Interview with Jeannie Pool: On Becoming A Composer

[Please note this interview is being published in the Summer 2000 issue of The IAWM Journal, the publication of the International Alliance for Women in Music. For a copy, please visit their Web site.]

By Stephen M. Fry

Steve Fry: In January, at the age of 48, you made your debut as an orchestral conductor with an ambitious concert of music by Bach, Vaughan Williams, Scott (John Scott, the film composer), and Pool. Your piece was a large cantata for choir, orchestra, organ and bagpipes. Many are familiar with your work as an advocate for composers and contemporary music and as a producer of events and recordings, but when did you become a composer and a conductor?

Jeannie Pool: (laughter) In recent years I have had several opportunities to conduct young musicians, particularly at my childrenís elementary school, so this wasnít exactly my debut. I also conduct the youth choir at my church, and last summer was music director for a production of Andrew Lloyd Webberís Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. The January concert, however, was my first opportunity to conduct a chamber orchestra of professional musicians. In Los Angeles, of course, we have some of the best musicians in the world, many who work as studio session players. To make my conducting debut with such superb players was quite wonderful. We did the Second Brandenburg Concerto, Vaughan Williamsí arangement of the Old Hundreth Hymn Tune, three spirituals which I arranged for bartione and orchestra and my cantata. The concert was part of a series, In Praise of MusicÖat the Church of the Lighted Window in La Canada, California (near Los Angeles). I am the Series Artistic Director and this is our first season, with 11 concerts between September 1999 and June 2000.

SF: You are listed in several reference books as a composer, for example, in Cohenís two encyclopedias of women composers and Iíve known you for twenty years, but Iíve not heard your music until recently.

JP: I worked in electro-acoustic music and text-sound/sound poetry in the 1970s. I did my undergraduate studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York and fortunately had some courses with Ruth Anderson and Annea Lockwood who encouraged me to compose. My attempts to pursue composition with some of the other faculty members was frustrating. Louise Talma told me that since I hadnít started composing and at that time already a Junior, I should probably forget starting at such a late date. In one ìbeginningî composition class, the professor insisted that we begin writing in full orchestral score (with transpositions). He said if we could not conceive of the whole work in full score, we probably didnít have sufficient musical talent or training to compose. Most of the students, I later discovered, were not beginners, and were actually studying composition privately.

I had six semesters of solfege at Hunter with the Nadia Boulanger proteges, which meant serious work in music dictation, but no one ever suggested that this was the same skill one would use when trying to write down what music I was hearing in my head. All the emphasis was on interpretation; not on creating music.

I had plenty of ideas for pieces I wanted to write, but I didnít have the skills to easily get them down on paper. I struggled to write some of them down as duets or as melodies with chord symbols on lead sheets. I found I could more easily and quickly express myself in electro-acoustic music, but somehow felt barred from good old fashioned compositional techniques with a pencil and paper. It was presented as such a daunting task, as so difficult, I really thought I couldnít get it. Iím sure many other music students experience this as well, especially when many composers who teach composition feel it is their first job to weed out anyone who doesnít show an obvious gift for composing. I now hold the opinion that every musician should study composition and should compose. It develops a part of our musicianship not developed any other way. One doesnít have to want to be a composer with a capital C to benefit by studies in composition. It should be a part of every basic music education. I have improved considerably as a musician because of the composing.

Ruth Anderson and Annea Lockwood introduced us to a number of women composers and their works. We heard directly from them about how they worked. Many were experimental composers working in electro-acoustic music and mixed media. During that time I wrote some incidental music for some theatrical productions and for short films. I also had arranged some pieces for flute ensemble. I began producing radio at WBAI and learned tape editing and recording techniques. When I got my first show I broadcast my works over the air, including the ìintroî music.

By the time I started my graduate studies in musicology at Columbia I gave up any idea of studying composition in academia. For a couple of years, I had a job as an editorial assistant to Otto and from him I learned first hand the history of American music in the 20th century. We became very close friends and I brought him my compositions from time to time for feedback and suggestions. He gave me some invaluable suggestions and encouraged me to continue to write tonal, melodic music if that is what I hear despite the fact that this would not be acceptable to the composition professors at Columbia. He was one composer who wrote in his own style, even when it was not popular.

SF: Otto Luening was also an advocate for American composers, having helped to establish the American Music Center and Composers Recordings, Inc.

JP: Thatís write. As you know, Steve, I founded the International Congress on Women in Music and produced congresses in New York, Los Angeles, Mexico, and Paris.(footnote) Otto gave me terrific advice on how to produce those events and how to get people moving in the same direction on a project. I did not program my own pieces on the congresses because I felt it was inappropriate for me to do so as the organizer. I moved to California in 1982, got married, and had two children. By the mid-eighties I had stopped composing entirely but concentrated instead on my organizational work, my KPFK Radio programs, and on establishing the International Institute for the Study of Women in Music at California State University, Northridge, with Beverly Grigsby.

