In preparation for their virtual choir performance of “Wayfaring Stranger,” Rob Istad and the members of Pacific Chorale met with composer Moira Smiley via a Zoom conference call on April 7th. Here are some excerpts from their conversation about her musical growth and composing philosophy, and the process of arranging “Wayfaring Stranger.”

 

R.I.
Tonight, we are focusing on Moira Smiley’s Wayfaring Stranger, which is the nucleus of a composite performance involving a number of pieces of music that we’ll be giving this summer.

Moira, I feel like I’ve known you for a very, very long time. And that’s because I have programmed your music often. I’ve had the opportunity to share her music with my students at the university and when I travel and conduct honor choirs around the country.

Moira’s music is special for a variety of reasons. One is that it’s deeply connected to who she is as a human being and what she believes in. You’ll come to find out that she believes in the power of positivity, and she believes in the power that we have as humans to embrace one another and to embrace our differences in a positive way.

But more importantly, it’s connected to America’s folk tradition. I grew up listening to folk music and country music as a kid in the Midwest in Rockford, Illinois—town of cornfields—and when I hear the music that Moira’s band plays it brings me back to those moments. There’s something special about the lyrics that she writes, the songs she chooses to set, because they connect our shared human experience and inspire us, I think, to be better people, to be more open.

One thing Ms. Smiley is very famous for is body percussion, using her body to create percussion and inviting choirs to do the same. When you have an entire room full of people moving together in chorus with one another, and the percussion happening between the people standing in the performance, there is something totally electric that happens in the room, something so human, something that is just so connected to soul.

[Rob plays Moira’s arrangement of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s “Bring Me Little Water, Silvy” as an example.]

M.S.
Hi everyone. It’s really nice to be here. I’m really excited about this project. I was recently in San Diego over about a couple of months and a year ago. And you live in the most beautiful place. And I also lived in L.A. for years, so I miss it. I’m beaming in to you from Vermont tonight. I am originally from here and I moved back here from California to be near family. I’m a nomadic animal, and tour all the time, so this song, Wayfaring Stranger, is very dear to my heart.

R.I.
Tell me, did you grow up singing in choirs? Was that something that was part of your life, your whole life?

M.S.
Absolutely. It really was. I was in a children’s choir in which we did classical pieces and performed Handel’s Messiah every winter. But I also grew up singing folk music and specifically folk polyphony. That included a teacher bringing back music from Croatia and Serbia and teaching it to us young kids. Also, I was part of a little choir of kids who participated in the glasnost, and children’s art exchange with Russia, so we learned all these Russian songs as seven- and eight-year olds. So early on, I was exposed to these different singing styles and ways of using voice. And I think that stuck for me for a long time.

R.I.:
When did you decide to start composing?

M.S.:
Hmm, I started composing when I was five or six years old. I mean, I don’t know if you can call it composing, but I was—here, I’ll play you my very first composition. I think it was like [plays a short excerpt on the keyboard] or there was another one [sings:] “Sweetly I’m singing along with my mail/Over the bushes delivering mail,” a song about a postman. So this is my illustrious beginning. [laughter]

R.I.:
And that was hand-in-hand with music for piano. Did you start on piano?

M.S.:
I did. That was the instrument that got me into music school. That was what allowed me to pay for music school—being a very over-serious little pianist.

R.I.:
What music school?

M.S.:
I went to Indiana University. I still collaborate with some of the people that I went to school with there. It’s a big music school, so you keep running into people that share your background in some way. So it’s been a bit of a community maker.

R.I.:
How did you go from Indiana to where you are now, where you’re writing choral music, you’re writing instrumental music, you have two wonderful albums. How did you trace this path into falling back in love with folk music? Did it leave you and then come back?

M.S.:
It kind of did. When I went into conservatory and was trying to do the endless Liszt Études, I started to feel very lonely making music in the practice room as a pianist. And I felt that the social component of singing was calling me. So I started an a cappella group. The piano was always my map, but folk music became a way of connecting to other human beings—and also connecting back with my whole self. Folk music seemed like a way that was thoughtful, not full of oneself, but instead full of the community. So it was a way to heal, in some ways, by singing.

R.I.
I think for many of us music isn’t just something that we do. It’s something that we turn to for so many things, for solace and for comfort and for escape, and for you, it sounds like it was that. And I love the story of how it turned you outward as well.

M.S.:
Yes. Instead of being afraid of people, I found a way to feel useful and connected with other people.

R.I.:
And now here you are on stage at Disney Hall with a thousand high school students. [At Los Angeles Master Chorale’s High School Choral Festival.]

