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Gwyneth Walker

An Interview with Gwyneth Walker

by Gene Brooks


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Gene: Tell us about your life and work and about these fiftieth birthday fliers.

Gwyneth: We are sitting here in my Connecticut childhood home, not my adult home, but my childhood home, because I came back here to take care of my mother. You asked about the various fliers and other things I prepared to publicize my fiftieth birthday. One of my publishers, MB Music, which publishes my orchestral music said, "Why would you want people to know that you're fifty?" Neither was E.C. Schirmer accustomed to publicizing the fiftieth. Yet, both publishers obliged with these fliers - - all credit to them! My philosophy is to do things now while I have the energy to do them. We have a mission in life, and if we all could have that extra boost, which I am getting thanks to ACDA and others, we could do something. I have something want to do with my music. Getting more people performing the music enables me to speak with the voice of a composer who still has maybe forty years of music to write. Now I've gotten more people ready to listen. If I were to receive the Brock Commission when I was seventy-five, that would be a different matter. I would say, "thank you so much for this accolade, but you know, I only have a few years of writing left." Now, at fifty-one, I have a whole career, maybe half a career, anyway, in front of me.

Gene: Remember that Jean Carlo Menotti wrote the Brock Commission when he was eighty-five. So we'll come back to you in thirty-five years.

Gwyneth: I think ACDA should have a different person each time, because I get to know the choral directors, and I keep all their names and addresses on my computer. Then there is a way to get music to them, with or without a Brock Commission. If I continue to do well with choral music, other works will get to the regional or national ACDA meetings with or without commissions. There is much I want to do with music, and having any sort of boost helps me to contact more people, which is exactly what I want to do. I believe giving awards to people when they are seventy-five is not as productive as giving them at fifty.

     I did get fifty orchestras to perform my music during my fiftieth birthday year. That is pretty good, considering I do not have political clout in the orchestral world. More choral performances occurred for sure, because I have a lot of connections in the choral world. Choral directors attend workshops and reading sessions where they get acquainted with my music and perform it without my knowledge, having no reason to make contact about their performance. A number of years ago, I went to live in New York City, which is not me at all, but I thought I should experience everything there. I never liked feeling I did not try everything. I lived in Manhattan for a while, and I went to concerts. I attended concerts in Lincoln Center, Tully Hall, Merkin Hall, St. John the Divine, and St. Thomas. I realized after my time there, the best concerts were at St. John and St. Thomas. Some churches have excellent performances, and the people, from all walks of life that attend, listen attentively. I heard many fine choral music performances. I decided at that time if I could only write one kind of music, it would be choral, because people have always sung and always will sing. That is universal. It's not like Haydn writing for an instrument that no longer exists.

     Remember the Barytone, a string instrument that Prince Esterhazy played? Haydn wrote much music, for an instrument that no one plays anymore, and no composer wants to something like that. When you write for the human voice, you are writing for something that is universal and everlasting.

     Often when I am interviewed, people ask about technology and how you can write computer music and play it, and isn't that exciting? Then I say, "Who is going to write for performers?" I was at a composers' forum at the Hartt School, which is my alma mater. About eight composers were present, some of whom wrote electronic music. Almost all students were into computer-generated music at this time--about five years ago.

     I said, "Here at the Hartt School, we have many singers; we have many instrumentalists who are studying as performers. Who is going to write music for them?" There was complete silence in the room. No one had ever thought, "well gee, nine-tenths of them, in the music school, are performers. Might we be writing music for them?" I think composers are afraid no one is going to perform their music. If they can write and record it on a computer, that is going to be the answer.

     I am the daughter of a physicist, who has all the equipment. I was not saying this because I am afraid of computers but because I am aware of what people like. People are dying to have music they or their chorus can perform, something with meaning, and something the audience can understand. I write choral music with orchestra or chamber accompaniment. If I had only one, I would probably do choral music.

Gene: When you're writing choral music, do you do more unaccompanied, or do you want an instrument like the piano or string quartet?

