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INTERVIEW: Composer Jodi Goble on the Art of Writing Art Songs

Composer Jodi Goble at the piano.

If you hang around classical singers, you’re likely to hear the name “NATS” come up. No, not the things that fly around – the National Association of Teachers of Singing, one of the cornerstone institutions of the classical voice world. Know someone who took voice lessons in college? They were probably studying with a NATS member. Know someone who teaches voice now? They’re probably a member or work with members.

Not surprisingly, NATS members have a lot to say about what makes a song good and what makes a song well-suited for students to learn. This makes the NATS Art Song Composition contest one of the most prestigious contests in the classical music world: if you make their short list, there will be a lot of people interested in singing and teaching your music. If you make the short list more than once, people are going to start asking what you’ve got coming out next. The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with Jodi Goble of Iowa State University about composing her new song cycle “Valentines from Amherst”, which received Second Place in this year’s competition.

This isn’t your first time scoring in a NATS competition – your song cycle The Ivory Box is Broken was a finalist for the NATS song competition in 2008 and your Twelve Chairs received an honorable mention in 2016. This is a very competitive competition – how long have you been competing in it? Do you submit something every year?

I’ve been very fortunate in that every time I’ve submitted a work to this competition, it’s been advanced at least to the finals!

Up until this year, this was a biannual competition. I didn’t submit in 2010, 2012, or 2014 because the work has to be a piece for solo voice and piano, and during those years I was working on other projects that didn’t happen to fit the criteria: either it was choral, or it had a chamber component, or it was in a language other than English.

When did you begin working on this cycle and when did you finish? Is there a story behind its writing?

Come slowly – Eden!
Lips unused to Thee –
Bashful – sip thy Jessamines –
As the fainting Bee –
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums –
Counts his nectars –
Enters – and is lost in Balms.

–Emily Dickinson

I wrote the first setting, “Come slowly, Eden,” a few years ago when a student of mine was putting together a mixed-composer set of Dickinson songs. (I think the other songs in her set ended up being one of the Copland settings, one of the Persichetti, and one by Jake Heggie). The others are very new – Shelby VanNordstrand and I premiered four of them at the Ames Town and Gown Musicale in February 2016, after they asked if I would write something for the occasion. I added two more over the summer, because I knew I needed at least 14 minutes of music to be competitive in the NATS contest.

How do you seek out and select the poems that you set to music? What led you to choose Emily Dickinson’s work for this cycle?

I think Dickinson is one of our most important poets – her voice is so evocative and so very much her own. I’ve been curating a wish list of her poems for a long time, while at the same time approaching them with a healthy dose of respect. She’s so popular with composers that any time you write a Dickinson setting, it’s impossible not to be compared with other, better writers who have come before you.

In terms of how I choose poems in general… Well, I read a lot of poetry and always have. I do tend to be drawn to texts that are inherently lyrical, though not necessarily rhymed or metered. I like the Imagists a lot; they fashioned a whole movement out of constructing blank-verse poetry from gracefully shaped, subtly repetitive phrases that almost set themselves to music. “Ivory Box” falls into that category of poem – that’s Edna St. Vincent Millay – as does a setting I wrote of Wallace Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier” and Hilda Doolittle’s epic “Eurydice”.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

–from “Invitation to Love
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I had some fun a few years back with Ogden Nash, where the rhyme is almost always present, but he’s playing fast and loose with meter for comic effect. And occasionally I’ll run across a very traditionally rhymed and metered poem that I can’t resist; probably my most recent example of that is Paul Dunbar’s “Invitation to Love.” I’ll probably build a set around that poem in the next year or so.

I noticed that many of the poems that you set in this collection are very short – much like, say, Poulenc’s Le Bestiare. How does this affect how you structure the cycle as a whole, since you don’t have the same room for exposition as in a 19th-century song cycle?

I have to pay attention to key relationships. I tend to use a lot of common-tone modulation both within and between songs. And I bring back elements of early songs in later ones – perhaps not direct quotations, but sections that invite the ear to draw the connection. The text can also help there – the order in which the songs are placed is very intentional, to sort of lead the listener through a narrative. That helps keep the whole thing cogent.

This wasn’t my first experience with very short poems – “Twelve Chairs” was written by Rita Dove to be inscribed on the back of actual chairs at the Sacramento federal courthouse (one text to represent each member of a grand jury) and those poems are accordingly tiny. But I find that singers enjoy having the opportunity to switch characters in rapid succession, and in the case of that project, part of its strength is derived from the high contrast between one character and the next. (I did quote myself directly in that cycle – the thirteenth song, which represents the Alternate, contains a snippet from each of the twelve preceding songs representing the Jurors. But that’s hardly a groundbreaking technique – composers have been doing that in song cycles since Beethoven.)

You’re also a well-respected collaborative pianist and pedagogue. In many music programs, contemporary music and recent music history get less time and attention than earlier periods of music. What place does contemporary song have in the curricula that you teach, and where would you like it to be?

It’s a fine line to walk. The first order of business when you’re working with a very young singer is to get them to connect everything they do to breath and to solidify their placement, and modern repertoire doesn’t always lend itself easily to that pedagogical goal. Nor, I find, are their ears automatically ready to embrace modern music, though the ear changes and gets more sophisticated with time and study.

[Here’s] one example: I played the Valse de Chopin movement from Pierrot Lunaire for my freshmen last week and they were begging me to turn it off. By the time they hear it again in French song literature when they’re seniors, they’ll be much more receptive; they’ll have vocabulary to describe what they’re hearing, they’ll have heard a timeline’s-worth of earlier music that places it in context, and it won’t seem as alien to them. One of these days someone will fall in love with it – even if they won’t admit to it freshman year – and want to put it on their recital. It’s very rare that I play a student recital that doesn’t include at least one work by a living composer.

I guess the other thing is that contemporary music is such a far-flung net now that there’s something for everyone inside it, no matter what they’re drawn to. My own music is decidedly tonal-of-center, by such standards – I’ve been so infused with standard art song repertoire (marinated in it, really) that it informs everything I write. I [just] can’t seem to get interested in extended vocal techniques or electronica or any of the toys the cool kids are playing with. (On the other hand, my mom keeps wondering why I don’t write stuff that people can hum.)

Basil Considine