Minnesota is famous for its rich choral music scene; the Twin Cities in particular are home to numerous nationally prominent church choirs. Now, as the Lenten season comes to an end with Holy Week, many of these choirs are preparing elaborate musical presentations to match one of the holiest times in the Christian church calendar. One of these churches, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, is performing Bloomington-based composer Aaron David Miller’s Light in Deepest Night – a musical setting of texts by the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich.
Julian (sometimes rendered Juliana) of Norwich was one of the most important mystics of the Middle Ages; her Revelations of Divine Love (1395) is the first known English-language book authored by a woman. The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine sat down with composer Aaron David Miller to talk about composition, how he came to set Julian’s text, and questions facing contemporary composers.
Where are you located?
Bloomington, Minnesota – just outside the Twin Cities. I work in St. Paul at a big Presbyterian church called House of Hope Presbyterian.
The Basilica of St. Mary’s Schola Cantorum is performing your Light in Deepest Night in a concert on Palm Sunday. How did you get the idea of setting texts by Julian of Norwich?
It was a commission by a publishing house, of all things.
They still do that?
Yes. There’s a well-known Lutheran publishing house called Augsburg Fortress… Over the last 10-15 years, there’s been a renewed interest in a lot of late-medieval spirituality…13th-15th-century mystics, theologians, and writers. [Augsburg Fortress] was looking for some artistic expression that would use some texts from that era combined with music, whether chant-based or based on early polyphony from the era.
We came up with the idea of taking some of the writings of Julian of Norwich and using it as an interactive thing with the congregation. So there’s some congregational singing, some choir anthems, some instrumental pieces… Some of it is freely composed, some based on chant, and some of it’s based on hymn tunes that would have been familiar to Julian of Norwich.
This is sounding like it might have been quite the research project to find chants and hymns appropriate to the period. When did you begin and when did you end?
I wrote it over a 3-4 month period, about 8 years ago. Strangely enough, the piece has taken fire: every year, it gets 40-50 performances worldwide. It was actually done at Julian of Norwich’s church last year!
[The piece’s popularity] started out as an American thing in 2008 when it was first published. Since then, I keep hearing about performances in Scotland and England, and in other strange places… I even got an email from someone in Sydney, Australia. I wasn’t even aware that it was published down there, but [clearly] someone got a hold of a copy!
The process of writing was, to be quite honest, a lot just whittling down a ton of material – a truckload of stuff to go through [and select from]. Chant-wise, it was much the same thing: There’s all sorts of early polyphony and motets.
A lot of [my work] was looking for something that would speak to a modern audience and encapsulate who Julian of Norwich was. Her life was one that was filled with a lot of illness and pain; she was able to take that illness and pain and turn it into art. I was trying to capture some of that in this Lenten piece.
What is your own compositional process? Do you sit down and compose with pencil and paper at the keyboard, with your mouse and Finale, etc.?
It’s a little bit of everything. This sounds odd [to say], but a lot of the time it depends on when the deadline is. I love writing with pencil and paper; that’s my preferred way to write. Sometimes, [though,] the deadlines come so fast that it really is faster to sit in front of Finale.
The great thing about pencil and paper is that it tends to slow you down and give you time to think through things; you can make notes in the margins and scribble away. With Finale, it’s sometimes very easy to put ideas into the computer; I wouldn’t want to say that it’s thoughtless [in comparison], but it’s a very quick way to go from the beginning to the end of the piece [without the same experimentation].
If I have the time, I’ll start on paper and transfer to Finale later. If the deadline’s tomorrow, though, and you have to start somewhere, boy – the computer’s a great place to start.
Since Light in Deepest Night was a commission, was your 3-4 month compositional period taken to meet the publisher’s deadline?
They actually gave me more time than that – about a year or so. Most of the first month was the research: the reading and going through a lot of [Julian of Norwich’s] early writings to find the things that I wanted to incorporate into the piece. The last two months was [spent] writing.
I tend to write fairly quickly, but then set [the score] aside for a couple weeks and then go back and start to revise. I treat it something like sculpting – I get the big shapes down on paper [first], then I’ll come back later to really hone in and refine things.
This piece has an orchestration including a string quartet, which is somewhat unusual in this day and age – and generally less common in the church since the early-/mid-18th-century. How did that choice of instrumentation come about?
The music sort of told me what it needed…as I got writing, I knew I wanted to include a lot of chant, the sort of florid, melismatic writing of the 13th and 14th century. A lot of that has a natural lilt to it; as I was writing, it just seemed to scream strings. It was something that [I knew] string players would really like to dig in and be a part of.
