Galbraith: Composer’s Corner Q & A

Today’s edition of “Composer’s Corner” features Nancy Galbraith — composer, performer, educator, lecturer, and clinician. The Pittsburgh-native’s large body of music has been performed in the United States, Europe, and South America. Her rich harmonic textures, rhythmic vitality, emotional depth, and wide range of expression have been described by critics as “impressive,” “reflective,” “formidable” “rewarding,” and “masterly.” Commissions and premieres include performances by: the Pittsburgh Symphony; Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh; Cuarteto Latinoamericano; Orquesta Sinfónica de Tucumán (Argentina); Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble; the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh; Temple University (PA); the Harvard Glee Club, and the Bodiography Contemporary Ballet (PA). Our chat with Nancy includes her thoughts about her compositional process, balancing composing and university teaching and how she “really enjoys both vocations,” what new tools she used during Covid to create music and connect with other musicians, how she’s “never composed an opera, so that’s something to pursue,” and her remembrances of a special premiere as “an electric and unforgettable experience.”

S: As an acclaimed composer and Carnegie Mellon University’s Chair of Composition, you’re a busy individual who wears many hats! Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you become a composer? Did you know from a young age that you wanted to write music? Or were you a musician/ performer first, and composition was something you discovered along the way?

Nancy Galbraith in Frankfurt, Germany

Galbraith: I studied piano beginning at age four with my mother who was an accomplished pianist and organist. Then I had two other teachers before I entered college. I also studied clarinet beginning at age 13, so I entered my freshman year at Ohio University as a double major in both instruments. That same year I took an elective course in composition. After completing a few assignments, I was strongly encouraged by professor Dr. Karl Ahrendt to major in composition, so I took his advice, although I continued my piano and clarinet studies.

S: How do you balance your time between teaching and composing?

Galbraith: I work about 11 hours every day of the week. It requires a lot of energy, but I really enjoy both vocations. During the school year, I schedule my students’ studio lessons (1 hour each) on Wednesday-Thursday-Friday (this year I have 22 students – freshman through graduate), and I teach a class called Composers’ Forum on Friday. These are three very long days, but then I am free to compose music in my home studio the other four days. I also squeeze in a few hours after I come home from school. And then I am completely free from about mid-May through August. This is when I write maybe 70% of my music. The only other things that draw me away from composing are numerous committee meetings throughout the school year and some church-related activities.”

S: What challenges were you faced with during the COVID-19 pandemic? How did you connect with other musicians and performers? What tools did you use to create music?

Nancy Galbraith at the European premiere of her Passion According to St. Matthew, at Manchester Cathedral.

Galbraith: Well first, I had three premieres cancelled! I also had scheduled a recording session with five principal players from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. They had just premiered Interrupted Atmospheres (February 2020) and offered to record it in our studio at Carnegie Mellon in March 2020; but then COVID shut everything down.

Galbraith: During the pandemic, several performing ensembles presented virtual concerts streamed on their websites. A few examples: the University of Miami “Frost Bands” played Febris Ver, The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra performed Strange Travels, and (ironically) the Pittsburg (different spelling) State University Wind Ensemble (Kansas) played Audible Images.

“When the Spring 2020 semester ended, I still had a few commissions to work on, but without scheduled premiere dates. So I decided to expand my knowledge of Digital Audio Workstations (DAW’s), spending a fair amount time learning Ableton Live. With everything in lockdown for the unforeseeable future, I thought it would be a good time to use Ableton to compose a mostly electronic work, with the addition of a flutist and a soprano. Several months later I completed Behind the Eyes using my husband Matthew’s poem as the text. I engaged two musicians from Pittsburgh’s contemporary ensemble, Kamratōn, and recorded the work in early spring 2021, following the usual pandemic protocols during the session. Matthew created a video to accompany the music, and we “premiered” it virtually on YouTube on May 30, 2021.” [To view Galbraith’s Behind the Eyes, visit YouTube here.]

S: As an educator, were you able to apply those same tools in your teaching? Do you still use any of them?

Galbraith: At school, all the pandemic’s precipitous changes happened to coincide with our spring break in mid-March of 2020. After several emergency meetings, the administration decided to close Carnegie Mellon’s campus, and all professors had to very quickly learn to teach via Zoom. I was more fortunate than most, as most of my teaching is one-on-one. Every week, my students would send me PDFs of their work for that week, and we would discuss it on Zoom. Composers’ Forum was more of a challenge but we all quickly adapted to a Zoom classroom environment.

Near the end of the Spring 2020 semester, the student composers were discouraged over the loss of all their performance opportunities, so I issued them a challenge. They were [asked] to collectively produce a virtual concert, coordinating small ensemble recordings from their individual homes and providing accompanying videos. The project really lifted their spirits; and in early May 2020, they presented a most amazing concert event, streamed live on Carnegie Mellon’s YouTube channel. It was well-publicized by the school and attracted over 1000 viewers! The individual videos ranged from basic, well-executed split-screen views of the performances to some extremely creative works of art. The following two semesters, they produced two more virtual concerts with equal success. [To view the Spring 2020 Composers’ Forum concert, visit YouTube here.]

