Wade Roush interviews Graham Gordon Ramsay about "The Sacred Voice"

photo by Shaun RamsayThe Sacred Voice, a collection of recordings of choral works by Graham Gordon Ramsay, will be released in the fall of 2011 by Albany Records. Journalist Wade Roush interviewed Ramsay in July 2011.

Wade Roush: I know you’ve thought a lot about the role of creativity and artistic expression in a full life. Before we talk about your album, can you say a little about your view of creativity in general?

Graham Gordon Ramsay: Being a creative individual is about the way you see your world. In terms of my background and influences and the people I’ve studied with, I’ve been exposed to ways of thinking that are about taking the world that you see around you and interpreting it. By that I mean either making something out of whole cloth, like a composition or a photograph, or interpreting somebody else’s work as a performer, or as an audience member when you go to a gallery or a concert. There is something intrinsic to all of these processes, which is that you are interpreting this stuff and representing it through your own lens. Being a creative person is about being in your world, looking at stuff, taking it in, and connecting to that not in a passive way, but in a way that puts it out there for other people to see. It’s about taking an active role in seeing your world.

WR: Why are you drawn in particular to music and composition as forms of expression?

GGR: There are so many things that get me. It’s the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done. It is solitary yet social. You create the work, often, in a quiet space in your head. There will be a kernel that happens inside you, and you interpret that and develop and embellish it, based on the works of other people whose influence help you to interpret it. You take the skills you’ve learned to understand things on a musical level and you make it real on paper. Then that written language is given to other people who have their own expertise and their own way of seeing things and their own training, and they either blow or drag a bow or beat on something and make a very precise sound in combination with other people who are making sounds, bringing to life aurally something that started in your brain.

When that loop is closed, from having the kernel of an idea to having the sound come back to you, that is an incredible rush. It’s a way of being able to share on a very intimate level something that comes from inside you. There are all these layers: the music you wrote, the communication you have with the performers, your relationship with the people who are hearing the work, the way you learn by seeing how other people respond to your work. Multi-layered is the term I keep coming up with.

WR: It’s interesting---I think you could say many of the same things of photography.

GGR: Not so much. When you’re dealing with an aural experience it’s very different. With the visual, it’s there in front of you, and you see it, and you can look at it again and again. You may look at it in different light or in different spaces, but you are looking at this consistent representation. Music is not like that at all. Music exists in a temporal moment. You hear it and as soon as the sound is gone you are now living with the memory of it and your interpretation of that memory, but not the reality of it.

WR: What were your earliest musical influences?

GGR: My mom was very much into music and had a huge record and sheet music collection. Her formative years were during World War II, so there was tons of big band stuff, ballads, show tunes, the big collections of classical music. In terms of American composers, we listened to people like Bernstein and Copland, and people who did show music were a huge influence---Jule Styne, George Gershwin. In terms of European composers, people like Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy. I listened to all the great jazz divas---Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald. And of course, I grew up in the 60s and 70s, so all the pop music that was floating around that my older sisters listened to was also in my ears.

WR: You trained formally as a composer at places like Tanglewood, Boston University, and Fontainebleau. How would you describe the influence of your mentors?

GGR: It’s everything. I was incredibly fortunate to be around enormously talented and generous teachers like Robert Sirota, Joyce McKeel, Theodore Antoniou, David Del Tredici, Narcis Bonet, and Andrew Thomas who were excited about passing on a tradition. And I feel somewhat beholden to them to take what they taught me and pass it forward in some way, whether it be through the music I’m composing or coaching other young musicians. They gave me a sense of belonging in the continuum. These people were passing down information that had come down to them, so that I would pass it on, as opposed to just sort of doing my work in isolation. It made me feel like I belonged to a community of people, some of whom I would never know but who nevertheless had a great influence on me because they taught my teachers.

WR: Is there any way to label your own composing style now?

GGR: I hit Boston University at a time when neoclassicism was really big, and my own style is influenced a lot by that music. I don’t know how to easily label it. Things often get divided into schools that are tonal and atonal. My work is very much tonally based, but the harmonic language is extended and influenced by a lot of what I was exposed to in school---the hard-core 20th-century composers, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg. I often write using musical devices that come from the Second Viennese School. Serialism is a big part of my work. As opposed to working in strict 12-tone fashion, I’m finding a serialism that can fit into an extended tonal structure. So, often people will listen to may work and find that it is serial but has clear tonal references all the way through.

I think the work, by contemporary standards, is fairly accessible. I think I am a tuneful composer. As a singer, I favor melody and singable lines. And I think I am conscious of my audience, which is to say that when I set out to write a particular piece, I’m thinking about who that piece is for. If you are writing for an audience that has no exposure at all to contemporary music and you’re trying to express something that they’ll understand, I think you need to ease them into idioms that are unfamiliar, rather than just splattering them with something so foreign. On the other hand, if I’m writing something for myself, say a string quartet, and working for perhaps a different audience, I feel like I have free reign to do more experimentation. A fun part of my life is that I get to do a bunch of kinds of things musically.

WR: How were you drawn to composing for sacred texts?

