Oregon Cultural Trust

A mindset of possibility: Resonance Ensemble and the student composers of Linfield University

The choral ensemble workshopped and performed five student compositions in a semester-long mentorship residency culminating in this month’s showcase concert on May 8.

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Linfield University composition student David Stephens studies his score in a pre-concert rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Linfield University composition student David Stephens studies his score in a pre-concert rehearsal. Photo by Daryl Browne.

“Four weeks ago I hated my piece and wrote another one in a frenzy,” said Linfield University composition student David Stephens in a May 1st telephone interview with OAW. “Then I came back to it.” And he’s glad that he did.

David’s piece — Grow As We Go, for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and piano accompaniment — was one of five choral pieces premiered at Linfield’s “Student Composer” concert on Wednesday, May 8. It marked the culmination of the 2024 Lacroute Composer Readings and Chamber Music Mentorship Program in which students were provided the opportunity to work with professional musicians in the formation of their creative works. Those professional-musicians-in-residence this spring: Portland’s Resonance Ensemble


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The Linfield students’ first introduction to Resonance Ensemble and their founding conductor Katherine FitzGibbon occurred on February 15th at Linfield’s Delkin Recital Hall. On that evening concert William Campbell–Linfield University Visiting Associate Professor, Department Chair, and Director of Composition Studies–welcomed the Ensemble, who presented a program of works from their 15-year history, six of which were works commissioned by Resonance. “Normal Never Was” by Jasmine Barnes and “Murmurs” by Resonance alto Cecille Elliott sparked student interest. 

Resonance Ensemble conductor Katherine FitzGibbons at Linfield University. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Resonance Ensemble conductor Katherine FitzGibbons at Linfield University. Photo by Daryl Browne.

In past years, the Lacroute Mentorship Program, which began under the auspices of former Music Department Chair and Composer Andrea Reinkemeyer, has welcomed solo professionals in voice, a reed instrument duo and most recently flute and keyed percussion. “It’s the first time for a choir,” said Campbell in a March interview with Oregon Arts Watch as the 2024 program was getting underway. “And it made sense,” he continued, “that Resonance would be the right group because of their contemporary focus.” In addition, several Resonance singers are educators.

Throughout the semester, each of the five students met with Campbell for individualized sessions – one hour, twice a week. They gathered in seminar with Resonance artists and/or FitzGibbon, and they had checkpoints and deadlines along the way: first submission, first reading and the first handover to the singers. 

By around April 1, David and his four composition colleagues were no doubt getting pretty doggone tired of hearing computerized voices singing their pieces. Like most composers, the students employ notation and playback software to craft their compositions before hearing it performed by human musicians. And so, with joy they anticipated the moment when they would place their creative output in the voices of the live performers, right? Um, perhaps not quite joy. More like a nervousness headed toward terror. But knowing that moment was coming was, as it is for any composer, motivating.

The first drafts of the scores, still works in progress, were handed over–with piano reductions to be completed, a few notes here or there to check out, a few missing lyrics and even a few “to be determined” blank measures. But deadlines, tension, exhilaration, doubts, losing and regaining confidence are all part of the creative process, as important as basic compositional techniques and learning how to write for that unique musical instrument, the human voice. 

“I was little bit nervous; I’d never written for choir before,” said composer Élana Gatien, pianist, classical violinist, Celtic fiddler and second year Linfield student in recent telephone interview. “We met with the singers a lot early on; Cecille came out. We heard that composers sometimes forget the difference between singer range and tessitura…where the vocal line of a piece is sitting. The nitty gritty of performance.” Ae was not alone (Élana uses the neopronouns ae/aer); two other student composers, Avery and Aaron, also instrumentalists, were unfamiliar with vocal production.

Linfield University composition student Élana Gatien talks about composing. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Linfield University composition student Élana Gatien talks about composing. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Even with an understanding of the voice, how does one write for choral ensemble, giving proper consideration to text and offering interesting material to each vocal line? Not a trivial concern, says Morton Lauridsen, whose reflections on choral composing are included in the suggested course text, “Composers on Composing for Choirs” (2007, GIA). The revered composer said, in a 2007 interview, that he sings every part aloud. “I’m trying to make sure each part works and is interesting in itself…(and)…the music complements the style as well as the meaning of the poetry.” 

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Élana’s consideration of word choice, syllabic emphasis and where the vowels land is especially important to aer. Élana wrote original text for aer SATB a cappella piece I Come From The Stories, a deeply personal story of acceptance of aer religious upbringing and an assurance to the listener that they, too, are accepted.

Aaron Smith, who was raised in India and Malaysia with his missionary parents, refers to himself as a multi instrumentalist and is appreciative of all genres of instrumental music. He also reflected upon his own family roots in his a cappella interpretation of the powerful Christian Doxology acclamation, Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Broad swipes of a wide-interval choral sound, reminiscent of a congregation, fill the space and uplift the text.

Linfield University composition student Aaron Smith discuss his music. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Linfield University composition student Aaron Smith discuss his music. Photo by Daryl Browne.

