Year 2: Intuition

          It's hard to believe that I haven't posted a single entry in this blog since May of 2015. As one would expect, there's no way I could possibly relate everything that has happened in that time, but I can at least offer a quick recap. I spent my second summer as a visiting composer at the Choral Institute at Oxford. The Same Stream produced our inaugural recording in August, which included two pieces of mine. I successfully passed my PhD upgrade, meaning I am now cleared to complete my research. I have lived in Scotland now for two years, with my final year of intense work stretching out before me. The latest round of commissions and performances has come to a close, and the next round, which includes a JAM commission for the BBC Singers to be premiered in July, is well under way.

          I could go into each of these in a great amount of detail, but I'm afraid my memory might not be perfect as to how all of that came and went. At any rate, what I really want to focus on was the incredible week of music making that just occurred in New York City. A few months ago I received word that the University of Central Missouri Concert Choir, conducted by Alan Zabriskie, was going to give the first performance of my work in Carnegie Hall. I was of course greatly excited and intrigued by this news. Not only had I never heard of UCM's choral program, I was unfamiliar with Alan's work as a conductor and was interested to see his style. It's also not every day that you hear about your debut performance on one of the world's greatest stages!

          UMC was to perform “White Stones” as a part of their ensemble spotlight concert at Carnegie Hall on February 13th. This work was the first piece of mine to be professionally performed, and was premiered by Harold Rosenbaum and the New York Virtuoso Singers back in 2009. After contacting Alan via Facebook he agreed to send me a video of the choir rehearsing the piece. I was immensely pleased with the sound of the choir; there was a degree of warmth and strength there that I don't often hear. As much as I love British choirs (and believe me, there are also aspects of choral music that the Brits do better than Americans!), there is something incredibly warm and expansive about the American choral sound that is less common in the UK.

The flight over the Atlantic.

          If there is one thing that I have learned during my time living abroad it is to trust my intuition. Given the timing, the concert venue, the choir and Alan's mastery of the piece, I felt compelled to make the trip over the pond. After a long and empty flight (an entire row all to myself!) I spent my first night staying at my Aunt Veronica and Uncle Manny's place in Astoria. It was a good few years since I had seen them last, so the opportunity to catch up was very welcome. These two, along with their son Eric and his girlfriend Steph, are exceptionally good conversationalists, and we had many fantastic talks throughout the course of the trip.

          The following morning I took the N train into Manhattan for the first rehearsal with the choir in the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt. One thing was immediately clear upon meeting the UMC Concert Choir: they were clearly passionate and excited to be in New York doing what they love. Alan had told me a bit about the choir and his program, how he has built it up over the last few years and how the majority of the singers aren't even music majors. This is impressive, considering the level of the choir. Alan himself has a commanding presence without being unnecessarily demanding, a difficult balance to achieve in any situation as a conductor. As a testament to both his skill and the pervasive nature of choral music in all societies, Alan traveled to Kenya just a few days following our performance to work with the wonderful Nairobi Chamber Chorus, which is conducted by Ken Wakia. If the photos and videos currently flooding social media are any kind of indicator, it would seem that they are all enjoying the experience.

With the UMC Concert Choir.

          Alan hadn't told his singers that I would be in New York for the performance, so naturally my presence was a bit of a surprise for many of them. This of course only added to our mutual excitement. The day before our first meeting I had had a seven and a half hour flight to think about what I would say to this group of people about “White Stones.” I knew that rehearsal time would be limited, and because of this I also recognized the fact that to focus entirely on any technical issues that may arise would be pointless and silly. After hearing them sing the piece in person for the first time, I again trusted my intuition and decided to speak candidly of what the work has meant to me in my life. I spoke of how the process of composing “White Stones” was a major watershed moment for me as both a person and a composer, about how it launched my career and convinced me to continue pursuing choral composition. I explained things to them about the genesis of the work that only a very few people knew before that moment, things that I unfortunately cannot post about in a blog entry. Suffice it to say that “White Stones” was born out of the turmoil of an extremely murky part of my past.

Dress rehearsal in Carnegie Hall

          This course of action proved to be for the best. Perhaps they didn't realize it at the time, but there was a subtle yet profound difference in the sound of the choir after that rehearsal. To me this proves the concept that what truly matters in music-making isn't so much the beauty of technical precision as it is the deeper, more visceral human connections that exist between musicians and the music they share. This was so plainly apparent in the dress rehearsal that I was nearly moved to tears. At one point I sat completely alone in Carnegie Hall, literally the only person in a hall that seats nearly three thousand people, listening to this incredible choir sing a piece that means a great deal to me.

      “Giants are coming here, mama, giants are coming here.”  - Esther Margaret Ayers

          My mother's words have never sounded so beautiful, so utterly bone-chilling. I feel that in general I have had to mature into her poetry over time, and yet somehow our minds connected on this piece with a vibrancy that still echoes down through the years. I was sixteen when I wrote that music. Again, the intuition.

          The concert itself was wonderful, but I feel it was that dress rehearsal that brought “White Stones” into a full-circle perspective for me. I've always been much more of a process-over-product person when it comes to music; a concert after all is merely a celebration of the path that brings us to that moment in time and space. “White Stones” had it's birth in New York City, and I was there to witness it's maturation in Carnegie Hall. It also meant a great deal to me that Paul was able to come to the concert. He is truly a great friend, having spurned his jet-lag to come hear his student's work performed.

Greenwave Singers, with James Jordan and Myself

          In fact, the second reason I was in New York was to take part in Paul's own DCINY Carnegie Hall concert. This event, which took place the Monday following the performance of “White Stones,” was a massive gathering of people from all over the globe. Eight choirs and an orchestra came together under the baton of James Jordan to perform Paul's “Stabat Mater” and premiere his brand new “Jubilate Deo.” Many of these people I knew through previous experience; the Ulster University Choir from Ireland directed by Shaun Ryan; the Auckland Youth Choir directed by Lachland Craig, who will be performing some of my work in New Zealand in the coming months; and of course, the Fort Myers High School Greenwave Singers directed by Matt Koller, who commissioned my choral work “The Same Stream” in 2015. After one of the massed rehearsals the Greenwave Singers sang “The Same Stream” for me again; it made my day to see how excited they were to sing it.

          It must be said that I'm not sure if I have ever seen James Jordan in better form than he was during the entire process of putting this concert together. In rehearsal his demeanor was the very best of combinations between utterly brilliant and barking mad, to the awe and great amusement of the two hundred and twenty singers who were following him. This concert was James' Carnegie Hall conducting debut as well. I know how much it meant to him, and I'm so glad that I was able to be there to sing for him. The concert itself was breathtaking, and I felt full to bursting with pride as my two great mentors, Paul Mealor and James Jordan, took their final bows. Knowing these two, and learning from them, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life.

James Jordan and the DCINY ensemble.

          Needless to say, it was a busy week, and before I knew it I was in a taxi heading back to JFK for the long flight home. It may seem silly to say that a week in New York could change my perspective a great deal, but it's the truth. More than anything else, I've learned that the ever-expanding web of human connections that I have forged in my time as a composer and singer is a truly beautiful thing. The names themselves are but a snapshot of the true nature of that latticework, which I hope continues to grow in the coming years.

A few special thank you's to dish out...

To Julia, Joel, Taylor, and Sami, for coming to my Carnegie debut. I love you all!

To Josh Wanger and Ryan John, for hosting me for the majority of the trip. You guys were so generous with your time and space, it made everything that much easier. Josh, I can't remember exactly what we argued about over wine, but I do know that it was likely hilarious and we're better off for it. Definitely one of the major takeaways from this trip, knowing that I have two very good friends making life work in Manhattan. Thank you so much!

And... a very, very special thank you to Derek and Margaret. Without your support I couldn't do half the things that I do. I hope you know how much your generosity effects the Aberdeen community in such positive ways, and of course how much it has effected my own life. Thank you so much for everything that you do to support the arts.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

Back over the pond. 

Weeks 58-67: The Trilogy

Prelude - A Disclaimer         

          I have played many different roles in the past four weeks. I have been choir manager, traveller, couch surfer, dog-sitter, teacher, composer, and Ed Snowden look-alike. For the first time I'm finding it impossible to keep my thoughts redacted enough to cram everything into a single blog entry, so there will be three parts. In all honesty, the order of events is completely lost to me given all that has happened. My apologies to those of you who were there and may be able to recount these events in their entirety and in chronological order.

Part I – Orbits

Chamber Choir, departing aberdeen

Chamber Choir, departing aberdeen

          On April 6th the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir began its monumental journey to the United States to combine with Westminster Williamson Voices in Princeton and New York City. I'll admit that I was slightly nervous to return to my alma mater (be gone, emotions!), but I was far too focused on ushering thirty-one university students onto international flights and getting them through customs to worry about how I would react to being back there. One of the many super powers that I have been mysteriously granted after managing an international tour is the ability to cool my head on command. Not that I'll use this new found talent very much... I quite like having emotions.

          The first time I returned to Westminster Choir College was roughly six months after graduation, in November of 2013. It was too soon; I hadn't spent enough time away to come back and actually enjoy myself, and I was caught in the wistful misery of a nostalgic emotional crisis. This time around was completely the opposite. It was wonderful to see the school was thriving and evolving as always in my absence, to see old friends and make new ones. There's also a thrill in showing someone you love around a familiar place. It was such a joy to have Sarah there with me.

          Sarah, Peter, Theo, and I were housed at “The Tavern,” a famous house that has been continuously occupied by Westminster's finest since choirs of dinosaurs roamed New Jersey. Our Williamson hosts, Corey, Austin, Ryan, Joel, and John (and his dogs Bookie and Ralph), pulled out all the stops to make our stay not only comfortable but hilariously enjoyable as well. The Tavern is ideally located, less than a block from Westminster and just a stone's throw from the infamous Hoagie Haven and the ever buzzing Ivy Inn. I was back on my old stomping ground, and was loving every minute of it.

The 9/11 Memorial

The 9/11 Memorial

          All in all our schedule allowed for a great deal of leisure time. We took walks, enjoyed late nights and unhealthy food, gained a stone or two, and laughed until our faces hurt. I had the great pleasure of meeting Sarah's mother, Debbie, who I felt incredibly at ease with and who joined us in several of our outings. Our actual scheduled events were great dollops of poignancy and profundity in the happy soup of the week. Notable among them were Chamber Choir's evensong session in Steve Pilkington's Sacred Music Lab, Brandon Waddles' incredible lecture on African-American music during Jubilee rehearsal, and the life-changing masterclass given by Nova Thomas and Sean McCarther. We were also given permission to sing Paul's arrangement of Ae fond kiss at the 9/11 memorial during our day in New York City, a truly unforgettable experience. As an American it was very moving to see our friends from across the sea reacting with such honesty and respect to the subdued atmosphere of remembrance in that place.

