In the second of three interviews for ComposersOnline.org, Dr. Dale Warland discusses his plans after the Dale Warland Singers, recommends ways to promote new music, and discloses his 17 favorite examples of fine choral writing.

He spoke with ComposersOnline writer Abbie Betinis from his offices in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2004.

(Reprinted by permission of ComposersOnline.org – link no longer available)

Dale WarlandComposersOnline [CO]: So now, after 32 years conducting the Dale Warland Singers, you are retiring from that role in order to do many things, one of which – or so I’ve heard – is to be a composer!

Dale Warland [DW]: You do me great honor to even put me into this category!

I just have not been able to keep up with writing. I was hoping that I could have a life that would be a balance between conducting and composition, but to do the job right of artistic director is all-consuming. Running an organization is seven days a week, and that’s part of the reason I have to stop, because I have time for nothing else. And it gets tougher and tougher as people expect more and more. But I simply enjoy writing – even with all the struggles I have to do it. No great pretensions… I’ve just got to do it.

CO: Do you have any specific projects lined up?

DW: I have four commissions lined up for the 2004-2005 season, two of which will be original works. The first is a commission from Opus 7 for harp, cello, and chorus, and the second is from the Choral Arts Ensemble in Rochester, MN, for chorus and percussion. The other two pieces will be arrangements for chorus.

CO: Are you interested in non-vocal pieces?

DW: I’ve written some… Clarinet is one of my favorite instruments, and I’ve written pieces for cello and piano too. Some of those things were published many years ago. But nothing for orchestra. Only student works for orchestration and arranging classes.

CO: My favorite arrangement of yours is Coventry Carol.

 

DW: Oh, thank you! That’s a good, solid arrangement. I’m trying to buy that back from the publisher, but they won’t give it up!

CO: Do you have a specific style you’re drawn to when you write? Or any specific composers whose styles have influenced you?

DW: I don’t know if I have any special style that I’m drawn too. I guess I would look at my style as very conservative now. One of the things I want to do now is to shake loose. I need to either shake loose or go to a teacher who will shake me loose! (laughs)

CO: I always feel an incredible sense of flow in your arrangements and your compositions. And beautiful phrasing.

DW: That must be instinctive with the conducting. Phrasing is very much a part of me with so many years of experience shaping music as a conductor. My teacher, Halsey Stevens, was very good with me. All the doctoral students in choral music at USC had to have a “craft,” and one of the crafts you could take on was arranging, so I signed up. He liked my work so well… I did Coventry Carol with him, dedicated it to the concert choir there at USC, and they premiered it while I was a student there. But Halsey Stevens said maybe I could do some original things and he’d change the requirement of arranging into composition. So I had a semester of composition with him and that was very good. In both arranging and in composition, he forced his students to be very clean and make sure everything counted. I remember that when I’m writing today. You don’t just put in anything extraneous. No filler! Everything must really function, must have a reason behind it. You can look at Coventry Carol to see his influence.

CO: And he was a very efficient composer too… nothing wasted.

DW: Oh yes. It’s very evident in his music. So that was very influential. He’d point to his own very clean writing, and wouldn’t let us get away with any excess baggage.

But I have other models for composition too. I haven’t used them like I want to yet, but they’re in my brain, ready! For instance, a great model for choral sound and voicing of a chorus is Rachmaninoff. In the Vespers alone, my gosh, there’s a lesson on every page on how to write for chorus! Of course that’s one kind of sound, but even lessons as general as the tremendous effect of doubling at the octave – having the sopranos doubled by the tenors… Moving the melody from one voice to another… Phrasing…

When I want to look at great technique all underwritten with great spiritual quality, I look to the music of Herbert Howells. And in terms of sensitivity to text, Dominick Argento is extremely effective. Benjamin Britten is another one who sets text wonderfully well.

CO: What is it like to conduct your own work? Is it more or less difficult than conducting other composers’ work, and why?

