5 Questions to Dale Trumbore (composer)

Composer Dale Trumbore is making waves for her powerful works, particularly within the realm of choral music. The Los Angeles Master Chorale recently performed her “secular requiem” How to Go On at Walt Disney Hall. Her work What Are We Becoming, written for the NYC-based ensemble Choral Chameleon–with whom Trumbore is Composer-In-Residence–receives its world premiere on April 27 at the James Chapel of Union Theological Seminary, followed by a performance the following day at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Carroll Gardens. In addition to composing, Dale also maintains an active blog and serves as a guest author for NewMusicBox, the Center for New Music, and others. Her book, Staying Composed will be released this summer. I asked Dale five questions about her newest choral work, the challenges of writing for vocal ensembles, and her unusually candid and informative writings about music and the joys and struggles of life as a composer.

What Are We Becoming is part of a program exploring the union between the human voice and the pipe organ – instruments paired for centuries in church music. What is the inspiration behind the work’s creation, and is there any element of the sacred (i.e., spiritual, if not religious) within this secular work?

The theme for Choral Chameleon’s concert is “deus ex machina,” and I thought about that phrase a lot as I was writing this piece. Even in a world where a god could potentially swoop in and right every wrong, would it even be possible to find an immediate resolution for huge issues like climate change or the prevalence of mass shootings?

The two poems I chose to set ask a lot of questions. Abigail Welhouse’s “What Is” asks them without any punctuation at all, which (at least in my view) gives them sort of a decisive or resigned quality. Lynn Ungar’s “The Last Good Days” emphasizes that any answers we do find will be complex. And the answer I settled on for myself in writing the piece is that we have to take personal ownership of what we can do right now, rather than waiting for anything else to save us at the last possible second.

Whenever I write a piece for chorus and another instrument, I’m also asking myself what the role of that instrument is in the overall narrative and structure of the piece. In What Are We Becoming, the organ is almost like an omniscient god figure. If anything, that’s where the element of the sacred comes in, from this instrument that we can’t help but associate with a church.

Dale Trumbore

Dale Trumbore

What have been some of the greatest challenges and rewards of working with Choral Chameleon—an ensemble known for especially adventurous and eclectic programming—and what are you most excited about bringing to the ensemble’s Summer Institute for Composers and Conductors?

In the first piece I wrote for Choral Chameleon last fall, I had a lot of fun experimenting with different styles and more experimental textures all in the course of one dreamy, fantastical piece. Plenty of choral works sound stylistically similar, with the same sort of lush, mostly-homophonic textures. I still find myself falling into that standardized sound sometimes, but most of the time I’m trying to figure out how to write choral music that pushes beyond that while remaining accessible to non-professional singers. So to be Composer-in-Residence with an ensemble that’s so ambitious–that consists of a small professional group and a larger auditioned ensemble and that consciously seeks out stylistically diverse works—it’s a composer’s dream come true, or at least my dream come true.

I’m really thrilled to be on faculty for Choral Chameleon’s Summer Institute because there’s so much time and space for exploration. To dive into all things choral music—stylistically diverse choral music—and to combine that with discussions about the business side of a musical career is my ideal way to spend a working week. When I started down this career path, I felt completely baffled by it, so anything I can do to de-mystify the artistic or business side of this career for other composers or conductors feels extremely worthwhile.

Choirs (unlike many other types of ensembles) come in virtually all shapes, sizes, levels, and each seems to have its own preferred timbral aesthetic. What sort of pointers would you give to young composers approaching the world of choral composition for the first time, especially if they have not worked extensively with the voice?

Sing through what you write! Every line, every time, unless you’ve been singing in a chorus for many, many years. Dominick DiOrio just wrote an article for NewMusicBox about choral composing, and there’s excellent advice in there. His essay also has a variation of a graphic I used for a talk about composite text last summer, and that section is well worth checking out, too. So many choral composers think about text unfolding horizontally on the page, but it’s just as important to consider it vertically, too: What will the audience actually hear when those syllables align?

When you’re working with a chorus—or any unfamiliar ensemble, really—you shouldn’t be afraid to ask the conductor to try a passage of music a different way. This is still my favorite strategy whenever a conductor asks what I want from a passage and I’m not one hundred percent certain of the answer: I ask to hear what their recommendation would be, followed by exactly what I’ve written on the page. Once I hear both versions in a row, I always know what which I prefer.

Your writings cover a wide array of important topics from the practicalities of composition and working as a professional in the music industry, to the more intimate realities of struggling with crippling self-doubt and overcoming anxiety. When did you make the decision to be so open about your own experiences, and how has it affected your life both personally and professionally?

As I mentioned earlier, I felt so mystified in graduate school and immediately after graduation about how to go about this career. Staying Composed, the book I’m writing now, addresses the mental challenges of a creative career from various facets of a creative life: creating your art, dealing with other people, coping with anxiety and self-doubt, and ultimately finding success. It’s a book I wish I’d had in hand when I was in my late teens or early twenties, but it’s designed to offer helpful strategies for any stage of a creative career.

I made the decision to start writing about my life in music after the experience at Copland House I describe in this essay. Something about the absurdity of that situation struck me as so oddly specific and extremely universal: feeling creatively blocked at the exact moment you’ve accomplished something big and are expected to be creating great work. I’ve read a lot of books about the creative process, but I hadn’t yet read anything that addressed that exact feeling, so I felt—for the first time—a strong pull to write about it.

As for how that openness has affected my life, I sometimes get emails from people saying my essays resonated with them, which is always lovely, and I’ve noticed that since I started writing more actively and launched a newsletter with my writing, conductors—even ones I don’t know very well—will mention having read my work.

The longer I work in this profession, the more interested I am in being open and honest. There’s a level of control here, of course—sharing honestly only after I’ve had time to process something and ask whether it’s worth writing about. I love the idea of doing as a musician what good memoirists do—collecting and refining experiences, then presenting them. Here is what happened to me, and here is what I’ve made from it. Maybe this will also be helpful to you. I don’t think there’s enough of this kind of writing in the classical music world, so I’m going to keep writing what my past self wanted to read.

Dale Trumbore

Dale Trumbore

Here’s a composer’s dream scenario: you have unlimited resources, and any singers (soloists and choir(s)), instrumentalists, and venues at your disposal. What would you create?

I’d love to write a concert-length work for chorus and orchestra. I haven’t found the right text or collection of texts yet, but if this imaginary dream commission came along, I am certain that I could find them very quickly!

I’ve been thinking a lot about goal setting lately, as I’m at a place—a very fortunate place, and one I’ve been working towards my entire life—where I’m making a living through my composing and writing. I’ve either achieved or will achieve within the next year a bunch of goals I established for myself ten years ago. I haven’t done that kind of intense goal-setting for the next ten years yet, though. So on one hand, I need to spend more time with this question, mapping out various “dream scenarios,” and on the other, just doing what I do now—writing music and words for a living—already feels like my best-case scenario.