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Q & A with Ruth Morris Gray

What inspired you to become a composer?

Music has always been an integral part of my life. I grew up singing in choirs at church and in school. I began studying piano at age 8 and later accompanied choirs during high school and college. Initially, I didn’t think of myself as a composer, but as a writer. I loved writing short stories and poetry. In third grade I achieved (very limited) fame when I wrote a “50 page story”. I think I was lauded not for the content, but for the fact that I was the only 8 year old around who could write down so many words at one time. I didn’t consider composing songs until I was 15. I remember listening to a song and thinking, “I could write something like that”. So I did. Focusing my creative energies on choral composing unites my two loves - words and music.

Who most influenced your development as a composer? 

My composing has come a long way since age 15. I owe the development of my craft to my mentor and Biola University composition teacher, Dr. Edwin T. Childs. Even after completing my Master’s Degree in Music Composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he was and still is the finest teacher I have ever had. I have also learned composing and arranging techniques from several choral editors with whom I have had the privilege to work with over the years. Every time Andy Beck, Managing Editor of School Choral and Classroom Publications at Alfred Publishing, edits a choral piece of mine, I learn something new from him and my work is better because of him.  

Who/what inspires your music?

I am very inspired by great texts. When I read a beautiful poem, the cadence of the words and the author's voice helps me determine the setting of the text. In my new piece, "Exsultate, Jubilate Deo" (Alfred Publishing) I felt the rhythm of the Latin text demanded a multi-meter setting. Also, the words felt very formal and commanding to me. As a result, I realized that the music needed to be more powerful and dramatic than I had initially planned. As a composer and arranger writing primarily for developing voices, the difficulty level and my harmonic choices are limited. By arranging folk songs and spirituals and setting different texts in a variety of voicings, I am able to explore many styles and vary my harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.

This past year I have been especially inspired by other great choral music and choral music performances. Every time I hear or perform a new choral piece I love, I study the piece. I try to understand the form and structure, the use of melody and harmony, the marriage of music and text, and determine what makes the piece special. Then I try to incorporate those elements into my own work - not copy, just model form and ideas. I am also very inspired by my music students at Rosemead High School. I enjoy writing choral music for them because it reinforces my connection with them, and I can tailor pieces to fit their needs.

How do I present multicultural music in concerts? 

– As a director, I try to have my singers convey the mood of multicultural pieces using movement when appropriate. When my Treble Choir sang Uji River, they performed using Japanese fans. The motion of the fans helped the singers convey the lyric melody line, and the audience loved the visual effect. Last spring, before my A cappella Choir sang my Two South African Folk Songs, a student read the translation of the text. I also had the students help create the motions we used during the songs.

What has been your most difficult experience as a music teacher?

My first year teaching high school was the hardest. The singers missed their former director and many resented my presence. The students were resistant to any change, and they absolutely hated warm-ups.

What has been your biggest surprise in teaching?

At the end of my first year, I held auditions for the following year. I began the year with only 9 guys in my top choir, all of whom had trouble matching pitch. By the end of the year they could all sing, and they brought their friends. I must have had 30 guys show up for auditions (and most of them were tenors). That number has grown every year. Everyone says that female directors have a harder time recruiting guy singers than male directors. I am so thankful that my school has been the exception to the rule.

What advice do you have for aspiring choral composers?

1. Learn to play the piano well. I was given this advice and have never once regretted double majoring in Piano Performance and Composition in college.

2. Sing in an outstanding choir, learn quality literature, and study how great choral music works.

3. Excel in music theory classes and learn a music writing software program – either Sibelius or Finale. Use the playback option to listen to and critique your composing. Then get your music performed. Seek feedback from people you respect.

4. Be creative and distinctive. Experiment with different compositional techniques and forms. Find or write great texts. Speak the text aloud and understand the rhythm of the words. Don’t use music or set a text that is not public domain without permission.

5. Do your homework. If you want to be published, find out what companies publish the type of pieces you are writing. Learn what the vocal ranges are for singers of different ages and different voicings. Submit clean, easy-to-read manuscripts in pdf form as well as in Sibelius or Finale format.

Comments on “A Dream Within a Dream” by Ruth Morris Gray

I am always on the lookout for great texts. I have decided over the years that I shouldn’t bother setting any text I don’t think is amazing. Even if I write the best music I have ever written, the piece still seems to fall short. Where do I find great texts? I collect volumes of poetry. I also look for texts online and in libraries. Occasionally, I write texts, but for me, writing texts is much more difficult than composing music. During the summer of 2010, I was looking online and found a list of Top 100 poems. “A Dream Within a Dream” was in the top ten. I had just seen the movie, “Inception” and was struck by the idea that Edgar Allen Poe had come up with the idea first.

I wrote the music for “A Dream Within a Dream” almost entirely during the first week of August 2010 during a vacation week with my husband at my mother-in-law’s beach house in San Diego. My husband is so supportive – he let me pack my full-size keyboard, my laptop, a monitor (my daughter had just dropped my laptop and broken the screen), and my little midi keyboard for Finale input. The ocean was a great source of inspiration. Melodies generally come easily to me. I often read through a text and hear a melody, or work at the piano and the melody develops as I play and sing. The melody of this piece just spilled out of me, harmonies and all. What I had to really work on was the form – I kept playing with the structure of the piece. Also, I had to modify the text a bit to make it fit my melody, especially the second verse, “God, O God! can I not grasp…”.

As a composer, I tend to favor polyphony – I love melodies, complexity, and creating multiple lines. This piece was an adventure for me in how to create beautiful and interesting homophony. An example of this is found in the opening verse of “A Dream Within a Dream.” The opening builds with a set of three phrases that all end vocally on an F major chord; the first phrase ending on F, the second on A, and the third on C. This structure allowed me to build the harmony between the voices and create a sense of momentum in the vocal line. In order to maintain the “dream-like feeling,” I added a polychord mixing Eb and F major in the piano. The other important element in the piece is the use of suspensions. I love using suspensions to play with tension and resolution. The mid-section ends with a string of suspensions on the words, “creep, deep, and weep”. I felt that utilizing suspensions underscored by shifting harmonies was the best way to convey the confusion and sadness in Poe’s text.

Ruth Morris Gray

June 10, 2011

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