As founder and conductor of the internationally acclaimed Dale Warland Singers, Dale Warland is said to have rejuvenated the choral genre by focusing largely on commissioning new music. In 31 years, he has commissioned over 270 new choral works from more than 150 composers, including Dominick Argento, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Carol Barnett, Aaron Jay Kernis, George Shearing, Peter Schickele, Alice Parker, Kirke Mechem, Mary Ellen Childs, Augusta Read Thomas, Janika Vandervelde, Bernard Rands, Chen Yi, Emma Lou Diemer, Brent Michael Davids, Frank Ferko and Eric Whitacre. The Dale Warland Singers’ annual Choral Ventures™ program, created in 1987, has awarded over $162,000 in commissions to 60 talented emerging composers from all over the USA.
Warland is a four-time recipient of the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, honoring “pioneering vision, leadership and commitment to commissioning and performing new choral works at the highest level of artistry.” In 2003, the Dale Warland Singers’ recording, Walden Pond, which features the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, was nominated for a Grammy. Warland served 19 years as Director of Choral Music at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a bachelor and a master of music degree from St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota, respectively, and a doctor of musical arts from the University of Southern California School of Music. Below, ComposersOnline writer Abbie Betinis, a composer and former member of the Dale Warland Singers, interviews Warland from his offices in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Reprinted by permission of ComposersOnline.org – link no longer available)
Dale WarlandComposersOnline [CO]: You have commissioned choral music from all sorts of composers, and have conducted countless programs of 20th and 21st century music. From your unique perspective on the current state of choral music, are there any modern compositional trends that you see going on right now?
Dale Warland [DW]: I guess I don’t see any obvious, major trends. Every composer that I encounter seems to develop his or her own voice, which is great. But I would say that harmony seems to take more interest right now than rhythm, per se.
CO: You’re hearing more tonal music?
DW: Yes, and with certain exceptions, certainly. But rhythm seems to take a back seat. There is, in terms of harmony, what I call a “cluster binge” going on. But the music itself is often very stagnant as far as a sense of flow or motion because rhythm has become secondary. This just happens to be what I see a lot. But composers and choirs in this country I think are really – and I’m talking about this country – are much more limited, or are making themselves much more limited in their use of anything but very simple rhythms and meters.
CO: Do you think that that stems from needing to be performed? Are composers simplifying their music just to be able to get it heard?
DW: I think to a large extent they are. Not the so-called well-established composers, but those who really seemingly are trying to get ahead in their careers tend to write, I think, in order to be performed. And as a result they make things too simplistic.
CO: Is there a way around that for the emerging composer?
DW: I think there is. There’s no question, there’s a big need for simple, effective choral music, but I think that’s a great challenge for composers – to learn how to write for the masses, but still with a fresh voice. And that’s not easy, that’s not easy at all. But with a little bit of effort, combined with good imagination, of course, I think we could fill that need without “writing down.”
CO: Do certain pieces come to mind – of composers you admire – who are writing easy enough pieces that the masses can do, but which still have a sense of flow?
DW: There are certain composers right here [in Minneapolis] who are doing just that. Steve Paulus is one. [ed: Stephen Paulus’ Pilgrims’ Hymn was recently performed in the funeral ceremonies of former President Ronald Reagan.] He is able to write very accessible music that has a creative, fresh touch to it. That’s the best example I think.
CO: When I think of repertoire I’ve done with you, I think of Halsey Stevens’ Go Lovely Rose.
DW: Yes, that certainly is a good example. I think that’s the big challenge: to write accessible music that’s still really good and well-crafted. But as far as learning how to write specifically for chorus, as a special instrument, I’d just say look at those like Rachmaninoff, Howells, and Britten.
CO: Are there specific “camps” of styles that composers new to choral music should be familiar with?
DW: I don’t see any specific camps, but there very well may be. I just can’t spot any or name any.
CO: Where can choral composers find strong models for compositional ingenuity? DW: Would-be choral composers should look at and listen to outstanding orchestral compositions of our time. I think that’s probably where it’s happening more than in choral music.
CO: What is the advantage of looking at orchestral music?
DW: If not looking, listening. I think here is where composers have stretched their imaginations a lot more than in choral music. Somehow composers seem to feel limited by what the voice can do, and that’s not only the fault of the composers, but of the conductors too. One great example of a country who fought that trend was Sweden. After World War II there were conductors, Eric Erickson for example, who were very curious about the music of the rest of the world. They’d been so isolated for so long. And they started by singing madrigals – all kinds of madrigals. But the composers of that day would also sit in and sing, so they learned by singing. (And one of the most important things that a would-be choral composer can do is to sing in a choir.) But what they did there was extraordinary: The conductors would invite composers to write for that choir, and then they just kept raising the level. So there was this communication and this mutual challenge which kept raising the bar until the point where Sweden produced, and even yet today, is producing some of the greatest music, and some of the greatest choirs in the world. Because they’ve had this kind of challenge.