          Early in the week I had the honour of being interviewed by Chris Titko for a series of videos about new music that are being produced by J. W. Pepper this year. I have taken part in other interviews like this, but I was so pleased to discover how switched on Chris was. He seemed to know more about me and my career than even I did, and had come prepared by reading the previous entries of this blog and reading about the collaboration between my mother and myself as we composed “A Child's Requiem.” It may actually have been the first time I felt completely at ease in the hot-seat, which I've come to find is a rare thing indeed. Definitely a highlight of the week.

James Jordan and I, Following the NYC premier of Songs of the Questioner.

James Jordan and I, Following the NYC premier of Songs of the Questioner.

          Of course, the whole reason we were there was to sing. The feeling in the room when Chamber Choir and Williamson Voices sang together for the first time was far different than I think any of us had been expecting. I had been imagining that it would take us at least one whole rehearsal to find each other sonically, given the differences between the American and British choral styles. But right from the first chord of Paul's Shadow of Thy Cross there existed a remarkable synergy of sound that was both deep and effortless. Credit must go James Jordan... if anything is a sign of his abilities as a conductor and his trust in the musicians he brings together, it was that moment.

          I was in an interesting position, as the combined choirs were also giving the world premier of a major work of mine that was completed last summer, titled “Songs of the Questioner.” The work had been in progress since I was a junior at Westminster roughly three years prior to the tour, so to hear it for the first time was both thrilling and slightly terrifying. But I trusted in them and in James, and the final product was nothing short of staggering. The many words, messages, and emails that I received from singers and audience members alike following each concert were evidence enough for me that I have touched on something in this work that really reaches people. As a composer, there can be no better outcome than feeling as if you have provided some valuable personal experience for both the performer and the audience. It was oddly humbling as well, so much so that I'm still unsure of how to react to the overwhelming content of a few of the messages I received. I can say however, that Songs of the Questioner may be the first piece I have yet composed that has to potential to be widely performed in years to come.

The Combined Choirs given the NYC premier of Songs of the Questioner.

The Combined Choirs given the NYC premier of Songs of the Questioner.

          I have to pause in the general flow of this post to offer thanks to two people. First, to James Jordan, whose interpretation of Songs of the Questioner was so much more beautiful than what I could have possibly imagined. Second, to Corey Everly, without whose skills at the piano the performances would never have happened. Both of these men really get this piece, even more so than I do.

The Platform, After Aberdeen's Departure.

The Platform, After Aberdeen's Departure.

          Following a stunning concert and drinks reception at 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, the realization that our week together was over began to set in. If you happened to be at Princeton Junction train station on the evening of the departure of the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir, you may have thought that someone had died given the number of tears. You may have also been alarmed at how quickly those tears turned to laughter and back again, and again and again, until an American choir manager stood up and yelled that if the Brits didn't get on the damn platform they would miss the train. Sometimes I'm glad for my new ability to calm my emotions...

          But it never lasts long. I was sad to see them go, and I did not want the week to end. My two second families who had come together for a brief spell, only to separate again so soon. My heart was split between the people on the departing train and the people on the platform.


And that was the most beautiful feeling in the world.

Orbits

Two stars once on their lonely way
Met in the heavenly height,
And they dreamed a dream they might shine alway
With undivided light;
Melt into one with a breathless throe,
And beam as one in the night.

And each forgot in the dream so strange
How desolately far
Swept on each path, for who shall change
The orbit of a star?
Yea, all was a dream, and still they must go
As lonely as they are.

-
Richard Le Gallienne
 

Part II – Closing a Circle

          As hard as it was to say goodbye at Princeton Junction, I was glad that I was not making the journey back over the Atlantic just yet. My gallant hosts had agreed to let me stay with them for a further three days, so that I would have time to say my goodbyes in my own fashion. As my managerial duties had been passed off to Sarah for the return journey, I found myself with an abundance of freedom for the first time in several months. There is something special about doing nothing after a period of doing seemingly everything. Certain things start to make sense, and for a composer this is the time that imperative subconscious connections are made.

          But in all reality I really was doing nothing of direct, work-related importance... and it was awesome. I was able to reconnect with some of my old college friends, enjoy a few more late nights and some more unhealthy food, and play an enormous amount of guitar. The one thing that was loosely work-related was attending a Williamson Voices rehearsal in which Rachel Beeksma, a grad student at Westminster (and, oddly enough, a Yooper!), conducted my “Lux aeterna” from A Child's Requiem. The sound that choir produces... you have to hear it in person to believe it.

My Favourite Tree at Dad and Sue's.

My Favourite Tree at Dad and Sue's.

          The Tavern was gracious enough to host a going away part of sorts for me on my last night, and the following day I travelled to Philadelphia to stay with Dad and Susan. One of the reasons that my trip extension was an exceptional experience was that it allowed me to spend some time with them in Philly again. It has been over two years since I had been to their house, and quite a bit has changed in that time. The animals are all significantly older (though Lulu and Crumb are still plugging along somehow) and Dad and Sue have taken it upon themselves to turn their corner of West Philly into a jungle. So many plants! And each has its own “guardian,” a small porcelain creature or action figure stuck in the soil and tasked with keeping its host safe. It makes me happy to see that as time goes on their appreciation for all things that grow increases. They seem happiest when they are doing their morning “tour” of the garden, which I have often watched from the third floor turret, unbeknownst to them.

          I shall have to sum up my time in Philly by saying that it has been a very happy, relaxing time. Almost too relaxing if I'm honest, as my ability to do work here has been greatly diminished by the desire to mimic this host of lethargic cats and dogs. Despite this period of relative inactivity, I'm so glad that it has happened. I rarely get a chance to spend time with these two, and I really do love them to death.

          About mid way through my time in Philly Susan embarked on her own fascinating journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, and I boarded a train that would take me from 30th Street Station to Yardley, Pennsylvania. This short trip was the first of the professional opportunities that were the reason for extending my trip past Chamber Choir tour. The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir, conducted by Jim Moyer, was to give the American premier of my new setting of Salvator Mundi at the end of the month in Princeton University Chapel, and so I figured I would join them in rehearsal about a week beforehand.

The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir.

The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir.

          Once again I was lucky enough to have wonderful hosts; David Reimschussel, another conductor at Pennsbury, and his wife Traci. I had met the whole Pennsbury team in Leipzig, Germany when they gave the world premier of the work back in February. As I wrote in the previous blog entry about the Leipzig trip, sometimes you meet people that you get along with immediately with no effort at all. The Pennsbury choral program, its conductors and students alike, are these kind of people. I had the opportunity to introduce my music and do a little bit of composition and theory teaching while I was visiting the school, and the students proved themselves to be very bright and welcoming to new ideas. This is, of course, a sign of excellent teaching as much as it is a sign of excellent students.

          I returned to Philadelphia in high spirits, spent the better part of a week there, and then took the train yet again back to Princeton. So many memories of that train route! I remember so clearly composing much of my Alleluia aboard the New Jersey Transit trains between Trenton and Philadelphia. Upon arrival, Austin of the Tavern crew picked me up at the train station, and I spent a further two days in Princeton in much the same manner as before (late nights, unhealthy food – you get the general idea here). It was so good to spend some time with my old house mates Jared and John (who are completely bonkers by the way), and Ryan Cassel, who I never lived with but who is also pleasantly bonkers.

Princeton University Chapel.

Princeton University Chapel.

          The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir gave the American premier of Salvator mundi on the 29th of April, as a part of their Big Sing concert in Princeton University Chapel. Being in attendance at this concert felt as though I was closing a circle with the choir at the end of a journey that had spanned several thousand miles. I can't imagine not having been there, just as I can't imagine not working with this fabulous group of people in the future. I had gotten so used to their presence in my life that I forgot that my last chance to speak to them as a group was upon me. Here's hoping that I impressed upon them how much they mean to me when I said my goodbyes.

          As I was walking back to the Tavern by myself after the concert, flowers given to me by the students in hand, I began to realize that my life's calling, however fraught with financial worry and stress-related headaches, is possibly the best that one can have. Simply to make music with people such as these is really all I can ask for in life.

 

Part III – 48 hours.

          When I got back to the Tavern I found a couple of my hosts sitting in the living room. I had an early flight the next morning, so Austin and Julia had agreed to drive me back to Philadelphia late after the concert. We affectionately dubbed this final half hour of sitting as the “coda” to my time in Princeton. Very tough to say goodbye to these guys, but especially tough to say farewell to Corey as he and I really rekindled our friendship and musical kinship during my time there.

          After arriving late and sleeping restlessly, I found myself at the Philadelphia airport the following morning, set to embark on my last professional gig of the trip. The Fort Myers Greenwave Singers, conducted by Matt Koller, were set to perform the world premier of my new choral work, “The Same Stream,” that night in Fort Myers, Florida. Given the fact that my flight landed only half an hour or so before the concert, I had to change into my concert attire in Washington. This was the first time I have flown in professional dress, and oddly enough it seemed to make me more approachable. As I sat at the gate, working on the final proof of Songs of the Questioner for GIA, several people approached me and asked if I was a composer. It's a nice feeling to talk to complete strangers about things you are genuinely excited for.

And so began 48 of the strangest and most amazing hours I have yet experienced.

Myself with Christy and Matt Koller.

Myself with Christy and Matt Koller.

          I was picked up from the airport by Matt's charming wife Christy, who is also a choral conductor in the area. The drive in from the airport was very surreal, as I was wearing a black suit in the hot Floridian weather, shooting past palm trees and people in summer clothes. Arriving at Fort Myers High School, I couldn't help but feel a little bit nervous; unlike the Westminster and Pennsbury folks, I had never met any of these people in the flesh before. Nevertheless, after entering the choral room I was greeted enthusiastically by Matt, who let me directly into the concert hall for the performance.

          What I found there was the last thing I could have ever expected for a world premier concert venue. The hall had been decked out in psychedelic decorations, with lasers and multi-coloured lights beaming and shifting on-stage. As we found our seats, Christy explained to me that this was the final concert of the year, the “prism” concert. Every year, the students chose the theme of the concert and auditioned to sing or play solo or small ensemble pieces of their liking. Most of the repertoire was music of popular genres. The Same Stream was nestled cosily in between Freebird and Play That Funky Music, toward the end of the program. A unique location for a world premier, to be sure.

