Composing Thoughts: An Emerging Artist’s Take on Creating Choral Music by Sandra Conrad
2/26/13 -In a few short months, Alvin Trotman graduates with his Master of Music in Composition degree from SMU Meadows School of the Arts. In the meantime, he is busy finishing his thesis and finding time to sing bass with The Texas Voices.
I spoke with him recently about what inspires him as a composer, what it means to hear his works performed, and what it’s like charting a career in choral music. Here are excerpts from that interview.
What composers have influenced you and your writing?
AT: I have so many. First off, there’s Eric Whitacre, of course. He’s the one that really got me to implement dissonance in an elegant way—by studying his dissonance and how he uses those close harmonies. I really like that. I love the classics like Rutter. As far as contemporary, I love Henryk Górecki, Gabriel Jackson, Veljo Tormis—just so many big choral names. It’s hard to list them all.
You’ve composed instrumental music, but you prefer choral. Why?
AT: I love orchestral and instrumental music. I play piano. During my formative years, choir just seemed to grow on me in a way that piano didn’t, I suppose. I love choral music. With the human voice, you can get away with so much experimentation—trying new things, bending pitch, different vocal techniques and things like that. You can kind of break away from the traditional mechanics—as opposed to other instruments where you’re limited to what you can write for. Plus, I just feel at home when I look at my manuscript and I see soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.
What are some considerations for writing for the human voice vs. instruments?
AT: I tend to use a lot of divisi in my writing, which is basically splitting parts. Instead of having the traditional soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, you split the soprano into two parts, the alto into two parts—in some cases even further. With my type of writing, I have to be careful voicing for voice as opposed to voicing for instruments, especially since I use a lot of dissonances. If someone’s playing an instrument, it’s pretty much going to be fixed on that pitch. With singers, if it’s unaccompanied, they have to have very fine aural skills to be able to hold true to that pitch. So, if I have a cluster chord and somebody’s on an E and somebody’s a half step above or below, as a singer, that can manipulate the pitch that you sing.
Also, I think as far as the richness and sonority of what you want played or sounded, voicing—knowing to put the root in a certain instrument or certain voice—you could get away with a little bit of that more so with instrumental writing. If you’re setting for traditional SATB, you really have to know how to craft each chord to get the greatest resonance in whatever venue you’re performing in.
Most of my writing is a very nuanced sound and close harmonies. The writing itself is probably for an advanced group, but I usually don’t extend the ranges too far out. Except in the extremes of bass and soprano—because I’m a bass and I get an added shimmer in my smile when I see notes below the staff. And I love hearing sopranos just soar up into the heavens. With tenors, F# is the most I will extend them unless it just calls for it. I’m usually very generous with tenors for the ranges. I do love giving altos ledger lines below the staff.
What draws you to dissonance?
AT: I don’t know, honestly. I think it’s inherent in my musical palette. I think it was just one of those things of, “Oh, I like that.” I remember when I was in piano class in 7th and 8th grade and I was just drawn to major 7ths. Something about “do” going up to “ti” and not resolving—just staying there and letting that dissonance bite. I couldn’t explain it. I was just drawn to that half step. It was dissonant yet it was consonant. I loved that. I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t know to call it dissonance; I just knew it was a harmony that I enjoyed hearing.
I remember hearing Whitacre’s music performed for the first time—it just seemed to have this timeless quality. I wondered how they coordinated it because there was so much freedom and rubato. I wondered, “How does he get these ideas down on paper?” That just captivated me. And his using those dissonances and not resolving, and cluster harmonies. I bought all of his music and studied how he moved his vocal lines and really enveloped that writing. I think I’ve taken from that and added my own style. But something about those harmonies just draws me.
What does it mean to have a group like The Texas Voices premiere your work?
AT: Oh, where to begin. I think any group that takes an approach to premiere the works of emerging composers, my hat is off to them. Trying to get your voice out there—it’s a very hard thing to do. As a young composer, it’s hard to prove yourself. And so to have an ensemble that can do the classic repertoire and the new repertoire—and can say, “People are out here that are trying to get their repertoire heard, to have a voice in the world. Let’s give them a podium or a platform where we can showcase what they’re doing.” So, kudos to them—I think that is just very remarkable and commendable, to say the least.
To have my third work being premiered by The Texas Voices, I’m just really grateful for the opportunity. I trust Alan’s (Artistic Director Alan Dyer) musicianship implicitly, especially when it comes to contemporary works. It means the world to me to have a group like this. I have some satisfaction to have written the work, but to hear it, to hear the element of the human voice to it, satisfies an itch for a composer that you can’t quite scratch until you’ve heard it performed.
Now that graduation is near, what are your plans?
AT: Look for a teaching gig—whatever I can do to leave my “footprints in the sand,” as it were. In the long scheme of things, I would love to get my doctorate, either in conducting or composition. I’d love to teach at the college level. I love to teach repertoire. At the end of the day, I love having my arms sore from conducting.
Also, as a pipedream, I would love to do what Eric’s doing—to have my own group and to tour and to record albums of my own music. I would also love to have a company that would give back to emerging composers. I understand the lengths that they have to go through to get recordings and read-throughs—just to get published.
Any closing thoughts?
AT: I write music in the hopes it will inspire, change, or maybe create a new way of thinking—if not about music, about life—through the poetry I choose or set for a text. Which is one reason I love choral music—the addition of text gives you an added element to reach people. Music in itself is powerful, but if you can add text to word paint, to inspire, to change, to give someone an idea, it’s a wonderful thing. In the end, that’s all I can hope for is for somebody, somehow, somewhere, to hear Alvin Trotman’s voice and like what they hear.
Sandra Conrad is the founding president of The Texas Voices.
Based on the poetry of Li Po, Alvin’s latest work, Clearing at Dawn, premieres live on Saturday, March 2 at Zion Lutheran Church in Dallas. A repeat performance follows on Sunday, March 3 at St. James Episcopal Church in Dallas.