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Thursday, January 06, 2005
Reflections on Writing for Children's Chorus

I was going to wait and refer to this little article, but I have decided to go ahead and add it to the mix. It does segue from the question concerning musical explanations. The essay will find its way soon to and a new section they have on the Composer's Craft.

Reflections on Writing for Children’s Chorus

Gil Rose, the director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, wanted me to write a piece for his group, but asked me to seek out additional funding for the commission. In the spring of 2000 I asked Mark Churchill, the Dean of the Division of Preparatory and Continuing Education at New England Conservatory, if he would be interested in a joint commission with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Mark Churchill said that he was interested, and added that he wanted it to be a piece for the NEC Children’s Chorus.

I was suddenly filled with contrary emotions: happy for the commission, but now it was going to be for a work for children’s chorus and orchestra! Writing for orchestra I felt comfortable with and excited about, of course. I had no slight esthetic inclination to write piece for children’s chorus.

These negative emotions were quickly swept aside as soon as I started reading William Blake’s poems Songs of Innocence and Experience. (My wife, the musicologist Andrea Olmstead, had a copy of the poetry.) From the first page of the “Introduction” to the Songs of Innocence, musical ideas were flooding my consciousness in a way that let me know I had the right text.

In the summer of 1967, when I first began consciously composing, I used to put poetry up on the piano’s music stand, improvise suitable harmonies, and all the while sing the words with the first melody that came to mind. Now, thirty-three years later, I decided to try the compositional tact that I had not tried since the time of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I photocopied about fourteen or fifteen poems that really interested me and took them to a studio at the conservatory. For the next two or three hours I repeatedly played and sang through most of the poems from the Songs of Innocence. On the next two evenings I did the same thing with the poetry of the Songs of Experience. I never wrote anything down in musical notation during these evenings. The reason was that I made a conscious decision that if I was going to write something for children it had to be both easy to sing and memorable. If I could not remember the music, then a chorus of children and their audience would not remember it either.

Between 1979 and 1981 I had spent two years writing a work for soprano and violin soloists and orchestra based on Wallace Stevens’s poem The Idea of Order at Key West. To have “written” this new piece over the course of three evenings seemed preposterous. It was similar to those stories of Handel writing the Messiah in three weeks. When I spoken about this setting of the Songs of Innocence and Experience I usually prefer to say that it was improvised rather than composed. In other words, this work was no more (or less) written down than anything by Irving Berlin or Paul McCartney.

I mention this to composers who will certainly recognize the difference between “constructing” a piece rather than “improvising” one. Although this may seem like a subtle distinction, it was quite liberating to be “writing” in this new way. It was also quite risky. After all, what if I forgot the music that I had just been singing and playing?

After living with this music for about a month, I decided to make a version of the piece for soprano voice and piano. This was a separate concert piece called “Ten Poems of William Blake.” This version was essentially the piano part, recalled from memory, and the vocal line as I originally sang it (written an octave higher, of course). “Ten Poems of William Blake” and the Songs of Innocence and Experience are published by Ione Press, a Division of ECS Publishing.

At the end of that summer I came back to the work to orchestrate it. The orchestration took a solid month working five and six hours a day. (This resembled my usual composing work habits.) Nevertheless, nothing had been changed: These were the same melodies and harmonies I “improvised” in May.

Sometimes students and friends ask how I write pieces. Although there are general processes that remain constant from piece to piece, no two works are ever quite the same in conception or in execution. Writing the Songs of Innocence and Experience put me in touch with my roots as a composer, and, I believe, helps to account for this particular work’s uniqueness.

Asked to speak about the piece in a pre-concert talk at the premiere of Songs of Innocence and Experience in January 2001, I recalled the summer of 1967 and the preoccupation we all seemed to have with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Like many composers of my generation I knew this album’s introduction starts in G and modulates to E for the second song, “A Little Help from My Friends.” I couldn’t help but smile when Gil Rose began the rehearsal of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and I heard for the first time my own “Introduction” starting in G and the second song, “The Lamb,” modulate to E. After many years, this work for Children’s Chorus – originally so intimidating–had brought me full circle back to the music of my own youth.

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