When the Fall 2020 semester opened, most of CMU’s faculty continued with the Zoom teaching-model, with a very few opting for a hybrid approach. As Head of Composition, I chose to teach mostly in person at my campus studio. This was a very strange experience, as the entire campus was a ghost town. Each day I saw only a few people as I walked to my building; and the Hall of the Arts, although clean and well-lit, was completely empty! But the students who attended their lessons in person (a few chose to stay on Zoom) were so grateful to see me. [Visit YouTube to view the Composers’ Forum’s Fall 2020 concert here and the Spring 2021 performance here.]

S: Can you tell us a little about your composing process?

Galbraith: Early on, I composed at the piano and sketched onto staff paper. When personal computing arrived, I entered those sketches into some of the earlier notational software. Beginning in early Y2K, I traded the piano for a synthesizer placed next to my computer and [now] enter the music directly into Sibelius software. I still often go to the piano to play through the music as I’m writing it.

For larger ensembles – symphonies, concert bands, etc. – I start with a pared-down score of maybe one or two each of winds, brass, strings, and percussion. Then as the work begins to take shape, I add the full complement of instruments to the score and fill in the rest of the orchestration. Along the way, I create playback files to check out how everything is sounding.

S: You have a large catalog that features many genres. Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for such as choral music, chamber music, orchestral music, etc.?

Galbraith: I’m not sure I can answer that one. When I’m writing music for highly skilled artists and ensembles, it doesn’t much matter to me what the medium is. I especially like writing for musicians I know personally – and there are so many great ones in Pittsburgh ­– that are friends and colleagues who are eager to perform new music and who are a pleasure to work with. I used to favor [writing for] larger ensembles, but I have had so many great successes with chamber ensembles and smaller professional choirs; and, I have found that I am able to satisfy myself artistically with them as much as with an orchestra, concert band, or symphony chorus.

S: You’ve been commissioned by so many notable musicians and ensembles. Is there a particular commission that holds special meaning for you? Or perhaps a particular performance or career highlight that stands out?

Galbraith: A few come to mind. My two commissions for Maestro Robert Page and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh were very exciting and rewarding experiences — they premiered Missa Mysteriorum in 1999 and my Requiem in 2004. I also cherish the memory of my Passion According to Saint Matthew that was performed in the UK’s Manchester Cathedral. Euphonic Blues, which was premiered at Carnegie Mellon and then featured in a Pittsburgh Symphony concert series, is also one of my favorite memories.

But to be honest, the one that really touches my heart the most is Smoke and Steel, performed by the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh. It was commissioned to commemorate the history of the city’s steel industry and was premiered in 2016 in two evening concerts at the Carrie Blast Furnace in Braddock, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. As a native of Pittsburgh, the love and pride I hold in my heart for our town and its history compelled me to write something unique and special.

The Bach Choir’s music director, Thomas Douglas – a dear friend and colleague at Carnegie Mellon – approached me with the idea in 2015, and he wanted to perform it at the site of the Homestead Steel Works, which were operational from 1884 to 1982. (The surviving Carrie Furnace is now a museum, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.) The rest was up to me. I searched for an appropriate text for quite awhile, but finally struck gold when I found Carl Sandburg’s “Smoke And Steel.” The premiere was an electric experience. The rugged interior, now mostly empty, recalls much of the ambiance of an earlier era and provides an amazing, lively acoustical space. The choir was situated maybe eight feet above the orchestra on what once was a loading platform. The choir and orchestra performed exuberantly and flawlessly, and the audiences responded with standing ovations each night. It was truly an unforgettable experience; and, by the way, we were most fortunate to obtain a first-rate audio recording, and some really great video footage [that] really captures the profound and haunting essence of that unique experience. [To view the Smoke and Steel premiere video, visit YouTube here.]

S: Composers always have ideas about new pieces they want to work on. Is there a particular work you’d like to write? 

Galbraith: I’ve never composed an opera, so that’s something for me to pursue. My Passion According to St. Matthew is very much like an opera, but I’ve never worked with a librettist, so maybe someday the opportunity will present itself. I would also love to collaborate with a solo dancer. (In 2013, I composed a ballet, Whispers of Light, but of course had nothing to do with the choreography.)

S: Now that the concert world is opening up again and live performances with audiences are taking place, can you tell us about some current projects you’re working on? Are there any premieres that were postponed last season that are scheduled to premiere this season? Any plans to travel to hear some of them?

Galbraith: I have three premiere performances that were cancelled that are likely to be rescheduled for 2022: Epiphany and Meditation (a concerto for organ and concert band) to be performed by the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble; Transcendental Shifts (a double concerto for amplified Baroque flute and amplified viola) for the Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble, and Triptych (a three-part choral work for treble voices and chamber ensemble) which will be premiered by the Pittsburgh Girls Choir.

During the pandemic, I completed a commission to write Concerto for Woodwind Quintet and Wind Ensemble, [which will] be performed by the faculty and student ensemble at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2022, and, I recently finished a commission — Photons — for the All University Orchestra (AUO) at Carnegie Mellon, which will premiere next spring. I’m currently working on re-orchestrating my electronic work Behind the Eyes (which I mentioned earlier) for the Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Ensemble’s Spring 2022 concert. This version will include acoustic instruments from the ensemble performing in sync with my prerecorded audio.