Six Degree Singers interview

I was recently commissioned by the Six Degree Singers to write a piece for their upcoming spring concert, and they asked me to answer a few questions about the piece, and about myself. Here is my response:

Hi! My name is Scott Gendel, and I’m the composer of “We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On.” I live in Southwest Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachians, where my wife is a theatre professor at Emory & Henry College. As a composer, I am particularly obsessed with all things vocal and choral. I’ve written 16 song cycles, many individual songs, and 36 choral works… and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Apart from being a very busy composer, I also work as a pianist and vocal coach. I play rehearsals and coach singers for opera companies, work with vocalists and instrumentalists on honing their performances, act as Musical Director for theatrical productions, and teach private composition lessons.

I did my doctoral studies in composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I met conductor Rachel Carlson when she was a masters student. We’ve kept in touch through the years, and this is the second time she’s commissioned me to write a work for the Six Degree Singers; the first was “Juno’s Garden,” on a beautiful poem written by Rachel’s mother Nancy.

When Rachel approached me about writing a piece for the Six Degree Singers, she mentioned that they would particularly love some new music that would pair well with the older works the choir is performing on this concert. When I looked at that list of choral classics, immediately Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” jumped out at me, as I love both those powerful words of Shakespeare and the lush harmonies of Vaughan Williams. So I set out to create a setting of that same text but to shed some new light on it. In particular, I wanted to take the extreme dramatic shifts in the text and turn them into “extreme” choral textures. Basically, I sought to turn Prospero’s brief monologue into something like an operatic aria for choir, where the choir is both the orchestral accompaniment that illuminates the subtext AND the singer on stage pouring his heart out through dramatic interpretation and gestures.

I’m particularly excited to hear how some of the more unorthodox vocal techniques come to life in the choir. In a few sections, singers slide between chords, dissolving the texture into something more disorienting than a traditional choral sound. In another section, half the singers perform these sliding phrases at their own tempo, creating a swirling morass of vocal lines, while the other singers project a smooth melody above that texture. These kinds of textures are almost impossible to conjure up in my head, and I’m looking forward to hearing how the Six Degree Singers translate them into dramatic shapes.

You asked about a very fulfilling musical experience I’ve had… My music is performed around the country, and internationally as well, but one of my most fulfilling musical experiences to date happened right near here, in Washington DC. All Souls Church, Unitarian commissioned me in 2012-2013 to create a huge choral / orchestral cantata that explores some of the principles of Unitarianism and the history of All Souls in particular. That piece, “All Souls,” is about 35 minutes long, and is written for soprano and baritone soloists, choir, and a medium-sized orchestra of strings, percussion, and piano. To hear such a gigantic piece of music integrated into the history of the place it was written for and about, and to see an audience of churchgoers (not necessarily concertgoers) respond to my music as part of a spiritual experience… it was completely unforgettable.

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