Locklair: Composers Corner Q & A

In this “Composers Corner” post, we’ll be talking with Dan Locklair — composer, performer, and educator. He shares his thoughts about composing, teaching, and performing during a pandemic, and fondly muses about writing for the voice and how he has “always relished the challenge and satisfaction of creating a piece of music in which a successful marriage of words and music occurs and becomes one.”

S: How has Covid-19 impacted your work?

Dan Locklair in his home studio with his canine companion Darby.

Locklair: Peculiarly. Truth is, when the stay-at-home order was first announced and continued throughout the spring, I didn’t mind it at all. Spending far more time at home in my spacious studio for composition, as well as online teaching of the remainder of my Wake Forest University spring semester courses from there, was very pleasant. Not only was it a very productive period for me compositionally, but for my wife Paula and dog Darby, and I could enjoy all meals together. However, the longer the lockdown has gone on, the more the “novel” aspect of the novel Coronavirus has become more surreal! For me, like everyone else, the un-normalcy of the outside world has only become more tiresome. As a result, in that spirit, I have to be honest and say that my creative enthusiasm just may now be a bit more muted.

S: Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?

Locklair: Although I am currently searching for a text for a large chorus and orchestra work, my composition work during the Covid-19 period has not involved any collaboration at all. I recently finished a Canadian commission for two trombones and piano, and I am now working on my third symphony.

S: What technology have you used to continue to do your work in a virtual world?

Locklair: I still compose with the most un-technological instrument the world has ever known, the pencil! Although I use Sibelius for music engraving, for me, the pencil is the closest to the heart and connects my creative world with a long tradition of composers. I like that! Technology for teaching is another matter, though. While I feel that online teaching of music courses is a poor substitute for in-person instruction, in a pandemic, you really have little choice but to use it. After testing several platforms, Zoom, with its better sound reproduction, was the best for me to fulfill the courses I teach in music theory, orchestration and composition. While I also encourage my composition students to compose with a pencil, in these online days, Sibelius has been a useful tool for teaching both composition and orchestration.

S: You’re also a performer. How has it been for you not being able to do that during this health crisis?

Locklair: I feel sad about that. Although I had no personal performances as an organist planned for this period, I had a major choral premiere and numerous other performances had to be postponed. Also postponed for me is a new British commercial recording of my Requiem and other choral works. This, along with most of the other postponed premieres and performances, will be rescheduled. The question is, when?

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

Locklair: I have always composed best in the morning hours and have continued that schedule during the Covid-19 period. During summer months, when there are no afternoon university classes to teach, that work often spills over into afternoons and evenings as well. I work both at a stand-up desk and a sit-down architect’s desk, as well as at my Steinway grand piano and, when creating an organ work, at my 3-manual Baldwin electronic organ. The combination has always served me well.

S: One of your works, The Peace May Be Exchanged, was performed at the funeral services of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as a part of President Obama’s Inauguration weekend festivities, at the Washington National Cathedral. Was this one of your proudest moments as a composer?

Locklair: It is always gratifying when a piece that you have created has high profile performances and is embraced by many performers. The Peace May Be Exchanged, from my organ suite Rubrics, is one such composition for me. It is also rewarding when you can still be around to see one of your pieces enter the repertoire and Rubrics has done that with its many recordings, broadcasts and widespread, international live performances… As for its fourth movement, The Peace May Be Exchanged, there is a quality of mystery about it, even to me, that defies objective explanation. In spite of its use in a number of events and services celebrating the end of life, it is hardly a funereal piece…The piece just seems to touch people at a deep level and instills a sense of peace. My only explanation for those qualities is the fact that it was inspired by my late father, Archie Greer Locklair. He was a true saint-of-a-man and we were very close. It was the memory of him that inspired the piece. In a time when we all seem to be searching for moments of peace, I am just glad that this composition offers that very essence to so many people.

S: You have a wide-ranging catalog including symphonic music, a ballet, an opera and numerous solo, chamber, vocal and choral compositions. Which medium are you most comfortable in and which do you see as your greatest challenge?

Locklair: Since 1982, I have been fortunate to have had a virtually uninterrupted stream of commissions. (What happens to that track-record after Convid-19 is anyone’s guess.) Through those commissions, I’ve been able to contribute in many areas and have thoroughly enjoyed composing across all genres. I enjoy the variety and feel “comfortable” with them all. I would be hard-pressed to name a favorite. Nevertheless, if very hard-pressed, I would have to say that I find a special satisfaction in setting words to music. The voice, of course, is our original instrument and it gives me great pleasure to write for it. My choral catalog is quite large and I have always relished the challenge and satisfaction of creating a piece of music in which a successful marriage of words and music occurs and becomes one.