Gwyneth: Oh, no, there's a strength to each one. Often, the commission comes with a request, such as chorus and brass quintet, which is what I used for the Tucson Desert Voices. I love brass quintet. I have written just regular brass quintets. Then, the group in Arkansas wanted chorus and string quartet. There is a great strength in unaccompanied choral music, and that is the most pure choral music. I would certainly do some of that, but coloristic effects you can get with instruments are really neat. I think chorus and instruments are a great combination.

Gene: I see your guitar and know you are a guitarist. Tell me about your early childhood and your first involvement with music, how the guitar started to become such an important part of your life.

Gwyneth: Ok, well, this will be a New England story, just like Charles Ives, in a way. We're not far from Danbury, which is where Ives is from. My father was an inventor, so building and making things was omnipresent. My mother loved music; she had a bit of Italian in her and loved opera particularly. She played melodies by ear on the piano and sang, and my father liked Chopin, but that was sort of a hidden thing. I have these two strains: inventor and Chopin on one side and Italian and opera lover on the other.

     I was left alone a lot as a child because my older sisters were much older. It is just, kerplunk, and there you are in the house. We had a piano. When I was two, my sister, who was in first grade, started taking piano lessons. She played the piano that was beneath my bedroom. A piano, a live instrument making sound, is physical. I could hear and feel it beneath me.

     The next morning when my sisters had gone off to school, I crawled toward the keyboard. I climbed on the piano bench and emulated what I had heard. I sort of plunked my hands down and it gave me great pleasure. I started doing this all the time, because I had a good ear to do the . . . she was doing the "Fur Elise." I figured it out within a few days. Now, I couldn't play it the way she could play it, but I got it down. After that, I just started expressing myself. I have written music since I was two. When I was five, my parents thought, "Well, we'll give her piano lessons." They took me to a teacher, the same teacher my sister had. The teacher wanted me to learn to play scales, and I was already making up my own songs. I had four lessons, one a week, and it was a battle of the wills. The teacher wanted me to play the E-major scale, and I wanted to play for the teacher what I had written that week. This went on for four weeks. The teacher threw up her hands and said to my parents, "I will kill your child's love of music if I keep forcing her to do this. Why not let her be?" I think the teacher was also saying. "I cannot deal with this child!" My parents thought, "Well, that's our little Gwynnie." And they left me alone. By the time I was in the first grade, I brought all of my friends over after school every Monday, and we had our orchestra. I had all these toy instruments my parents got me, and I handed them out. I wrote out a short composition. I taught myself, somehow, how to get hose notes on the page. I looked at the piece my sister was practicing, and it had a title and "W.A. Mozart" on the right side. So I wrote "Piece" and "G. Walker." Far be it from me to not be like "that one." My friends just fit right in. They said, "Ok, it's Monday. We go to her house and play her piece, and then we can go outside and play."

     In junior high school, these friends still put up with all this stuff, but now they wanted me to arrange the Every Brothers' songs so they cold sing in harmony. I was a musician for hire. Until then, every little thing I wrote was played by my friends, and I never thought anything of it. From the time I was six, I wrote down my notes, and they played them. Music was something I wrote and other people played. By the time I was about twelve, music was something other people were asking me to do so they could perform.

     When I was in high school, I went away to school at Abbot Academy, which is part of Andover. They had a good music program and singing groups, and I arranged for the singing groups. I would be under my bed at night with the flashlight finishing an arrangement. I did a lot of folk music. As soon as I got it written down, our group rehearsed it. We were good. They started asking us to come to the boys' schools. You can imagine now, everybody wanted to be in my singing group, not necessarily for musical reasons.

Gene: But you had no formal music training until you went to college.

Gwyneth: No, when I was in high school. They had some music theory, which was taught privately. They hired the teacher at the request of some parents whose daughter was a violinist. I said, "I'd like to do it, too." The teacher taught me also.

