This post features composer Sally Lamb McCune, who is becoming one of the leading composers of choral music, and is conveniently in very close proximity to me! I first met Sally last year when I was asked to prepare an alumni treble chorus for a concert featuring Ithaca composers. She has won many awards, including a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Whitaker New Reading Session from the American Composers Orchestra, grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, New York State Fund Creation Grant, Meet the Composer, ASCAP, and the Aaron Copland Recording fund. She has received commissions from the New York State Music Teachers Association, Society for New Music, Cornell University Chorus, University of Georgia Wind Ensemble, Ensemble X, and Melodia Choir of NYC. She is currently on the faculty at Ithaca College.
Tell me about the first piece you ever composed!
I was composing at the piano before I learned to read music, around age 5. It was more than improvising because I would return to the same material and try to improve it. I would watch and listen to my sister practice. When she was done, I would hop up on the piano bench and try to mimic what she was doing. Then I’d start creating my own “songs.” I was eventually allowed to take lessons at age 7. It was my second piano teacher, Maryan Fleisher Abramsohn, who gave me one of the greatest gifts. She wouldn’t allow me to play my compositions for her until I had notated it. I think one of the first notated pieces was called something banal like “A Nice Day.” The second was “The Wind” so I made some progress.
Was there a moment you realized you wanted to be a composer? What was it?
I had stopped composing during middle school because I didn’t have any instruction and didn’t know how to proceed. It wasn’t until college that I decided I wanted to be a composer. I was a harp performance major at the University of Toronto, studying with Judy Loman. During my winter break as a sophomore, I broke my thumb on my first downhill ski run! This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since I couldn’t play my instrument, I started to compose. I realized how much happier I was writing music, thinking creatively on this larger scale. My aural skills teacher was a graduate composition student at U of T, so I asked him for lessons. I think he charged me $8. He was so helpful. I was hooked. I prepared a portfolio with his guidance and began applying to BFA programs in composition.
What are some things that you look for when you’re choosing texts?
Lately, I’ve been looking for texts with subject matter that is both relevant to contemporary life and emotionally stirring. There’s also a lyric quality I look for. It needs to feel singable. When I read Rachael Boast’s “Silent Sea,” for example, I was struck immediately by all of these qualities. If I’m writing for choir (vs. solo voice), I usually avoid texts that are written in the first person. Other than a couple of pieces (an arrangement of Debbie Friedman’s “Oseh Shalom” for the Judith Clurman Choral Series and a setting of the text “Discendi, Amor Santo”), I have stuck to texts in English. I’m open to setting texts in other languages so long as I can do them justice.
What are some things you take into consideration when writing for treble choirs vs. mixed choirs? What about for choral music in general?
Registral balance is particularly important in writing for treble choir because the overall band width can sit in the mid to high range. If the piece uses piano accompaniment, for example, it’s important to balance the higher registers with lower frequencies in the accompaniment. If the work is a cappella, tapping into the alto part’s lower range can achieve a similar balance. Choosing texts and topics that are under-represented is becoming more important to me. I don’t think we need any more songs about singing. When I was in high school, I was part of a wonderful group called Cass Tech Harp and Vocal Ensemble. We sang and played some beautiful pieces of music but we almost always processed in with one that began “To music, noble art, we bow in exultation.” That’s an earworm I’d like to get rid of!
When you have writer’s block, what are some things you do to get the creative juices flowing?
I don’t generally get writer’s block. On occasion, I’ve had something that’s more like a lack of focus, a creative sluggishness that comes when I allow other things to distract me. A good hike or a long walk usually solves the problem. I find that walking gets the creative juices flowing.
Who are some of your favorite composers, past and present?
That’s a tough one because there are so many that I appreciate. This sounds so cliché but here goes: Bach and others from the Baroque era (Teleman, Vivaldi) and several early music composers like Monteverdi. I’ve learned a lot from Beethoven’s work. I also love listening to Mozart arias and other classical opera composers. Moving into the late 19th into the 20th centuries: Debussy, Stravinksy, Varese, Messiaen, Ligeti, Ives, Britten and Copland. Lately, I’ve been listening to the Shostakovich symphonies. As for living composers, I really appreciate the work of Unsuk Chin, John Corigliano, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Judith Weir, Chen Yi and lots of other great contemporary composers. My music tends to be cinematic so I’m sure I’ve been influenced by the great Hollywood film composers. Recently, I’ve been listening to the work of younger female composers – Missy Mazzoli, Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank and more. There is so much talent to take in.
