Harmony in Gold was commissioned for the Millburn High School Symphony and Chorus
Commissioning composers is an opportunity for high school music educators who want a composition that is completely tailored to the exact skill set of their performers, taking full advantage of their specific strengths. – Dale Trumbore
Composer Dale Trumbore has received numerous commissions, grants, and awards for her compositions, which include choral and orchestral pieces, as well as works for smaller ensembles. Her awards include Center City Opera Theater’s Art Song Composer Competition, Chanticleer’s Composition Contest, the American Composer’s Forum Subito grant (San Francisco Bay Area Chapter), Women Sing’s Youth Inspiring Youth Composer Contest, the Society for Universal Sacred Music’s Composition Contest, the Lyrica Chamber Music Composition Contest, the Harmonium Choral Society’s Choral Composition Contest, the Sadye J. Moss Composition Prize, the Walsum Award, and the National Federation of Music Clubs Composition Contest. She’s received commissions from the American Choral Directors Association, WomenSing, the Six Degree Singers, the Harmonium Choral Society, Trinity University’s Voix d’Esprit, the Orange County Women’s Chorus, and the Millburn High School Chorus & Orchestra.
Dale holds a Master of Music degree in Composition from the University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude with a double degree from the University of Maryland: a B.M. in Music Composition and a B.A. in English Language and Literature. Her dual interest in text and music often leads her to write music for voice, collaborating frequently with contemporary poets.
Despite her full calendar of professional engagements, Dale finds time to connect with school music programs, with a particular emphasis on engaging students in the process of composition.
CSIC interviewed Dale Trumbore in June 2012.
CSIC: Please describe the commission piece you just finished for Millburn High School.
Trumbore: MillburnHigh School, located in Millburn, NJ, commissioned me to write a 5-minute work combining their Symphony Orchestra and Miller Chorus.
In searching for an appropriate text for this work, I was particularly drawn to text-painting possibilities of Barbara Crooker’s poem “Brass Section,” a short poem that is densely packed with musically-rich images:
crescendo in colors
of butter and brass;
flare and shine,
a harmony of gold;
then shrivel at night
in a cacophony
The opening section of Harmony in Gold draws on a rhythmic trumpet motive that is picked up first by the rest of the orchestra and then by the chorus, on the word “Daylilies.” This retrograde of this rhythmic motive comes back at the very end of the piece in association with the “cricket” sounds heard in the orchestra as the chorus sings the last line of the poem (“then shrivel at night / in a cacophony / of crickets”). Because the poem “Brass Section” traces the opening and closing of flowers over the course of a day, I wanted some aspect of Harmony in Gold to reflect this circular nature, too; this is why the opening and closing motives of the piece are the same.
CSIC: How did you develop this relationship?
Trumbore: In winter 2010, I spoke to various music students at Millburn High School, (including many students taking Music Theory classes), about the composition process and the various turns that my career as a composer has taken so far. Several of the music faculty members there mentioned that they were considering commissioning a new piece that would combine the talents of their chorus and string/orchestra programs, and in summer 2011 they were in touch about the possibility of my being the one to write such a piece for them.
CSIC: Why did you accept this commission? What interests you most about the project?
Trumbore: I was incredibly happy to accept this commission for several reasons. This is the biggest ensemble that I’ve written for to date; this is my first piece written explicitly for high schoolers; and I’ve been longing to write a piece for chorus and orchestra, since I write a lot of music for chorus. I love writing for voices; setting text to music is something that I usually do on a smaller scale, in art-song, or in settings for either a cappella chorus or chorus and piano. The idea of writing for chorus and orchestra had much larger implications that I was very excited to explore.
I know from sixteen years of singing in chorus, (often with a full orchestra), and from hearing my piano concerto 10,000 Hours premiered in January 2011, that writing for chorus and orchestra is an entirely different animal from writing for either ensemble individually, or even for an instrumental soloist and orchestra. In writing a piece for chorus and orchestra, it’s not enough that the singing be heard over the orchestra; the text has to be understood, too. This is a significant challenge, and one I very much enjoyed figuring out in the process of writing this piece.
CSIC: Have you written for high school ensembles before? How is this different from other commissions?
