What I learned from Morten Lauridsen

Last week, American composer Morten Lauridsen was composer-in-residence at the University of Aberdeen, where I am studying choral composition. Over the course of the week I heard him speak at the Composers’ Forum and at two concerts, as well as having a 45-minute personal tutorial.

Dr Lauridsen and I come from very different backgrounds musically. He has been an academic for his entire career, while I’m not honestly all that keen on academia and I have very little experience of the sort that is valued by many academic institutions. Instead, my expertise is in the realm of the practical. I am grounded and have been nurtured as a musician, not in the world of abstract musical concepts or the dialogue of composition as research, but in the rhythm and constraints of community work: in congregational hymnody, small choirs, limited rehearsal time and resources.

Nowhere was this difference more apparent than in the tutorial I had last Tuesday. Not really having had many composing tutorials before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was somewhat apprehensive and nervous. On learning that my first degree was a Bmus(Hons) in playing the horn and that I have no prior composing qualificationns, Dr Lauridsen seemed puzzled that I would even be accepted onto a PhD programme, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me that I was very brave for attempting it. His efforts to draw out more of my own background seemed oriented toward a very academic vein which made me feel inadequate, exacerbating my nervousness. In that state, I didn’t speak of my strengths, and the musical tradition in which I work, very well. But I don’t think he was trying to be unkind: for someone whose career has been in an academic context, it’s understandable to think that being a good scholar is how one becomes a good composer, and it makes sense that his advice to me was to do as much catching-up as possible in that vein.

But we also have something in common, and I think that’s even more important: we both have a strong desire to make a difference in the world. When Dr Lauridsen spoke of this at the Composers’ Forum on Monday night, I was greatly encouraged. With today’s devastating political news from the USA, that encouragement is very much needed. At the end of the day, I am not doing this PhD to have a chance at an academic post somewhere. I am doing it to get better at composing so that through my art I can make a difference in the world.

Part of that is going to be engaging with other artists who make a difference, and Dr Lauridsen mentioned several times when speaking that he reads poetry daily. Not only that, but in all of his years as a professor, he has started every single class with a poem. “It takes you up a peg,” he said; and I think he is right, and that this is much-needed. As things currently stand, I enjoy poetry, and I always mean to engage more with it, not least because I am always on the lookout for words to set. I’ve often said that choosing the right text is one of the most difficult parts of composing, for me; ideally, the words should strike something deep within me, or become a part of me over time. But despite this, I have yet to make the reading of poetry a daily habit, except in the slow drip feed of psalmody when praying the Daily Office. So there is a good challenge for me, and one that will be relatively easy for me to implement. I can start with a poem a day, and work from there.

Another point that I found instructive was Dr Lauridsen’s obvious love for musical theatre, particularly the American Broadway musicals. Despite his educational formation in the standard academic canon, he still manages in some of his compositions to pay homage to his own musical interests. And if he can incorporate the musical language of Broadway into his music, then I can develop my own voice as a composer such that my music is similarly congruent with the musical world I inhabit. Yes, if I want to pass a PhD I have a lot of work to do in learning the traditional academic canon, particularly of the 20th century; but fluency in that world doesn’t have to mean leaving behind or de-valuing my own idiosyncratic musical background. So in addition to studying Stravinsky and Messiaen and Bartok and Reich, I also intend to continue singing in the London Gallery Quire and the University of London Church Choir, to continue examining ideas about hymnody, and to be more systematic in listening to sacred music, especially of the 20th and 21st centuries.

If I am going to make a difference, I’ll need to do it as my whole self; and now I have a clearer idea of the steps I can take to do that. Thank you, Dr Lauridsen.