DW: Oh! (laughs) Well it’s always such a surprise to hear how the music actually sounds after you’ve written it!

CO: Are you surprised by it? Even with your knowledge of the voice?

DW: Well, of course I think I hear it all, but it’s still never the same until you hear it live.

CO: And it’s never the same on a piano…

DW: No, no… and that is a danger! You must be very careful about not only writing what you’re able to play. I do work at the keyboard — I get inspiration from live sound. There is a danger in depending on it, especially if you’re trying to play all the lines of a choral piece… To put down only what you can play is a real danger.

But about conducting my own music… Except for being slightly embarrassed, or worrying whether the performers are going to like it, it’s pretty much the same for me to conduct my own piece as anyone else’s. I work out all the breaths and the divisi like I do for any piece. But I always worry about people liking something, or it being effective. So I think I just need to do more, and shake loose.

CO: How exciting!

DW: And writing music is something I can do, and want to do, that won’t be quite as demanding in terms of everyday schedule. I don’t have any great pretensions about it, so I think that is good too. I want to write for my own sake, for my own madness, and see what happens.

When I was your age, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do, I’d have said I wanted to be a composer. In a way I haven’t fulfilled that dream. I just thought the greatest thing in the world would be to pack up a bunch of scores and fly to New York.

CO: Instead you’ve packed up a bunch of other people’s scores and flown all over the world…

DW: It was probably meant to be. If the goal is to be a great composer – that’s pretty frightening, even nearly impossible. So if you want to do it, you just have to go and do it… and see what happens.

I would tell any young composer: Go for it now. Don’t wait. Don’t say, “Well I’m going to do that when I have time.” Keep the writing going, and let everything be in a mess if it’s in a mess. Just don’t stop. I think that would be my advice to anybody! You have to allow time to develop your passion… because to make a living in this business is tricky.

And if someone is interested in your work, for goodness sake, RESPOND! Respond to conductors and to all inquiries. Respond on time, show up on time, deliver on time… these things are crucial.

CO: Do you get a lot of unsolicited scores in the mail?

DW: Oh yes. It’s slowed down a bit, but it used to average about one a day.

CO: Did you ever get through all those scores?

DW: No. Their screening became the responsibility of our composer-in-residence when I had one. In the case of Carol [Barnett], she’d say, “You know Dale, you should look at these three pieces.” So we’d sit together and I would look at them closely. For the others, I’d only take a quick look.

CO: But somebody did look at every one of those scores.

DW: Oh yes.

CO: As a conductor who has actively sought new choral music, can you recommend places for composers to market and promote their choral compositions?

DW: Always start with what you have. A composer should actively talk to conductors and get recommendations. Just ask people, “Do you know anybody who conducts a high school choir who would be interested in new music?” Then you make sure to tell that director who sent you to them.

Then, send out your music and see what happens. But don’t send too much!

Also, only send good dubs… no bad recordings. I would never send MIDI – I’d rather just have the score. And I would never send a recording of a bad performance.

CO: That sounds like good advice.

DW: Also, work on your own. Don’t talk to other composers about promotion because it can be so competitive. I just think you should make your own way. Go your own way, and shower the other composers with kindness!

CO: What’s the best thing to say to a conductor when you meet one? I know that sounds like a straightline, but seriously… if I were meeting you for the first time, I would be scared to death.

DW: Most conductors are very happy to meet composers.

CO: What could I say that would interest you in my music? What would set my scores apart from all those piles of unsolicited scores on your desk?

DW: I just think you say whatever comes to you. If you have some connection, be sure to use it. “So-and-so said to say hi to you,” is usually ok.

Telephoning is not ok. I don’t think I’d do it in general. I used to receive so many calls… calls from all over the world. They say, “I hear you like new music” and they send you something. Then they call you a week later and say, “Well, what did you think?” And you’re so busy you haven’t even opened the box!

Ruth [Warland] is still going around our house opening envelopes and saying, “You never answered this!”

CO: Do you recommend email over telephoning?

