Gwyneth Walker

An Interview with Gwyneth Walker

by Susan Weber and Marcia Lee Goldberg, June 2004

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Read notes for Braintree Quintet (1988) for woodwind quintet

SW: What inspired or influenced you to become a composer?

GW: From the first time I heard musical sounds, I wanted to make them myself. I can still remember the year when I was smitten by music – at the age of 2. I was in my crib, and my older sister had started taking piano lessons. The crib was in a bedroom that was right over the living room. When my sister started playing the piano, a feeling of energy and joy shot right up through me. I leapt up in my crib. The next day, I remember crawling to the piano, climbing up, and trying to duplicate the sounds I had heard the night before. I stayed at the piano all of the time, and got better at emulating what my sister had been playing. Then, I started creating my own music. By the time I was in the first grade, I had taught myself how to put notes on a staff, with a title and my name at the top of the page. My first pieces had few notes, but my name was clearly up there! This was not a matter of me knowing that I wanted to be a composer. I already was one. Growing up in New Canaan, CT, I composed pieces for friends in elementary school, and continued all the way through college (Brown University).While studying for a Doctorate in Composition at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, I felt an expectation from my professors to follow in their career paths – teachers at a university. So, I accepted a teaching position at the Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio. However, a few years later, I resigned from teaching in order to compose full time.

SW: In a time of audiences supposedly not wanting to hear anything new, your music is constantly performed. Musicians enjoy performing it. Audiences seem to like listening to it. Are you conscious of pleasing the public when you're writing?

GW: Many people make comments such as, "That was fresh and new. In fact, I like it better than the traditional repertoire on the rest of the program!" In this day when it is assumed that audiences don't want to hear new music, I would say, from my experiences, audiences are eager to hear new music they like, in addition to their familiar favorites. I don't feel that there is a lack of interest. If there were, I would not be composing music for a living.

SW: Why do you think your music is so accessible to people?

GW: My music is me. I've been doing this all of my life. Writing music that communicates to other people is my approach. This is the gift I have of expressing myself as a human being. I am a joyous and sensitive person with plenty to say.These qualities come through in the music.Of course, I keep the performers and audience in mind when I am writing my music. But, I would not go so far as to say to myself "Oh, this is cute. They'll like that!" Rather, I try to write a piece of music that is well structured and to the point – a work that holds together well and says something. I aim to be a good craftsman.

SW: Perhaps that is what people feel.

GW: I hope so.

MLG: Your music captures people right away. It's not like going to a whole concert that you are not familiar with. This is music that is easy to become a part of as a member of the audience or performer.

SW: I still would like to know why.

GW: Are you familiar with the poet e. e. cummings? He uses familiar language, presented in new ways. This is my style as well. I use musical materials that are familiar, but I try to shape them into my own message. Therefore, audiences may say, "I think I understand that chord or that harmonic progression, that rhythm. I can hear that she is using these for a reason, and I understand it."

SW: That leads into the next question: You have been influenced by folk, rock and traditional music. Is there a favorite there?

GW: I have been making music since I was a child. During my teens, I played plenty of and folk music. I played guitar and wrote the vocal arrangements for a folk/rock group. That's just what kids do. Those experiences influenced my musical language, but I don't have a favorite. Those are all wonderful American idioms.

SW: I don't think that a lot of the classical musicians I know have played in groups like that.

GW: But that's my background. I have had an instrument in my hands since I was two. My fellow musicians weren't in a professional orchestra. They were my first grade friends! They would arrive at my house each week, and there would be a new composition for them to play. I would hand out the parts and the various instruments, coach everyone on playing their music, and off we went!

MLG: What instruments were they playing?

GW: We had piano four-hands, and one girl played the violin. Everybody else used the drum set my parents had given me and an assortment of toy (children's) instruments. So the idea was there – the composer puts the notes down on the page, the composer gives the music to someone else to play and the composer’s name is on the top of the page!

SW: I wish you would have been in my neighborhood.

GW: Some of the kids I grew up with still remember those “Musical Mondays.”

SW: You also use the medium of musical drama, which include readers, movement and visual effects. What pulled you towards this type of composing?

GW: I couldn't resist incorporating unusual activities into my music, such as having the conductor pick up a tennis racket and conduct with it (Match Point). Those ideas occurred to me as early as in my teens and early twenties. But, dreading letting my eccentricities out in the open, I told myself, "No, don't do that!" Finally, the imagination took control, and these extra-musical elements appeared in the scores. They seemed to capture the imagination of the audience as well. So, now, I just let these things happen as they occur to me. For example, in the Braintree Quintet, the audience sings hymns, and then a woodwind quintet plays new variations on the tunes. In one movement, about sheep, the double reeds (Oboe and Bassoon) remove their mouthpieces and bleat (through the reeds). Again, when this idea came into my mind, I said to myself, "Don't do that. Don't." Of course, when I did it, it turned out to be a lot of fun. I think I have an irrepressible streak. It's not always funny. It has to do with anything dramatic, or visual on the stage. When my music was first reviewed years ago, the critics wrote sentences such as, "Walker belongs on the stage," or, "This is the most vivid depiction of New England landscape I have ever heard." I was startled, since I was not aware of these qualities in my writing. When I spoke with one reviewer, he said, "Braintree one day, Broadway the next! You belong on the stage." However, rather than writing purely staged works, I prefer adding dramatic touches to concert music. Just enough “oddities” to keep the piece interesting!