What kind of music do you listen to just for fun?
I have an eclectic taste in music which I attribute to my parents. They would take me to hear the Detroit Symphony but also gospel choirs and bluegrass artists like Ralph Stanley. So, lots of times, I listen to classical/concert music for fun but usually when I’m alone. In the evenings with family, it’s usually something like jazz, folk, R&B, indie stuff or other popular music genres. Some hip hop interests me. I found some of Kendrick Lamar’s last album really interesting. I often ask my son or my stepson what they’re into for ideas. I love listening to folk music from around the world. Lately, I’ve been listening to some of the wonderful folk music genres of Columbia.
What are three pieces of advice you can offer to composers just starting out?
1. Use manuscript paper and pencil. Avoid writing at the computer until you’ve got a good handle on your piece.
2. Be a student of your craft. Listen to music and look at the scores.
3. Have fun! This is your playground.
Okay – the “woman composer” question: Did you face any resistance to being a female composer? Are things better today than they used to be?
In my early college days, I remember an orchestration teacher stating that the reason there weren’t more female composers in the world was because women have trouble thinking in large-scale form. Can you believe it?! We have come a long way from that kind of thinking, but we still live in a patriarchal society. Women still experience discrepancies in wages and barriers and biases in the workplace and the concert hall. I read a recent study looking at the 2020-21 seasons of the world’s leading orchestras. The results showed that 95% of pieces programmed were by male composers and 88% of the concerts featured only music written by men. That was conducted by the Donne Foundation (UK). And of course, in some countries, women and girls face even more extreme barriers due to gender. I do feel fortunate to live in a country that allows me to work as an artist and express myself however I am inclined. I’m also encouraged to see more support for composers who are women and persons of color. I think many organizations are on the right track. It just takes time.
Why choral music?
To sing is such a basic, primal, important thing to do. And it’s one of the most intimate and essential forms of human artistic expression because it comes from within our very beings. To sing side by side with other human beings is a true soul connection. It speaks to our very humanity and need for community. Who wouldn’t want to encourage that?
All of the works below could be performed by an advanced high school or collegiate treble choir.
Publisher: Heritage Music Press
Text: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
This peaceful setting is from a choral trilogy, The Sadness of the Sea, a commission by Percy Browning for the Cornell University Chorus. McCune combines the poem The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” When we recently performed this piece, we had to work on keeping longer phrases, avoiding being too “note-y,” and balance. The altos have a lot of important melodic material, but sing pretty low.
Publisher: Heritage Music Press
Text: Louise McNeill
Where Do the Roads Go is one of three Appalachian texts set by McCune (along with Jubilee and Go Dig My Grave, also on this list). McNeill’s text about roads weaving through the countryside is highlighted in McCune’s music through homophonic and speech-like writing in the choral parts and expressive piano writing that emulates wind and trickling and flowing water.
Publisher: Heritage Music Press
This setting of an Appalachian text is upbeat and playful with some mixed meter. The opening “All out on the ol’ railroad” is a total earworm! The playful piano texture and melody evoke the style of an early American folk song. Jubilee could be performed as a set with both Go Dig My Grave and Where Do the Roads Go or just with Go Dig My Grave.
Publisher: Roger Dean Publishing Company
Although the text is about love for a “railroad boy,” this is not your typical love song! It is a wonderful showcase of the colors and range of treble voices. It has recurring melodic and rhythmic motifs and a mostly pentatonic melody with occasional flatted notes that give the piece a quasi-blues feel.
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
Text: Bianco Da Siena and Christina Rossetti
In this piece, McCune combines a single verse from Bianco Da Siena’s “Laudi Spiritualis” with a verse from Christina Rossetti’s “A Christmas Carol.” This peaceful and ethereal setting has a modal feel and is a wonderful opportunity to work stylistic elements of singing chant with your ensemble. Although McCune has included barlines in her score, she notes that they should not “get in the way and prevent freedom in the phrasing.”
Dr. Hana J. Cai is a conductor, pianist, and singer based in Ithaca, NY. She is currently on faculty at Ithaca College where she conducts the Ithaca College Chorus and Treble Chorale.
If you would like to contribute to the blog with any questions or wisdom or pieces to share, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.