     When I went to college, I went to Brown as a physics major, not knowing I could actually study music. I thought I was always going to teach myself. When I saw the course catalog, I wanted to take everything they had in music. I went to the music department and talked to Ron Nelson, who was the chairman. I told him, I would like to take music and that I had some training. He asked me questions like, "How do you spell a G-major chord? With a six-four inversion?" I answered them all, and the next thing I knew, I was exempted from all undergraduate theory. I was told I would enter orchestration and write for the Brown Orchestra. I did write. I got immediately swept up in it. I also sang in the select singing group, and I did all their arrangements.

     When I went to the Hartt School, they had me teaching ear training and theory, classes I never had. I would have to take the textbook and teach myself. When I went to Oberlin to teach, they asked me also to teach courses I had never taken. I kept getting exempted from courses that I had to teach myself. I guess that is the Charles Ives thing. No one ever taught me what I do at all. No one ever taught me how to write for chorus.

     The teacher I had in graduate school was an eccentric man named Arnold Franchetti, who was definitely interested in writing music. He spurred me on and did teach me things, but almost everything I do now with my writing, I taught myself. There's no marl to this story other than: "each person's path is very different."

     When I was first connected with E.C. Schirmer, I showed them some pieces that were not sacred. ECS put one or two in print, and then the music sold. Bob Schuneman said to me, "I don't know what to say to you. We put these out on the counter at the convention, and no one had ever heard of you, but they bought them. They bought the music."

     What can I say? That is choral directors for you. People may have said, "Well, I've never heard of Gwyneth Walker," but, "we could sing this! It looks like excellent poetry." (I always use contemporary American poetry.) "Hmm, why don't we try this?" They did, and it sounded good, so they bought more. I am supported totally by the genuine interest of these choral directors.

Gene: Still, tell me about the guitar. You write for the guitar?

Gwyneth: Yes, but not as classical a guitarist. I have always played the guitar because when you are singing with your friends, that's what you do. I played rock 'n' roll guitar and all that music in college. I was on the stage playing that steel string guitar until I had callouses like nails.

Gene: Really?

Gwyneth: Well, of course I stopped playing when I was in graduate school because that's not what you did at the Hartt School of Music. You are staring at a classical guitar, yes, because it is easier to play. I did not pick it up until last year when my mother was in a nursing home. I went to see her, and she was in a room with no piano. It only figures in my life now, basically, because of need to provide music at the nursing home. It has very little to do with my choral writing. I have a couple of commissions for guitar and other instruments, so I do understand how the guitar works. It's a wonderful instrument. If you write much for classical guitars these days, you would have to specialize.

Gene: I assume your greatest interest lies in other areas. Tell me the focus of your choral writing.

Gwyneth: I am much more interested in writing for choruses because there are, as we know, thousands of them. My particular interest in writing for high school, college, and community choirs. Believe me, the same piece can be done by all. I am not interested in elementary school because I am really interested in unusual American poetry. My main interest is to write for young or older adults, people who can appreciate good poems, sensitive musical settings, or humor and entertainment--perhaps singing something that has wit. I do not mean humor as being really silly, but a turn of a phrase, which has an innuendo that could be quite funny. Sometimes I will say, "Everybody put on bathing goggles." I did in "Banks of the Ohio," and the conductor said, "What?" I said, "That's right. In the end, everyone is wearing goggles and a bathing cap." For sure, they did. People in the audience were in tears, crying and laughing when they saw the bass section in their bathing caps. The conductor said, "This has to be the last thing on the program, because there can't be anything after that!"

     I am interested in doing more theatrical things with chorus, and I do not mean overly-staged. Audiences are interested in something that has words with a message, something the chorus can dramatize, either by gestures, lighting, costumes, or reading poems. Not all the poems would be sung; some would be read.

Gene: Do you have a favorite instrument that you enjoy writing for and using with chorus?

