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.


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.