MLG: It makes the music great fun for everybody.

GW: Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's very serious – the audience with eyes wide open. I don't always aim to be humorous. I also put all of my feelings into my spiritual music. And, I enjoy good American poetry, which is sometimes incorporated as narration into my instrumental music. I aim to develop a sense of theater on the concert stage.

SW: You have worked in a very organized and disciplined way in composing your music and turning it into a successful business, which allows you to have the freedom to just compose. You are no longer teaching, and you don't have any day jobs. Any comments?

GW: I have a 24-hour-a-day job of writing music. As I have read biographies of other composers such as Benjamin Britten, I have been amused to find out how similar we are. We get up and do the composing in the morning, take a walk in the afternoon (or in my case, play tennis), and then attend to all the communication involved with the music business at the end of the day. I spend at least as much time on the business activities as on the writing. I think this comes back to the fact that I am a New England Quaker composer. Quakers (and New Englanders) value a practical and organized lifestyle. “Be of use!” [I am the eleventh generation of Quakers in my family.] I do chuckle quite a bit at the phrase "freedom to just compose!" As you can well imagine, anyone who writes on commission, for other people, with deadlines and premiere dates, knows how much pressure is involved. I work on a strict schedule. But then again, I chose this career. So, in that regard, I had the freedom of choice. But, once I agree to write a commission, on deadline, my freedom vanishes. My life belongs, in a sense, to the people for whom I am writing the music. It is a structured, ordered and perhaps pressured life. Not for the faint of heart!

SW: Changing the subject, have you had to deal with sexual discrimination?

GW: It probably passes me by most of the time. I have a strongly focused approach to my writing, and I think that I am oblivious to many external factors. This is a healthy career, with many people asking for the music. Therefore, if a conductor rejects a work on a chauvinistic basis, I would not necessarily even know about it. [My publisher might!] I think that early on, when I was first studying in graduate school, some of the European professors did not know how serious I was about my work. However, as time passed, they understood and were supportive. Back to the Quakers. Quaker women were at the forefront of the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1840s, and also the Suffrage Movement. My grandmother was a Suffragette. Therefore, it is not surprising that I would enter a male dominated field undaunted!

SW: Tell us a little more about Gwyneth Walker, the person.

GW: I think my theme song would be, "Let Everyone Sing, Play and Go to Concerts." That why I live out in the country, in a non-affluent community. We don't have economic classes here in Braintree. Everyone supports the music. I love my life here.

SW: Much is being written these days about the demise of classical music. How do you see the future of music?

GW: Maybe if we took the adjective "classical" out of the phrase, we would be better off. We need a lot more new music. There is obviously a huge interest. More and more students are majoring in music. Time for the new!

SW: Any advice for young composers?

GW: Get those notes on the page. Don't keep the pieces that you want to write in your head. Get your music into the hands of other people to play. Find your own musical voice. Don’t attempt to sound like other composers. Try to be sure that what you are doing is something that other people enjoy. You know that you are on the right track when you are writing music because you love to do it, and other people are asking for your music. That's a good healthy path. Compose music for musicians of all levels and all walks of life. Your generosity of spirit will connect with other people to generate a lifetime of joy (and good music).

SW: Perhaps a lot of composers are not thinking like that.

GW: This is the “egalitarian” approach. The composer, performer and all audiences are of equal value in the musical process.

MLG: Next year in 2005, the Year of the Woman, the Equinox Chamber Players has commissioned you to do a new piece for them. Is this any different from the usual commissions you have.

GW: I am not thinking about the Year of the Woman, as much as I am about the Equinox Chamber Players. We connected quite some time ago. They have played my other woodwind music. I decided to write a piece with audience participation in various ways. I call it an "interactive" quintet. Ensembles such as the Equinox Chamber Players often perform school and community programs. They need new repertoire. So, I am hoping to create something which can involve audiences of all ages. Perhaps, with my interest in staging and unusual musical events, I can find something special for this commission. I would hope that this piece will be educational as well as entertaining.

SW: Any final comments?

GW: I compose because I want to, and because other people seem to want me to. I feel it is the right path for me, and this continually gives me the energy to keep going. After all, I have been composing for 55 years! I am now in the position where I can choose the new works I wish to write – to chart my own course. This is exciting for me. All of the projects on my schedule are works which I am eager to create. And, I will be working with many of the wonderful musicians whom I have met on my life’s “Musical Journey!”