Dale Trumbore is about to have a huge secular requiem premiered by Choral Arts Initiative. We thought that merited an interview about the work, and what she’s been up to since last time we talked to her. Given that the piece deals with death
So you’ve got a big piece being premiered by Choral Arts Initiative on July 16 and 17. Talk to me about that.
Yes! That piece, How to Go On, is a secular requiem for virtuosic a cappella chorus. It’s 35 minutes long with eight movements. The piece treats the chorus like an orchestra in many ways; texture is every bit as important as text here, and soloists constantly weave in and out of the greater blend of voices.
The text is by three contemporary writers I’ve worked with in the past: Barbara Crooker, Amy Fleury, and Laura Foley. Together, the seven poems—one text is set twice—address grieving over the loss of a loved one, confronting one’s own mortality, and learning to live with the painful uncertainty and beauty of everyday life.
On the same program, we’re doing five of my other choral pieces that tie in thematically. We’ll be recording the same program in early August for CAI’s debut commercial recording, also called How to Go On.
What attracted you to this secular requiem idea? Were you dealing with mortality in some way in your personal life, or noting a lack of pieces for comfort to those of us with non-Judeo-Christian spiritual lives? Or was this something CAI gave you the impetus for?
When Brandon Elliott [CAI’s Artistic Director] and I were discussing the possibility of my writing a larger piece for CAI, the secular requiem idea seemed like an obvious fit. I knew CAI could handle a technically challenging piece, and I’d been mulling over this idea in a vague way for a long time, something like six years. I’ve been struggling for a while with the idea that there might be no afterlife; I’m agnostic, and I find the thought of my own death and that of those I love absolutely terrifying. I’ve found that I have to consciously avoid thinking about it at all, because when I do, it’s almost paralyzing.
How to Go On is an attempt to make peace with that. If music can accomplish such a thing, then this is an effort to do exactly what you said: provide comfort for those grieving a loss, but without the lens of religion. Though obviously this piece doesn’t have all of the answers, I do think the secular poetry here deals with these questions beautifully, in a way that still feels spiritually fulfilling.
Have the poets heard the work yet?
They haven’t! That’s the one downside to working with collaborators who live far away. We can discuss everything else over email, but they can’t just pop over to rehearsals if they live in Vermont (Laura Foley), Pennsylvania (Barbara Crooker), or Louisiana (Amy Fleury). I’m looking forward to sharing the performance and album recordings with them very soon, though!
What’s your artistic relationship with CAI like?
I’ve been working with CAI and Brandon since 2014, when they commissioned a piece of mine called I am Music. This project happening now—a new, big piece to be recorded alongside some of my other choral works on CAI’s debut album—has been in the works almost as long as that commission.
I adore CAI. They only perform new music, and everything and everyone involved in the group operates at such a high level of professionalism and musicality. How to Go On can get very rhythmically complex and texturally dense, and CAI’s Choral Artists have really risen to the occasion. Their rehearsals are sounding spot-on to what I’d envisioned when I was writing the piece with this ensemble in mind a year ago.
I hope this isn’t touchy, but I imagine you’ve heard yourself described as a “choral composer.” I remember when we spoke a long time back you saying that you planned to make the bulk of your work about voice. Is this still something you embrace and/or pursue, or do you at times feel pigeonholed?
Not touchy at all. I’ve always been drawn to writing music with text, regardless of instrumentation; it’s what I naturally gravitate to if left to my own devices. That’s not to say that I don’t like writing straight-up chamber or orchestral music—I do—but I think I used to view that tendency toward composing music with words as a weakness or a crutch. Lately, I’ve been embracing that and the fact that I usually work with texts by living poets as something that sets my music apart.
You’ve been big on going to residencies – in fact a few of my own as a composer have followed seeing what you do. Could you talk about that a bit?
I love artist residencies; I’ve been to four now, with another planned next spring. At a residency, I’ve realized, I’m almost certain to experience two things: getting a tremendous amount of work done in a short time, and doubting everything about my work and my creative process. The latter is never pleasant to go through in the moment, but I’ve learned a lot about the way that I work and how I work best. Ultimately, that’s a wonderful thing, which may be why I keep going back.
What’s next after this? Finishing that record with Dr. Ian Malcolm, perhaps?
Ha—I was just talking to Dennis Tobenski on his new Music Publishing Podcast about how that project has been more or less a complete failure. I’m still hoping to do something else to fulfill that project and provide something beyond the two tracks we did release to the people who contributed to it. This has been a long process, but hopefully we’ll get some sense of closure on that project by the end of this year.
In the more immediate future, I’m about to start writing a piece for soprano & chamber ensemble. Soprano Gillian Hollis, who I made an album of art-songs with five years ago, will premiere it with a Chicago-based new music ensemble called CHAI Collaborative Ensemble. That’s going to be around 15-20 minutes, another big-ish piece. I’m eager to start that, but it’s going to have to wait until after How to Go On has gone on.
Full info on the premiere this weekend is up at choralartsinitiative.org/july-16–17–how-to-go-on.html. More about Dale is up at daletrumbore.com.