GGR: Because I did voice studies during my undergraduate years, most of the jobs that I began to get were as a singer in churches. There is a huge tradition in many churches and synagogues of sacred music that needs a quality performance to pull it off well, and the major churches in most major cities have professional, paid singers as their soloists and choir. So it was within this context that I got exposed to sacred music and learned how it works. I started writing sacred music and started to receive commissions. For example, I was a soloist at Marsh Chapel at Boston University for a number of years, and there might be occasion on a particular Sunday for an anthem that was appropriate for that Sunday in the liturgical year. So I would use the text for that day and set it to music. Subsequently, particularly over the past decade, I have received a large number of commissions to write sacred vocal works, for both concerts and services, from the likes of the Seraphim Singers ensemble under Jennifer Lester, Kings Chapel in Boston, and St. Thomas More Church in New York.

WR: What are the special challenges of writing sacred music?

GGR: The challenge is writing work that is effective for the purpose. You are generally given texts to work with that are appropriate for that part of the liturgy. So how do you put your own musical stamp on something that is supportive of their worship service? It’s not really about you, it’s about you supporting them. You have a commission to fulfill a project. For example, I was hired by St Stephens Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island, to write a mass setting. Every Sunday they do a complete mass, with no music repeated during the course of the year. I was commissioned to write a missa brevis that would fulfill part of the liturgy. So my music was spread out over a two-hour solemn mass and had to be performable in that context.

Part of the thing with church music is understanding the parameters: how much time do the singers have, how much time will be required to make a given work successful, what is the skill level of the musicians you are writing for. A simple example might be if you write something with accompaniment, there is a pitch reference, and it will be easier for an untrained chorus to follow. If you write something strictly a cappella, you want to make sure your chorus is up to doing it. So you are thinking about the service, the audience, the liturgy, your performers’ skill level, and the amount of time they have to prepare something.

Many of the pieces on this album are fairly challenging. I think that’s a risk for a musical organization. When you write a difficult work that no one has heard before you are asking them to invest their energy in something that may or may not fly. I’m always grateful when people are willing to bank on something that they haven’t heard before. It’s a leap of faith from the people who commission the work.

WR: For this album, all of the works use Biblical texts such as psalms that may be familiar to choirs or churchgoers, but are nonetheless quite remote from our own times. How do you find fresh interpretation of a poem that may have been written 2,600 years ago?

GGR: That’s very personal, at some level. This goes back to the question of what does it mean to be an artist and how do you interpret things. I read the texts and try to understand them at a personal level for me. And then I try to write according to my understanding, in ways that will elucidate the meaning that I am getting from my reading. As a composer, you can emphasize or deemphasize all sorts of things, depending on how you set it. That is really the fun part---figuring out, “How do I feel about this text, how do I relate to this text and how can I interpret it in a way that will help an audience that may have known this text since they were knee-high to a grasshopper hear it in a way that’s different. How do I make this experience of the text fresh and new for them?”

WR: Can you talk about an example of that from one of the works in the album?

GGR: The “If You Love Me” text is very famous. There are several settings that are very well known. Perhaps the most famous is the Thomas Tallis motet. This was an opportunity to sort of pay homage to that. I think the musical language is not so foreign to the language that Tallis would have used, but the way I set it is very different. I repeat lines for emphasis in some cases---not in a way that is just vehicular for the music, but is very specific about the underlying meaning of the text and what is going on. I don’t set text vehicularly; I do set text for meaning. If I am given a text to set, I feel I have a responsibility to try and interpret that text in a way that’s understandable.

WR: I know that you’ve seen collaboration as a key aspect of the project of this album. Can you elaborate on that? What does collaboration mean to you?

GGR: Collaboration is everything. This work is designed to be performed by ensembles of players; I can’t do that as a single person. The focus is always on drawing on the skills and talents of individuals to make something that is bigger than any of us can make by ourselves.

In reviewing this project, I’ve been freaking out a little bit about the man-hours involved, and how many people were required to bring it to fruition. Aside from the people who were supportive in funding all of this, there have been teams reviewing materials, finding rental spaces, doing other things behind the scenes. Of course there has been Heinrich Christensen, my primary co-creator, who spent a huge amount of time and expertise to make this happen. There have been 30-odd musicians, a recording engineer, a producer. It’s incredibly humbling, because you start with an idea in your own little head---“Wouldn’t it be cool to do a recording”---and then you find out how impossible it is to do this stuff as an island. You are completely interconnected with all these people, and in the best case you are honoring them by appreciating their particular expertise. I feel like the catalyst, but the product is not about me.  If I were to blow my own horn, my talent is being smart enough to know how to attract really good people. To have the good sense to get people who are incredibly good at what they do---that is the real skill.

WR: Your wildest dreams for this recording?

GGR: Wildest dreams and practical goals are very different. I would say I would like to get the work into the psyche and consciousness of a bigger audience, in the hopes of two things: getting the works performed more frequently, and hopefully making people feel excited about commissioning new works from me, so that I have the opportunity to do more of this. It’s been really hard work, and it’s been really rewarding work, and I want to do more.