed. I felt like it was one more place where they weren’t fully accepted and I dreaded being the messenger. Of course, they tried to console me. And it was hard. I had lost a premiere. But it wasn’t the same. Their voices were silenced and their stories were rejected. Who they were truly are as people was deemed too complicated.
Of course, they hadn’t done anything wrong either in being true to themselves. I was grateful to ACDA-MN for having an open and honest conversation with me. I told them that I dreaded delivering the message to my gender-queer friends. I said that I believed the real loss was to the gender-queer community, some of whom may have been members of the honor choir. If nothing else, it is highly probable that at least one person in the choir would have a friend who identified as gender-queer.
Just days after I delivered the final score with the interviews to ACDA-MN, I received news that a very dear friend had lost her son who was transitioning. I wonder what would change if, like one of my friends who I interviewed said, we were to see folks who might be different from us “as normal, as people.”
ACDA-MN has sent me the following that I could use in promotion of “Boxes”
“The American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota (ACDA-MN) commends to its constituency, the study of and subsequent performance of its 2019 commissioned work “Boxes” by Minnesota composer Catherine Dalton.
Written for accompanied high school treble voices, this compelling piece depicts the revealing and challenging stories and portrayals of people not fitting into the “boxes” imposed upon them by traditional societal norms.
As a work possessing significant artistic merit that brings these compelling issues to light, it is our collective hope that choral communities will help give a positive voice toward enhanced and enlightened understanding for all those impacted and affected that live and reside “outside the box.”
It is a profoundly appropriate and important piece written for this and all time.”
I am beyond thrilled that the Atlanta Women’s Chorus is premiering “Boxes” spring of 2022, but Melissa Arasi does not want to be alone in bringing this song to the world. If you’re interested in being part of this premiere of “Boxes,” let me know. If you want to be a part of the premiere, but you’re an SATB or TTBB choir, let’s talk. “In this new world we are all free to be who we’re meant to be, whoever that may be.”
Bryan Blessing is the vocal music teacher at Oak Grove Middle School in Bloomington, MN. Bryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Saint John’s University, his Master’s in Music Education from the University of St. Thomas, and received National Board Certification in Adolescent Music. Currently, Bryan is on the advisory board of the ChoralQuest series through the American Composers Forum and is the Chair of the Commissioning Task Force for ACDA-MN. He is a baritone and the Music Adviser for The Singers-Minnesota Choral Artists.
Peter J. Durow is a conductor and composer working in the field of music education. He began his tenue as the Artistic Director of From Age to Age, a chamber choir of young professionals based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2016. Dr. Durow has taught at the Secondary and University levels and as worked as a church musician in Minnesota, Texas, Indiana, Florida, New York, and Missouri. Peter’s compositions and arrangements are published in the Henry Leck Choral Series and Rodney Eichenberger Choral Series with Colla Voce Music, LLC; the Peter J. Durow Choral Series with Heritage Music Press; MusicSpoke; The Sacred Music Press; and VocalEssence Music Press in the Graphite Marketplace. Peter enjoys serving ACDA-MN as the managing editor of the Star of the North. He lives with his wife Jodi, and their two children in Maple Grove, Minnesota.