          I would be lying if I said that I wasn't slightly taken aback and worried about this at first. As the concert commenced however, my worry turned to fascination and pure enjoyment. There was not a single act on the program that wasn't tremendously well performed and well received, and many of the students had voices that professional performers would kill to possess. By the time my piece came around, I was so used to the nature of the concert that the transition from Freebird actually felt quite organic. At that point I was so enamoured with the students' abilities that I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Introducing the Fort Myers Students to Songs of the Questioner.

Introducing the Fort Myers Students to Songs of the Questioner.

          One of the inherent problems of flying in just before the concert is that I had no time to hear or rehearse the piece beforehand. The world premier was literally the first time I ever got to hear them sing the piece, and I was shocked at how easily they navigated the difficult sections. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and surreal experience, punctuated only slightly by the crackling of the faulty speaker overhead. Immediately afterwards (while Play That Funky Music was ringing out), I remember feeling nothing but joy and thankfulness that I was able to make it Florida to witness that very strange yet satisfying premier. Many of the students introduced themselves and shared words of their own thankfulness after the concert, which only sweetened the deal.

          In the ten years or so that I have been doing this, I've come to realize that the actual concert, the presentation of a world premier, is merely a celebration of the journey that is learning and preparing the work. That is why I will always love spending time with singers outside of the concert hall and in the rehearsal room. Thankfully, the following day I was able to spend an hour and half with the students during regular school hours. Some of this time was spent talking about my own life experiences, about the life of a musician, and answering whatever questions they had. Then we rehearsed the piece and sang it again in the entryway to the school itself, with an audience of teachers, students, and what seemed to be custodians toting garbage bins. To me it was this short moment in time that was the crux of the whole trip; an hour and a half to be together and to commune in music without any of the expectations that a concert brings.

Greenwave Singers and Friends. 

Greenwave Singers and Friends. 

          It was also remarkably pleasant to just sit in Matt's office and talk to the students about their lives, their passions, and their music-making. Many of them are planning on going into music as a career, so I hope that I was able to offer some kind of valuable insight to them as a professional musician. Halfway through the day I gave an impromptu composition lesson to Matt's bright young son, Christian, who I hope continues composing no matter what musical path he ultimately chooses. I shared Songs of the Questioner with a group of them at the piano, and their responses to the piece reignited my own confidence and joy in what I do.

          I got to know Matt and Christy remarkably well in such a short time, and had many moments of both paralysing hilarity and deep conversation. It honestly felt as though we had known each other for years, not hours. They also introduced me to the legend that is their friend Aaron, who I seriously hope also becomes a long time friend. Just as with the Pennsbury entourage, this was a group of people that I felt completely at home with from the get-go, and for that alone the trip was worth the work.

          That night was the second performance, which was slightly less pristine given that the choir was standing in a quite inopportune formation in the hall. But that didn't matter to me. The deal was sealed, and as we drove to the airport the following morning I felt nothing but love for every person I met during that crazy, whirlwind trip. I sincerely hope I get to work with them again in the near future.

 

Coda – The Last Leg

          I'm sort of at a loss for how to wrap this up. My internal self is a big slush of positive emotions right now, for the first time in a very long time. My Dad, Ryan Cassel, Austin Turner, Julia Gallagher and many others gave me bits of excellent advice on this trip that essentially lead to the same conclusion...

          Much of my work leading up to this point has been influenced by negative experiences in my life. Now, in spite of the fact that this PhD is very hard work, it seems that I'm at a time when positivity and love for the people I work with is rising above those dark times. My journey forward will be learning to compose out of happiness, to draw upon these experiences and these people as new sources of inspiration, and to look forward to making music with any and all who come my way.

And so, it's back over the Atlantic once more. Life is good. Thank you to everyone who made this possible.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

 

Speaking to the Audience in New York City before the premier of Songs of the Questioner. 

Speaking to the Audience in New York City before the premier of Songs of the Questioner. 



Week 57: The Rose and the Candle

Bach's statue and the Thomaskirche

Bach's statue and the Thomaskirche

          Leipzig. What a city. What an experience. Sometimes I lose sight of my trajectory and completely underestimate what is going to come of a situation. This weekend was the perfect example; I'm truly at a loss for words, which makes it very difficult to write about these extraordinary people and the things that happened in Germany.

          When I came into this commission I barely knew Jim Moyer, and I knew even less about his choir and the choral program at Pennsbury High School as a whole. I had heard them sing one performance of the concert version of Pirates of Penzance, and while I was impressed with their sound I had very little time to get to know any of them. After being with them this weekend, I think it's safe to say that the students in that choir are some of the most polite and passionately involved high school singers that I have yet come across. As for Jim and his team of dedicated Pennsbury staff... it happens every once in a while that I meet a group of people that I can fall in with and feel at ease, as if I have known them for years. I can tell that some long-term friendships were forged in Leipzig.

the choir and orchestra rehearse in the thomaskirche

the choir and orchestra rehearse in the thomaskirche

         For a composer, being able to witness the world premier of one's own work in the Thomaskirche, the very church where Johann Sebastian Bach himself was Kapellmeister, is an enormous honour. It's also extraordinarily humbling, and quite honestly a little terrifying. But from the moment I heard the choir sing I knew I had nothing to worry about, that they would give everything they had to make it a stunning performance. Given the setting of the concert and the level at which the choir performed, I have to say that this was both one of the greatest honours of my musical life and one of the best world premiers I have had yet.

The program...

The program...

          For the rest of the concert the choir combined with the Jugendsinfonieorchester of Leipzig to perform Mendelssohn's Lobgesang and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The conductor of this orchestra, Ron-Dirk Entleutner, is hands down one of the best that I have seen. I'm quite surprised that I had never heard of him before coming to Leipzig, such was his skill on the podium. The orchestra itself, consisting of music students between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one (or so I was told), is an astonishingly accomplished youth orchestra. It should also be noted that the professional German choir that was combined with Pennsbury, amici musicae, contributed a lovely depth to the overall sound of the choir. When all of these forces were combined, the result was truly amazing.

----

          On the day of my departure I checked out of Motel One and dragged my suitcase over the cobblestones one more time to pay my last respects to Bach's remains at the Thomaskirche. I took with me the rose that one of the students had given me at the performance the night before, thinking that I would commute that gesture of thanks to my favourite composer and lay the rose on his grave. But when I entered the church, I immediately began to feel self-conscious. The place was swarming with tourists taking photos, and all I had to offer was a limp, re-gifted rose that had seemed to whither on the walk over.

          Bach's grave is roped off, so the two options for those of us who bring tokens of remembrance are to leave them on the stone steps leading up to the choir or to fling them unceremoniously and hope that aiming is one's strong suit. Frankly I didn't want to do either, and I felt odd and awkward for some reason. I sat on a bench to write in my journal in the hopes that I might be able to sneak over the ropes once the tourists had faded away. I took off my jacket, placed the wilted rose beneath it behind my back, and started writing.

Bach's Grave

Bach's Grave

          Immersed in journalling, I barely noticed when someone sat down next to me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small hand gently touching the exposed head of the rose to my right. I looked up to see a young girl of six or seven, German I would assume, humming to herself and playing with the flower without a care in the world. At that moment I realized that it would mean more to her than it would to Bach, so I lifted up the jacket and gestured for her to take it. She looked up at me with incredulity, but when I smiled and nodded her face broke into happiness. She picked up the rose and immediately hopped down off of the bench.

          But she didn't keep it, as I had assumed she would. Instead she walked purposefully up to the ropes and laid the rose on the top step. She gave it away as readily as I had given it to her, and in doing so had commuted my message of remembrance through her own gesture. Without warning I felt inexplicable tears coming to my eyes. I can't describe the feeling I had at that moment. It was the second time in my life that I felt a push from something outside of humanity. I don't believe in a god, but something about the exact circumstances of that moment has given me cause to believe in something.

          I sat and drew out a thread of thoughts for a long time after that. I realized that though I often carry my own music very close to my heart, I rarely give of myself in my music-making as readily and effortlessly as that little girl gave the rose away. It brought into focus how much the young musicians that I worked with in the days before gave of themselves to bring the premier of my work fruition. It made me see how much people like Jim and Ron give to their students on a daily basis. Most importantly though, it made me realize that I need to stop regarding composing as an act of creation, and start regarding it as an act of giving.

          I've never lit a prayer candle in my life. On the way out I slipped a euro into the metal box and placed a small light on the racks of candles in the Thomaskirche. For the first time in a long time I found myself praying. Praying to what or to whom... I don't know, because I don't believe we can even begin to understand it. I silently wished safe travels to Jim and the Pennsbury folks, and thanked Ron and the JSO for inspiring me. I thought of Ryan Wilson and wished him well. And finally I asked for the strength to continue the work I have started in a way that helps others as much as others have helped me.

          So to everyone from the Leipzig group, thank you for making this weekend one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. I hope to see you all again soon.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

 

Week 56

Part 1: Inspiration.

Cumbria, on the drive back North.

Cumbria, on the drive back North.

          Touring season is once again in full swing! I've just returned from a tour in North Wales with the Devhana Consort and on Thursday I'm set to embark on an incredibly exciting trip to Leipzig, Germany. The past week has been inspirational to say the least, beginning with a series of personal realizations that were outlined in my last post and culminating in a cracking weekend with the lads in St. Asaph. On Friday Sarah and I travelled to Glasgow for our Valentine's Day date, and we witnessed a concert that was truly life-changing for both of us.

          It was all Sarah's idea, and hats off to her for organizing everything while I finished up my orchestration lectures for the first years. As she was completing her degree in Los Angeles, a musician by the name of Blake Mills was beginning to gain a lot of ground there and it was just our luck that he happened to be performing in Glasgow on the 13th. I'll admit that at first I was interested, but not totally grabbed by the recordings of his music that she sent me. It clearly meant a lot to her to see this concert though, and some time away from the stresses of the PhD with just her for company sounded like the perfect spiritual tonic.

          The concert proved to me the power of live music over recordings. Blake Mills and his troupe are musicians of an extremely high order, introducing a marriage of simplicity and technical craft that I have never seen before in music of their genre. If there is one thing that I prize above all else, it's a musician's ability to hone and craft a sound perfectly while remaining generous of spirit. Even though Blake's technique was very advanced, it never came across as show-boating. He used his talents to convey his own internal life in a very deep way, a goal which all musicians strive for but rarely achieve. Jesca Hoop was equally stunning both as an opener and a collaborator. I also had a chance to speak to Stuart Johnson afterwards, who is one of the most sensitive and collaborative drummers that I have seen in recent years. Many thanks to him for his openness and for showing me around his kit after the concert.

          Last week I wrote about the new direction that my own music has been heading in recently. Seeing Blake Mills has only strengthened my desire to head down this new path, however risky it is. So here is the short beginning of a very long explanation that will run throughout this blog from now on.

