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

Ethan McGrath.jpg


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.


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