In conversation with Catherine Nasskau
CN: Firstly, thank you very much for sparing the time to talk to us today and for sharing your thoughts. The EAC always enjoys singing your music and it is a great honour to be able to find out a little more about you. Did you always know you wanted to be a composer?
ML: No. I came to composition late, having my first formal course in my junior year of college. I was put in a Beginning Composition course by the chair of the Composition department at the University of Southern California, Halsey Stevens, on a conditional basis, since I had no previous background in compositions. I eventually succeeded Halsey as chair of the department at USC.
CN: What or who were your early musical inspirations?
ML: I studied classical piano but especially admired the songs from the Broadway stage and jazz. During high school and college I played piano and trumpet in combos and jazz bands.
CN: How did you first encounter choral music?
ML: I sang in my church choir during my high school years and later in college choirs. USC has a terrific choral department. The choirs there premiered my first choral compositions.
CN: What led you to teach composition?
ML: It was part of my teaching load as a member of the composition/theory department at USC.
CN: What tips do you have for young composers? (I am particularly interested in this as my son is studying composition!)
ML: Spend a great deal of time studying musical scores from all periods of music. Steep yourself in courses related to composition, theory, ear-training, music history, developing keyboard skills, participating in various musical ensembles, making connections with fine performers. Follow your own bliss, composing music that you truly believe in, backed up by technique. Do not be swayed by fads or what is fashionable at the moment. Remain true to yourself.
CN: You compose for a wide range of genres – do you have one you feel more at home with? And do you have a favourite language for choral works?
ML: I am inspired by poetry. I read it every day and have started each of my classes at USC with a poem almost every time we have met during my 50 years of teaching there. The combination of poetry and composing for that most personal of instruments, the human voice, has been my inspiration all these years. I prefer to compose to texts in English but have set music in a wide variety of languages, preferring to set the texts as originally written.
CN: What music do you like to listen to?
ML: Bach, classical rock, major sacred choral works, music from the Broadway stage, art songs, jazz.
CN: Do you have a special place where you go to compose?
ML: In my rustic waterfront cabin on Waldron Island—no electricity or running water, candles.
CN: What led you to ‘Nocturnes’?
ML: The idea of composing various poems related to night, in various languages. The cycle was commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association for their national convention in Los Angeles in 2005. Each of the settings is in response to all aspects of the texts - language, poetic style, time of original poem writing, content and country of origin.
The abstract poem by Rilke is about capturing the mystery of a summer night in Paris in the early 1900’s. The harmonies are more complex and jazz-tinged. The opening and closing are more introspective while the interior sections are more rapturous. I have set Rilke numerous times. He forces the reader to use their imagination.
The Neruda is set as a tender song with its roots in Chilean folk song. Each of the four sections of the choir is given the original melodic material. When the opening returns at the end it is supported over a low F-sharp in Bass 2, portraying the lover no longer alive waiting for his love to join him/her. It is the most beautiful love poem I have ever read.
Sure on this Shining Night has its roots in the songs from the Broadway musical and should be sung that way with a great deal of rhythmic flexibility. It is a story song, filled with awe and wonder.
The cycle ends mysteriously as night falls, recalling the opening Rilke music but this time based on a wondrous short poem fragment.
CN: Mr Lauridsen, thank you again for your time. We hope we do your music justice in tonight’s concert.