Part 2: The Wall.

          Years ago, before I became a classical musician, I was a drummer. At the age of 15, it seemed all I wanted out of life was to hit things with sticks. I played countless concerts on small stages and in dingy, smoky basements with the LaVoy Brothers' Band and Shipwreck Party. And yet, somewhere along the line my focus shifted to choral music. I stowed the sticks, picked up a pencil and started composing. Don't get me wrong here, I regret nothing about that decision; choral music has given me a musical home that I never dreamed of having. It will always be a huge part of me and I will continue to compose music for choirs. But there is a growing part of me that is coming to uncomfortable, and oddly exciting, realization.

          I've blocked out half of my musical life for the past 8 years. I love classical music, but it often does not contain the frenetic energy and individuality of more popular genres. At the opposite end of the spectrum, while this energy is incredible it does not make up for the fact that popular music, almost in its entirety, is less technically crafted and profound than classical music. In one of my first classical composition lessons ever, I brought along a “song” to show to my teacher, and he proceeded to tell me that I was getting a degree in classical music and that I should never, ever bring a song into one of our lessons again. Sadly, that reaction is not uncommon amongst musical academics.

          There is this idea that classical music and popular music shouldn't mix, like the musicians in both categories feel the other side is tainted in some way. I've never understood it, and I feel that this invisible wall between the two is dangerous for music in general. My belief is that the dawn of pop music in the twentieth century and its meteoric rise to popularity caused classical musicians to have a negative reaction, one of pride and the fear of diminishing importance. We built the wall, and popular musicians, sensing our aloofness, built it even higher.

          See, there I go again, referring to myself as a “classical” musician as opposed to a “popular” musician. It's ingrained in us from day one that there has to be a division. The wall is creatively stifling in the worst way, preventing any kind of organic flow between musical styles. Think about what it does to all musicians: people on the popular music side are cut off from advanced forms, from truly knowing and understanding how the music of great composers is crafted, from experiencing the profundity of the massive war-horse works for choir and orchestra for example; people on the classical music side are locked in a cage of formalities that often hampers musical honesty, simplicity, and energy.

          I know, you're offended or you take issue with what I just wrote. “My guitar playing is difficult and advanced.” “The formalities are meant to preserve and heighten musical energy, not hamper it.” Or, even more bluntly, “our music is better because of X,” where X = a reason that can easily be matched or contrasted by the other camp. The truth is, I've sat on both sides of the aisle. I have straddled the wall time and again, and from that high vantage point I have seen that these reactions are based on self-consciousness and pride, even if we are unwilling or unable to admit it. We have all done it; attempted to legitimize our own craft by demeaning another. I think it's wrong that this kind of behaviour is normal and accepted consciously or subconsciously by any musician.

          So, this new direction of mine is essentially an attempt to dismantle the wall, brick by brick. Most people are sceptical, and I understand that. It's a risk, career-wise, but a calculated one that I intend to follow through with. As I said last week, I would regret it if I didn't at least try. The final concert in Wales was proof that the two sides can exist in tandem and still be effective. We sang ancient chants, music from the 18th century, and I performed my arrangement of Arthur McBride. All were successful, even in juxtaposition with each other.

          The Leipzig trip is coming at the perfect time. The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir from Pennsylvania, conducted by Jim Moyer, will be performing the world premier of my “Salvator Mundi.”With all of this soul-searching, what I need more than anything is to be around a group of young, passionate musicians who are having their own experience of a lifetime. From what I can tell, based on the pictures and videos being posted online as they begin their tour, this is an extraordinary group of people. They have a beautiful sound as a choir, very vibrant and warm, and Jim is a wonderful conductor. I feel so blessed and lucky to be given this opportunity to work with them.

I'm sure I will come back all inspired, so expect to hear more from me next week.

Until then,

Thomas LaVoy

Music of the week: Blake Mills - It'll All Work Out



Weeks 44-55: Chance Music

          It has been well over two months since I last updated this blog. For a number of reasons, I have found it difficult to write words and compose music as of late. The death of my grandma Florence the day after Christmas caused me to call many things into question, especially seeing as she was preceded in death only seven months before by my grandma Esther. When faced with two family deaths in such a short period of time, I can't help but re-evaluate my lifestyle and pursuits. Two funerals, two urns, and two massive legacies that include interweaving webs of friends, children, grand-children, and great-grand-children.

Grandma Florence and Grandma Esther

Grandma Florence and Grandma Esther

        After witnessing the breadth of these legacies, I was faced with the inevitable questions that we all face at such times... What will my own legacy be? When I come to the twilight years of my life, will I have a loving family by my side as Florence and Esther did? Or will I be alone, my eyes fixed on a few ageing compositions on my bedside table? Will the choices that I make in the next five, ten, twenty years bolster my musical inspiration? Or will they fracture and dampen my creative spirit?

          Recently I've been thinking a lot about my music as a whole. In the eight years or so that I've been composing seriously I have undergone marked development and improvement in nearly every musical aspect. In all honesty this is bound to happen when one hones a specific craft for so long. The question that I am dying to know the answer to, and ironically the one that I couldn't possibly answer myself, is this: is there an unmistakable “LaVoy” style? If you are reading this you have probably listened to my music. But if you were to listen to a piece of mine without knowing who composed it, would you guess that it had come from me? My guess is, and it's actually quite painful to admit this, that you could name any number of contemporary choral composers who might fit the description, and by chance I might be among those mentioned.

What a realization.

          My professional bio, all five-hundred-some words of it, basically states that I am a twenty-four year old composer who has achieved a reasonable degree of success. That's a word that I've been having a hard time with. “Success.” To be frank, the success that I have had sometimes feels like blind luck in retrospect. If Harold Rosenbaum hadn't picked up White Stones during the New York Virtuoso Singers composition competition back in '08, I likely would have given up on composition entirely. I knew nothing technical about music back then, I was just tossing sounds together that I liked and somehow it spoke to him enough to give me a chance.

         Without that line in my resume who knows if I would have been accepted into Westminster Choir College for my undergraduate degree. My third day at Westminster I found myself in an unknown office in Williamson Hall, trying and failing to register for classes, when a strange and wondrously energetic man approached me. Five minutes later I was playing piano in his studio and he had convinced me that I wasn't just a composer, I was also a pianist. This was Jim Goldsworthy, who, because of this chance encounter, would become my great mentor and piano teacher for four wonderful years.

          In my second year I was pulled from my first composition teacher's studio due to an administrative technicality. I wound up, again completely by the chance of random assignment, in the studio of Joel Phillips. In the three years that I studied with him, he taught me the most important thing about composition that I have yet learned – that creating music is a marriage of technical craft and human emotion, but if you have to choose one, the emotional content must always be at the centre of a piece.

          Also in my second year I nervously pressed an original score into the bewildered hands of James Jordan. Any artist who operates on his level is constantly bombarded by requests from composers to review their scores, so I'll admit that I was somewhat shocked when he took my music in his stride. If I hadn't been so bold I would never have forged the friendship and musical partnership with him that has meant the world to me as a person and has pushed my career to new heights. He took a chance and believed in what I was doing, thereby giving me a chance to continue to create.

          Through James I met my current PhD supervisor, Paul Mealor. Oddly enough, it was also a chance encounter that brought James and Paul into contact as well. Paul happened to be in the Princeton area when James received an email from a third party asking if he wanted to meet him. After an initial introduction they became fast friends, and shortly thereafter I was introduced. Just before I was set to graduate and return to Marquette, I had the opportunity to have a tutorial with Paul, the result of which was an offer to attend the University of Aberdeen as a PhD student and study with Paul for three years. He gave me a chance and I took it.

          And so it seems to me that I have been climbing a ladder of chance ever since I began my life as a composer. People have given me chances, and I have taken them. People have taken chances on me, and I have done my best to fulfil their belief in what I do. Life itself by some strange design always seems to plop me down exactly where I need to be, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time, and I always in turn give life a chance.

          These realizations are very important to me at this time in my life. In looking at the music that I composed directly before this hiatus, I sense that my direction is changing in a significant way. My tendencies have changed, as has the tone of my music as a whole. Repetition of small harmonic cells, higher rhythmic energy, strong pulses, soaring melodies, the direct layering of multiple ideas to produce harmony – all of these are becoming more apparent in my music than ever before. I feel like this break from productivity has allowed my brain some time for synthesis, and out of the haze a new sound is starting to form.

          I've titled this blog entry as such because I feel it is once again time for me to take the chance and follow the trajectory that this new sound is offering. One of the worst things that I can imagine would be looking back twenty years from now, only to face the deadening realization that it was my own fear of the unknown that kept my full potential at a comfortable distance. It is my primary aim now to ensure that this does not happen, and in order to do so a significant departure from my previous style will have to come to pass.

          There is an exciting idea developing between myself and two of my closest musical collaborators that could potentially be the focusing point of this new direction. I will undoubtedly be writing about it more in the near future, but for now it is so delicate an idea that any breath of air could cause it to collapse. Even when I mention it to my closest friends the idea is often met with a certain degree of incredulity and scepticism. Suffice it to say that it draws together elements of my entire musical life thus far, reaching back to the time before I became a “composer.”

          So to sum this up, things are going to change. All I ask, especially for those of you who have followed my music and supported me from the beginning, is that you take a chance of your own and trust me.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

Music of the week(s): Ave, maris stella as performed by the Chapel Choir of King's College, Aberdeen. 

Weeks 39-43: On the Birth of Locke Elliot LaVoy, a New Piece, and an Exciting Month to Come

Uncle Stretchy-Face

Uncle Stretchy-Face

          Yet another month has slipped by without my weekly blog entries, but in my defence there has been a tremendous amount going on. On the 9th of November, the LaVoy clan added a new member to its ranks and I became an uncle for the first time. Locke Elliot LaVoy, the first-born child of my brother Lucas and his wife Emily, was born that morning in Texas, weighing in at 8 lbs. 13 oz. It seems a little bit odd to be passing off the mantle of youngest LaVoy boy, a title I've held for 24 years, just as odd as thinking that I am now an uncle. When I think of how I perceived my own uncles and step-uncles growing up, they always seemed to be very cool but also just a little bit strange. Perhaps it was simply my young mind trying to process the similarities between their facial characteristics and those of my parents. But then again, am I going to be the eccentric composer uncle with a stretchy face?