S: Your 1995 commission Since Dawn is a brilliant piece of music. Did you work directly with Maya Angelou on this piece and what was that experience like?

Locklair: I have such warm memories of the creation and world premiere of Since Dawn (A Tone Poem for Narrator, Chorus and Orchestra based on Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”)! Maya Angelou and I were colleagues at Wake Forest University and it was to my good fortune that Maya always had good things to say about my music. For the 1996 Wake Forest University Year of the Arts, a large piece was needed and the university commissioned for me for the opening of that celebration. Maya’s reciting of “On the Pulse of Morning” at the Clinton inauguration had already stirred our nation and, thankfully for me, it had not been musically set. When my idea of casting the piece for narrator, chorus and orchestra was broached to Maya, she immediately gave it her blessing and also agreed to narrate the premiere with the Winston-Salem Symphony and the combined Wake Forest University choruses.

Since Dawn’s informal world premiere, though, remains one of the most memorable of all my premieres. Although Maya and I did not consult with one another while I was composing it (for, after all, the poem was complete and I was hardly going to alter it!), I promised Maya that, once the piece was finished, I would play it for her from the piano reduction. If she didn’t like it, I would revise it or, even, discard it. Of course, I hoped that the latter would not be the case, but that was my pledge to her! After I completed Since Dawn, the time came for her to hear it. Maya invited me to her home and, shortly after my arrival, we walked down to her den where her piano was located. She had two houseguests for the weekend and, not long after Maya and I sat down in her den, both guests joined us as she quickly introduced Valerie and Nickolas to me. With pending nerves…I was at the piano and Maya sat with her feet up in a comfortable chair behind me holding the new score that I had just presented to her. Val turned pages for me as I played away at the orchestral reduction and howled through various choral lines. Val, obviously a fine singer, joined in singing alto on the choral parts and Nick, her husband who stood at my back, alternated between tenor and bass. He, like his wife, was a fine vocalist. When narration appeared, Maya would also join me in speaking her own words. At the conclusion of this informal premiere, Maya, Val and Nick all applauded loudly, uttering many bravos! “Whew,” I thought to myself. Maya liked it! Moreover, she told me that she loved it! What a relief! It was a heart-warming response from three wonderful, totally at-ease people who had just helped welcome Since Dawn into the world. It was an experience that I will never forget, especially, when later, it finally occurred to me that Maya’s two houseguests were the famed husband and wife Motown duo, Ashford & Simpson! I don’t follow popular music closely, but even I knew their top chart hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough!” What a day and what memories! The world premiere was an extraordinary event before a packed audience and a spontaneous standing ovation that seemed to never end. The following day, I received flowers from Maya with a note that remains on a tabletop in my studio. It reads: “I recognize the consummate artist. For he provides space for other artists. I thank you. Joy, Maya Angelou.”

S: As a professional organist, what instrument has been your favorite to play on?

Locklair: Although, due to the increasing demands on my time now as both composer and professor, I don’t perform concerts as I once did. However, over the years I have been fortunate to perform on many splendid instruments. I have also had the good fortune of being offered commissions for new compositions for organs built by a variety of fine builders. But, my personal favorite among American pipe organ builders would be the instruments built by E.M. Skinner and the organs of the company that continued his work, the Æolian-Skinner Organ Company. These so-called American Classic organs are a balance of warmth, brightness and versatility. Placed in a room with live acoustics like the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City (on whose instrument I have been fortunate to play in recital), these organs are truly extraordinary to play and hear.

S: What would you say to other artists/musicians that are craving ensemble work and want to continue performing as part of their mental health during this pandemic?

Locklair: With these surreal days of Covid-19, the cliché “we are all in this together” could not be more true. For the performing arts, Covid-19 has been devastating and, in multiple ways, we are all effected by it. Yet, we all have to hang in there together, for eventually the crises will be put behind us! We just don’t know when. In light of that, we all must try our best to muster patience, stay positive and continue to create and perform (even if limited to our own homes). One thing that has made a difference for me is emulating how the great cellist, Pablo Casals, began his days. According to one of his biographers, he played keyboard music of J.S. Bach as a prelude and daily mediation to each new day. Doing this, in the world and spirit of Bach, I have found that the problems of our current world just seem to fade away, even if only for a while. That just may be what we all need during these surreal times.