Choral Arts Initiative’s debut album, out today, features the works of LA-composer Dale Trumbore; the bulk of it is dedicated to the composer’s secular requiem, How to Go On. I was lucky enough to be at the premiere performance of this work, and was deeply moved by its wisdom, quiet strength, and feeling. As such, I was excited to spend more time with it. In its entirety, the album tackles the universal questions of mortality and the challenges of life’s journey – no easy undertaking, but one that Trumbore takes on with elegance and grace (and, importantly, without making things too heavy). Choral Arts Initiative, a non-profit choral organization under the direction of Brandon Elliott, successfully convey its powerful messages. Their talented performance achieves that delicate balance of strength and fragility.
Contemporary poet Barbara Crooker asks a simple question: “How can we go on / Knowing the end of the story?” This question is the germinating seed of the eight-movement requiem, as Trumbore seeks to find an answer – or, perhaps, to ask more questions (can we ever really find an answer?). Movement 1, How, is set to the text of this question. It features rising clusters, increasing in dissonance and culminating in a sublime stacked harmony, which leaves the listener with a sense of reverence for the unknown. The altos and sopranos continue this sentiment in the next movement, However Difficult, (set to text by Laura Foley). This is juxtaposed by the tenors and basses, who ground us with the message that however difficult life may be, it is still yours, and there is solace to be found in this simple truth. Movement 3 (To See It) feels like a warm blanket, its soft lines unfolding delicately over a quiet, soothing drone and holding the listener in close. CAI delivers this text (again by Foley) with patience, warmth, and sincerity.
Movement 4 (Relinquishment) is where the pacing begins to quicken. The growth and decay in dynamics, orchestration, shifting tempo, and harmony reflect a larger metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death – learning “how to give it up again and again.” The following movement is similar in theme, but where Relinquishment calmly beckons, Requiescat is more direct in its urgency. It represents a larger gamut of emotions – from the peace of spring rain to the fury of earth and fire – and makes us confront the concept of mortality head-on. More questions lead us to the final movement, a calm acceptance of our ultimate fate, that culminates in a musical meditation to allow us the space to reflect.
The remaining pieces on the album are some of Trumbore’s earlier works, which further showcase her ability as a choral composer (and pianist, in the case of In the Middle). Embedded in these pieces are moral tales of some of life’s many challenges, from our need to connect with others to the feeling after a storm has passed. Combined with How to Go On, these works tell a complete story of life and death, acceptance and defeat, and growth and decay. They remind us that life is about the journey, and that questions are often more important than answers.
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.