Welcome back to “Composer’s Corner,” Subito Music’s series of informal composer talks. This editions highlights William McClelland whose music is represented by Subito Music Distribution (SMD) (a division of Subito Music). (The SMD program is Subito’s distribution service for independent, self-published composers.)
The Michigan-native is a composer, pianist, conductor, educator and producer who studied at the University of Michigan, and is a graduate of the Longy School of Music and Emerson College. McClelland’s catalog includes choral music, music for voice, chamber music, works for jazz ensemble and music multimedia and dance. McClelland’s music has been performed and commissioned by organizations throughout North America. As a pianist, McClelland gives frequent concerts with his wife soprano Jean McClelland in programs of classic American theater songs as well as McClelland’s own music, and he has premiered pieces by John Cage, Carl Ruggles, David Patterson, and others. He has also collaborated on a number of works with author Ian Frazier as well as projects with conceptual artists Komar and Melamid. He served on the piano faculty of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and the Elizabeth Seeger School in New York City. For many years, he has also led the swing/jazz ensemble, The Feetwarmers. As a producer, McClelland worked on two recordings of early American choral music for New World Records and Albany Music. Find out what McClelland’s currently up to including: a new recording from Naxos; his belief that it’s “a blessing to read and contemplate and memorize poetry;” why he believes he has “always been kind of a musical chameleon;” working with singers; his environmental activism; and why young composers and musicians “simply have to keep your ears open and embrace it all and…find your own voice.”
S: You’re currently celebrating a new album release by Naxos – “Where the Shadow Glides.” This album offers a career-view of your music and features a variety of works and multitude of projects. Please tell us a more about this exciting project.
McClelland: The recording actually came about in stages over several years. I had a number of pieces waiting to be recorded and I began in 2016 by doing two of the choral works. Then in 2017, [I continued] with the solo piano piece, and finally in 2019, [I recorded] the songs for voice and piano and the final choral work, “Cædmon’s Hymn.” I was very fortunate to have the participation of some extraordinary artists, including the New York Virtuoso Singers, conducted by Harold Rosenbaum; organist David Enlow; pianist Blair McMillen; mezzo-soprano Krista River; baritone Thomas Meglioranza; and pianist Donald Berman. In fact, everything was ready to go by early 2020, but because of the pandemic it had to wait two more years before being released. Better late then never!
S: The works featured on this new recording are all inspired by poetry and early texts. As a composer, have you always been inspired by poetry?
McClelland: I’ve been reading poetry my entire life, and early on, I thought I might actually be a writer or poet. Music and composing won out, however, though I have remained close to poetry through reading and study, and, of course, setting it to music. Even “Five for Piano,” the purely instrumental work on my recording, was inspired by five different poems. It is such a blessing to read and contemplate and memorize poetry, and then, for those poems that seem right for musical settings, to work with them on a granular level. One learns so much about a poem this way, especially the rhythms, sound and meaning one discovers working so closely with the words.
S: Your work – “Where the Shadow Glides” – features the award-winning NY Virtuoso Singers. Was this your first time collaborating with the choral group?
McClelland: Although I had known about the New York Virtuoso Singers for many years, I hadn’t worked with Harold Rosenbaum or his chorus until we decided in early 2016 to record two of the works that are on the album, “Hail Lovely and Pure” and “These Last Gifts.” With the help of the extraordinary engineer Adam Abeshouse, the recordings went very well, and, in 2019, we decided to record a new work for chorus and organ, “Cædmon’s Hymn,” with organist David Enlow. Having worked for many years with the great William Appling, I was very spoiled and never thought I would find that degree of empathy with another conductor, but collaborating with Harold has been simply amazing. He is one of finest choral conductors of our generation and over these past few years has also become a true friend. We now have plans for future projects together, including a celebration of the 150th birthday of Charles Ives in 2024.
S: On a personal note, the album features music that was inspired by your late brother, David C.K. McClelland’s calligraphic translations of 15th century texts. Can you tell us more about how his work translated into your musical setting?
McClelland: My late brother David was a noted cartoonist and calligrapher, and was also a student of early English and Celtic languages and history. He created magnificent manuscripts of texts by different poets and writers which are now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. The text for “Hail Lovely and Pure” is a setting of a translation David did of a short passage from a 15th-century English mystery play called the “Second Shepherd’s Play.” It’s a passage describing the moment the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Christ, and the calligraphy David did was reproduced in the recording’s program book. It was not a ‘finished’ work but really only a draft for what he intended to be a larger and more elaborate manuscript; but, it was beautifully done and when I discovered it I immediately felt it would be perfect for a choral work. The two other choral works on the album were also inspired by David. The album’s opening work, “Cædmon’s Hymn” is a setting of a translation of the earliest known written English text from the seventh century and was another work of calligraphy David made – this one while he was still in high school. The final piece on the recording, “These Last Gifts,” is a setting of a translation of a poem by the first century BC Latin poet, Catullus; and, it is a description of the writer traveling to attend the funeral rites of his own brother. The poem powerfully spoke to me, as David died when he was still a young man, and it seemed like the right work to close the album in a kind of benediction.
S: Not only are you a composer, but you are also a pianist who performs in many genres, including vocal music, and you’ve worked with your wife, soprano Jean McClelland. How did the two of you meet, and have you always shared this musical connection?
