Q and A with Ethan McGrath, runner-up of our 2018 Comp Comp

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"Peace"

by Ethan McGrath

When did you start composing? How would you describe your composition style?
Though I made a few isolated attempts at composing as a child, my efforts did not begin in earnest until I was 14 and had been studying piano with J. Bruce Ashton for a year or two. Ashton was a composer as well as a pianist, and I thought, “If he can do it, maybe I can too!”

On the question of style, Alice Parker once told me, “I try not to have a style.” In many ways, that’s true for me as well. The style is often dictated by the occasion the work is written for and/or the nature of the text (in the case of vocal music). If I had to use a single term to describe my work, “neo-romantic” might be best; it doesn’t quite describe everything I do, but it’s safe to say that I’m very drawn to romanticism.

What influences your composition style (genres, instruments, composers, etc.)?
Composers who have influenced me the most include Grieg, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Barber, to name a few. Obviously that’s an eclectic bunch, and what influences you hear in my music will depend on which piece you’re listening to. I greatly admire chant and folk music, and many of the composers I am drawn to are those who incorporated elements of either or both into their work. And I admire composers who wrote what they wanted to write, regardless of whether there was a precedent for it, or regardless of what others thought they “should” be writing. Ironically, being old fashioned is sometimes the most rebellious way to be. That’s what I admire most about Rachmaninoff and Barber; they were like oases of romanticism amid the rather desolate musical scenery of the 20th century. Their music has influenced me, certainly, but even more than that, the idea that it’s okay to be yourself—even if that means being described as old-fashioned or even passé—has been liberating.

How do you choose texts for your pieces? 
It varies. In the case of commissioned works, the commissioner often chooses the text. If not, they might say, “Pick a text that would be appropriate for Pentecost,” or something, and that gives me some direction. Oftentimes I browse poetry collections to see what jumps out at me. That was the case with Sara Teasdale’s poem “Peace.” It almost seemed to sing itself.

What do you enjoy most about composing for voices?
The human voice is, for me, the greatest instrument. For all its apparent limitations (when compared to various manmade instruments), its expressive power is unparalleled. And that power seems to be magnified in a choir, when many people join their voices together to create something beautiful. It’s an expression of humanity and what we can accomplish when we cooperate and work together toward a common goal. And I love that the common goal in choral singing is the creation of an experience, and not some kind of object. Community is built of experiences, not stuff, and choral singing provides a sense of community that our society, with its overemphasis on both individuality and consumerism, has robbed from many of us. I believe choral singing can help us find it again.

Tell about your piece. Is it similar to other pieces you’ve composed?
Though I didn’t finish the piece until recently, I made some sketches for it a few years ago, at a time when I leaned toward the euphony of very rich choral textures, which you hear in this piece. A number of the works in my catalog do have that kind of “lush” sound to them, but in recent years I’ve gravitated toward a leaner sound, though still rather “neo-romantic” most of the time. You hear that “leaner sound” in the opening section of the piece, which features just the sopranos and altos. That’s the portion that I composed most recently, but it really seems to fit, and creates just the right contrast to keep the piece interesting.

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Hear Ethan's winning composition June 16th at Dupont Underground and June 17th at Church of the Epiphany. Tickets available now!

June 16th tickets: https://www.ticketfly.com/purchase/event/1704320?utm_medium=bks

June 17th tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/soundscapes-18th-street-singers-spring-concert-sunday-evening-tickets-45830595545

Q and A With Composition Competition Grand Prize Winner, Matthew Lyon Hazzard!

The time is coming…one more rehearsal to tune our chords, strengthen our onsets, and triple check the tough spots. We’re getting pretty excited about how this music is shaping up, and we can’t wait to share it with you this Saturday night.

In this concert, we’ve chosen our favorite pieces performed over the last ten years. And we’ve added our favorite new pieces by promising composers to be debuted Saturday night. I guess you could call the grand prize winner of our 10th Anniversary Composition Competition, Matthew Lyon Hazzard, the favorite of the favorites.