M.S:
And they were so excited because they were moving and singing. And I know that a lot of us come through choir and we do “choralography,” and some of us are traumatized by that. [laughter] I mean, some of us love it, but a lot of us are like, “Oh, please, let’s not do that,” as adults, because it feels very fake, very slapped onto our bodies. But I think what I try to do with body percussion is try to have it feel a little bit more innate, a little bit more about sharing one’s self with the other singers in the room rather than just presenting an idea to the audience.

R.I.:
I absolutely love that. What do you think is the difference between your solo work and your ensemble work?

M.S.:
The difference is learning to find a unique voice, and as a solo artist, when I perform and when I write for myself, it’s daring to express ideas that I don’t know yet are universal. That feel very personal, that feel a bit maybe too vulnerable. When I write for ensembles, I don’t tend to be drawn towards texts that are revelatory in that same way. I find, again coming from folk music, that you have this sense of the We, and you hold that up first. And then in the personal and the songwriter performing, I find that I go a little bit more into the stranger, more expressionist parts of myself.

R.I.:
When you were composing Wayfaring Stranger for us, when you were revisiting it, what were you hoping would come of the effort and the project, the artistry?

M.S.:
This Wayfaring Stranger carries so much meaning about who I’ve been in the last ten years. I’ve been finding my identity and my ability to be expressionist by traveling. And in this piece, the arrangement feels like I’m setting the melody—which is quite a lonely melody—in this texture of belonging, which is all these voices doing ostinatos, loops of fairly short ideas tumbling in and out of one another. I wanted to feel the richness of the harmony supporting that one lonely character. And that one lonely character is us.

R.I.:
That is exactly what I wrote to the choir about this piece, that the Wayfaring Stranger is us, she is each person here. Specifically in the last year, I think all of us have experienced the unsteadiness of wayfaring. Some of us have been more blessed than others. Some of us have gotten to stay home and work, while others have certainly suffered greatly. But there’s still this common thread of this wandering and this disconnected feeling.

M.S.:
I think the famous quote, “listen to your lostness” is very applicable right now in Spring 2021. We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to go back to interacting and being “in-person.” We have to realize who we are after we’ve had a shakeup! (Or a shakedown is maybe what it feels like.)

R.I.:
It does feel like a shakedown! And that’s why this piece was so special. When I was looking through everything and I found this, I don’t know if you were surprised that I thought this piece was really calling to me.

M.S.:
I was, a little bit, because I made an arrangement and I felt like it was 70% there. I actually tried to perform it with my group VOCO on tour a year ago—a tour which resulted in the latest album—but that piece quickly became a “no.” We didn’t perform it, because it felt incomplete. So I was very surprised, Robert, that you picked it and believed in it. And I’m grateful. It was really fun to then make it go the last bit of the road to get to this arrangement.

R.I.:
I felt it was wonderful. And when we talked, Moira said, “Hmm. I really want to go back into this,” and when a composer says that you think, oh dear, next year we’re finally going to have this piece. But she said, “You know what? I’m just going to spend some time and think about it.” And my goodness, a week and a half later here is the arrangement that you’re holding in your hands, along with videos of Moira doing the body percussion for you and singing all of the parts.

M.S.:
Including being a creepy bass by using the “octave down” plug-in in my recording program. [laughter]

R.I.:
I’m so grateful and astounded at what you did. I will tell you the tune Wayfaring Stranger has lived in my heart for a very long time. I grew up hearing that tune. And there’s something about it. It’s like the tune of Greensleeves, you know, that modal sound, that just sort of sits inside of your chest. It touches a very special connective part of who I am as a person. So when I heard your arrangement, it was so interesting and it was innovative, but it held onto the parts of that tune that I love.

M.S.:
I see a lot of people nodding that they also know this this tune. It’s in our DNA.

R.I:
This is a piece unlike anything Pacific Chorale has ever sung, I think. And what a treat it is to explore our voices and our artistry this way with you. And what an honor it is to have you here this evening with us.

As part of this project Moira has agreed—and I’m so grateful—to sing the soprano solo for us. Moira’s piece is the nucleus upon which this entire performance is spinning. It’s going to take our audience—and you, hopefully—on a journey from acknowledging where we’ve been—acknowledging grief, acknowledging hardship, acknowledging pain, acknowledging fear—to releasing, coming to terms with the beauty that is everything relates to everything, and everyone relates to everyone, that we’re all interconnected. And the lessons that we’ve learned through this very difficult period. The performance moves through this beautiful Bach motet, Jesu, meine Freude, which is a piece based on assurance, with modern interpolations, and finally concludes with a piece that is just full of joy. And I’m hoping that that’s what this experience will be for all of us. And Moira, I am grateful that you’ve chosen to lend your artistry in your voice and in your composition to us.

M.S.:
Thank you. It’s my pleasure. And my honor.

Look for Pacific Chorale, Rob Istad, and Moira Smiley in “Wayfaring Stranger,” coming soon on YouTube, Facebook, and here at PacificChorale.org!
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