Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Collaborative Composer Part 1

Today's guest post is written by Martha Hill Duncan, an award-winning composer and piano teacher living in Kingston, Ontario. She is also an examiner for the Royal Conservatory of Music, conductor of the women’s choir She Sings!, and a founding member of Red Leaf Pianoworks, a self-publishing composer’s collective. For more information, sound clips and score availability, please visit Martha's website.

Driven by the deep and intimate workings of a tortured and convoluted mind, I once believed that I would always compose alone. Recently, however, and especially with my vocal writing, I’ve had a change of heart. By drawing poets, singers, teachers, artists, and recording engineers into my creative machinations, the results have been surprising and productive. They say that it takes a community to raise a child; well apparently it also takes a community to keep this composer happy and motivated.

Songs need words…

Always on the prowl for little-known texts from long-dead poets, I was thrilled to be approached by living poet, Janet Windeler Ryan, who was offering expressive and contemporary texts. This collaboration has recently culminated in a collection for the developing singer, Searching the Painted Sky. Through this highly enjoyable and entertaining process, I learned that a living poet (especially one who doubles as a pianist) can stroke your ego - “I love this!” , have strong opinions - “You’re not going to keep that note are you?” and keep you going - “When are you going to start the next song???” Working with an active writer also forced me into unexplored stylistic territories: “impressionistic pop” in Petal Waltz, “Broadway soundscape” in Searching the Painted Sky and “lounge singer meets art song” in Deep Winter Snowfall. The two of us have yet to actually meet, but somehow with words and notes hurtling through cyberspace, have managed to make quite a connection.

Composers need muses…

Often when I need a title, a sounding board for a new idea or often just a “reality check”, I call on my dear friend, Linda Jacques. She has a wonderful sense of style, imagination and a wicked sense of humour and most importantly, loves me and my music. So, I had this crazy notion that she should write a collection of poems about her childhood on Georgian Bay. Then I’d set them for young, eager and dramatic singers. The only snag was that she’d actually never written any poetry…

Ask and you shall receive! Her images, natural phrasing and word choices were amazing. The first hint that we were onto something was when our Nightlights was chosen as one of four songs published by Alberta Keys in the inaugural 2009 NATS Calgary Art Song Competition for junior voice works.

This year our crazy idea came full circle with our finished set Summer - Imaginative Songs Art Songs for Medium High Voice:

Sandfleas: “Until your toes dig underneath and those nasty sand fleas are ready to eat!"
The Swimmer : “Something in the water is following me, but I don’t need to know…”
Cloud Dreams “Do you see the tiger? He’s looking down at me. Oh, no, off he goes to become a tree.”
Queen of the North: “She waves her colorful silk draped robe across the sky”
My Cedar Canoe: “As the bow slices through the glassy surface, straight as an arrow and silent as the breeze.”

Recording early and often….

Thanks to a generous, wise and patient recording engineer and friend, Duncan Holt, I have been recording many of my works during this recent vocal writing extravaganza. Recording early and often inspires me to see projects from several different angles, saving myself countless hours of self-doubt, editing time and hopefully producing a more realistic and performable creation in the end. Fortunately I know several talented and willing victims, I mean, singers… who humor and cajole me, lending their talents to these “progress reports”. Sometimes they’re exceedingly diplomatic, bur often they’re simply honest. My typical flaws lie in too long of lines at too slow a pace, which when sped up, can really create a nightmare in the piano accompaniment. Then it’s back to the drawing board!!!

A picture’s worth a thousand words…

I’ve always been a little jealous of visual artists. There’s no digging through complicated musical notation, taking the time to dissect and practice challenging passages to get across their ideas and vision. What you see is what you get! I’m convinced that if I have evocative artwork alongside my self-published scores, potential performers will want to dig deeper and hear what I have to say. So, in the last few years I’ve been attaching myself to artists who are willing to feature their artwork alongside my music. My latest collaboration is with fellow composer and graphic artist Susan Griesdale who has created all of my recent vocal covers. As composer and artist, she seems to have a sixth sense about sound and visual cues. Lucky me!

1 comment:

  1. So thrilled that you are getting Martha's work out there! Check out her two volumes of songs called "Singing in the Northland"...the full recording is now available on iTunes!