Trumbore: Although high school singers have performed my choral works in the past, this was my first time writing a piece explicitly for high school students to perform. In Harmony in Gold, I wanted to use extended techniques, (to create effects such as the col legno “cricket” noises in the string section), while still staying within the skill set of the students’ abilities. I also wanted the piece to have a life of its own after the premiere; I didn’t want it on any level to seem scaled down for high schoolers, especially since the musicians at MillburnHigh School are highly proficient, well-trained musicians. This piece is very different from most of my other compositions, though, in that it is much more tonal (moving through strongly defined tonal centers), and it is in 3/4 time.
CSIC: How did you get to know the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests?
Trumbore: I was in touch with Rodrigo and Karen about the specific strengths of the ensemble. Because I’m from Chatham, New Jersey, (a town adjacent to Millburn), I also knew by reputation that the MillburnHigh School has a very fine music program. In Skyping with the students, too, I got to learn about some of the students’ individual musical backgrounds.
CSIC: Did you personalize the piece for them?
Trumbore: I went into this project knowing that Millburn High School has a fabulous music program with exceptionally talented students, so in that regard, I wrote a piece that I probably would not have written for a different school. I wanted to write a piece that would rise to the level of these students without becoming excessively challenging for them to learn.
CSIC: How much time did you anticipate spending with the students? How much time did you actually spend with the students?
Trumbore: I would’ve loved to meet with the students in person near the beginning of the process. However, since I’m based in Los Angeles, CA, and MillburnHigh School is in New Jersey. I talked on Skype with three different class periods of students instead– talking about the piece and my background, answering any questions they had, and learning a little more about them, too. I also had the chance to work with them a little bit in person before the premiere of the piece.
CSIC: How much time did it take to write the piece?
Trumbore: Composing Harmony in Gold took about four months, and making/editing parts and creating a piano reduction for the chorus took an additional month or so. Choosing the text can take up a fair amount of time, and usually I send a group commissioning me several possible texts to choose from, but I was so drawn to the orchestral implications of Barbara Crooker’s poem that I only sent this group this single poem! I’d hoped they’d approve of it, and they did.
CSIC: What were the biggest challenges in writing for a high school ensemble?
Trumbore: I tried with this piece to write something that would be appropriate for the skill level of the students while still challenging them and remaining true to my aesthetic. It took me a while to define exactly what that would mean in this particular piece, but once I decided to allow this piece to exist in a tonal framework and have a fixed time signature, that freed me up to play around more with the form of the piece and the techniques and gestures that the students would play and sing. I also tried to keep the voice-leading in the choral parts very reigned in; much of the choral movement is stepwise motion. Additionally, every time the chorus had an entrance, I made sure that the orchestra gave them a very audible cue from which to get their specific note.
CSIC: Would you encourage high school band directors to commission composers? Why?
Trumbore: I would absolutely encourage high school music educators to commission composers. I think it’s a great opportunity for the students to be able to interact with living composers and learn more about what exactly goes into creating the notes of a piece, as opposed to the interpretation of it. There’s also something beautiful about premiering a piece; no matter what other performances of the piece happen in the future, these students will always have been the ones who first gave this piece life. Commissioning composers is also an opportunity for high school music educators who want a composition that is completely tailored to the exact skill set of their performers, taking full advantage of their specific strengths. This is particularly relevant to subsets of music of which there might be a gap in existing rep.
CSIC: What other services can composers provide in high schools besides creating a new piece of music?
Trumbore: I would encourage high schools to bring in composers—and musicians—in any stage of pursuing a professional career. In speaking to someone pursuing a professional career in music, high schoolers can ask the questions most relevant to them: whether double-majoring in music is feasible, for example, or whether it’s possible to continue playing in ensembles while pursuing a different major. They can also witness the variety of ways in which a career in music can take shape; in this profession, there is truly no “one correct path.”
CSIC: Where can we hear this the piece performed, or a sample of the pieces when they are complete?
Trumbore: Harmony in Gold is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKgHcpfLFtg
(Ed: Or listen here:
CSIC: What other projects are you working on?
Trumbore: I recently completed a piece for San Francisco-based new music ensemble After Everything. Right now, I’m working on finding a text for a commission from the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA); their Women’s Consortium Commission allows many choirs to band together to commission and premiere new works for women’s chorus. I’m also completing a commissioned work for TrinityUniversity’s Voix d’Esprit, (their women’s chorus), for chorus, piano, and violin.
Learn more about Dale Trumbore and explore her works at http://www.daletrumbore.com.