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Interview: Composer Dale Trumbore on Snow White Turns Sixty

Dale Trumbore

Last Tuesday Dale Trumbore released her first CD, entitled Snow White Turns Sixty, on her own Dissonant Gorgeous Productions imprint. I caught up with Dale after the release party to talk about her music and life as a composer in LA.

Tell me about the impetus for this record, and the decision to feature songs for voice and piano for your first release.

The decision to record a CD of art-songs as my first album was largely a practical one. I wanted to release a CD as a way of getting my music out into the world; I knew that, logistically speaking, it would be much easier to produce a CD with only two performers than, say, a CD of my choral works. I also knew that at some point I wanted to record the song cycle Snow White Turns Sixty, which, at half an hour long, could practically be an album all by itself.

I’ve been working with soprano Gillian Hollis since 2008, and we’ve been good friends since before then; I knew that Gillian would be willing to take on all of this music and do an incredible job with it. I also wanted the CD to be as much about Gillian’s performance of the songs as I did the music itself. Gillian’s an incredible musician: her range is incredible, her tone quality is unique, her diction’s impeccable, and she’s completely willing to tackle any music I give to her, all of which makes her a natural choice for a muse and collaborator. We actually started discussing making this CD in early 2010, so it’s been in the works for a while.

So you wrote this specifically for Gillian’s voice, and I understand you had some contact with the poets as well. Did you collaborate throughout the process and allow for critique and suggestions, or was it more of a process of working on your own with them in mind?

Although the Snow White Turns Sixty songs were premiered by the Chamber Opera of USC (and have been performed separately in concert by several singers at USC), I definitely wrote them with Gillian in mind. The reason I started writing the cycle in the first place was that Gillian had wanted to put together a concert of songs related to fairy
tales, spanning opera, art-song, and even Disney films; even though that concert has yet to happen, I did know that Gillian would ultimately end up performing these songs. I don’t think I sent her the music until after it was completed, though. (The experience of writing Sara Teasdale Songs for her in 2009 gave me a pretty good understanding of her voice, although her voice has definitely matured since then, too.)

The newest song cycle on the CD, This thirst in the lungs, is probably the most hand-tailored for Gillian’s voice. We did a lot of experimenting with specific passages that sit in Gillian’s upper register, finding text that was ideal—both in terms of vowel placement and emotional content—to have Gillian hit a high D or stretch out a word in a longer, melismatic setting. We wrote probably 90% of the cycle during the three weeks while Gillian was in Los Angeles to rehearse for the CD, and that process was extremely gratifying.

As far as collaboration with the poets goes, I asked some specific questions in the initial text-setting process; for instance, Diane Thiel’s poem “Kinder- und Hausmarchen” (“Children’s and Household Tales,” the original German title for the Grimms’ Fairy Tales) ends with the German phrase “Es war einmal im tiefen tiefen Wald,” though the rest of the poem is in English. Diane puts the English translation of this last phrase as a footnote at the end of the poem. With Diane’s permission, though, I chose to set the German text and then the English translation of that text as part of the song, so that the audience understands—without having to read any footnotes in the program—that this last line of text means “Once upon a time, in the deep, deep wood.” If I hadn’t set the translation as part of the song, the wonderfully cyclical quality that that line lends to this song (the last of the cycle) might have been lost.

It’s wonderful working with contemporary poets in the performance process, too. While rehearsing this summer, Gillian and I emailed poet Eileen Moeller to ask how she preferred we pronounce the word “quay” in performance, since there are several technically correct possible pronunciations. Eileen quickly sent back a response: she wanted the word pronounced “key” (presumably to align with the word “keening” immediately thereafter). All of the poets involved with the project have been absolutely lovely to work with, and I’m incredibly grateful to them for allowing me to set their words to music.

At a few moments in Snow White Turns Sixty almost seem to take a turn toward musical theatre (I’m thinking specifically of Hazel tells Laverne). Was that intentional, or have you had much experience in that realm?

There was a phase, when I was probably 5 or 6 years old, when I watched the 1955 movie version of the musical Guys and Dolls (with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando) every single day; I think I still know most, if not all, of the songs in that musical by heart.

While my penchant for watching Guys and Dolls daily is long gone (thank goodness), my love of musical theater is not. I’ve accompanied six or seven full-length musicals and countless musical revues; at UMD, I served as the pianist for every student-produced musical theater production put on during my sophomore through senior years.

So to return to the question: yes, the allusions to musical theater in my compositions are very much intentional. It feels like a bit of a dirty little secret in the classical music world to love musical theater; most classical musicians I know scoff at musicals (barring West Side Story, the single musical that it’s socially acceptable for composers to like). But I’m a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, and John Kander, in particular, and the American Songbook in general. It’s highly likely that I’ll end up writing a musical before I ever write an opera.

Being that you’re from Jersey but live here now and have been here for a little while, and that this blog is dedicated to LA’s scene, and that this is the first interview, tell me something you like and something you dislike about our fair city.

I’ve lived in LA for over two years now; I love that each different neighborhood within LA can feel like a different city, and I love the abundance of good food, particularly the fact that incredible, locally grown food is available year-round. I’m a huge fan of the Larchmont Farmer’s Market, and right now I’m rejoicing over the fact that fresh figs and passion fruit are in season.

But—and this is the native New Jerseyan in me—I miss having distinct seasons, especially fall, which was my favorite season until I moved to a city where it doesn’t exist. I’m really excited to visit the East Coast for a whirlwind trip in late October: a friend’s wedding in MD, a NJ concert with Gillian as part of our national Snow White Turns Sixty tour, and a NYC performance of my piece for string quartet by the new-music ensemble ACME. I hope the trees are still changing colors in one or more of those states when I’m there, so I can get at least one weekend of fall in before I return to LA.

And your favorite:
1. Neighborhood
I have to go with Silverlake, where I live.

2. Place to hear music
I recently went to the Blue Whale for the first time, and it’s a fantastic venue.

3. Restaurant

4. Bar/hang out
Right now, probably The Thirsty Crow.

5. Store
Crossroads (in Silverlake).

6. Thing to do/see
Right now: attempting to teach myself how to surf at Venice Beach, with some help from Juhi Bansal, a fellow composer, and Nic Gerpe, who premiered my piano concerto last February. I have yet to completely stand up on a board, but I’m determined to get there soon!

What is one question that you wish interviewers would ask you, and how would you answer it?

“What’s your absolute favorite piece of all time?” And the answer is Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium, which—aside from one high Bb in the soprano section that’s just impossible to sing at that moment with the grace that the piece requires—is absolute perfection of form, melody and harmony, and pure joy to listen to, captured in only 5 minutes of music and 4 voice parts. It’s a gorgeous little piece.

You can listen to (and buy!) Snow White Turns Sixty at

1 Comment

  1. […] was my idea, but it features another composer from LA who has been interviewed here on the site, Dale Trumbore. This first piece, which is for solo piano, will also be performed in LA early in the new year, […]

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