Composers: Dale Trumbore

Dale Trumbore, originally a “Jersey Girl” but living in L.A. now, is yet another composer I know from the world of Twitter that has been making her mark on the world of new music during what seems like a renaissance of sorts. Along with a new album of art-song cycles titled Snow White Turns Sixty she is also about to have the New York premiere of her work for string quartet titled How It Will Go by ACME (The American Contemporary Music Ensemble). Dale even wrote her own article about the piece that was posted on Sequenza21. Having won numerous awards, grants (among them American Composer’s Forum Subito and USC’s Sadye J. Moss Composition Prize), and academic honors, besides composing, Dale has also been a teaching assistant at USC, and currently provides private piano instruction. She managed to find a window of solitude to talk to us. 🙂

CM: Can I ask about the beginning? I always ask this of everybody, and the typical aspect of the story is that they grew up in a household where classical music played daily and the person was always interested in it, but the stories vary, and of course even composers’ stories vary from one another. Where and when was it that you were hooked on composing your own music?

DT: I grew up in New Jersey, first in Maplewood, then in Chatham. No one in my family has a background in classical music, but I did grow up in music–and creativity–as a constant force in my life. My mother, an author who has also worked as an editor of children’s and educational books, would regularly play musical theater songs on the piano when I was growing up. My dad, a cartoonist and the Editor-in-Chief of a local NJ paper, played trumpet in high school and spontaneously bursts into song around the house. He actually has a great voice; when I was little, he’d sing me Beach Boys songs as lullabies. Oddly enough, my brother and I turned out to be extremely musical; my brother plays tenor saxophone and electric bass, sings, and has perfect pitch.

Like a lot of composers, I started playing piano at age 7, and I’ve been composing ever since. I recently rediscovered my first book of compositions form around then, and they’re predictably awful. But some of my compositions from when I was 12 or 13–a mock-Bach invention, a wanna-be Chopin etude–foreshadow, in some small way, the harmonic language I use now. That age is also when I wrote my first art-song, setting a text by poet Julie Kane called, not coincidentally, “Thirteen” (Julie is my aunt and godmother, one of the poets whose work is included in Snow White Turns Sixty, and the current Poet-Laureate of Louisiana). Twelve or thirteen is probably the age that I realized I was really drawn towards writing music but it wasn’t until sophomore year of high school that, when I started winning composition contests that led to live performances of my work, that I started thinking about pursuing composition as a career.

CM: Snow White Turns Sixty is both a song cycle and the title of your first recording that features that piece with 2 other song cycles you had written. What was the impetus for the Snow White cycle? Can you also talk about working with soprano Gillian Hollis and the poets that wrote the texts for it?

DT: I’ve been collaborating with Gillian since 2008. She’s an excellent musician who adapts quickly to whatever I give her to learn; she’s a great collaborator, with spot-on suggestions about interpretation and performance, and I think her tone quality is just beautiful. I love writing with her voice in mind.

In 2009 or so, Gillian expressed interest in performing a concert of songs related to fairy tales. When I told poet Julie Kane about the possibility of my writing a set of art-songs for such a concert, Julie put out a call for fairy tale-related poems on a listerv that happened to be for female poets.
That’s how I stumbled into working almost exclusively with contemporary female poets in my recent projects; Julie’s call for poems resulted in a wealth of texts, so much so that the cycle ended up being much longer than I’d originally intended (it’s a 30 minute-long cycle).
I really enjoy working with contemporary poets; if I have any questions about whether they’d approve of the way I’d like to set the text, or if there’s anything I need to know that might inform the way I’m setting these texts, I can simply email the poet and ask what they think. As a result of Julie’s call for poems, too, I now have connections to eight poets whose work I greatly admire, whom I wouldn’t have connected with otherwise: Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Barbara Crooker, Annie Finch, Kathleen Jesme, Eve Rifkah, Katharyn Howd Machan, Eileen Moeller, and Diane Thiel. It’s been a total joy working with every one of them, in fact, I’m hoping to continue working with some of their other poems for the choral commissions I’m working on now. Finding the right text to set for a specific project can be difficult, so it’s wonderful to have in place a network of poets whose work I already know lends itself to lyricism (in every meaning of the word).

Hazel Tells LaVerne (From Snow White Turns Sixty; This performance features Samantha Cardenas, soprano; Chamber Opera of USC, Nov, 2010)

CM: Can you talk about the other 2 cycles, Sara Teasdale Songs and This Thirst In My Lungs?

DT: Sara Teasdale Songs was my first exploration for writing specifically for Gillian’s voice. It’s amazing to hear how much her voice and her interpretation of the piece have evolved since the March 2009 premiere. I chose to group these particular poems (by poet Sara Teasdale) as a cycle, even though they were not grouped together by Teasdale herself. I like the way the poets trace the course of a relationship gone wrong with a frankness that seems very modern, even if these poems were written a century ago.