Gwyneth: I have worked with tuba recently. I was asked to write a brass quintet for a group here in Vermont, and the one instrument I did not know in a virtuoso manner was the tuba. I made an appointment with the tuba player of the Vermont Symphony, Mark Nelson, who also is at the University of Vermont. He demonstrated both tubas for me, and after two hours I felt I knew the tuba.

     I wrote some quintets with tuba. I did a set for the chorus and brass quintet, and then chorus and tuba. I love strings also. The woodwinds do wonderful things. I love writing for all the instruments. Trying to balance the chorus and instruments takes a concerted effort. I have studied the repertoire in some of the areas, such as chorus with string quartet that I am doing for Arkansas. Barber's Dover Beach is an extended work. I am writing, instead, different short numbers where you need more variety. I do not find a precedent. It is a challenge.

Gene: We asked you to write the Raymond Brock Commission, and you graciously accepted. Tell us about your whole process form preparation to completion. I know you enjoy walking through the woods.

Gwyneth: When I write, yes. This was obviously a wonderful thing and the culmination of many years of work. You requested a text that was sacred, or sacred in nature.

     That was a challenge for several reasons. If it were a totally liturgical thing, I probably could not have done that. I am the kind of person that writes about the dairy farm, the tennis match, and people swimming in the river. I am the everyday person.

     However, I am a Quaker. It's a strong faith, but Quakers do not have service music. When you said sacred in nature, then I said, "Oh, all right, then we can do something." I found this e.e. cummings poem I had in mind a long time, "I thank you, god, for most this amazing day." I love that opening because when I look out in the morning, I feel like saying that sentence many times.

     Another line is, "i who have died am alive again today." One could take that in the Christian manner, but also in a personal manner. We all have times when we feel our spirit has died through the death of a loved one, through depression, or through an experience of spiritual or emotional death. Then for some reason or other, we feel alive again today. That poem really speaks to me.

     I researched several different texts, but the e.e. cummings spoke the most to me. It has been set before, but I do not think in this manner. It is lyrical poetry. When the text is decided you should ask yourself: What do I do want to do with this wonderful opportunity? What do I want to do with this? This is almost a sacred question. God gave me this wonderful opportunity. I would want to go for a walk. I want to write something that celebrates life. I want to do something big.

     Then I might read the poem a few times and walk around my home in Vermont. I pace up and down in front of the cornfield and read the poem and think, What does this poem mean to me? What particular lines come from the poem that I want to bring out again and again. You find lines in the poem that are the poem, lines that could be sung, that an audience would be able to understand without looking at the program. "i thank you God, i thank you, God, for this most amazing day" are words that anyone can sings and understand. After pacing around for a bit, I might go to the piano and play a few chords. The outdoors is so overwhelmingly majestic, you have to feel the spirit of God. I go out for a walk and then I work by playing a melodic idea, a few melodic ideas.

     When I first create the piece, it is the most exhausting time because I try to form the entire concept in one sitting. It is important not to be too long-winded. You have to analyze what you have done in your piece. You set a certain idea in motion, it gets to a certain point, it winds down, but you are not satisfied. You look at it analytically and realize it is not quite right, because the recapitulation of the idea did not do justice to previous ideas.

     I am a formalist. Anyone who knows my music would say, "the piece did not go on too long." People want a well-formed piece of music. They want poetry that is thoughtful, they want a setting that is sensitive, and they want the thing to end when it should end. Bravo! The audience knows the difference between a piece that reached its right conclusion and piece that just dribbled on and on. It does not matter if it says in the program notes that the composer won the Pulitzer Prize. It only matters if the audience says, "Oh, I really liked that. I liked the poem, I liked the musical setting, and I could hear that again." You could hear it again, because it was the right length. That is central, and that is why I am a formalist. Singers must feel pleased they presented something that has meaning and something the audience understood.

Gene: Many people reading the Choral Journal and reading this article, and attending the convention Chicago to hear this piece, will be our young composers, our young conductors who are in high schools, colleges, and universities. What can you tell them, those aspiring to be composers?