SF: I was there when you were honored in 1995 for your work as an advocate for American music and composers by the National Association of Composers U.S.A. at a luncheon at USC. Steven Stucky was honored that day, too. I think you were similarly honored by the National Federation of Music Clubs in the late 1970s. You are much appreciated for your work on behalf of composers and new music. What happened to make you go back to writing music?

JP: About five years ago, I was coaching an elementary school orchestra with an excellent six grade alto saxophone player. The best sixth-grade violinist had a concerto excerpt for the year-end concert; the best flutist had a piece; but not the saxophone player, so I offered to write him one. I wrote a melody in a simple ABA form, harmonized it and then orchestrated it. I had it copied and took it to a rehearsal. The sax player could do his part without a problem, but the string players looked at me with blank faces. I didnít realize that these children who had trained with the Suzuki method hadnít yet learned to play arpeggios, so I had to do an emergency re-write. I called composer, orchestrator and arranger Mauro Bruno and pleaded for his help. With his assistance I met the deadline and it became apparent that I needed to study orchestration. He generously agreed to take me on as a student. I was asked to write other pieces for youth orchestra, so I arranged spirituals and Jewish folk songs for youth orchestra. I learned to write music the children could perform and enjoy. I write Easy Violin parts with whole notes for the beginners so they wonít talk during the performances. In 1999 I wrote a larger work, Get On Board!, a suite of American train songs, which was premiered in April 1999, to celebrate my cellist sonís graduation from elementary school.

SF: Actually, this is good advice for all composers-especially beginners-to write for ensembles and players with whom you have a personal connection. Iíve written dozens of arrangements for the West Side Jazz Ensemble which I direct and have developed a technique and style of my mine by being able to hear my work right away.

JP: Yes, I started to compose again because someone needed a piece. I was so pleased to help out.

SF: Was there something specific which Mauro Bruno taught which was particularly helpful?

JP: Iím glad you asked me about this. Mauro taught me to sketch on three staves. He said if you canít write it down on three staves, it is probably not composition you are doing, but orchestration. He taught me to separate the tasks and not to confuse the two which in many ways are separate processes. Starting to orchestrate too soon in a composition can actually stop the flow of the compositional process. Mauro has fifty years experience as an arranger and orchestrator, particularly for film and television and is used to working under tight deadlines and extreme pressure. In that end of the music business, these are well respected yet separate professions: composer, orchestrator, arranger, and copyist. In the concert field, we tend to do it all ourselves, but one canít do it all well simultaneously. When I worked at Paramount Pictures to do the preservation on the film scores and parts, I saw hundreds of composersí sketches, on three staves, dating back to the 1930s. Iíve not seen this with concert music composers I have known.

Since I learned to work this way, Iíve asked many composers about it and found few in academia who ever heard of sketching this way. Many sketch in two staves (piano reduction) or full score This opened up a whole new world to me. I stopped worried about orchestrating and who could or would play what and concentrated on the development of the musical material.

SF: So after five years of writing, how did you finally get to the opinion that it was time to seek performances of your music?

JP: Last year I met film composer John Scott who lives in London and Hollywood. Heís since become a good friend of mine and is the Composer-in-Residence for the In Praise of MusicÖConcert Series. Shortly after we met, he took a serious look at some of my scores, including my cantata and said, ìYou must get these performed and recorded.î I said, ìWell, sure. I guess. Maybe. Sometime.î He said, ìNo. Now.î I told him how I had began to compose again after years of not writing and how much I enjoyed the work. He reminded me that pieces really donít exist until theyíve been performed and how we grow as composers by hearing what weíve written. It was time for me to take the next step with professional players. So I started to think seriously about how to get them performed. I had been writing for five years and had a stack of pieces on the shelf. I had said the same thing to many composers in my life time, then raised the money and produced their works through the congresses, concerts, radio and recordings. But here was someone saying this to me; indeed, a composer who didnít need me to produce his music! A composer with an international reputation who thought my music was worthwhile and sincere. In subsequent months he repeatedly asked me what I was doing to get this music performed and recorded and eventually we came up with the concert series as a starting point.

SF: What is your goal as a composer?

JP: I aspire to be a good composer. Not necessarily a great composer-who needs that pressure? A good composer who writes music people like to play and to hear. I would like for my music to be transparent, clear, and easily understood. I want my music to be well-written for the instruments. I also want my music to enhance my personal relationships. I am getting better and I am more patient with myself. This is certainly one of the advantages of being older-to have a longer view of things. I have friends in their seventies and eighties who are composing and think, well, just because I started late, doesnít mean that I wonít eventually do well at it. I have forty more years, if Iím blessed with good health, to try to get it right. Age discrimination is another issue, but I think weíre going to see some changes in attitude as the baby boomers get older and ìretire.î

SF: How do you find time to write with all your other obligations?