DW: Quite often I’ll get an email that asks if I’d be willing to look at something. Of course I say yes and then they come through. That’s a nice way to do things.

But the best promotion is always word-of-mouth, and I’d start with people I know: “So-and-so said you might be interested in this particular piece.” Or if you’ve heard their choir, that’s good too. But never put pressure on anyone.

CO: How far ahead do choruses program their next season of music?

DW: It’s usually done about a year in advance. The deadline for the Dale Warland Singers was to have everything programmed by December for the following season, which ran Oct-May.

CO: So to send in a score and hope it gets into the next season is pretty unlikely.

DW: Yes, but there are always exceptions. Don’t let that stop you.

CO: Now that the Dale Warland Singers have completed their final season, and therefore aren’t accepting new scores, what other vocal ensembles might you recommend to composers seeking performance of their works?

DW: Well, since I am continuing my work as both teacher and conductor, I will continue to receive scores and to commission new works.

CO: Is it hard to find funding?

DW: It’s not THAT hard. In this day and age, it’s just not that hard. All you have to do is ask. You can’t just ask anybody, but ask a likely person, a foundation, or a corporation. Just say, “Would you like to support a commission? This is what I have in mind…” No, it’s not hard.

In fact, it’s especially easy to say to an ensemble, “Would you ever like me to write a piece for you, because I have a potential donor who would like to fund a project.”

CO: I see…

DW: Of course, in that case you really have to have a potential donor… (laughs)

But vocal groups who do commission include The Kansas City Chorale, Volti, Opus 7, and many others. It just takes a little time and a little research to find them.

Of course, you only want to send scores to one choir per geographic area. Don’t send your music to all the professional choruses in Seattle, for instance. If more than one choir wants to do it and finds out the other one has also programmed it, you can create an awkward situation. Now, if you send it to one and don’t receive a response within in a certain time, politely ask for your score back, and then send it to the other ensemble.

Always keep a record of what you send out to conductors. Keep a separate card with every score that details the history of that particular piece. Someday you’ll want to know when it was written, the source of the text, and who all the people were who rejected it before it got its big break!

I will never forget when I was in my early writing days in California. I would pack up a wonderful manuscript so carefully, wrap it and get it all perfect, and I’d take it down and give it to the postman, and they’d FLING it up into the truck. Just STAMP STAMP STAMP – FLING! And I’d cry, “Oh! My child!”

CO: Ah!

DW: (laughs) Oh, that’s such an image!

CO: One name you’ve mentioned multiple times in these interviews is that of Dominick Argento. I know you’ve worked extensively together. How did you meet?

DW: Dominick Argento was one of my teachers when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. That’s how we first met, but then a few years later, when I was teaching at Macalester, the SAI organization wanted to do a retrospect of Argento’s works. They engaged me to be the guest conductor, and it was an entire evening of Dr. Argento’s music. He was there, and was apparently favorably impressed with what we’d done with his music.

But I didn’t have so much to do with him until the Warland Singers really got going. I commissioned him, then, for our tenth anniversary concert. That was I Hate and I Love, a fabulous piece for chorus and percussion. Since then, we’ve become closer and closer.

I used to be very uneasy being with him because he’s so brilliant and articulate. I would worry that I might say the wrong thing. But I’ve learned to relax now because I know he has respect for what I do. So now I just throw it right back at him, so to speak, and we have the best time. I could never have predicted we would develop such a close friendship. He’s one of my favorite people.

We have great mutual respect for each other. He loves the fact that I take such care with a score. He loves the choir, what they do. It’s very special to have that respect from someone you so admire.

CO: What is it about his vocal writing that you appreciate?

DW: At first glance it may look awkward and difficult. But you soon realize that it’s so convincing, vocally-friendly, and fresh.

CO: You’ve mentioned I Hate and I Love as the 10th anniversary commission, and you placed Walden Pond as one of the top 17 scores to study choral writing at its finest (Ed. Note: see below). What other choral pieces by Argento do you recommend?

