I’m talking to Stacey Philipps about her career as a choral composer—and I want to know why she backburnered her passion for music to study philosophy at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instinct tells me that the answer must be complex and fraught.
My guess turns out to be spectacularly wrong. When I ask Philipps why she took her time returning to choral music, she simply says, “Because I had a lot of other interests. I loved studying philosophy. I don’t regret doing any of that.”
Philipps’ intellectual restlessness may have diverted her from her calling, but it has also enriched it. Not to be defined by a single obsession or theme, she has composed pieces about everything from the trauma of the Salem Witch Trials to the transcendent beauty of snow—a range that is partly a testament to the myriad musical interests she nurtured while growing up in Ashland, Oregon.
“I grew up in a musical household singing harmonies on road trips with my family,” Philipps says. Her childhood, she adds, was characterized by “a super-eclectic album collection—Brahms’ Double Concerto, the Beatles’ White Album, Talking Heads, the Eagles. I swear I learned how to sing harmony to the Eagles.”
Philipps currently sings in the alto section of the Oregon Repertory Singers and is a composer-in-residence for the group’s Youth Choir. Like all artists, she has had to adapt to the painful realities of a post-COVID-19 world, but she has used the crisis as creative fuel, participating in virtual recitals and even composing a piece inspired by a poem written by a child during the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Fans of Philipps have plenty to look forward to, including a collection that is requiring her to write one round–a type of canon–every week for a year. Yet when I spoke to her, she took time to look back at the pieces that paved her path to becoming the composer she is today, starting with the ferocious and overwhelming Witch Trial.
One of the first choral pieces that Philipps composed, Witch Trial was inspired by testimony from the Salem Witch Trials. The piece’s most fascinating feature is its bifurcated structure—it’s performed by an all-female chorus that sings both the lament of a woman accused of witchcraft and the cry of the accusers, who shout, “Execute her! Burn her!”
“I’m a very programmatic composer—people are either abstract composers or programmatic composers. I always have a story behind my music, whether I’m the only one who knows it or it’s overt. I kick around poems or pieces of text—sometimes for days, weeks or months. I definitely didn’t want [Witch Trial] to be just a dirge. I wanted it to talk about not one particular person, but the whole scene. So that’s how ‘Execute her!’ got in there.”
“I didn’t ever, ever think that I would have men singing this. It never even occurred to me. The bulk of the story is a totally heart-wrenching account because not only is [the accused] knowing that she’s going off to die, but she’s also praying for a room of people that are accusing her. That literally happened during the trial. It’s an incredibly potent distillation of everything human in those few lines. It’s empowering for women to tell these stories.”
One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain
To imitate the sounds of a deluge in One Hundred Percent Chance of Rain, Philipps employed extended techniques, which are used to elicit surprising sounds or timbres from instruments. The result is a percussive piece that evokes the pounding rainstorms that are all too familiar to Oregonians.
“First of all, this has been performed a lot around here [laughs]. It starts off with a bang with the cello—maybe it’s thunder, maybe it’s a branch hitting the ground. There’s a lot of sounds that happen when it’s a wet environment. I always try to hear a little rhythm, so I think that’s part of where that came from…and then you start hearing the little drips. That’s what all the plucking at the beginning is—a rhythmic dripping sound.”
“[The piece is about] the interruptions of a stormy day—crashes, a sudden squall, a little roll of the piano that’s like a wind gust…clouds rolling by. There’s a tiny bit of what we call extended techniques—percussive sounds on the strings, bouncing sounds played col legno, which is bouncing the wood of the bow on the strings. I use [extended techniques] pretty sparingly, partly because they’re an effect and they’re interesting as a textural component, not necessarily as the center of attention.”
While Philipps doesn’t consider herself to be an abstract composer, Sudden Light, which is based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, is about an abstract sensation—déjà vu. Using a descending pattern sung by the upper voices of the Oregon Repertory Singers, Philipps built repetition into the architecture of the piece. It was a way of expressing the longing for clarity and connection that she believes drives déjà vu.
“[The pattern is] four notes going down and it’s been used in baroque opera. It’s a very, very common and old bassline, really. One of the things I love about composing is that you can draw periods of time together…and [offer] a new, modern take on them, while still acknowledging the roots of them.”
“This poem, to me, starts with an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu—’I’ve been here before, I don’t know when, I recognize all these places. When you read it, you don’t know, ‘Is he dreaming?’ It’s a very intense description of a common experience. It taps into our longing for connection, for making sense of the world, for patterns, for recognition, for clarity, for immortality—that you have been here before and you will be again.”
In the Moment
Philipps wrote this piece, which was performed by Arwen Myers, for solo soprano and piano in March 2020. She was inspired by Butterfly, a poem written by seven-year-old Hilda Conkling and published during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Philipps was particularly fascinated by the fact that the poem was written down by Conkling’s mother, poet Grace Conkling.
“My daughter loved butterflies at the same age. We used to get butterfly chrysalises from mail order and raise them every spring and release them. She would watch them every day and feed them and watch them turn into butterflies—a cool, magical kind of life. I just relate so much to listening to your child talk and wanting to capture those weird and wonderful things they say when they’re very focused on the here and now and doing what they’re doing right this very second.”
“I thought about the sort of meta experience of being a composer looking at this poem that was written down by this little girl’s mom. The mom is understanding the full brunt of the Spanish Flu pandemic, but maybe the seven-year-old doesn’t. I relate to it on so many levels, both as a composer…and a mom.”
Hidden in the grey, bending sky
Philipps, who arranges a Christmas carol every year, has an enduring passion for winter music. When she wrote Hidden in the grey, bending sky, she sought to immerse audiences in a world of falling snow using aleatory, a technique that allows singers to improvise, surrendering parts of the composition to chance.
“The section that’s notated up until the aleatory section ends on a fermata, so that all the singers are holding the chord on ‘in the grey bending sky.’ And then the direction is to cue individual singers to begin these aleatory phrases while everyone else continues to hold their notes under the fermata, and then they fade out gradually to join in the aleatory. My direction is, ‘Choose your own snowy adventure. Vary tempo and repeat, ad lib. Sing any phrase in any octave, any order, until the cue.’ I love how it turned out.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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