Gwyneth Walker

A Prolific Poet in Music

by Ken Keuffel,The Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Published 2/05

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Read notes for An Hour to Dance (1998) for SATB chorus and piano
Read notes for Prayers and Blessings (2004) for bass-baritone, cello, and organ
Read notes for Dazzling as the Sun (2004) for SATB choir and organ

Gwyneth Walker, who will hear her music performed by several local groups next weekend, enjoys unusual success in a field that usually brings only modest rewards.

Her output is astonishingly prolific. It includes more than 130 commissioned works for a variety of instrumental and vocal groups. It is performed at least four or five times a month in concerts all over the country.

Many composers would die to be at the premiere performances of their works. At this point, though, Walker enjoys the luxury of forgoing such appearances especially if, as will happen next weekend, she committed to being at the first performance of one work - even though, later on, the premiere of another was scheduled elsewhere on the same day.

Prayers and Blessings - a set of three songs for bass-baritone (David Arnold), cello (J. Alexandra Johnston) and organ (Ray Ebert) - will be performed next Sunday in Centenary United Methodist Church, at about the same time that Walker's Dazzling as the Sun premieres at a festival of church choirs in Minneapolis.

"My philosophy is 'first-come-first-served,'" Walker said with chuckle.

There will also be performances of Walker's chamber music by Salem College faculty on Friday. And on Saturday, William Osborne will lead the Piedmont Chamber Singers in "Ladies Night Out," a program of music by female composers that will include An Hour to Dance, Walker's setting of poetry by the late Virginia Hamilton Adair.

Over the years, Walker has earned enough money from writing music to do what most of her competitors cannot: abandon the security of a college-level post to pursue composing full time. She left Oberlin College Conservatory in 1982.

"The few things I was able to write during my teaching week were starting to be performed all over the country," Walker said, recalling that time in a recent telephone interview. "Then I was flying out of the airport every other weekend. My life was getting very divided."

Walker, who is now in her 50s, said she became torn between teaching, which she liked, and composing full time, which appealed to her more, despite its lack of a regular paycheck. In the end, she chose the latter course, believing that she would always regret it if she did not.

"Plenty of people sing for their supper," one critic wrote admiringly of how Walker's career has progressed. "Precious few bring home the bacon by composing - especially by composing the sort of music that doesn't sell toothpaste or embellish TV car chases."

So how has Walker managed to "bring home the bacon"?

The answer begins with her Quaker faith, which preaches equality of the sexes, nurtures strong women and encourages them to enter even such professions as composing, which, until the latter part of the last century, had been dominated by men, Walker said.

Quakerism "is the center of my life," she said.

Walker views composition as a "business," and has even written a chapter on the business aspects of composing. You can read it on her Web site ( Increasingly, much of that business has involved getting out there as much as possible. As her stint in Winston-Salem will illustrate, she has taken on the role of a traveling celebrity, often leaving her dairy-farm home in Vermont to work with students, attend rehearsals and performances of her works and lecture on them.

This hands-on contact not only helps ensure a good performance but also becomes something of a learning experience for Walker, who may make some last-minute revisions.

"I work hard at writing well, on shaping a piece so it doesn't ramble," she said. "An audience is sitting there; you have to write something that holds together well."

Another key to Walker's effectiveness as a composer, at least in the realm of choral music, has been finding the right poetry to set to music. Walker has spent many hours in bookstores reading through collections of poems. The right ones don't emerge quickly.

"It's hard to find poetry that's singable or that suits my Quaker outlook," she said.

Adair's poetry, which will be featured in the Piedmont Chamber Singers' performance Saturday of An Hour to Dance, suits Walker well. It inspires tone painting, from the clanging of keys to the repetitious clatter of a train, that complements what Walker calls "vivid imagery" or "things I haven't seen before," she said.

Walker wrote in a description of Dance, "From the opening 'Key Ring,' filled with the anticipation of life's mysteries yet-to-be-explored, to the closing 'Take My Hand,' expressing resignation of a life gone by, the poems grow in vitality, color and romance, and then fade into stillness, loss of color and a vanishing of sight."

Walker's stint at Salem will include a Performers Forum, in which she'll critique performances of her music by a choir from North Forsyth High School. She expects that along the way, she'll meet a young, fledgling composer (or his parents) and be asked for advice on the kind of training to pursue.

Her advice has its roots in her own childhood experiences: Make instruments available to a child. Let him learn to compose on his own, until, say, the final years in high school.

"When you're a composer, you want to find your own voice," she said.