          At any rate, as the delivery date approached I started to feel the need to welcome Locke into the world in my own way. Naturally my own way will always involve music of some kind, and it just so happened that I had recently been commissioned by the Chapel Choir of King's College, Aberdeen to compose a Christmas carol for our upcoming tour to Budapest, Hungary. After searching for a couple of weeks I finally found a text that I felt was not only perfect for the Christmas season but for Lucas, Emily, and Locke as well. “Ave, maris stella,” translated as “Hail, Star of the Sea,” is a beautiful Latin poem primarily about Mary and the birth of Christ.

Waves on Lake Superior

Waves on Lake Superior

          Emily was on my mind most of all in the two weeks that I spent composing the piece. It's difficult to describe the bond that forms between Lake Superior and a person who grew up on her shores. Many describe the Lake as “Mother Superior” or “Mother Lake,” an indescribable influence and source of comfort at the best and most difficult of times. In my mind, Emily became the “Star of the Sea,” the mother mentioned in the poem, except that I consider her to be more of the “Star of Superior.” And so the texture that dominates the piece is one of waves, in this case the waves of Lake Superior that Lucas, Emily, and our whole family know and love.

          The final verse of the Latin speaks of praise being given to the Father, and while this refers of course to the Christian God, in my own personal context this section will always be about my brother Lucas as a new father. I chose to reuse two phrases in this climactic final verse; “Ave maris stella,” the personification of Emily, sung by soloists in high tessituras, and “Deus Patri,” the personification of Lucas, sung repeatedly by the basses. These two musical lines combine with other material, creating a wash of sound that surrounds the melody which holds the words “tribus honor unus,” or “honor, to the three equally.” The combination of two pre-existing and distinct musical ideas gives rise to a third sound, a new sound. A mere shadow, of course, of what it is for two people to create a new life, but it's the best way that I know how to honor the three of them.

          Ave, maris stella will receive its world premier in Budapest, Hungary in early December, the last of five pieces of mine to be premiered in just under a month. Yesterday I gave the world premiers of two piano preludes at my Cathedral at Noon recital at St. Andrew's Cathedral; an unfinished prelude dedicated to my grandma Esther, who passed away before I could complete the work, and Mnemosyne, dedicated to my grandma Florence who is currently battling Alzheimer's Disease. Next Thursday is the world premier Ave, verum corpus, a choral-orchestral collaboration between myself and composer John Frederick Hudson, at St. Machar's Cathedral in Aberdeen. I will then conduct the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir in the first performance of my new setting of Adam lay ybounden in St. Marlybone Church, London, also in early December.

          What a month, and what a blessing it is to be here in Aberdeen and abroad to experience these amazing things. On top of all of this, we've been invited to return to Culzean Castle to sing Christmas carols in the days before I return home for winter break. I had to change my flight to be included in this, but I feel it is going to be an incredible time, especially with Sarah by my side this time around. Her 24th birthday is on Wednesday, and I'm definitely planning a fun weekend!

Haggis Stuffed Peppers!

Haggis Stuffed Peppers!

          On a final side note, I am officially being spoiled with amazing food by the people that surround me. Last night Sarah made baked bell peppers stuffed with haggis, black pudding, feta cheese, and couscous, an incredible dish that I'm sure we will repeat often. John and his partner Brock also treated several of us to one of their world-class six course dining experiences last week- a tremendous evening of food and wine that they titled “The Invasion: Fall Dinner with 'The Yanks.'”

          There's always too much to cover in a short blog entry. Life is wonderful, this month is bound to be amazing, and I can't wait to come home and meet my nephew Locke.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy


Culture Shock of the week(s): "Duking it out" is not a common phrase in the UK. When using the phrase in this country it apparently calls to mind two Dukes being overly polite to one another....

For example, whilst "fighting" over a flat they both want to rent:
"Oh Reginald, I couldn't possibly take this flat!"
"No, no Nigel, I must insist!"
"Reginald!"
"Nigel, I won't take no for an answer!"
"Oh Reginald, you are too kind!"

And so on. Not that Dukes would rent flats. 
 

Music of the Week(s): Stan Rogers' Northwest Passage





Weeks 34-38: On Carols and Castles

Robert Burns original hand-written manuscript, seen as part of the Culzean Castle trip. 

Robert Burns original hand-written manuscript, seen as part of the Culzean Castle trip. 

          I have been much busier this term than the last. In addition to my normal composition routine I have been made manager of the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir, taken leadership of the postgraduate reading group, and started my teaching duties for the second year composition students. All good experience, but I can't deny that it has taken some getting used to. There is so much music to be composed, and I feel that I haven't quite fallen into a productive stride yet. This past summer I discovered that I operate best when my thoughts have time to breath. I'm not one of those that needs to be constantly busy to be productive. I need time to sit and think, or pace around my room singing fragments of melodies until things fall into place naturally. My new flatmates must think I'm mad, but that's how I work.

          As of this weekend I have finished work on what I feel is a fairly important commission for me; a new setting of Adam lay ybounden for a Nine Lessons and Carols service in London, set for early December of this year. My first time ever visiting London will be to conduct Chamber Choir in a world premier of my own work. What a treat! The text is likely a 15th century wandering English minstrel song:

Adam lay ybounden,
          Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter,
          Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple,
          An apple that he took.
As clerkes finden,
          Written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been,
          The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie,
          Abeen heav'ne queen.

Blessed be the time
          That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen.
          Deo gratias!

Most of the Culzean Castle crew. 

Most of the Culzean Castle crew. 

          What I find most interesting about this text is how the author plays with concepts of time and numbers. According to medieval theology, Adam supposedly lay in bonds in the limbus patrum (limbo) for four thousand years, from the time of his death until the birth of Jesus Christ. Certain of the speech sounds contained in the poem sound best when drawn out for their full effect, i.e. “bounden in a bond,” the alliteration of which causes the speaker (or singer) to stretch time when uttering the words. “Four thousand winter,” is also, of course, a very long time, something which I attempted to convey in the music.

          The challenge of conveying four thousand years of limbo in a short piece of music is immense. It was the numbers that in the text that ultimately gave me the structure of the work. Four stanzas, four thousand years – it was a short leap to realize that the piece should land roughly on the four minute mark. I used the first stanza as the A section of a quasi-rondo form, placing it in between each of the other stanzas as a sort of refrain. The first A section is doubled to include an introduction and the final line of the last stanza, “Deo gratias!” became the coda, returning to the melodic material of the introduction and A sections. Thus the full architecture of the work is A(introduction) – ABACAD – A (coda). Discounting the brief coda there are then four true iterations of the refrain, matching both the four stanzas of the poem and the “four thousand winter,” included in the text.

The grave of my "grand-teacher," William Mathias

The grave of my "grand-teacher," William Mathias

          The melodic material itself is constantly swirling in a chromatic descent. To me this downward spinning motion, in combination with the alliterative bilabial nature of lines like “bounden in a bond,” feels like the swirling, oppressive nature of Adam's time in the limbus patrum. The harmonic language I chose was purposeful; I employed reasonably standard western chromaticism, purely for the fact that this is an advent carol for a Nine Lessons and Carols service. In my past advent and Christmas were always accompanied by hymn-like arrangements of carols, so this piece is also paying homage to my own traditional family holiday experience as well. The goal here is to expand the piece into a three carol set, one each for Advent, Christmas, and Easter.

Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle

          Composer-ramblings aside, I'm incredibly excited to perform this piece in London with Chamber Choir. Chamber has become a second family to me, just as Williamson Voices was during my time at Westminster Choir College. Our tour to Wales in September was absolutely lovely and I am so grateful that they went easy on me as the new manager. St. Asaph is a beautiful little town in North Wales, I would I highly recommend stopping in there to anyone passing through the area. We performed two concerts at St. Asaph's cathedral, incidentally where Paul's first composition teacher (and therefore my “grand-teacher”), William Mathias, is buried. One of the concerts was actually dedicated to Mathias, and was performed on what would have been his 80th birthday had he still been alive.

Sarah and I at the top of Edinburgh Castle

Sarah and I at the top of Edinburgh Castle

          Two weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of spending a weekend with friends at Culzean Castle, a stunning structure on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Western shore of Scotland. Three nights of intense merry-making, word games, rounders, cave exploring, bathrobes, and dodging the resident ghosts. We essentially took over the top floor of the castle, the Eisenhower apartment, so named for the United States president's regular visits and fondness of the castle. One night, after a spectacular dinner in full tuxedos and gowns, we sang for the owners in the domed atrium containing a sweeping staircase at the center of the castle – an experience I will never forget. I seem to be forming a great deal of unforgettable memories here...

Alex and I, sharing a pint for the first time in over a year.

Alex and I, sharing a pint for the first time in over a year.

          This weekend Sarah and I trekked down to Edinburgh on a day trip. Neither of us had been there before, but I think it's safe to say that both of us will be going back more often from now on. It's a stunningly beautiful city. After a lunch of fish and chips we spent most of the day exploring Edinburgh Castle, an immense structure perched above the city on a high cliff. To cap the whole experience, we were finally able to meet up with my step-brother Alex, a native of Edinburgh, for a pint and a plate of nachos. It was so good to see him again; the last time we were in close proximity was over a year ago when I came to Aberdeen to see the University and decide if I wanted to move here. The journey back on the train was long (hampered by a nosebleed on my part while trying to get tickets), but the conversation was wonderful and Sarah and I arrived back in Aberdeen that evening exhausted but in very good spirits.

          Overall, life continues to be very kind to me. I feel slightly stressed, but everything will work out just fine, as it always does.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy
 

Culture shock of the week(s): Forgetting that the stove needs to be turned on like a wall socket. I know it saves energy, but staring at a raw egg in a skillet for half an hour and wondering why it won't cook makes me feel stupid. Really stupid.  

Music of the week (well, really because the video itself is beautiful... not a huge fan of the guy's voice): Hell Bent - Kenna

Weeks 17-33: On the death of my grandmother and the last days of summer in Marquette.

          I will admit that I am finding it very difficult to start this blog entry. I last wrote on May 16th, about three and a half months ago, and the sheer amount of things both good and bad that I have experienced since then has made it virtually impossible to cover everything. I will do my best, but I apologize to all who were involved if I paraphrase certain things.


My grandmother, Esther Magdalena Taylor.

My grandmother, Esther Magdalena Taylor.

          Today we spread the ashes of my grandmother, Esther Magdalena Taylor, into the wind atop Mount Marquette in Michigan. This mountain, which overlooks the city of Marquette in a truly beautiful way, was one of her favorite places, and because of that it has become one of mine as well. I remember the last time we made the climb on her 86th birthday in October. My brother Logan and I supported her on each side, slowly making our way up the rocks from the parking lot. She was frail then, but determined to reach the top, just as she was determined to survive until the world premiere of “A Child's Requiem.” Thankfully she achieved both of these goals, but when I embarked on my first journey to Scotland in January I knew that it would likely be the last time I would see her in person. As much as I hoped this feeling would be wrong and that she would live to see another beautiful Marquette summer, my intuition was correct.