CO: And you don’t see that happening in America right now?
DW: No. There are some exceptions, I suppose. To a certain extent [the Dale Warland Singers] have tried to do that. It might be because Sweden is a small country and there was a dynamic leader who really got it going. It really permeated the whole country – now they have great choirs and they’re all doing music at a very high level. Even the kids choirs! And in the Eastern countries too. I went to Hungary one summer, and it was an international competition, but the level that those kids brought was just phenomenal. It would challenge our professional choirs. So there are certain pockets where it’s happening, but we, in the United States… I think our choirs are so inconsistent in terms of quality of performance and especially in quality of the writing. That’s what raises the level of the choir is the challenge of the music, and we just have not challenged our choirs enough. I keep using that word…
CO: It does seem like a downward spiral. If the composers aren’t writing to a high level, choirs aren’t singing to a high level, which makes composers think they can’t challenge them…
DW: That’s right. And I don’t mean difficult – though sometimes it’s that too – but just high-quality, challenging music.
CO: You’ve brought a lot of high-quality music into the world by commissioning over 270 new choral works for The Dale Warland Singers. What are some of the most memorable works that you have commissioned, and by whom?
DW: I may not think of them all… Dominick Argento has written some of our most memorable things: I Hate and I Love, and of course Walden Pond. Frank Ferko’s Hildegard Triptych. An older one by Stephen Paulus, Evensong.
CO: That one is so beautiful… the moon rising. The text-painting is glorious.
DW: Yes, it has some real magic about it. Another one along those same lines, which we recorded, is Alf Houkum’s Rune of Hospitality. Also Libby Larsen’s So Blessedly It Sprung, Carol Barnett’s Hodie, also Carol [Barnett]’s An American Thanksgiving. That last one is based on early American music, shape-note singing.
But also important for our organization, and I think for the choral field, is that we’ve had many outstanding choral arrangements that were made for us. And those are important, I think – we need them. And these are fresh, advanced more than just arrangements. And again, these are primarily from our composers in residence, Carol Barnett and Stephen Paulus. And there are countless specific titles.
CO: How do you “discover” these often young, emerging composers? How did you originally come across Stephen Paulus, for instance? Stephen Paulus
DW: Well Steve was a student at Macalester [College] when I first came there. He was at Macalester only two years, and then transferred to the University of Minnesota. But I knew his interest in writing and I just had a habit of doing this… (laughs) …just asking people to do things if I saw talent. For instance, in the choir I had an outstanding art student and a great singer too. And I just asked her to do cover design, and I she did marvelous work. And that led to other covers including recordings we did at Macalester. She’s now a leading architect! But that would happen with other people too. And Steve was one of those people. After he transferred to the University, we were at a concert together, and it was almost spontaneous, the whole idea. I just asked him if he would write a piece for the Macalester Concert Choir. I think we were going overseas the next year. That was the very first commission he’d ever received. I just saw great potential there. And of course he took to it and delivered, and since then we’ve commissioned some forty pieces over the years.
CO: Just from Stephen Paulus?
DW: Just from him, right.
CO: That’s incredible! So you might recommend that the student composer go to conductors in their school first, saying “This is who I am and what I do…”
DW: Sure, sure! I think just letting people know is the key to promoting your music. I think the do’s and don’ts of promotion are very important. There are some composers who… well, they just bug you so much you don’t want to have anything to do with them. And there are certain things to remember to do when you do have a performance by a conductor and choir – like thanking them. There are some composers I simply won’t perform because I don’t want to work with them. They’re obnoxious.
CO: Obnoxious in the promotion of their music?
DW: Yes! (laughs) Of their music, and of themselves! And it’s usually the lesser composers, too, who try to make up for it by being pompous!
CO: Your Choral Ventures™ program gave a lot of emerging composers a wonderful outlet for their work, as well as a jumpstart to many careers. Is this a model you would recommend to other musical ensembles who are looking for ways to encourage the emerging composer?
DW: Oh yes – I started this thing 15 years ago. Mary Ellen Childs was the first composer.
CO: How did you select the composers?
DW: It was very different in the beginning, but in the end we did have a process that seemed to work well. We first sent out the Call for Scores. We’d start with 150-200 scores, gather them together, and the composer-in-residence would do a preliminary screening to bring it down to 40-45. Then I’d sit down with the composer-in-residence and make the cut to the final four. We’d invite those four composers to write a piece for the reading session, then, after reading through the four new pieces with the choir, we’d choose one composer to write a piece for the following season.