DW: A Toccata of Galuppi’s is the third work that the Dale Warland Singers have recorded. It’s a wonderful piece. It’s a bit unusual, but contains such fantastic writing. For inspiration regarding concepts, Dominick, like Benjamin Britten whom he deeply admires, does this splendidly. It is so essential for a composer to have a clear, solid concept. As soon as you have a clear concept, the piece can seem already written for you!

CO:This Toccata is such a good example of a concept piece. The off-stage harpsichord juxtaposed against the serialism in the choir is stunning.

DW: Yes, it harkens back to Baldassare Galuppi and goes awry. It uses the 19th century poem by Robert Browning, and then explores both twelve-tone technique and actual baroque harpsichord quotes from Galuppi. But you know, Argento has also had concepts he’s had to throw out the window because he couldn’t find some component of the equation… either a text or something to go with it. For one piece he was going to write for us — which ended up being Walden Pond — we sat down and he diagrammed it all out and I thought it looked great! But the next thing I heard from him, he’d thrown it all out the window and had started over. Of course the result was fabulous.

CO: So it’s a long planning process for him.

DW: Yes, he takes every piece that he writes very seriously.

CO: It’s such high-quality music…

DW: I think it’s a good lesson for any young composer — because you won’t be young long: Always take your music seriously. Well, seriously to a point. Because when you are 60 or 70, they’re not going to say how old you are. They’ll say, “Look at that piece!” And you might have written it when you were 12!

CO: Do you have any final advice for composers?

DW: I do. I think composers should choose their communication wisely. It’s so easy to be influenced by other composers. Talk to a lot of different types of people and go your own way. That’s what I say. Talk to conductors! I think you’ll have much more confidence, and persistence, and your imagination will “fly” more if you don’t communicate exclusively with other composers, but stimulate your imagination by talking to playwrights and going to plays, by going to dance and theater, by reading books, seeing movies…

You can catch yourself, I think, in just being too caught up in competition. I don’t know… We all have that as composers: the element of ego that you can’t fight. It should be a healthy ego, but sometimes there are elements of ego that make you wonder if it’s really healthy. But more than anything you want to make your way, and forget about that natural tendency to be competitive about it. Just go your own way and enjoy it.

CO: Thank you so much for meeting with me, Dale. It’s really been wonderful to talk with you.

DW: Oh! (laughs) Abbie, the pleasure is mine!


Dale Warland’s list of 17 EXAMPLES OF CHORAL WRITING AT ITS FINEST:

Composer Title Forces
Dominick Argento: Walden Pond SATB, three celli, harp (1996)
Samuel Barber: Reincarnations SATB a cappella (1940)
Benjamin Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 SATB soloists, chorus, and organ (1943)
Benjamin Britten: Hymn to Saint Cecilia SATB a cappella (1942)
Benjamin Britten: Cantata Academica, Op. 62 SATB soloists, chorus, orchestra (1959)
Luigi Dallapiccola: Canti di Prigionia (Song of the Prisoners) SATB, two pianos, two harps, eight percussion (1938-1941)
Irving Fine: The Hourglass SATB a cappella (1949)
Herbert Howells: Requiem SATB a cappella (1936)
Herbert Howells: Take Him Earth for Cherishing SATB a cappella (1964)
Frank Martin: Mass SATB double chorus a cappella (1922-1926)
Arvo Part: Magnificat SATB a cappella (1989)
Arvo Part: Berliner Messe SATB chorus or soloists, organ or string orchestra (1990, rev. 1991)
Krystof Penderecki: Psalms of David SATB chorus, stringed instruments, percussion (1958)
Ildebrando Pizzetti: Due Composizioni Corali SATB a cappella (1961)
Francis Poulenc: Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel SATB a cappella (1951)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Opus 37 SATB a cappella (1915)
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms SATB chorus, orchestra (1930, rev. 1948)


SEE PART III for Dale Warland on:

  • choral notation
  • score layout
  • text-setting