Gwyneth: If you're going to write for chorus, it has to be singable. You have to write words that can be sung and understood. You do not want someone to be trying to sing some of the most important parts of your song on a high A quickly. You should think hard about what texts you want to use. We need more new American poetry.

     Researching and obtaining copyright permission is next. I have worked with Lucille Clifton, who is a living African-American poet. I met her publishers with whom I had been communicating. It is an important collaboration: composer, singer, poet, poet's publisher, and composer's publisher.

Gene: In undergraduate and graduate school, musicians are taught all of these courses--music theory, counterpoint, music literature, and music history. Tell me your feeling of the value of these for a composer.

Gwyneth: You cannot call yourself a musician if you know only your own music. You do not understand where performers are coming from if you do not know what else they have singing or playing. Study Mozart, then Beethoven, then Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and American contemporary composers. You can carve your own part when you know what everyone else has done and is doing. You have to study music theory so you can facilitate your own writing. My experience with music theory was fun, great fun.

Gene: what composer or composers have influenced you, or maybe are your favorites?

Gwyneth: My background as a folk musician is an influence. I love musicians like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and the Beatles. I am eclectic. "Influenced by" would not be relevant tome, since I started composing when I was two. Surely, I borrow sounds of what is around me, but I do not hear a particular composer and decide I need to write like that person.

Gene: Visiting with you today, walking down by the pond and forest, I discovered that you love nature. As we saw the deer, I discovered that you love animals. As I listen to you, I find that you love living on the dairy farm in Vermont. Evidently, nature and animals have a lot of influence on you.

Gwyneth: I love being outdoors with nature. I find there is a need today to remember that music is a natural thing and that people from all walks of life make music--in the country and in simple, humble churches across the land. People love to sing, and there are beautiful voices out there. I write music for chorus, orchestras, or chamber groups in the country--premiered often at the Braintree (Vermont) Meeting House. The arts are alive and well, in the country. You could have traveled around the world, but if your car goes in the ditch, you are no better off than anyone else whose car goes in the ditch. Rural life is an equalizer.

Gene: I can identify readily with you, having lived much of my life, all of my young life, on the farm. I understand what you are saying. I identify with all of this. Tell me about Gwyneth Walker is the future. What do you have in the future that you would like to do or you are going to do?

Gwyneth: I do have commissions lined up for a long time. It has become evident to me that whether I am writing for instruments or chorus, people really want human things, the human message. The kind of poems I choose, I hope have more feeling than ever before.

     Orchestra works I am planning are going to be sacred. They will contain my feelings and my reverence for life. I am sure many of my choral director friends can identify with my feelings while taking care of and elderly parent and returning to my childhood home. I have to give up some of my writing time, but I hope that being in close touch with my feelings will make me a deeper person. My job is to put my feeling into music. Music is what you do when you are in the midst of your responsibilities and you see the beauty in life. There is no such thins as having unlimited hours to write music. These feelings come about because you are a participant in the progress of life. Here I am, with the Brock Commission, and I have one foot in the Brock Commission and one foot in the nursing home.

Gene: Do you find this setting, where you lived in the past, is going to influence your writing in the coming years? Will you write differently? Will this influence your compositions now?

Gwyneth: Yes, I never dreamed so, though. Where I live in Vermont is my adult home. I had a plan for moving forward in my adult career. I envisioned having more thoughtful visitors, more thoughtful reading, and more music written. The past would be the past/ Then the past yanked me back. I live in the home where I grew up as a child. I was not a successful composer as a child. I came back and wrestled with feelings anyone has when they go back to their childhood home. I write some choral works that have to do with songs of the twenties, for my mother at the nursing home. That is a lighthearted approach.

     Anyone who has feelings to express in music has to live life, and I live adult life a lit. Everything has been so extraordinary in this live. I never aimed to get where I am now, and I always wrote. Since I was a child, for my next-door neighbors to enjoy. To think that nationally the music has gotten out there is amazing to me. I know that life is much more than anything I could have planned.

