Slow Burn

Well, it’s back to work today after a much needed vacation.

Winter in Marquette, MI.

By vacation, of course, I mean a long weekend – I just took three whole days off work to give my brain a rest. I’m going to take a further two weeks off of composing to focus on getting the business end of what I do back in workable shape. It has been so busy on the composition side of my career that other things are starting to fall through the cracks. Missed correspondence, forgotten emails, the fact that Wells Fargo is sending collections after me for having a recently overdrawn checking account that was… transferred to Flagstar two months ago because they closed all their branches in Michigan? The type of things that are liable to take a back seat while the seemingly more important work of composing is afoot. You know – things.

Also, it’s $42 Wells Fargo, get over yourself.

Time off is hard now. For years I looked forward to those moments when I could put everything aside, stop thinking about it and play some damn video games or something. The truth is that I’ve grown so close to what I do that a day without composing (or networking, or website maintenance – I weirdly enjoy those facets of the job now) feels a bit empty. Having Sarah here in Michigan with me has been a saving grace. After a year and a half apart while she finished her PhD in Aberdeen, it’s nice to have another living, breathing human to focus on. Especially one with her own ever-growing list of accomplishments and engagements.

This short time away from work has afforded me the opportunity to take stock of the past few months and see what has worked for me and what hasn’t. All said and done, 2018 was a very good year for me. My first full year of being a full-time, freelance composer has me in the black, and I feel so very fortunate that the community that has grown around my music continues to participate with excitement. This will take a great deal of effort to maintain in 2019 and beyond, of course, but without the interest and support of the conductors, ensembles and individuals who commissioned and performed my music in 2018, I would not have made it to this point.

So, to those of you who are reading this who fit that description – thank you, it really does mean the world to me and it’s the only way to keep this thing going. To those who would like to be a part of that community in 2019 or beyond – be in touch. In the next few weeks I will be making plans for the next round of commissions and residencies for the 2019-2020 season, and I would love to hear from you (

One truth has become increasingly clear, especially in the last couple of months. More often than not, good things take time to manifest. Sarah and I refer to this phenomenon as the “Slow Burn.”

MSVMA Honors Choir in rehearsal.

The slow burn was particularly apparent during the time I spent with the MSVMA State Honors Choir at the Michigan Music Conference last weekend. Jan Brodersen, who was my conductor when I was just a wee precocious composer at Marquette Senior High School, contacted me some time ago to tell me that she had been selected as this year’s SATB Honors Choir clinician. She also told me that she had programmed my Lux aeterna, the sixth movement from my large work A Child’s Requiem, for the occasion and invited me to travel down to Grand Rapids for a session with the choir and to attend the concert.

A Child’s Requiem has largely remained dormant since the premiere with the Marquette Symphony Orchestra back in December 2013, which in all honesty is quite understandable. It’s a major work, and a massive undertaking to organize – full orchestra, soprano solo, and two choirs singing a libretto by Esther Margaret Ayers in a total of seven languages; English, Latin, Greek, Finnish, Italian, German and Slovenian. It’s also forty minutes in length, and focuses on the Italian Hall disaster of 1913, in which seventy-three people, the vast majority of them children, were killed in a narrow stairway when a man shouted “Fire!” in a crowded room on Christmas Eve.

So yea. Tough sell, I get it.

The Lux aeterna from A Child’s Requiem was published several years ago by GIA Publications and has been performed widely in the United States and abroad. I’ve heard many performances of that octavo, and many were very beautiful, but I also secretly lamented the fact that the broader context of the full work was not pursued or understood. Working with Jan and the Honors Choir was magical for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the most important was that it finally gave me the opportunity to have a deeper conversation with some of the brightest singers in the state of Michigan about the musical underpinnings of Lux aeterna and how they relate both to the full work and to the Italian Hall disaster itself.

Jan conducted from her original vocal score from the premiere.

Jan conducted from her original vocal score from the premiere.

We talked about the fact that one of the most prominent musical motives in A Child’s Requiem, a rising minor sixth followed by a falling minor second, tracks the path of a person ascending a staircase and arriving at a landing, and how the initial choral entrances in the Lux aeterna present the inverted form of this motive, suggesting the path down the stairs during the disaster. The fact that the section that builds into the climax of the movement is based on a constantly ascending pattern of parallel sixths in the orchestra, which on the page appears as a rising staircase in the accompaniment – a grieving community lifting their prayers for the dead to the heavens and the elevation of the children out of the disaster; their immortalization, so to speak.

I was overwhelmed by the response to this information from the choir. Many of them were moved to tears, and, judging from their social media posts afterward, many of them had likely not been confronted with the idea that the manipulation of concrete musical ideas can a very real and visceral effect on the emotional impact of a piece of music. That “A-ha!” moment was one of the most rewarding moments of my life; it has been five years and change now since the premiere of A Child’s Requiem, and in those five years I have longed to impart that knowledge to singers again.

