Ann Callaway is an American composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was recently commissioned to write a suite of three pieces for the choral group Voci Women’s Vocal Ensemble, currently lead by Artistic Director Anne Hege. Callaway has won several prestigious awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for a composition for orchestra and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for chamber music composition. The first piece she set for Voci is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Henry Purcell”. Its world première is in May 2015.

Ann Callaway © Yen Bachmeier
Ann Callaway
© Yen Bachmeier

What are your main concerns when writing choral music? And how is that different from writing instrumental music?

Choosing a text is my first concern: whether the text has meaning for me and whether the words and the phrases and the meaning are singable. My second concern is the singability of each individual part in relation to the whole piece. Not too many people have perfect pitch, most people have a kind of relative pitch and they need to have some sort of feeling about how they will get from one pitch to another, so that’s a concern for the composer.

There must be a compelling reason to sing the text: it has to be pleasureable. More than anything the music has to make you feel good; it has to make the singer feel as if she’s living in the present moment. That’s what happens with great choral literature. Any piece should take into account that joy of producing a particular vocal sound.

Another concern is the tantalizing relationship but frustrating non-equivalency between the structure of the text and the structure of the music. To a large extent, the text shapes the style of composing, as I am finding out yet again in the piece I am currently writing. Jack Beeson, with whom I studied at Columbia, used to remark that spoken text in English goes by at a faster rate than people think. And that this characteristic should be accounted for in setting text to music. It's not in the nature of the English language to draw out the syllables in the extreme way that is/was so fashionable. I saw last night that the 40 bars which I had thought I could get out of two lines of Hopkins' poem actually sounded much better compressed into about 10 bars.

Most people talking about vocal music, are obsessed with “the voice”, can you elaborate on how the body affects vocal music? Isn’t the body also a factor in instrumental music?

Writing for the voice has so much more to do with the body: all the sounds are made in a very organic way. There are no fingers on keyboard, no positions on strings or keys pressed down. The singer has to hear the pitch ahead of time to reliably reproduce it with his own vocal chords.

There’s also, in performing, the difference between being a man or a woman, being able to sing very high or very low or in between. You have to take into account that the area that the voice is comfortable in can be very narrow – it might be only an octave and a half.

Aside from the religious connection, which we could say affects much of written music, choral and otherwise, why do you think choral music continues to have such a presence in our obsessively celebrity-driven culture? After all, choruses demand a kind of anonymity from the individual singer.

My thought is that we all want to be part of a group as well as being a private person; we’re social animals. Choral singers are kind of a special breed: they like to get together, they like to sing together. It’s much more common to have many community choruses in a region, but that’s not the case with community symphonies. There’s a compulsion to be part of a group singing things, but I can’t explain it. It’s the urge to take part in making music. There’s something about singing that’s just great.

Who do you see as the best writers of choral music, beginning with the early 20th century up to the present moment?

Benjamin Britten is really at the top of the heap of 20th-century choral writing. The War Requiem is just stunning. But Britten was a genius. How often do they come along? Any of his choral pieces are compelling. Ceremony of Carols is not only fun to sing but makes you feel exhilarated. With the Hymn to St. Cecilia, I almost like W.H. Auden after hearing it! If you say something convincingly in music you can make that text believable, whatever it is.

My second choice would be Ligeti. His Requiem, with its cast of thousands singing these little lines that are microtonal. He makes these giant edifices that kind of lift you off the ground and carry you somewhere in ways that no one has done before. Ligeti himself spoke about the point at which his music became airborne. And I think in the best kind of choral music you do feel kind of airborne.

My other favorites would be Bartók’s Cantata Profana and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Schoenberg’s Jacob’s Ladder: there are choral parts in that long but uncompleted piece that have haunted me for years.

The other choral composer, who is still living, is Einojuhani Rautavaara. I’ve sung a couple of his pieces and they are rewarding to sing. They do not disappoint. Arvo Pärt too, of course. Who hasn’t cribbed a few of his techniques? Because he has some good ones! He is in my firmament.

You are currently writing a commissioned choral piece for Voci, which is an all-women’s chorus in the San Francisco Bay Area. How did you go about writing this piece, step by step?

The piece is for four-part women’s chorus and piano. I was going to set it for a cappella but then the director, Ann Hegge, said the chorus had a fantastic accompanist. Piano is good because you can widen the harmonic language if you use a piano; the singers can cue off the piano. And you can make the piano part as wild as you want: so there are some notes played inside the piano. There are whistling parts too.

I looked at other poems but kept coming back to Hopkins’ poem. Anything of Hopkins works for me: his images are so extraordinary yet enigmatic and very vivid. He has the ability to be extremely personal, which seems to then connect with the reader. Any artist when they are really personal and have their own voice seems to relate magically to a greater body of people.

I read through the poem to check if I understood it, and I really couldn’t. The syntax is so weird and there are so many ambiguous images that it’s really a puzzle. But I like not knowing exactly what he was saying. I thought maybe that was a good thing; maybe I didn’t have to understand the text before starting to compose. The more time I spent with the music and the poem the more things I saw.

Purcell was a wonderful text setter, a great composer, and knew how to set a text dramatically. I wanted to pay tribute to Purcell but in no way would I be imitating him; I couldn’t out-Purcell Purcell. Hopkins writes about him: “It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal/ Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.” A very special something connected with Hopkins about Purcell, and I think that it’s what I feel about music and text: something calls to me and that’s the important thing.

You also have to ask, what does the chorus do really well? Voci has a very even tone quality throughout their range – from really low, into the tenor range, and almost to high soprano, very high. They are very strong in their mid range. Also, their basic intelligence and dedication are impressive.

I’ve been to their rehearsals and even sung with them. There’s nothing like singing in the soprano section to make you realize how hard some of repertory is. It reminds me what it’s going to be like to sing the piece.

Ultimately the poem decides the musical parameters: the sonic aspect of the text as read and the form of the poem. By sonic I mean how the vowels and the consonants link up. There’s a kind of music to the text before that’s only partially translatable in music. A lot of the poem’s sound is lost and you get a hybrid. But the form of the poem determines the form of the music. You can’t go against that.

I’ve just been through this odyssey of setting each line. I can say there are many unexpected things that happen. The meter changes about half way through and you go, “What happened? Oh no, I’m going to have change my carefully worked out music. I hope it doesn’t sound like a dog’s breakfast!” These are the late night thoughts of the composer. Nabokov remembers being a young poet, very proud and published, and at the corner of his eye he sees some little part of his edifice may have slipped, but he doesn’t want to look too carefully. The next day you look at what you’ve done and think, that’s not what I meant to say at all, but maybe it’s OK. Let’s see if it works.

There, those are my confessions.


The world première of Ann's new work is in May 2015: