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.