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).

Thomas LaVoyComment