When I was interviewing Morton Lauridsen some years ago, he mentioned that he gets a lot of requests to arrange some of his more popular pieces – “Can you arrange it for this group of instruments that we have?” As a result, there are some pieces like Dirait-on that have a very large number of arrangements. Have you ever been approached for transcribing or arranging this piece?
Yes. Right now, there are three versions [of Light in Deepest Night]: a string quartet version, a version for 2 violins and organs, and one for organ alone. These have suited everyone’s needs so far, but I’m always open to rearranging the material [should someone ask]. I’ve never been prudish about that sort of thing.
How do you hear about performances of your work? Do you get a spreadsheet or letter at the end of the year listing things out?
Most of the time, it comes in the form of random emails. That sounds kind of odd – I do get a listing [from the publisher] of where things have sold at the end of each year, but most of the time music directors will just drop me a note.
The place that I work, the House of Hope, is a fairly well-known church in the United States; most people seem to mozy over to the website and drop me an email. Anyone that’s met me knows that I don’t bite, and I always like hearing…
Being a church musician, there’s always that task of finding the sweet spot of helping choirs and other church musicians serve their parishes. Knowing what’s working and not working [through feedback] is always helpful.
How would you describe the overall compositional idiom of Light in Deepest Night?
Each piece is a sort of modern reflection on a historic form. For example, one movement is a vocal chaconne – a repeating bass line, with the organ, a couple of violins, and voices…it unfolds much the way a traditional passacaglia or chaconne would, but it’s modern in the sense that it also has different time signatures [and harmony].
There’s another anthem that the choir sings that’s based on this old chorale, “Schmücke Dich” (“Garb Yourself”). [The setting] is almost minimalistic – it evolves very slowly before it comes to a climax and comes back. “Schmücke Dich” is very ancient – we know it as a Protestant hymn from the 18th century or so [from J.S. Bach’s BWV 180 – Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele], but it’s actually from a chant about four centuries older than that.
Each one of these pieces has something that’s both very modern and very ancient [like that].
In some of my conversations with professional composers, they’ve expressed mixed thoughts about learning that a group has recorded their work and put it on Youtube.
Specifically, I’ve heard a lot about the cognitive dissonance from conflicting impulses: on the one hand, “Hey, all these people are listening to and liking my work!” and “And another thousand people have listened to my work…cool!”; on the other hand, if you look at the technical licensing laws…
It’s obvious that everything is transitioning… The one thing that always pops out to me is that a lot of people try to apply one standard to all types of music, and I’m not sure that’s the best method. [These people] try to apply the same method to music that Taylor Swift would use to the way that John Corigliano works. I’m not sure that generating money in both of those avenues is the same!
For me, the way that I understand it – and I have a feeling that this is the way it will shake out in 20, 50, or 100 years, however long it takes – is that there will be a sort of pluralism in how people make money. In the classical music world, there is a sense that composers are making money off commissions and publications – royalties off the published sheet music – but that there’s not a lot of music to be made off live music performance. There’s some, but composers are relying mostly on commissions.
In the pop music world, it’s the opposite. They make virtually no money [proportionally speaking] off sheet music. There’s very little music to be made in sheet music [relatively speaking], but they’re making huge amounts of money when they perform in stadiums. A lot of major pop stars like Mariah Carey say that their biggest moneymakers are when they perform in venues like Shea Stadium [now demolished; previous concert capacity: around 62,000].
The way that I see it is that I don’t get too hung up on [this practice]. It’s transitioning; I think that we’re going to see that this is a “one size doesn’t fit all” thing.
When you are listening to music for fun (which may be less frequent for a practicing music director than listening for work), who are some of the composers on your playlist?
I listen to everything! I have a strange side job: I do analysis for copyright infringement lawsuits as a forensic musicologist.
As a result, on an average day I listen to everything from commercials to movie themes to classical music – everything under the sun. My ears hear a lot of very odd things during the day.
I tend to listen a little differently from other people in the sense that I do listen to popular music, but I can’t listen to, say, all of the works of Madonna. That kind of becomes a boredom for me; I’ll single out, say, two songs [on an album] that have a unique musical twist that interests me, that tickles my brain.
What’s up for you next compositionally? Hopefully you’re not frantically writing your Holy Week music…
No, that’s all done!
I’ve got about ten things on the docket at the moment… The next thing that I’m working on [is for] a new organ for a big Catholic church in Dallas, where they wanted a piece for the dedication of the organ. I’ll be working on that after Easter.
Aside from that…every two years, there’s a big convention of the American Guild of Organists; I’m doing the final concert with the Houston Symphony. They’ve gotten imagery from the Hubble Telescope; I’ll be improvising and playing with the symphony while they’re showing those images.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.