Gene: When you are living in Vermont and your entire time is devoted to music, do you write ten hours a day? Do you wrote fours hours a day? How do you utilize your time?

Gwyneth: My life is probably typical of other composers' lives about whom you might read. It is about communication. I have two assistants, one who does e-mail, and one who does the physical mailing. I still answer most letters, because they are technical or come from dear friends. Keeping in touch with people as my projects unfold is important. The more works you have, the more attention is required. It is like having children.

     I will usually write two hours of business correspondence when I first get up. I get things in order in the house and the pieces of music laid out--the one I am working on now and the one that proofs are coming for this afternoon. Then I have a little bit of something to eat. By ten o'clock, I have eaten and cleared the desk, and them I write for four hours. If you put another note down, it probably would not be your best. It takes me an hour to unwind and put that away. After some exercise and running afternoon errands, I have my spinach salad for dinner. Dinner, like other meals is short, never more than half an hour. By six thirty, I am back at the desk. The rest of the night includes more answering letters, printing out music that has come by e-mail from the copyist, proofreading and making up photocopies of pieces that are not yet published. I love the work, and I love doing it.

Gene: When you were writing the Raymond Brock Commission, was there anything, as you got into the piece, that was unique? Is there something about you would like to share with the choral directors?

Gwyneth: I gave much to this piece. I thought long about it. The fact that it is sacred in nature is special to me. It is a wonderful poem. I tried to do justice to it in a sensitive manner. I bring "i thank you, God . . ." back many times. I love this line, "i who have died am alive again today." I bring this out in a passionate way, because it comes again and again as the accompaniment is flowing. Voices are crossing on the same pitch, going up and down, which I think is intense and passionate. I hope this comes off the way I intend.

     If we are talking about tonal frames, this is in C minor/E-flat major and ends in a big C major. The choral director who is premiering it said, "Since you gave a high C to the sopranos, the divas will love you!" I want the women's chorus to be dramatic and triumphant, but it cannot be that way unless they bring out the high notes.

     There are some tonal shifts in the piece. Anyone who studies it carefully notices that it moves from a C area then to a middle section that is in the D area, and D minor. This is because the poem switches to the "How can any human being doubt you?" It is a different idea altogether. Then it grows back into a C area and C major. It lends freshness to move to another tonal area if the poem does.

Gene: There are high school choirs in the United States that have sopranos who can sing this. I know we will hear many do it.

Gwyneth: Yes, the goal is to write a piece that people can do with their own choirs. In a commission like this, I imagine the hope is that a work will emerge, which can be performed and directors will want to perform in the future. The point of the premiere is to launch a work that reaches everybody. When you premiere a work, you hope you start something, something that other choruses see.

Gene: In closing, I want you to tell the choral directors of America, the nearly 19,000 who receive the Choral Journal and the 5,000 to 6,000 at the Chicago convention, anything you would like to tell them about Gwyneth Walker. Tell them about philosophy, about music, about your compositions, about your life. Anything you would like to tell them.

Gwyneth: I have a large gratitude to the choral directors of America. They are congenial and help me as a composer, and this means a lot to me. Each choral director I have met is an important person to me, and I look forward to being a friend to as many as possible.

     I will never stop writing choral music, because you are so supportive. My music is sung and enjoyed by many people. How fortunate I am. Choral directors are open-minded and inclusive. We Quakers are egalitarians. Everyone should be treated equally well and included.

     My philosophy of life is to write music to reach the most people who are really listening. I think choral music reaches a large percentage of our people. This is my primary focus. It is what I would do if I had no other thing to do. My philosophy about music is to tell the truth, not produce artifice, but to say how we actually feel. I feel that many of you have gotten the message loud and clear. I hear many concerts where the beauty of the music and the humor of the music are realized completely.

Gene Brooks is Executive Director of The American Choral Directors Association.