JP: I enjoy the actually writing so much that I canít wait to do it, even though with all my other responsibilities I usually only write an hour each day, usually first thing in the morning. You know, Iím the Executive Director of the Film Music Society and a single mom with a sixteen-year-old and a twelve-year old, not to mention my church music job. On weekends, I can write a couple of extra hours, but I find that working a little every day can result in important progress for me as a composer. Composers who donít write for months and then try to write full time for a couple of weeks or months to meet a deadline often run into problems because of the time it takes to get up to speed in terms of their skills. Many composers I know who write for film and television write all the time, whether they have an assignment of not, just to keep in condition.

Of course, Iím thinking about the music when Iím away from it, solving the problems often while Iím driving or in my sleep. But Iíve found it is important to keep those skills up by using them a little bit each day. It gets easier all the time. By maintaining the momentum, I am able to dig deeper every time. In the beginning it was hard to decipher what I was hearing and to trust my instincts and write it down as quickly as possible. It also releases me from the anxiety that many feel. I donít resent all of the other jobs I have to do each day because Iíve given the best hour of my day to the work I love and which engages all my faculties totally-the composing.

SF: Tell me more about the cantata.

JP: I have written several choral works in recent years. I arranged the old spiritual Who Built the Ark? for youth and adult choirs, which was performed at my church. I wrote a piece for youth choir, flute and drums, based on an Chippewa Indian melody, The Spirit Will Now and Again Appear which was performed, to mention a few. In October, my woodwind trio was performed. Episodia I and I have a lovely studio recording of my duo, With Pleasure, with Cynthia Fogg, viola and Tom Flaherty, cellist. I worked on the cantata for two years: it is based on the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith and it is 31 minutes in length. I knew I would have limited rehearsal time with the choir and orchestra and had to face the challenge to coming up with a work which could be done with such constraints, which delved into the rich meaning of the text. The cantata has eleven sections, including soloists, duos, some four-part choral writing, and a bagpipe solo. Although the work is basically tonal-actually it is modal-it is written very traditionally with some lovely melodic passages. It is orchestrated with many doublings of the vocal parts in the orchestra, in a sort of buddy system, to give the mostly amateur singers their best opportunities for a successful performance. Many sections of the cantata work on their own as separate pieces. I only had an hour and a half rehearsal with the orchestra and choir together on the piece, so I am very pleased that it all came together.

SF: What are you writing now?

JP: I have just completed a three-movement work for chamber orchestra which will be performed in April at the Claremont Graduate University and on the In Praise of MusicÖ Concert Series. I am writing a work for solo acoustic bass for David Young, an extraordinary Los Angeles musician who asked for a new piece for an upcoming recital at the Colburn School and I have been asked to write a violin sonata for violinist Brian Leonard and his accompanist Delores Stevens for a February 2001 premiere. I am also working on a musical theater piece on the Book of Jonah, you know, Jonah who was swallowed by a whale? Now thereís an interesting analogy for composing-being in the belly of a whale.

SF: It is one thing to write music and it is another thing entirely to get community support for its performance.

JP: This is true, Steve. Music-making requires widespread cooperation of an entire community of people. Composers need the community support to thrive and grow as composers. Iím fortunate to be at a church which loves music and musicians and supports this adventuresome new concert series. Our Music Director, Steve Hill is a remarkable choral conductor and tenor; Judi Siirila (soprano/alto) and Christopher Panneck (baritone) are excellent singers and provide leadership in our choir. My dear friend, the composer Deborah Kavasch, sang the soprano solos for the cantata and her husband, composer John Marvin, sang in the choir as did composer Marilyn Wilson.

Our series has all kinds of music on it: classical, Broadway songs, jazz, film music, church music, and 18 premieres of new works by contemporary composers. Such a venture is only possible with the support of this congregation. Weíve had 175 people attend our concerts of new music, which is very gratifying for a new series. This is the only concert series in La Canada, so it is very much welcomed by the community. The parking is free and it is in a very safe neighborhood. The church has fabulous acoustics. Weíve been able to release three compact discs from the live concert performances of the six concerts weíve present thus far. Not bad.

SF: Thank you for speaking with me about your music and the series. Hopefully your story will inspire others to start composing and coming up with ways to get new music performed.

JP: Thank you for your interest.

Steve Fry is a music librarian at UCLA, a composer and arranger and leader of the West Side Jazz Ensemble.