My beginnings as an "Accidental" Vocal Composer
An unofficial biography, not to be used in a program.
I come from a musical family. My mom was a singer, pianist and violinist, and my sisters were also musicians -- one a pianist, one a violinist. There was always music in the house, and music at any family get-together.
My mom says that when I was very young I was always making up songs, on the order of "My mommy is putting the clothes in the washing machine." I have no memory of this. I do remember being plunked in front of the record player and listening over and over again to several kiddie records: Peter and the Wolf, Pee-Wee The Piccolo, Bongo the Bear and Tubby the Tuba. In retrospect, I think this early exposure to song and dramatic music made an indelible impression on me. In fact, I was delighted to recently find the sheet music to Pee-Wee the Piccolo on Ebay, and I look forward to delving into the score by George Kleinsinger (with words by Paul Tripp).
Back to my childhood: I began studying piano at age 5 and flute at age 7, and was very intent on becoming a professional flutist. I remember being amazed by composers -- it was beyond my comprehension that people could make up music, and certainly this was something that I never thought I could do.
At age sixteen, I graduated from high school and went to Yale. [Honestly, I do not know what my parents were thinking. My class at Yale was comprised of 1000 men and 200 women.] The majority of my Yale friends were musicians and composers. By my sophomore year (being competitive in nature), I thought I should try to write some music. I began with ragtime, as I loved playing ragtime on the piano, and its structure gave me an easy starting and finishing point.
The summer following sophomore year I wanted to stay at home and relax, but my parents insisted I continue my musical studies. They gave me the choice to go to Fountainebleau in France to study with Nadia Boulanger, as my sisters had done, or to study flute at Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan, where my sister Lynn had also spent summers. Not particularly liking theory and terrified at the prospect of studying with the legendary Boulanger, I chose to attend Interlochen.
My roommate at Interlochen was soprano Lauren Wagner, and we got along fabulously. Although I was attending Interlochen as a flutist, I also studied composition. I wrote Lauren a crazy piece in an "avant-garde" style, and required her to make all sorts of weird sounds, singing the words "yo-yo-yo-yo-yo" to some leaping intervals. A tape of this composition exists somewhere, but I will be very content if it is never unearthed.
Returning to Yale in the fall, I continued composing — mostly instrumental pieces. I did set "Remember Me" by Christina Rossetti, but that was the extent of my vocal writing. I developed an interest in writing for film and theatre, and took a graduate school course on this topic, taught by the wonderful Frank Lewin. It was in this class that I learned how to respond to moods and create dramatic music to express these moods.
After graduate school, I married my college boyfriend, Bruce Rosenblum, and moved to Williamstown, MA, where he was the music department at Buxton School, a small private high school. I became the other half of the music department, and also played flute in the Vermont Symphony. The next year, Bruce enrolled at Columbia Law School and we moved to New York City. I taught flute at various music schools and started writing music for industrial films. I became the composer for the Dick Roberts Film Company, and wrote scores for such films as Psychology Today, and Camera Arts Magazine. In 1980, I wrote the score to The Taming of the Shrew at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC.
Also in 1980, I had my first child, James. Suddenly, I learned that the reality of parenthood did not mesh with the pressures of producing a complete recorded film score on a fast timetable. So I focused on composing chamber music. I also continued to teach flute, and while teaching at The International Conservatory of Music I met koto player Miyuki Yoshikami. I began to write music for flute and koto which Miyuki and I performed regularly in concert.
I had two more children: Diana in 1983, and Andrew in 1986. Then, much of my life became devoted to driving. I drove the kids to school, to lessons, to activities…any stay-at-home mom or dad knows what I am talking about.
I had been in and out of touch with my former roommate Lauren Wagner over the years, but it was 1991 when I received an excited call from her. She had just won the Concert Artists Guild competition, and was about to make her debut CD. She asked me if I would write some songs for the CD. I was flattered that she asked, but not sure of my ability to write an art song. In fact, I told her that I could not, as I had no idea how to write a song. She was insistent, however, so, I went to the library and began to read a lot of poetry. I was attracted to the poetry of Sara Teasdale.
For my first song, I decided to set Teasdale's The Metropolitan Tower and wrote the vocal part very quickly — so quickly that I doubted my creation was really any good. I was actually going to throw the music out, but my husband assured me that it was a beautiful song. I remember revising the melody in my head as I walked to the elementary school to pick up my son James, and also remember revising the music I was at the pool with my kids. I worked hard on the accompaniment, but was still full of doubts, and was scared to show the piece to anyone. (For years afterwards, I was still self-conscious about the piece, because it is so simple and strophic. Now it is one of my favorites.)
Lauren premiered The Metropolitan Tower at Merkin Hall in New York on December 16, 1991, with Frederick Weldy at the piano. After the recital, Paul Sperry hosted a party at his wonderful apartment overlooking Central Park. This was my introduction to the art song world, and it was here that I met Paul Sperry, Richard Hundley and John Musto. Richard said something to me that I will never forget: he had been planning on setting that very Teasdale poem, but now he never would, because he could not do a better job than I had. These were heady words for a mom from Potomac — and I became hooked.
And that was the beginning. I found my voice in writing for voice.