          Grandma Esther died peacefully in her home on May 25th, 2014, an empty bowl and a half-drunk cup of coffee, still warm when my mother found her, on a tray her in lap. Dan later discovered leafy green tops in the sink, indicating that the bowl had been filled with strawberries. In her last days she would read and reread a poem that my mother had just published in Passages North, which, in an odd sort of congruence, was about a woman eating wild berries from her lap. To be honest, my grandma's death was one that all of us could hope to experience some day: a cup of warm drink, a bowl of strawberries, and birdsong drifting in through the open balcony door as she fell asleep for the last time.

          I like to think of my grandma as a collector in a way. She surrounded herself with pictures of her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. I can picture her there, sitting in her favorite white arm chair, gazing at the people she loved most on this earth and feeling close to us regardless of how far flung we all were. I remember when grandma met Renata for the first time, she turned to her impressive wall of family pictures, spread her arms wide, and said in a dramatically hushed voice: “And this... this is my tribe.” She had three children, seven grand-children, and ten great-grandchildren. After the Requiem she set herself the new goal of surviving until her eleventh great-grandchild, my soon to be born nephew, was born. Though she didn't ultimately reach this goal she did live to see her family ranks swell substantially, and she was always sure to tell each of us what the others were up to every chance that she got.

          I couldn't write about her death until now. Holding her ashes in my cupped hands and casting them into the wind was cathartic, bringing me the closure that was so difficult to find. These past few months since her death have been a whirlwind of traveling and questioning all aspects of my life. I was on tour in Wales with the Devahna Consort when I received the call from my mother telling me that she had died. I returned to the States for two weeks for the memorial service and then I went straight back to Scotland for the University of Ulster Chamber Choir's tour to Aberdeen. Soon after that our own chamber choir went on tour to Belgium and Holland, an incredible experience that I will hold with me always. Then it was back to Aberdeen yet again to move out of my flat before returning to the Choral Music Institute at Oxford for ten days, this year as a guest composer. I hope to write about all of these things in detail at some point, but that is not for this entry.

          I finally arrived back in Marquette on July 17th, roughly a month after I returned to Scotland following the memorial service. I flew in the night before the annual Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival, which I have come to regard as both something of a family reunion and my own personal New Years celebration. The seven weeks I was able to spend here were a Godsend. Finally I was able to stop moving for a period of time that was long enough for me to process everything that had happened. I find it odd that I tend to work less when I come home for a visit, and yet I always seem to get more accomplished. Songs of the Questioner, the large work that I produced here in Marquette, was the product of my own the reactions not only to the death of my grandmother but to the myriad of experiences that I had while I was in this period of questioning.

          In addition to the work I produced in the classical music world, I managed to find time to return to my roots in a more visceral way as a drummer. Together with my brother Logan and my good friend Bud we have formed a three piece group playing (as per usual) a sort of hybrid form of math rock fused with circus music. I know I am primarily a composer now, and after that a pianist, and after that a conductor, but I think that at the very core of me I am a drummer. In fact, my favorite thing about this summer was that it gave me a chance to play music with my old friends and penetrate the crowd of glorious misfits that surround the Merlot Mansion. For those that have not heard of it, Merlot is a show house here in Marquette that provides a venue that is vital to the underground music scene. The people involved with this venture are honestly some of the best people that I have ever known, and I'm very happy to have fallen in with them for my short time here. If you want to hear some great music, come to Merlot tomorrow night, the 5th of September – our three piece band is playing for the first time!

          I know this entry has been scattered. I wish there was time to go into more detail about all of these adventures, but the reality of making the trip back over the pond to Scotland is closing in and I have much work to do. I'd like to conclude this entry with the poem that my mother wrote that spoke to grandma Esther so much. After all, August has officially come and gone...

Until next time. Love you, Grandma.

Thomas LaVoy


Wild Berries

August is a woman of some reputation.
She's been in the sun some; there's no hiding that -
Part the Queen Anne's lace that grows round her throat
And you will find her breasts, brown as dunes,
Coarse and soft at once there in her blue gown.
Even among the white limbs of birches, where water
Falling now takes its time tapping down the stone stairway,
A ray of sun lights a torch of goldenrod,
There in the green moss. For the time being,
She lies stretched out in full sun, curling and flexing
Bare toes, eating wild berries from her own lap
With lips stained and shining. She is laughing
As the grasshopper who has tangled himself in her hair
Rasps his love song into her ear.
What if time and wind shall take her treasures,
And winter gather like age upon her head?
What matters most is all -
She'll have her fill before her fall.

                        - Esther Margaret Ayers



Music of the week: White Stones, with text by my mother. For the family connection...


Week 16: On the River Don, a new commission, and a world premiere.

          Yet another wonderful week here in Aberdeen! The weather is clearing up substantially and the sky is getting much lighter, with daylight lasting far longer than it would back in the United States at this time. I find that these generous quantities of sunlight have impacted my mood and productivity in a massive way. In this week alone I have started and nearly finished the new commission for the Pennsbury High School Concert Choir under the direction of James D. Moyer. This setting of Salvator mundi will be performed as a part of the choir's tour to Europe in 2015, a very exciting opportunity for me as a composer!

Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci

Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci

          As with the other works that I have produced so far during the course of my PhD, Salvator mundi is a step in quite a different direction in comparison to the music I composed during my undergraduate degree at Westminster Choir College. In particular, the level of dynamic intensity has been greatly reduced to a fraction of the volume that I am used to working with. My goal was to construct the piece in such a way that the dynamic level never increased beyond mezzo piano. I certainly achieved this, as about ninety percent of the piece is at the level of piano or quieter, which I think (or rather I hope) will have the effect of drawing the audience into the sound of the choir and the meaning of the text. In addition to this there is also zero divisi in the four voice parts of the choir, a tactic which I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have never once used in my choral writing. Compared to other settings of this famous text, mine is very somber, introspective, and subdued, even though the harmonic language will certainly be a challenge for a high school choir, albeit a very successful one. And yet, despite the rather strict framework that I constructed around my compositional process for this piece, I can still feel a great deal of myself coming through in the music, and this fact makes me very pleased with the work I have done.

          When I sit down to compose these days I feel very different from how I did even five months ago. It might sound strange to someone not used to creative processes that my composing sessions have become borderline obsessive. I find myself wrapped in a happy daze for hours at a time as I work. Actually, “work” hardly describes what I do to be honest, because the connotations of this word in my mind are generally negative, and I love every single minute that I get to spend composing. That being said, I know that I am technically working as I am paid to do it, but I genuinely wish that every person could find a paid profession that makes them as happy as my involvement in music makes me. Given the reputation of my field for being one that is difficult to make much money in, I know that I will probably never be a very wealthy person, but in my mind the benefits of doing exactly what I love to do on a daily basis far outstrip the benefits of having a bloated bill-fold.

Scenes from the River Don

Scenes from the River Don

          There has been time in between the hours spent composing to experience some great things with some great people this week. On Monday we celebrated the 30th birthday of my dear Italian friend Fabrizio Cultrera with a massive sea food dinner and a fine selection of wine. It was a truly fabulous evening, although the porters had to come shut us down several times when we lapsed into singing Italian opera at the top of our voices. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning we wound our way down to the bank of the River Don so as not to keep disturbing the other tenants in our building (a million apologies to all of you for our shenanigans!), and being from Michigan I led the charge into the freezing water. I'll never forget Fabrizio shouting to those left on shore as he and I stood in the Don: “Take a picture! Italy and U.S.! PIZZA CONNECTION!” The cuts on my feet from the rocky riverbed were totally worth it.

          On Wednesday I went to see the Elphinstone Chamber Orchestra perform a selection of works including the UK premiere of Bohuslav Martinů's Concertino for Left-hand Piano at St. Machar's Cathedral. Thomas Le Brocq and Cole Bendall led the orchestra very effectively from the podium, and piano soloist Paul Murray, whose personal story is absolutely incredible, was stunning in his interpretation of this difficult work for one hand. The orchestra, although slightly shaky at times given the level of difficulty of the repertoire, really seemed to enjoy what they were doing, which to me ultimately means a great deal more than perfect technical execution. First violinist Aden Mazur was simply outstanding and a star performer in his own right. The orchestra also performed the world premiere of Variations on a theme of Beethoven by Peter Davis, an up and coming first year composer at the University of Aberdeen. While the orchestration was a little cloudy at times and the composition a little stylistically confused, there is no denying the incredible potential and solid musical ideas of this gifted young composer. He will be a person to watch out for in the years to come, mark my words.

MSHS Redmen Chorale

MSHS Redmen Chorale

          Tuesday night was a very special occasion for me as the Marquette Senior High School Redmen Chorale, under the direction of my good friend and original mentor Jan Brodersen, gave the world premiere of my new choral work, In My Silence. I am so sad that I could not be at the concert in America, but after listening to the Elphinstone Chamber Orchestra it was a welcome surprise to see a video of the premiere on Wednesday night. These young men and women mean so much to me; they were the one unshakeable constant in my life during the preparation for the world premiere of A Child's Requiem in December, and I will never forget the service that they have rendered to my music. I miss working with them so much; such incredible passion for such young people. Thank you, all of you, for being who you are and for allowing me to compose music for you.

          And now, after a lovely evening spent at an outdoor screening of The Triplets of Belleville with the French, I find myself at the end of another wonderful week in Scotland. The weeks really are flying by. Tomorrow it will be two months until I return to Marquette for Hiawatha... Life is good!

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

 

Culture shock of the week: so cars drive on the left here right? Turns out people pass each other on the pavement (sidewalk for Americans) on the left as well. My apologies to the city of Aberdeen for constantly walking straight into its inhabitants on a daily basis...

Music of the week: the world premiere of In My Silence. 


Week 15: On hard work and good times.

          I am two days late in posting I am afraid, but I feel I have very good reasons for putting it off. This week and weekend could not have been more different from the last; very productive and busy without much frustration of any kind at all. The week was spent finalizing my piece for the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir's tour to Belgium and Holland, a work for SSAATTBB chorus with soloists titled Phaenix alumna mortis. I thought that I had pretty much finished the conceptual work on the piece during Chapel Choir's tour to Canterbury, but on returning to Aberdeen I began questioning some aspects of the composition and ultimately decided to rewrite some sections. It is a very difficult piece of music, but Chamber Choir is more than up to the task of performing it and Paul and I have chosen four wonderful soloists to sing some essential musical lines; Lucy Hole, Emily Harrison, Josh Baxter, and David Paterson. I can't wait to get started on the piece in rehearsal!