CO: Did you get a big grant to do this?
DW: Yes, this all came from the Jerome Foundation. The idea was very simple to me, and very clear to me. And the Jerome Foundation snapped it right up. It was an idea which aligned exactly with their philosophy. Later we were also supported by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University.
CO: Did you have to get the grant first before you were able to instate the program?
DW: Yes, we did.
CO: That’s sometimes a scary thing for composers to do in promoting new music, before you know whether it will take off.
DW: It’s scary for anybody to do. You can never predict exactly how it will work out. Once we workshopped Mary Ellen Childs’ piece that first year, she went back and started over.
CO: Has that experience happened a lot, that a composer will be so surprised by what happens in the chorus, that they’ll go back and really revise?
DW: Well, we didn’t have so much room to do that later on, but the first year we really did. I think it was a great service to her, and a great service to choral music. The result was so much improved… We were on the road in Indiana at one of the universities’ annual new music festivals when we did this. It was a public reading and workshop, so we did what we could on the spot to change things. And once she heard us in a workshop situation she took it, went home, and came back with basically a brand new piece. And it really turned out wonderfully. Then we premiered it at the Walker [Art Center] in Minneapolis. Now we have reading sessions with four composers and then commission one of the four to write a new piece. We changed that to make the music all new. So the process has also evolved.
CO: I love the cooperative aspect of the Choral Ventures™ reading sessions. It’s an unusual opportunity for both the audience and the singers to be able to comment on and ask questions about what they’re hearing. I imagine the immediate feedback to the composers is really helpful to them.
DW: I think it is!
CO: In the end, would you have changed anything about the Choral Ventures™ program?
DW: I wish we would have had more money for more rehearsal time. We only had one rehearsal total in the beginning, and it was just way too tight. Even in the end, we still only had two rehearsals, the second of which was open to the public.
CO: It’s obligatory that the chosen composers attend the reading session so they’re able to hear what the choir sounds like live…
DW: Yes, they have to be there.
CO: …and that may change their mentality when they write the commissioned piece the next year?
DW: That’s right. And what’s curious is some of those who didn’t win have gone on to do great things. Eric Whitacre was one. He submitted Water Night for the reading session and he wasn’t ready in my estimation. Now of course he’s rich and famous, it’s a bestseller, and everybody’s imitating Water Night. That’s part of the “cluster binge” that haunts me now: the “Whitacre influence” has been very strong in some of these young composers. But Brent Michael Davids’ submission was another great piece. I felt good about that. Jennifer Higden, Lisa Bielawa, Mark Adamo…
CO: That’s a great list of composers…
DW: One of the pieces that I think was very successful was by Jacqueline Jeeyoung Kim. J. Aaron McDermid’s piece was also very successful, as well as Martha Sullivan’s from last year.
CO: I think it’s fascinating to note that in the last three Choral Ventures™ reading sessions I’ve attended, it’s clear what mentality a composer is coming from when they first bring in a rough piece. I think it was Jay Huber’s piece which took a really interesting orchestration technique and turned it into a choral idea. He was chopping off the beginnings of the sound envelopes and merging them with different choral timbres so the original sounds were distorted. It was such an interesting technique that seemed to come straight from the orchestra and I thought it was such a great effect.
DW: When I’ve selected composers, I’ve always tried to keep an eye open for those who I have seen write very effectively for orchestra but who have never written for chorus. I want to influence them to bring that unique knowledge and skill to the chorus.
CO: When you looked through the scores preliminarily, were there ever glaring errors? Did people follow the directions in the Call for Scores?
DW: (laughs) Oh no! Lots of disappointments!
CO: How many did you cut automatically because they didn’t follow the guidelines?
DW: Oh, probably 50 of the 200. At least a quarter of the submissions were automatically eliminated.
CO: That’s very interesting – because the guidelines are very clear…
DW: Yeah. It’s really basic! That, or they had no idea what it means to write a respectable piece.
CO: Did you look at the bio too to determine that cut?
DW: They each submit a bio, but it’s not the critical thing. It’s really all based on the music they’ve submitted. But also just plain bad copywork! I mean, so bad that even a beginning theory student should know better. Messy manuscripts, and just a lack of attention to accuracy and detail.
CO: So presentation is a factor?
DW: Presentation is definitely a factor. I think it’s very important to make a piece look inviting and easy to read. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for having a score that’s not easy to read.
CO: So you prefer computer notation?
DW: Well, it doesn’t have to be, but you do get spoiled with it. Of course in the early days it was all done by hand. But some of it was so messy that you’d just throw up your hands… (laughs)