McClelland: I met Jean when we were both students at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA. Jean came to Longy to study with legendary Russian singer and voice teacher named Olga Averino; and we sang together in the school’s madrigal group. The first time I heard Jean sing, that was it for me – she had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard. I soon asked her if she would care to look at some songs I had written and I was so happy when she agreed. They were only student works but she didn’t dislike them so I was pretty relieved. I continued to write songs for her, but we also realized we both loved musical theater in addition to classical music. So, we ended up working together on everything: from art songs to opera, and then to Jerome Kern and Gershwin and Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim and everything in between. Jean went on to have a successful career performing in musical theater and together we’ve given hundreds of concerts over the years.
S: You’ve had a vast range of interests during your career, and that includes being the musical director for theater productions in New York City and New England. How long have you been involved in the theater world?
McClelland: I’ve really only worked on a handful of musical theater productions. When I lived in the Boston area, I was the musical director for several productions, including Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” and my first job after moving to New York City was playing one of the keyboard parts in the famous production of “The Pirates of Penzance” – produced by Joseph Papp – which starred Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline. I worked on a number of other theater productions in New York but my interests gradually moved away from musical theater to leading and writing for a swing band I put together, and eventually back to composing the kind of music you hear on this recording. The first recording of my “classical” works, “The Revenge of Hamish” (on Albany Records), includes two long pieces, one of which is sort of a country rock/rhythm ’n’ blues hybrid, and another which is a Celtic-influenced extended ballad. I’ve always been kind of a musical chameleon.
S: Above, you mentioned your swing band; and for many years, you were the leader and a performer with The Feetwarmers. How did this collaboration come about?
McClelland: I formed my band The Feetwarmers soon after moving to New York, while I was still playing in “The Pirates of Penzance.” The band actually started as a trio with piano, bass and drums, and over the years expanded to an eight-piece group with the addition of two saxes, trombone, a guitar and vibes. We originally worked with another singer, but when he left the group, I took over as lead vocalist as well. Over the years we played all over the NYC-area and along the East coast at clubs and in concert and for dances. The repertoire was just about everything you could imagine, from arrangements I did of early big-band music by Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford through Fats Waller, a lot of Ellington, Basie, and Louis Jordan, and other early rhythm ’n’ blues tunes right up to songs by Big Joe Turner and others from the late ’50s along with my own original music.
S: In addition to your latest Naxos release, you have two other recordings of early American choral music including: “Wake Ev’ry Breath,” the music of America’s first native-born composer, William Billings, and “Shall We Gather,” a collection of American hymns and spirituals from the 19th century. How does your latest CD compare to these two other projects?
McClelland: As I mentioned, I worked for many years with the remarkable conductor and musician William Appling. He had actually been my piano teacher back in high school in Ohio, and was the principal reason I decided to become a musician. He was an absolute genius as a conductor, pianist and teacher. When he left Ohio and went to Vassar College to take over the choral program, we began working together. He commissioned several compositions from me and we went on to do many projects together. The first was to celebrate the 250th birthday of America’s first great composer, William Billings, which resulted in concerts and a New World recording released in 1998. We also produced a recording of music by American composer Richard Wilson, and in 1999 we did a concert of early American hymns and spirituals. It featured 19th-century hymns from the Sacred Harp and gospel hymns and works by composers like Lowell Mason, as well as Negro Spirituals arranged by John W. Work, J. Rosamond Johnson, Harry Burleigh and William Appling himself. A live recording was made of the New York City concert and released on Albany Records.
S: You’re also an active environmentalist and founder of your own company, Bag Snaggers, Inc. Tell us more about this product and how you are working to help our planet by promoting renewable energy.
McClelland: I’ve been an active environmentalist for most of my life. I worked to help start the local recycling program in my town of North Bergen, NJ. I also helped organize protests to stop the construction of a number of garbage burning incinerators that had been proposed throughout New Jersey and another protest to stop the building of a new high school in the only park of any size in our area. Another project I was worked with my friend Ian Frazier was the idea he had for a tool to remove plastic bags that had been caught in trees, a problem that bothers lots of people but nobody had ever done anything about. He and my brother Tim, a jeweler and metalsmith, designed a tool to do this called the “Bag Snagger,” and the three of us would go bag snagging all around New York City and then around the country. It is so satisfying to solve a problem that seems simple but nobody has ever addressed. Later on, I started a company to manufacture the Bag Snagger and sold them for many years to places all around the world, including many to an environmental group started by Bette Midler called the New York Restoration Project. Unfortunately it never caught on to the point where I could make a living off it and I eventually sold the business, but it was a great project while it lasted. Today, I work with a national environmental organization called “Food and Water Watch” which is fighting to prevent the construction of fossil fuel burning projects.
S: You’ve had a long career working with a varied group of artists and in diverse genres. What advice do you have for young composers and musicians who wish to explore and expand their own horizons?
McClelland: As far as advice for younger musicians, I would only suggest that they keep their ears open and remember the words of Duke Ellington: “There are only two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.” One of the problems with 20th-century classical music was that there were so many “schools” of music and composers that believed the kind of music they wrote was “correct” and any other type of music was somehow “wrong.” There were composers who, for some bizarre reason, believed that twelve-tone or serial music was the only “legitimate” music, and anything else was somehow to be shunned. At the same time, there were people like the jazz drummer Buddy Rich who once said, “If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band,” somehow ignoring that supremely brilliant musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and many others played rock. The worst thing musicians can do is close themselves off to any particular style of music. Fortunately this myopia has diminished greatly in recent years. Most young composers and musicians realize that every type and genre of music, including contemporary western classical music, popular music, jazz, and music from different cultures has its strengths and weaknesses. The only thing that matters is the quality. You simply have to keep your ears open and embrace it all; and, if you’re a composer, find your own voice.