          When I began the PhD here in Aberdeen I made the decision to consciously challenge myself with new styles of composing. What would be the point, I asked, of pursuing the terminal degree in my chosen field without actively pushing myself to explore musical material that I was not necessarily comfortable working with? The first step down this experimental road was my angular, jagged setting of Ave verum corpus for chorus and string orchestra, including harmonies the likes of which I never would have expected to see cropping up in my own music. From there I moved on to My True Being, delving into much more complex rhythms and employing techniques found in traditional Indian vocal music. Then, of course, I composed Phaenix alumna mortis, a very difficult piece due to the quasi-minimalist and constantly moving textures that serve as the backdrop for the text.

          Just as Phaenix has been drawing to a close, two new works have started to blossom in the past week. Despite being very different in style, Ave verum corpus, My True Being, and Phaenix alumna mortis all have one thing in common; the trajectory of the piece is always aimed at achieving some sort of major climax on or near the golden section of the work. I didn't plan them that way necessarily, but the golden section is so ingrained in my musical sensibility that it came out naturally in my writing. In fact, it seems that every choral work I have ever written is aimed at reaching some great height of musical tension followed by falling action and resolution. But what if I removed the climaxes entirely? Would I be able to compose a cohesive piece of music without reaching any great heights?

Jim Moyer

Jim Moyer

          This is exactly what these two new works seek to accomplish. I don't want to remove tension entirely, but to use it in a more linear, atmospheric way. The first piece is a new setting of the well known text Salvator mundi, commissioned by James D. Moyer and the Pennsbury High School Concert Choir for their upcoming tour of Europe. In contrast to many settings of this text, the dynamic will never rise above mezzo piano, creating a very somber and introspective atmosphere in which harmonies will unfold naturally in response to the words. One might naturally assume that the louder the music the more potential it has to command the attention of the listeners, but in my experience I have found that it is often the quietest of passages that are most effective in drawing the audience in and captivating them. To compose a piece entirely this way will have a very eerie effect on the room, especially in the halls of Salzburg and Leipzig where the choir will be performing next year.

          For the second piece I have chosen another brilliant text by Rabindranath Tagore, whose seminal work Gitanjali has provided a great deal of inspiration to me in addition to the text for My True Being. Although the new Salvator mundi will be different in construction to much of my work, it still maintains the general harmonic palate that I have been using and developing over the years. This will not be the case for the other newly composed work, as I will yet again be exploring some Indian techniques and harmonies in both the choir and string parts. I do not have a title yet, but the choir will be accompanied by classical guitar, violin, and cello. Similarly to Salvator mundi, the piece will remain quiet and without climax for the entire duration, but in this case the dynamic will never rise above piano. The whole work will just float along, with odd intervalic relationships working their way out of the texture due to the harmonic relationship between the singers and the players.

          But enough about work; I realize that the compositional process might be as boring to readers as it is fascinating to me! Friday was a busy day, as I was able to witness the stunning Dunedin Consort give a reading session to benefit some of the Masters/PhD composition students at Aberdeen. They did a tremendous job with My True Being once we got it up to speed; what a difficult piece! In the evening we made our way down to Cowdray Hall in city center to attend the Ogston Prize final, the last round of a scholarship competition made possible by the incredible generosity of local legend Derek Ogston. Five wonderful competitors gave superb performances; Greta Dilyte on Piano, Katie Doig singing soprano, Maria Vilberg on piano, Ruth Potts on violin, and Savia Iakovou also singing soprano. In the end the prize went to Maria for her excellent interpretation of Scriabin and Bartok, but all five competitors should be praised for their talent and commitment to their craft. To cap things off, Greta, Migle and I went to celebrate afterward and had a tremendous night out on the town.

(From left) Me, John, Sam, Kirsten, Raemond, and Paul

(From left) Me, John, Sam, Kirsten, Raemond, and Paul

          Saturday was an equally amazing day. I was invited to take a tour of Fyvie Castle with Paul Mealor, John Hudson, Raemond and Kirsten Jappy, and Sam Jackson, managing editor of Classic FM and one of the judges for the Ogston Prize. A great day spent in good company in a truly beautiful environment – what more can one ask for? I even had a chance to try out the piano in the gallery after high tea had been served. I would love to return to the castle at some point to do a bit of composing and spend a bit more time with that superb instrument. It seems I have been drawing a lot of inspiration from architecture lately, whether it be the Italian Hall Arch in Calumet, Canterbury Cathedral in England, or Fyvie Castle in Scotland. Perhaps there is an architectural suite for solo piano coming in the near future (hint hint)...

          After a much needed nap following the Fyvie expedition I found myself at Marine Meyer's birthday party near the University, surrounded by French people. I think it is about time that I say a few words about this group, as I have increasingly been spending time with them and have been enjoying every minute of it. I can't quite remember, but I believe it was the legend that is Leon Giguet who first introduced me to the rest of them. Most of the French that I know are here in Scotland as Erasmus students, meaning they are essentially foreign exchange students studying in Aberdeen for the third year of their University careers. Unfortunately, this means that most of them will be gone once term ends, which makes me a very sad panda indeed.

Me with the French,  a Mexican and few Brits mixed in as well!

Me with the French,  a Mexican and few Brits mixed in as well!


          I'm not entirely sure whether certain personal characteristics that they exhibit are typical of the French as a whole or if it is just this group in particular, but I find that their behavior is slightly more akin to what I am used to in the United States than what I have found here in the United Kingdom. There is a certain openness and passion to the way that they speak that I greatly admire in them and miss about my friends back home. Perhaps this is why I feel so comfortable around them, although it is true that they are just extraordinarily accepting and easy to talk to - that is, when I can understand what they are saying. I took three years of French in High school and at Westminster, but it is not nearly enough for me to fully understand their conversation. Luckily, someone usually takes pity on me (usually it's Marine, Thomas, or Leon... thanks guys!) and either translates for me or diverts the conversation back to English. All in all, the time I've spent with these crazy Frenchies has been fantastic, and I'm certainly going to miss them next year.

          There is always more to write – at some point you have to admit defeat and just go to bed. Congrats to all of the Ogston Prize finalists and to David Lawn on a tremendous recording session today in St. Machar's Cathedral; my vocal chords still haven't recovered from singing so many low notes! Happy belated birthday to Marine Meyer, whose celebration last night was legendary but made my morning so very, very difficult.

          Most importantly, a very Happy Mother's Day to my wonderful Mom and my two Grandmas, AND a supremely happy birthday to Dan, my step dad. Skype is such a great thing - I can't wait to see you all in July! I couldn't have done this without you.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

 

Culture shock of the week: “Bumper Cars” are called “Dodgems” here. What?

Music of the week: Move Your Feet by Junior Senior

Week 14: On Dido and Aeneas, the Casino, and a difficult week.

          First of all, I would like to thank everyone who made the launching of my website a great success. Thanks to all of you, www.ThomasLaVoy.com saw 1,500 hits in the first 24 hours! Traffic has slowed considerably since then, but I'm glad the first push drew such an enthusiastic audience.

John Hudson, Conductor of Dido and Aeneas

John Hudson, Conductor of Dido and Aeneas

          On the Saturday following my last post I had the opportunity to see many of my friends and colleagues perform Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at Cowdray Hall in the heart of Aberdeen. It pains me to admit that I'm not generally an “opera person,” a secret that I've spent five years trying to hide from my closest friends, many of whom are either opera admirers or operatic singers themselves. However I am delighted to say that Saturday's performance both transfixed and converted me, such was the level of artistry and musicianship exhibited by the performers. Conductor John Hudson put an extraordinary amount of time and energy into preparing for this event, and in partnership with director Sarah LeBrocq was able to produce a fabulous musical and visual experience for all.

          There were very few things that I took issue with in the production as a whole, and they were such small annoyances (spotlights not being entirely centered, a missed note in the orchestra or chorus here or there, etc.) that focusing on them would detract from this generally incredible production. This was a student show after all, small issues are to be expected and systematically ignored on the date of the performance. The orchestra and chorus were effective in their adherence to Baroque performance practice, due in part I am sure to both John's leadership and the instruction that the students receive at the University. Three standouts from the orchestra who I felt were especially exceptional were Leader Ruth Potts (in the good ol' U.S. of A we would call her Concertmaster or Concertmistress instead of Leader), harpsichordist Ed Jones, and Peter Davis on Cello.

The full team. Great production!

The full team. Great production!

          Occupying the title roles of Dido and Aeneas were Emily Harrison and Niall Anderson, both of whom commanded the stage and sang masterfully. The final aria of the opera, When I am laid in earth, is absolutely heart-wrenching when in the right singers hands, and Emily was certainly responsible for more than a few wet eyes in Cowdray Hall on Saturday (guilty!). Lucy Hole, whose soaring soprano voice one can't help but fall in love with, was stunning and hilarious in the role of Belinda, particularly in her performance of Thanks to these lonesome vales. Sporting an enormously powerful voice and an evil demeanor in the role of the Sorceress Giselle was Savia Iakovou, a gifted young singer to keep one's eye on as her voice continues to grow and develop in the coming years.

Truly a remarkable performance, congratulations to everyone involved!

          Unfortunately, the buzz that Dido and Aeneas had given me only lasted through the night... and then it stopped abruptly Sunday morning. There is a magical place in Aberdeen that the music students often frequent, full of many-colored lights and seemingly endless quantities of Prosecco. I'm speaking, of course, about the Casino, and this is where we all went on Saturday evening to celebrate the success of the opera. Now, I want to be very clear that I don't gamble at all as a personal rule; I feel it would be wrong of me to do so given the generosity of my sponsors, and I also just find it to be a waste. We generally go to the Casino because it has a fabulous bar and a good space for socializing; occasionally someone will put down a few quid on roulette, but nothing serious.

The famous lights of the Casino...

The famous lights of the Casino...

          The only real trouble with the Casino (as it is in all casinos given the lack of clocks and virtually non-existent closing times) is that it is very easy to lose track of the time. It isn't unusual to walk out at the end of an evening to see the sky getting lighter, suddenly realizing that one has to be up in a few hours. This is precisely what happened on Saturday evening, so when I finally got home I made sure to set my alarms for 8:00 am. I woke up at noon, panicking, having slept straight through a total of seven alarms; three on my phone, three on my ipod, and one on the alarm clock on my desk. To have three electronic demons screaming “YOU'RE LATE!” when you awake is a terrible experience.

