Originally from Columbus, Ohio, composer John Mackey grew up without formal music lessons. Though his mother played the flute and the family owned a piano, he never played either instrument – partly due to the experience of his older sister, Lisa. She hated the piano, and as Mackey relates, he did not care for it either.
Ola Gjeilo began composing before he could even read music. When he was a child in Skui, Norway, just outside of Oslo, he taught himself to play the piano and created compositions that his father, an accomplished amateur saxophonist, would write down for him. His father’s love for jazz music led to the heavy influence of jazz in Gjeilo’s music at an early age and a special fondness for the improvisations of pianist Keith Jarrett.
Composer Eric Whitacre delved into the visual world of film after he received an invitation he could not refuse. After conducting his Deep Field orchestra piece, which is based on the Hubble Space Telescope’s findings, he was approached by audience member Scott Vangen, a NASA payload specialist, who invited Whitacre to come to the Kennedy Space Center for a visit. Just a month later, Whitacre was there.
Horror movies don’t just play on the minds of the audiences. They’re also a cerebral project for horror music composers like Joseph Bishara and Christopher Thomas. Bishara has composed music for the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises and Thomas for haunted amusement attractions and film productions. Both have spent hours, days, and months formulating ways to create unnerving sound tracks – a job that gives them a unique perspective on the world of fear.
Composer Craig Hella Johnson calls it the “long sacred silence” – his way of describing a common audience reaction after choral performances of his recently published composition Considering Matthew Shepard. In an age when hate crimes are on the rise and divisiveness is rampant, Johnson’s work raises deep questions about our humanity. It focuses on how people can learn to love those who are different from them. Audiences often pause in silence before applauding; such is its impact. During a performance at the University of Southern California this year, one student performer described the reaction this way:
A large wall photo at a Philadelphia exhibition shows Leonard Bernstein during one of the most poignant days of his life – a day in 1948 when he conducted a concert with a small group of Holocaust survivors in Germany. The picture and the story behind the moment are part of the Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History. The presentation marks what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday in August 2018.
Teaching middle school tends to be “the road less traveled” for many new music educators. Sometimes this can be due to a lack of targeted training for middle school music, but more often it’s a fear of not knowing how to work with the physical and psychological changes experienced by this age group. Thankfully, there are experienced mentors like Cristi Miller who are more than willing to help other teachers develop skills that work for their classrooms. Miller is a frequent clinician at choral workshops such as the Joy of Singing, and Pepper was able to sit down with her to talk about teaching, composing, and inspiring the next generation.
Emmy-winning classical composer Julie Giroux says she didn’t know about any women composers when she was studying music, and when she first entered the field she didn’t meet any, either. Unfortunately, she is not alone in this experience. It’s only in the last few decades that women composers have begun to be recognized in some of the music industry’s top areas.
When browsing the choral sheet music collections of any music educator, one might be struck by the wide range of styles and themes present as well as the myriad composers who have graced the world with their art. One name stands out, however, not only for his prolific output, but also for his practicality and his dedication to creating music that is accessible to young voices without sacrificing its integrity. That name is Roger Emerson.
Quietly, in places ranging from convents to conservatories to farms, extraordinary women have written innovative music without the benefit of fame. Historical archives hint at the challenges they have faced. Critics called composer Ethel Smyth a “little woman” with “utterly unfeminine” works, and Florence Price echoed the concerns of other minority women when she penned in a famous letter: “To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race.”