Q and A with Michael Schachter, Merit Prize-Winning Composer

We can now say that our 10th Anniversary Concert is NEXT WEEK! As we work to lock our harmonies, print our programs, and work on our jazz hands (jk, that will never happen), take a moment to buy tickets and read about the second winner of our Composition Competition.

In the second Q&A with our Merit Prize-winning composers, we bring you Michael Schachter, whose piece Herbst has wowed us with its musical beauty and complexity. A PhD candidate in Music Theory and Composition at the University of Michigan, this Massachusetts native is a lifelong choir singer and composer.  Well it shows, Michael. We are impressed.

The longest and most linguistically demanding of our composition winners, Herbst sets a 1902 poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, who at the time of the writing had just moved to Paris, leaving his wife behind in Berlin. The text reflects on the inevitable falling of both leaves and humankind into death and holds out the hope that we will be caught before we hit the ground. This setting of “Herbst” is a work of art that challenges us to move through a variety of different tonalities. At various times, it reminds the listener of the German greats—a little Brahms here, a hint of Beethoven there. We look forward to premiering it!

On to words from Michael!


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

I have been composing as long as I can remember – my earliest little pieces go back to elementary school at least, and my piano teacher in middle school helped me compose instrumental songs into the computer using MIDI software.  It wasn’t until late in high school that I had my first formal composition lessons and started to really self-identify as a composer.  In these early lessons, I was encouraged to write in a rhapsodic, atonal style, but my compositional language today tends to be much more tightly structured and accessible.  

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

Oh gosh, what doesn’t?  I am a voracious music lover, and I am really inspired by musical excellence no matter what the genre.  I would say that I have been especially influenced by the styles of music that I have had the chance to perform and interact with very closely: jazz, Renaissance choral music, South Indian music, and gospel music.  Herbst in particular owes debt to Brahms (who wrote some really exquisite pieces for women’s voices later in his life, which I imitate with all of the canonic sections), as well as the great Renaissance Franco-Flemish composers Josquin des Prez and Johannes Ockeghem.

Please tell us what Herbst is about. Is it similar to other pieces you compose?

Herbst owes its text to Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite early-twentieth century poets.  The poem is essentially an existential mediation, comparing our lives to falling leaves (Herbst is German for “autumn”), but the dark despondency of the bulk of the poem finally finds solace in the last stanza, when the narrator takes comfort in the presence of an Almighty that can bring this falling to rest.  My setting uses techniques such as text-painting (using musical gestures that imitate the imagery of the corresponding words) and canon (having the same melodic line repeated at regular time intervals by multiple voice parts).  There are elements in this piece that appears across many of my works, but the combination of them results in a somewhat unique aesthetic within my output.

How do you choose texts for your pieces? 

Pretty simple – I just use text that I really like!  I tend to be drawn to poetry as opposed to prose, because (I think) the relatively abstract use language makes a good match for musical imagination, and techniques like rhyme, meter, and so on map more naturally onto musical structures.  

What do you enjoy most about composing for voices? 

I am a longtime choir singer, and I am extremely moved by the idea of all these individuals putting their busy lives aside, coming together and making music with nothing but their minds and bodies.  There’s nothing – nothing! – like a beautifully tuned choir chord…

We’ll do our best Michael to tune your expertly crafted chords!

See more about Michael and his work on his website.

Join us as we premier Herbst at our 10th Anniversary Concert: Something Old, Something New!

June 20, 2015
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
600 I Street NW
Washington DC, 20001

Next week, we’ll introduce you to the Grand Prize Winner, Matthew Lyon Hazzard.