          If there is one thing I hate more than anything it is the feeling of shame that accompanies missing something important. And so, the next day I was sure to ask the specific time and location of an evening rehearsal for a wedding that I will be singing in next weekend. I put a reminder in my phone and made the forty minute walk down to St. Andrews to arrive at 8:00 pm. When I arrived the doors were locked and I was greeted by an understandably angry Teddy Jones, who asked me why I hadn't arrived when the rehearsal began at 7:00 pm. Somehow I had mixed everything up and put the wrong time as a reminder.

          My greatest struggle here in Scotland has without a doubt been my relationship with time. Missing two important gigs back to back is of course not what I'd call a great start to the week, but I find that time and productivity have also shifted for me in general since arriving here. Even though I technically have less structured things to do as a PhD student, I find it much more difficult to keep everything straight than when I was an undergrad with a regular schedule. I often get lost in my work for hours at a time, resurfacing just in time to realize that a rehearsal starts in fifteen minutes. Given the fact that it takes twenty minutes to walk to the University, I've developed a reputation for being five minutes late for everything, a reputation which I truly despise and am keep to get rid of as soon as possible.

          When I was living in the United States, the most naturally productive time for me to do my work was between the hours of 2:00 pm and 10:00 pm. Oddly enough, the most naturally productive time for me here is between the hours of 7:00 pm and 3:00 am. Given the five hour time difference, I'm still working at the same time that I was in the States, even though I should have adjusted to British time by now. This is very frustrating for me, because each time I stay up until 3:00 am composing I run the risk of waking up late and further feeding this self-perpetuating sleep cycle.

          In spite of all of this, the week has brightened considerably as it has progressed. Chapel Choir had the great honor of singing an evensong service with James O'Donnell (conductor of the choir at Westminster Abbey in London!), and my piece for the Dunedin Consort reading session next Friday has been printed, bound, and shipped. This short piece, My True Being for six voices with poetry by the legendary Rabindranath Tagore, is dedicated to my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Stan, who have supported my musical ambitions from the very beginning all those years ago, and to Dr. Thomas Huffman and his family. Work on the Chamber Choir tour piece continues and I should be done with it very soon.

          And now I really must get myself down to St. Andrews, or Teddy Jones will have to strap on his TDS and give me a walloping.

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

Culture shock of the week: Forgetting that it isn't customary to have your groceries bagged for you at the supermarket, thereby causing a pileup in the checkout lane. First world problems, I know...

Music of the week: When I am laid in earth  from Dido and Aeneas.

Week 13: On my first three months as a PhD student in Scotland and the launching of www.ThomasLaVoy.com

Greetings from Scotland!

          Well, it's official: www.ThomasLaVoy.com has been launched! 2014 marks my 10th year of composing and my 20th year at the piano, so I don't think I can get away with not having a website anymore. I have never had a “home” for my music until a few weeks ago, when I decided it was high time for me to increase my internet presence and finally build a website. It seems that being active on social media and maintaining a strong presence on the internet are increasingly two of the most important keys to success these days, particularly for those of us who are freelance artists. Seeing as I am now pursuing a PhD in music composition and will soon enter into the real world of composing, I can't very well deny the potential benefits of having a website of my own.

Ruins near Lochcarron

Ruins near Lochcarron

          I had three reasons for creating this website, the first of which was, of course, to promote my music and funnel all related information and media into a single location. The second reason was to promote the work of the many talented people that I have met and grown close with over the years, both in the United States and abroad (see my Friends and Collaborators page for more details!). Finally, the third and most important reason for creating this site was to have a means of communication with the people who have supported me in my journey over to the United Kingdom to pursue my terminal degree. I would love to write letters to all of the people who support me, but then I wouldn't have time to do any composing at all (or any money left – postage to the U.S. isn't cheap!). I will post a new blog entry every Friday if time permits, detailing the work that I am doing and the many joys and culture shocks of life here in Scotland. Feel free to comment or ask questions as you wish and I will always try to reply or answer accordingly!


And now, on to life in Scotland.

          As of today I have been in Aberdeen for 13 weeks! Unfortunately I won't be able to cover everything that has happened since I arrived in this entry, but I should be able to hit the major points at least. Now that I've gotten over the initial emotional shock of finding myself living in a foreign country (how did that happen??), I'm surprised at how quickly time seems to be slipping by. My first term at the University of Aberdeen is roughly halfway finished, and I will be returning to visit the United States for about six weeks in July and August. Life as a PhD student is... strange, but wonderful all the same. I'm still not entirely used to the freedom it permits; no required classes or lectures and only a fortnightly tutorial with my adviser, Paul Mealor. My studies are almost entirely self-motivated, so finding a rhythm to my daily schedule has been difficult. Nevertheless, with the advice and guidance given by Paul I feel I am beginning to produce some high quality work.

          The one thing that does provide a bit of structure to my life are the two choirs that I sing in at the University – Chamber Choir and Chapel Choir. Chamber choir is an auditioned group of singers conducted by Paul that gives three to four performances per term and only rehearses in the week leading up to a performance. Chapel choir, which I am singing in as a part of my choral scholarship, is much more regular, with rehearsals every Tuesday evening and a Sunday morning service every weekend. The people in these two choirs are among the most hilarious and friendly folks I've met during my time here, and when I do make it out into the city for a drink or two it is usually with them or with the spectacular group of French, German, Italian, Mexican, and Spanish students that I have befriended up in Hillhead Halls of Residence. I won't deny that when I first arrived in Aberdeen I was thoroughly depressed, nervous, and wistfully thinking of Marquette, Princeton, and Philadelphia every single day. But choirs act largely as dysfunctional but happy families, and so as time progressed the friendship and strange antics of the choir members drew me out of myself and into waking life again. It's funny how I have come to rely on this choral community influence in my life; first in the tightly-knit community of Marquette, then in the choir-centric bubble of Westminster Choir College, and now amongst these European hooligans.

Ed and Peter, my abductors, finding the Fairy Pools on our map.

Ed and Peter, my abductors, finding the Fairy Pools on our map.

          Speaking of hooligans, one evening a few weeks ago I was abducted from my flat by fellow PhD student Ed Jones and his accomplice Peter Relph, the undergraduate organ scholar at Aberdeen. The three of us traveled West to Lochcarron in the highlands where Peter's family owns a beautiful little cottage. We spent several wonderful days tramping around ancient castle ruins and mountains, discussing the properties of a Weetabix and how one uses it (I'm not entirely sure if Weetabix is exclusively a British thing, but I've certainly not seen it at home and the name sounds funny to me!). The most memorable experience for me during this trip was the day we spent on the Isle of Skye, hiking in the shadow of the Black Cuillin mountains and, despite relatively low temperatures and freezing cold water, diving into the Fairy Pools, a system of pools and waterfalls fed by the runoff from the melting snow on the mountains. Our holiday in the Scottish Highlands primed me for a more relaxed and happy perspective on the three years I will be spending in this place, and I have Ed and Peter to thank for that... even though they abducted me. Sort of. Not really... (but really).

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

          After arriving back in Aberdeen post-Weetabix I only had a day or two to prepare for Chapel Choir's tour to Canterbury Cathedral in Southwest England. If the Highland holiday primed me for happiness, this tour certainly brought it to fruition. For six days we sang the choral evensong in the cathedral, an experience that I will never forget as long as I live. I am not a religious person, but I have great respect for the solemnity and beauty of evensong services, especially when they occur in an architectural marvel such as Canterbury Cathedral. To be a part of the choir singing in a magnificent space that has seen daily services for many hundreds of years is a truly remarkable experience that I wish everyone could have. The members of the choir formed a tighter bond in Canterbury as well; people simply cannot sing together for a week in Canterbury Cathedral without growing fonder of one another. I for one am glad that I had an opportunity to get to know the members of the choir that I didn't know well, particularly the quieter ones whom I had barely spoken to at all before tour. In my experience it is the quiet ones who usually have the most to say.

          I am proud of many things that happened on the Canterbury tour, but two achievements stand out in my memory as being particularly worth mentioning.. The first is that by the end of our tour I could finally understand what Gavin Smith was trying to saying to me (Gavin has THE strongest Scottish accent I have ever heard – he's from Ayrshire, near Glasgow I believe). Secondly, and more seriously, was my compositional routine during the week we were there. Nearly every day I went to the cathedral several hours early to compose. The vergers were unbelievably helpful, allowing me to use All Saints Chapel each morning to do my composing. I immediately fell in love with that room as a composing space. On the right hand side of the cathedral near the quire is an ancient wooden door with a tricky little lock that leads to a narrow set of stone steps with ropes for bannisters. After ascending these steps one emerges into a small chapel whose walls are covered with hundreds of years of graffiti carved into the stone. Some of these entries are dated, going back into the 17th century and beyond; peoples names, initials, small faces and crude pictures of houses.

All Saints Chapel, My composing space for the Canterbury Cathedral tour.

All Saints Chapel, My composing space for the Canterbury Cathedral tour.

          I was immediately inspired by the silence and stillness of this environment, and at that moment I recalled a Latin poem written by the English poet Richard Crashaw titled “Phænicis: Genethliacon & Epicedion,” which translates roughly into English as “Of the Generation and Regeneration of the Pheonix.” I'm not entirely sure why this was the poem that came to me at that moment, but I decided to make it my goal to compose a setting of the text before my time in Canterbury came to a close. After tracking down the original Latin text and a translation I set to work, composing for about three hours a day in the chapel before the other choir members arrived for rehearsal. At the end of the week I knew several of the vergers by name and had a rough outline of the entire piece, with much of the text set and the musical ideas almost entirely in place. I am so thankful to have had the time in that magnificent structure to compose Phænix alumna mortis for soloists and SATB choir with divisi, which will be premiered by the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir on our upcoming tour to Belgium and Holland. This piece is dedicated to Howard Harding of Marquette, who has been immensely supportive of my desire to study abroad and without whose help I would not have completed my UK visa application on time.

           And so, to sum up my first ever blog entry: life as an American abroad is an eye-opening, at times lonely, and productive experience... and overall just a cracking time! While I still feel jolts of home-sickness about once a week, I'm beginning to realize what a tremendous opportunity I have been given to continue my studies here at the University of Aberdeen among such great people. A million thank-yous to the people who have brought me here and who continue to support my endeavors.

Thank you for reading. Until next time!

Thomas LaVoy

 

Culture shock of the week(s): Translating the British rhythmic value system (see below).

Breve = Double Whole Note
Semibreve = Whole Note
Minim = Half Note
Crotchet = Quarter Note
Quaver = Eighth Note
Semiquaver = Sixteenth Note
Demisemiquaver = Thirty-second Note

                    And finally (I kid you not)...

Hemidemisemiquaver = Sixty-fourth Note

Music of the week(s): Strike Up the Band by The Achievers (watch below).