For Avery Shankland, a flutist and graduating Linfield senior from Beaverton, Sara Teasdale’s “Faces” and the urban setting about which she writes were his inspiration. Set for Vocal Octet and Electronics (performed by Professor Campbell), Avery’s piece places the listener in situ, in Teasdale’s city, and evokes in the music the “broken roar” and the angst of invisible intimacy. 

Linfield University composition student Avery Shankland shares his take on "Faces." Photo by Daryl Browne.
Linfield University composition student Avery Shankland shares his take on “Faces.” Photo by Daryl Browne.

Two of the composers in the program do have prior or current choral experience. Rain Émile Santiago’s About My Dreams interprets the words of American child-poet Hilda Conkling who yearned to nurture the forgotten children of her dreams. Rain sang in his Hazen High School (Renton, Washington) choir and sings in Linfield’s Concert Choir and Wildcat Glee. He makes use of word painting midway in his piece, with delicate bursts of treble tones in Conkling’s line “In the sky of stars.”

Linfield University composition student Rain Émile Santiago after her premiere. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Linfield University composition student Rain Émile Santiago after his premiere. Photo by Daryl Browne.

And David, who ultimately remained loyal to his choral arrangement of Grow As We Go, sang and composed a bit for his Roosevelt High School Choir. He is a Linfield freshman double major – music and theater – and is directing and producing a play this summer for his Sunstone Theatre. David broadened the focus of the original folk ballad written by Ben Platt, Ben Abraham and Alex Hope, from a relationship between two people to our relationship with ourselves.

In the previously mentioned one-week-out interview, David was asked whether the program had met his expectations. David responded “Looking at what I had written at the beginning and now, especially, I mean, one of things is I wrote one of the piano parts and oh, I’ve got to go right now, I have to finish that.”And, off he went, bubbling over with enthusiasm, nervous energy and the anticipation of his premiere being one week away. Whoosh!

At this point, just about everything that could be absorbed in one semester about composing for choir had been absorbed–and metabolized and circulated through every creative brain cell in order to be rendered into a coherent collection of dots and codes we call music. Other than random concerns such as whether that low D should be natural or flat, the pieces -and the composers – were ready.

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In the late afternoon run-through on performance day Resonance singers had plenty to do. The eight singers and accompanist had everything they needed: the completed scores, pencils at hand to mark challenging passages (there were plenty) or edits requested by FitzGibbon or by the composers (that low D remained natural). The premier concert was only a short dinner break away.

The riches of our artistic community

Is this program unique? Professional musicians in residence to perform student compositions? It certainly is among small colleges and universities in our region. Of course, the University of Oregon’s composition program, with upwards of 30-40 undergraduates, master’s and doctoral candidates, is internally resourced to have students perform with and for each other. But a small university being able bring students and professional community musicians together? Unique. And ongoing. Preliminary thoughts about future programs include a pianist residency and inviting various musicians in for a residency on scoring for film, a genre in which Professor Campbell’s compositions have received significant recognition.

Campbell is proud of the Linfield students and proud of the program which, he said in recent email, “is showing us all that when given the resources, students come up with amazingly individualized expressions that exceed our expectations.”

Linfield University Visiting Associate Professor, Department Chair, and Director of Composition Studies William Campbell welcomes the audience to 2024 Lacroute Composer Readings and Chamber Music Mentorship Program concert on May 8. Photo by Daryl Browne.
Linfield University Department Chair and Director of Composition Studies William Campbell welcomes the audience to 2024 Lacroute Composer Readings and Chamber Music Mentorship Program concert on May 8. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Ronni Lacroute, who has provided the financial resources for this project from the inception, is an enthusiastic participant. She attended the February kickoff concert and was at the head of the line as the audience filed in for the premiere performance. She helps connect the rich resources of our creative community with each other, reveling at the final product but understanding what it takes to get there. And she shares with Campbell something to which he referred in the earlier mentioned interview – a mindset of possibility. 

And now it was time. And possibility was in evidence in the premieres of all five compositions. The students had the beautiful vocal color, outstanding musicality and the skill of Resonance Ensemble on their creative palette and by golly they went for it. Each piece was complex, vibrant and challenging. Each composer – Rain, Avery, Aaron, David and Élana – hoping that the way it sounded in their mind’s ear was the way it would be heard aloud; each took their bow to enthusiastic applause. 

The program concluded with a composer panel discussion. Campbell, FitzGibbon and the audiences posed a few questions. The students’ answers were authentic and vulnerable and graceful. But what stood out were the smiles: ear-to-ear, every one. These young creatives had immersed themselves deeply into something they loved, a particular poem, their faith, their personal triumphs and then were mentored in the skills needed to bring their creative design to life.

And now they were finished.

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Ha! These five? Finished? Unlikely. And that’s the point. It’s about imagining forward, looking and moving forward. As composers? Perhaps – we’ll keep an eye out. But these few lines plucked from David’s Grow As We Go provide the best answer for now:

I am unfinished, I’ve got so much left to learn
I don’t know who we’ll become
I can’t promise it’s not written in the stars
We’ll take it slow
And grow as we go

(“Grow As We Go”, by Platt, Abraham and Hope, arr. by David Stephens)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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