Thomas LaVoy and his wife, composer Sarah Rimkus (profiled in Winter 2022 SON), recently relocated to Minnesota. We asked him to reflect on the commissioning process, with reference to some of his specific pieces. His responses are below.
Describe your most notable choral commissions – most or least successful, most challenging or growth-inducing for you, of greatest service to the ensemble or choral community.
I try not to think of individual commissions as being successful or unsuccessful, but rather what impact the creative process has on both the commissioning party and myself. Working with the BBC Singers on the commission for O Great Beyond, for example, was certainly a career highlight; they are highly trained professionals who work very quickly, and to hear my music broadcast on BBC Radio 3 was an incredibly proud moment. However, during the rehearsal process I probably said one sentence regarding the interpretation of the piece – there just wasn’t time. In stark contrast would be my ongoing Dreamsongs commissioning project, which seeks to create new works for young voices. The conductors and singers have the opportunity to choose a poem by Hilda Conkling that I then set to music, and the conversations that arise from that process are very fulfilling. All commissions are different, and I try to find some measure of service regardless of the level of the performers.
What prescribed parameters are most helpful? Least helpful?
Parameters are important, as I feel each commission should be composed to fit the needs of the performer(s). At the beginning of the commissioning process, I always ask if there are limitations beyond the standard considerations of range and tessitura or, conversely, if there are extended performance capabilities that they would like me to take advantage of. I’m also more than happy to create something that fits their specific performance needs – something joyful, something tense, something somber, etc. That being said, once parameters are set, I think it’s important for the ensemble or individual to trust the creative artist that they have hired to do their job. There have been cases where I have turned down commissions, even though I needed the work, for this very reason; if I get a sense that a commissioning party is going to insert themselves in the creative process past a certain point, I know that there could very well be disagreements in the direction of a piece, and in my experience disagreements cost time.
How do you prefer to select the text?
What is the choral commission you would like to receive?
The text issue is something that I find very interesting these days. This might be bold to say, but I think composers are often pretty lazy when it comes to searching out new and interesting text sources. We tend to set a lot of the same poems, a lot of the same poets, and a lot of old Latin standbys. Part of this is copyright, there’s no doubt about it, but for every poet or writer that rose to the surface in their time, there are a hundred or more who never quite saw that same tier of success through no fault of their own. I always challenge my students and other young composers to dig deeper, seek out the corners of the canon that are not as well known. A good example of this was my commissioned work In Heaven, Hereafter, which set the fiery, passionate poetry of Nancy Luce, the “Chicken Lady” of Martha’s Vineyard. Strange, yes, but so deep in meaning and I really felt as though I had made a musical discovery in setting her work.
Recently I have also been moving toward writing both the text and the music myself. O Great River is a good example, being loosely inspired by a separate poem by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. These tend to be very special commissions in the end, as the conversation with the commissioning party about the emotional parameters of the piece grow even deeper. In this same vein, a commission I would love to receive would be an extended work on the subject of addiction, composed for an advanced ensemble capable of executing a hard-hitting performance. Choral music tends to be a very wholesome medium, but I sometimes feel like we skirt some uncomfortable subjects in favor of providing constant comfort. Addiction is one of those issues that is hard to write about because it both incredibly painful and ubiquitous in our culture; it’s easier to turn away. I feel a work that speaks directly to the issue, unapologetically, could bring real comfort to those who have lost their way.