The 18th Street Singers fell in love with As Is The Sea Marvelous from our first run through. From the delicate yet soaring melody, to the graceful interplay between parts, Hazzard masterfully evokes the sounds and movements of the sea. With his exquisite text-setting and clear understanding of choral voices, he creates a stunning landscape of sound. We are proud to premier this piece, and are thrilled to be performing the work of such a promising young composer! 

How about you Matthew, what do you have to say for yourself?

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When did you start composing? How would you describe your composition style?

I was pretty young when I started writing music. I improvised tunes and experimented with sounds on the piano throughout my teens, but it I didn’t actively pursue composition until high school. 

My composition style is very much in line with other modern choral music composers: Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, and Eric William Barnum, to name a few. They were the composers I listened to when I first fell in love with choral music, so my ear is naturally drawn to those kinds of sounds when I’m writing. That said, I also grew up listening to Radiohead and Bjork. I love those lush, sweeping landscapes of sound that they build in their music. I would say my writing stands apart from similar choral composers because of that. My language tends to be very lush with different lines coalescing to create an atmospheric kind of sound. At least, that’s what I go for.

What influences your composition style (genres, instruments, composers, etc.)?

Aside from the artists I mentioned, my pieces tend to be influenced by whatever I perform. When I wrote a setting of Agnus Dei, aspects of Stravinsky’s Mass spilled into it simply because it was what I was singing at the time. I’m also an impressionist; paintings and visual language really inspire me. For instance, the arcing figures of a Roger Dean painting (the man who made the album artwork for progressive rock band Yes) found their way into the melodic lines for one of my works. I think my setting of As Is The Sea Marvelous is more like the latter rather than the former. The poetry is so vivid that it informs the shape of the piece.

That being said, there is a composer whose influence that can be found across all my work, and that is French choral composer, Pierre Villette. When I was growing up, my family would listen to a lot of bossa nova, so jazz was already in my blood (I’ve yet to meet an extended chord that I didn’t like). However, when I heard Villette express jazz harmonies in choral music for the first time, it was life changing. His harmonic language is supremely beautiful. I think encountering his music during high school was largely one of the reasons why I decided to pursue composition as strongly as I have.

Please tell about As Is The Sea Marvelous. Is it similar to other pieces you compose?

As Is The Sea Marvelous is a description of a deep, unconditional love. Like the sea, it waxes and wanes, yet remains perpetual and unchanging in the face of time. Whether the poem is about a specific person or not is up to interpretation. For me, though, the poem is about much more than that. The sea has been constant since the dawn of man, and to describe sensuality with that kind of image - to compare love itself to something as massive and enduring as the sea - only serves to show how profound love can be.

For the piece itself, I have to admit it’s one of the works I am the most proud of. There’s something about the sea as described in E. E. Cummings’ poem though that lends itself to music. The text ebbs and flows. “She goes forth out of hands, and returns into hands.” There’s a give and take to the way he phrases everything: a contrast. The way he uses language is so captivating that it kind of haunts the mind. I’ll never be able to erase the perfect image of the sea sleeping upon the world while “the earth withers, and the moon crumbles.” It’s a profoundly beautiful way of describing how something can endure.

And then - what feels like a little twist at the end - he mentions love.

What do you enjoy most about composing for voices? 

There are some deep-seated reasons why I love to write for voices. I’ve always been a singer, so I guess it immediately attracts me. There’s something more to it than that though. A few years back, my brother and I would mess around with difference tones. We would both hold a high note, and one of us would move down to create what sounded like a motorcycle revving up in our ears. As abstract as that sounds, it creates this beautiful dissonance unlike anything I’ve heard anywhere else - that is until I discovered a cappella choral music. When two voices come together and sing in perfect dissonance, there’s nothing else in the world like it. There’s a reason why it’s a choir of angels. It’s just one of those natural phenomena that makes you sit back in awe. That beauty is definitely something I feel I’ve been chasing through my music.

Meet Matthew, John and Michael on Saturday at our 10th Anniversary Concert: Something Old, Something New!

June 20, 2015
8:00pm
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
600 I Street NW
Washington DC, 20001

If you haven’t gotten tickets yet, go get ‘em!