This Thirst In My Lungs was written this summer and completed just before Gillian and I recorded Snow White Turns Sixty. I was still making tiny changes to the music even as we were in the recording studio. We worked on the piece almost daily leading up to making the recording; Gillian would sing through what I had written, we’d make some changes and then I’d write more. The author of those texts, Robin Myers, is actually a childhood friend whom I reconnected with two years ago; she’s a fabulous writer, with the gift of capturing the stunning beauty within ordinary moments. I’m really looking forward to setting more of Robin’s texts to music in the future.

Ebb Tide (Femmes de Chanson, MD, 5/10/09; text by Sara Teasdale)

CM: You seem to write more for voice than anything else. Is this for the interest in the text, or do you lean more in that direction because you like to explore the possibilities and push boundaries for it? Hearing how high some of the notes are in the Snow White piece this wouldn’t surprise me. 🙂 And is a full-scale opera something we can look forward to?

DT: I love poetry; what draws me more than anything else to writing so often for voice is likely the desire to set texts I love to music.
In Stephen Sondheim’s book Finishing The Hat, he writes about not wanting to work with texts that he feels are perfectly complete, such as light verse, because he has nothing to contribute to them by adding music. I agree whole-heartedly; there has to be some element of unfolding the text in a particular way, or of opening it up in a way not immediately apparently on the page, that draws me to a set of music. I aim to bring something new to the words and to create a sound world for each piece that honors and is determined by the text itself.
I also just plain love the sound of the voice, which is likely related to the fact that I sang in various choruses, sacred and secular, for 16 years of my life.
Part any “boundary pushing” in these songs is simply taking advantage of Hollis’s incredible register; in writing these songs specifically for her, I know which syllables I can have her sing way up there, how far she can go in that range, and what she needs from me as a composer in order to make it up there comfortably. That said, these songs aren’t easy to sing; Gillian and I are still figuring out whether it’s even possible for her to sing all of the songs on the CD live in a single concert without overworking her voice. We’re doing a modified version of the CD repertoire along with some other art-songs I’ve written, in our upcoming national tour.
As far as opera goes, I’ll be writing a 6-word opera as part of Stephen P. Brown’s project Festival Word 6 Opera. But as far as operas with more than 6 words go, I have no plans to write one at the moment; hopefully that’s something that will happen in the future.

CM: I want to talk about the piano and orchestra piece 10,000 Hours. It seems to have a similar identity to the current work by Leah Kardos, Feather Hammer, where she makes a remarkable expression on her life working with the piano. Was this what you did here or was it more of a general statement?

TD: Like Leah Kardos’s work (which is fantastic, by the way), 10,000 Hours is absolutely an autobiographical piece. I didn’t want to label it as such in the program notes in case that took away from its attempt at universality, too–at tracing the general path of a life at the piano, as opposed to my life in particular.
But every aspect of the piece–even its quirky instrumentation, with harpsichord and tenor saxophone–refects some aspect of my experience growing up playing piano, and my relationship with music growing up. The piece is dedicated to “D.T,, H.T., C.K., and B.A.–my immediate family members and my middle school/high school music teacher Bela Apuzzio.

I wrote 10,000 Hours with my fingers crossed that the USC Thornton Symphony would perform it as part of their annual New Music for Orchestra concert, and they did end up programming it. Writing it for this opportunity, I know that I could write the piece that I wanted to write, slightly strange orchestration and all. Who knows when the piece will get another performance, since most calls for orchestra pieces want standard instrumentations and pieces that aren’t concerti, but I know that the pianist who premiered it, Nic Gerpe, is eager to play it again.

CM: I have now interviewed 4 (You are the 4th at my count) female composers. It’s quite common now, obviously, but we’ve come a long way from the days when the only one that came to mind was Clara Schumann, and there probably were many more unbeknownst to the general public even in her day. Would you say you guys have come a long way?

DT: I think female composers have obviously come a long way. However, the male to female ratio of programmed composers, even within exclusively new-music concerts, still isn’t equal or anywhere close to it (although this also varies from ensemble to ensemble). I recently noticed 2 prominent new-music ensembles initiating concerts of works exclusively by female composers; unfortunately these two particular ensembles have histories of very rarely programming female composers. One women-only program doesn’t cancel out a larger imbalance, especially if this female composer concert is followed by ten more predominantly or exclusively feature works by men. I applaud every effort to redress this imbalance, but I’d much rather see the ensembles in question cancel-out any need for an all-female concert in the first place. It’s not like there’s any shortage of extremely talented female composers to program; they’re out there. There are a lot of them out there.

CM: Any dream projects (or collaborations) for the future you’d like to share?

DT: In addition to having five choral compositions and a piece for the ensemble After Everything in the works, I’m currently in the logistics of figuring out the writing a 40-minute dance piece for new-music ensemble. Alas, this is more in the grant-researching stage than the fun part of the process (actually writing the music!), but I do know that the piece is going to be a more-or-less narrative-driven work exploring the distortion of memory in response to loss. While nothing’s nailed-down yet, it’s going to be a massive project, likely resulting performances of the piece on both coasts and another CD release in 2013. I’m hoping to begin writing the music in either Spring or Summer 2012.

Love Is a Sickness (UMD Chamber Singers, 5/21/11)

Official website
Dale’s Bandcamp page
Buy or download Snow White Turns Sixty


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s