When composer Elizabeth Alexander first experienced choral music, what she heard on stage was predominantly classical. Over the past few decades she has thrived professionally while offering her own voice to a choral world that now has a stronger connection with popular and folk music styles from around the world, as well as with themes focused on unity and peace. There’s even a place for the Appalachian music Alexander grew up hearing as a child.
Using her innovative style, Alexander has created over 100 pieces on a wide variety of topics. She has composed commissioned works for orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists, but her primary focus and love has been choral music.
A Little Help from Mom and Grandmom
Alexander was fortunate to get off on the right foot at a very young age. During her childhood, some small moments led to larger inspiration. Her mother was a piano teacher, and one day when they were playing Home on the Range together, she felt moved by one particular chord. Years later she learned it was a “borrowed minor IV,” and she realized that moment in her life had laid the foundation for her fascination with music theory.
When she was in seventh grade, she created her first composition with notation, which she called The Music Box. Her sheet music included only notes from the top two octaves of the piano. Nothing would stop her grandmother from showing her support.
“My grandmother bought seven copies at one dollar apiece,” Alexander said. “That was my first music that I ever sold.”
That was just the beginning; Alexander went on to pursue her degrees in music composition at the College of Wooster and Cornell University, culminating in a doctorate.
Since then her work has garnered awards, grants, and fellowships from numerous prestigious organizations, including the McKnight Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, the American Composers Forum, and the National Endowment for the Arts. This support has helped her create compositions performed by thousands of choruses, vocalists, and ensembles worldwide.
Her Style of Composing
In her first years as a professional composer, Alexander composed for many different types of ensembles, but she soon found she wasn’t building long-term relationships with performers.
“A bassoonist would say, ‘What else do you have for bassoon?’ and I would say, ‘Well, that’s kind of the only piece I have,’” Alexander said.
Realizing that she enjoyed writing choral music the most, Alexander decided to put her creative energies into composing music for choirs. Her inspiration for pieces came from many sources, including events around the world that upset her and poems that really touched home.
Whatever the idea is, while composing she relies on Leonard Bernstein’s notion of the “golden blind spot” to maintain her motivation.
“You have to be in that golden blind spot when you’re writing,” Alexander says. “I have to have this idea that this piece totally has to exist… that this piece will bring harmony and equilibrium to everything.”
That process begins with a kernel, which often centers on words. For instance, she decided to set the poem Trouble in a Minnesota Town to music just because of three words: “Mangoes o muerte!” which is Italian for “Mangoes or death!”
Alexander has set many texts to music, including poems, prose, letters, quotes, and proverbs. She also writes many of her own lyrics.
In her sound she has embraced many styles, including the vernacular language from her upbringing in Appalachia, where she “let her roots shine.”
When she gets to particulars, she says sometimes seemingly small things can provide the largest challenges. For example, when she was composing A Palette to Paint Us as We Are, she found herself stumped by the hard, flat vowels in the phrase “sham at fact.” At first she tried to minimize the harsh effect of those vowels, but that wasn’t working. She went back to the drawing board and emphasized the harsh tone of those words instead.
Alexander says her starting point is different for each piece, depending on what thoughts are floating to the top of her priority list. One thing is certain, though: change is inevitable over time.
“You have the musical voice you have at the moment. You don’t have to sound like you did five years ago,” Alexander said.
The Joy of Choral Music
For 25 years now, Alexander has concentrated on composing for choirs. She says it is beautiful how choirs breathe and sing together while often addressing important questions. As she describes it, “Choral music is a microcosm of how we could be communicating together.”
As part of that journey, Alexander has come to spend time reflecting on the performance experience for the audience. In songs like No Other People’s Children she included a part for the audience to sing along with the choir, and in Sue Loves Butter she even included hand motions.
She also takes into account the experience of the choir members themselves – and she doesn’t hesitate to rewrite a piece if she’s not satisfied with it. When she originally composed the intergenerational partner song We Lift Up Our Hearts, the children sang their melody once while the adults listened to them. Then the children sang their melody a second time with the adults adding their own part. Years after that song was first published, Alexander realized that she had never asked the children to listen to the adults. So she sat down and rewrote the piece.
“I’m appalled actually that 15 years ago I didn’t know how important it was to teach the children to listen, but it’s really important,” Alexander said. “That’s what choral music can teach us.”
The Business of Self-Publishing
In addition to composing, as a self-publisher Alexander must do many other tasks. She delved into this world after receiving a letter from ASCAP in the 1990s encouraging freelance composers to embrace their role as their own publishers. She named her publishing company Seafarer Press based on the initials of her full name – Sarah Elizabeth Alexander.
She mailed her first music catalog to a thousand choir directors, but received only a handful of music orders and a couple dozen supportive letters. Dispirited, she thought her effort had been a failure. However, some time later Alexander found herself at a wedding where she was seated next to a guest who had a business degree. When she told him about the catalog and the response, he immediately calculated that she had received a 3% response, which he said was “amazing.”
“We had this little talk there, and I started thinking that I could really do this,” Alexander said.
Over time, Alexander says she is learning what audiences she can best serve and how to establish business connections. She also came to understand that, at its core, business was not actually about sales.
“Business is a relationship that has a transaction,” Alexander said.
With time her business really took off, but in the beginning she often had doubts.
“You are so tender when you are starting out,” Alexander said. “It’s easier to kill a seedling than it is to kill a tree.”
Alexander is thankful, though, for each challenge as well as each failure. In fact she says these challenges and doubts are what keep her motivated – that drive always to strive for something better.
“My imperfections and my failures are part of what fuel me,” Alexander said. “As long as I have imperfections, I should have jet fuel for a long time.”
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