The concert was predictably amazing. A full house, the choir sang incredibly well and my heart was bursting with pride to see my friend Jan having so much fun doing what she loves. But for me the real meat of that experience was the hour or so that I spent in the rehearsal room with the choir – singing, conducting, and just speaking with them. Process over product; the slow burn in practice.

The cover for  Starlight: An Anthology of Works for Mixed Chorus.

The cover for Starlight: An Anthology of Works for Mixed Chorus.

There are other avenues in which the slow burn has been manifesting as well. When I finished my PhD in 2016 and moved to Philadelphia, I had almost nothing planned. It was a frightening moment for me, finally being faced with the reality that I somehow had to make a go of it and find a way to survive as a composer. One of the first endeavors I launched was a commission drive, offering eight discounted commissions for simple four-part choral pieces. The result of this project was Starlight: An Anthology of Works for Mixed Chorus. After the premieres of the eight works last year, I released the anthology and was surprised and frustrated when only a few choirs realized the potential it contained and committed to pursuing it.

This was my natural penchant for impatience shining through. I was excited by what I had produced and couldn’t see why it wasn’t catching on. The truth is, of course, that these things take time. Those few choirs are now performing the pieces and performing them well, and as they are more and more frequently brought into a public concert setting the interest in them grows. Later this month I will be composer-in-residence with Voce, a fabulous chamber choir in New England conducted by Mark Singleton, during which they will be performing four of the works contained in Starlight. This will no doubt contribute to the dissemination of anthology.

My residency with Voce will culminate in a full concert of my music on March 3rd.

My residency with Voce is also a prime example of the slow burn process on the macro scale. As far as I’m aware, Voce will be the first choir ever to present a full evening’s concert of my music. A great honor, and even more so considering the roster of composers who have held this residency before me; Morten Lauridsen, Ola Gjeilo, Ēriks Ešenvalds and Paul Mealor. I’ve been composing choral music for roughly thirteen years now – this residency feels like a milestone, the product of over a decade’s hard work and study. Certainly one of the highlights of 2019, but in a broader sense it feels like Voce will be giving voice to the gamut of my musical life thus far. It’s a very exciting prospect, and I’m so thankful to Mark and the choir for inviting me to Connecticut for the occasion.

In Heaven, Hereafter, the new work based on the life and writings of Nancy Luce.

The project to compose a work based on the life and writings of Nancy Luce of West Tisbury, Massachusetts has also had a wonderfully strange process of unfolding. What began with a fascination for a peculiar folk hero from Martha’s Vineyard who held an undying love for her chickens has now spiraled into my third largest work to date, with performances slated with choirs in England, Scotland and five U.S. states. Several people close to me told me at the outset that it was a mistake to pursue this project, but I was sure that I could produce something of real worth. In April I will be in residence with the Island Community Chorus on Martha’s Vineyard for their premiere performance of the work, a concert that I am sure will be a lasting memory for me and for the residents of the island.

I am also combining the residency on Martha’s Vineyard with a trip to New York City to hear the second performance of my work in Carnegie Hall, in which Dr. Alan Zabriskie will lead the National Festival Chorus in a performance of I Shall Not Live in Vain. Alan has been a vocal supporter of my music since we first made contact back in 2015, when he was preparing for a performance in Carnegie Hall that included my White Stones. This was, of course, a very exciting moment for me as a composer, so I secured funding and flew over from Scotland to work with Alan and the University of Central Missouri Concert Choir in the days leading up to the performance in New York. Since then, we have maintained a working partnership that saw a residency with his choir in Missouri before his recent move to Texas Tech. Plans are afoot for an upcoming project as well.

The point of all of this is to say that the slow burn is a very real and effective means of building a career. Yes, it takes time. But in the end, it leads to a situation in which the connections within the artist’s network become much more than mere business associates. We begin to see their own dreams for what they are; their hopes, the programs they may be building, the lives they are living and how their art impacts the communities that surround them – clearly more than a means to the composer’s end.

I am actually quite thankful that there has been no single moment that catapulted my career – I can point to many that have nudged it along in a continuous stream of ups and downs, with the net curve being smoothly positive. If it had all happened in one fell swoop I wouldn’t have been surprised if my music became stagnant and my network suffered from feelings of unease. The slow burn has given me the opportunity to see the people that I collaborate with through clear eyes, and I become more and more thankful with each passing day, month and year that this has been the case.

So, back to work. I can’t wait to see what the next few months bring, the people I will meet and the friendships I will forge. This path isn’t easy, but man, the rewards are worth the effort…

Until next time,

Thomas LaVoy

Thomas LaVoy2 Comments