Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave will celebrate her 90th birthday on May 27, 2018. Musgrave has been a part of the contemporary musical landscape for more than 70 years, completing more than 160 works, including 13 operas, 11 choral, and 21 orchestral pieces. As a pioneer of the “dramatic-abstract,” many of Musgrave’s works involve dramatic exploration of musical performance through physical space, with and without programmatic content. At her birthday celebration concert on May 27th, Harold Rosenbaum and the New York Virtuoso Singers will perform some of her solo and choral works, as well as excerpts from her operas. Ahead of the performance, we were able to ask her some questions about her musical inspiration and compositional approach.
Though you’ve never confined yourself to a specific school of thought or style of contemporary music, you describe many of your works as “dramatic-abstract.” Can you describe what this term means and its significance in your conception of musical experience?
I have always felt and heard music as a kind of dialogue or sometimes even a confrontation between the performers. So it was a natural progression for me to create instrumental personae who interact among themselves in a purely musical and abstract way: sometimes even independently of the conductor – and for this I had to develop a clear and practical notation system.
There are several other works of mine based on pictures, literature, poetry etc where I have used the same kind of technique and these I have called dramatic-programmatic.
In addition to your many solo instrumental and orchestral works, you have written a lot of choral music for both small and large ensembles. What keeps you interested in writing for voices?
The human voice is unique. And I have written music for either solo voice or chorus throughout my whole career. Not only because of the beauty and expressiveness but also because there is a text.
Your choral works feature texts that draw upon widely varying sources: the creation hymn from the Rig Veda (used in your oratorio The Voices of Our Ancestors), Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play Life is a Dream (in your new work La Vida es Sueño), and the lives of Mary, Queen of Scots, Harriet Tubman, and Simon Bolívar (three of your operas). What drew you to these texts and concepts?
The extraordinary ancient texts in The Voices of Our Ancestors spoke to me every day I worked on them. I felt I was in conversation with intelligent, sensitive people from centuries earlier who had similar basic concerns, experiences, and emotions that I could recognize centuries later.
Likewise, the vision of life as a ‘dream’ in the Calderon from 1635 struck me as a very ‘contemporary’ perspective I wanted to explore in my own musical language.
My operas of course are bigger than single poems, and each needed to sustain a full evening’s story with a dramatic arc and motivated realistic characters. Here, I was fascinated to bring fabulous historical figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots, Simon Bolivar, Pontalba, and Harriet Tubman to life again (onstage) by inventing their interactions and words based on the historical facts (which are fixed and known)–but truly experienced and re-imagined through my emotional and musical identification with each character moment-to-moment in each scene.
Where do you most enjoy writing music, and how do you begin to tackle a new piece?
My pieces usually begin as commissions for specific forces and presenting organizations or a particular performer. I frequently get inspired by what I read (poetry and novels) or see (paintings, plays, nature) away from my writing desk, and by what I know and sense about the performer. Then I ruminate about things on walks, contemplative times, and waking hours—and sometimes even in dreams! Eventually a central idea for the piece gels in my thoughts, and if I feel instinctively it is right, I spend a lot of time shaping the idea and defining the musical and emotional journey of the piece. This frequently suggests musical motives. But I don’t sit down to “compose” the piece in my studio (where I work every day, whether in NY or LA) until the overall shape and seed ideas have started to percolate with energy and passion.
What is currently informing your compositions, and how has your compositional inspiration or approach changed over the course of your career?
This is a very interesting question, and I will attempt to answer it as honestly as I can.
I remember being much more rigid as a younger composer about the ‘morning ritual of composing’ as to thought preparation, and the hours dedicated to this.
As the years go by, I have adopted a freer attitude towards my composing and also a more free-wheeling approach to where I might start the piece (I always used to start at the beginning!), what risks I now take in the instrumental combinations, and what hours I work each day (fewer). But on the other hand I find my life richer now–with time to enjoy my daily experience, to think about the things I really care about, and to savor what truly inspires me to compose.