Dr. Deon Nielsen Price on Creating the Music for James Morehead’s “gallery” [INTERVIEW]

SAN FRANCISCO, CA–In the latest episode of The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, James Morehead (Poet Laureate – Dublin, CA) and Deon Nielsen Price (composer, educator and pianist), discuss their collaboration on “gallery” for baritone and piano, based on Morehead’s poem of the same name. “gallery” will be premiered at The Presidio Chapel as part of the Sunday Concerts series (event details) on Sunday Nov 14, 2021 – 4pm, performed by Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and pianist Paula Fan. Excerpts from the interview are included below. The full interview is available on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, streaming on all major podcast platforms.

James Morehead: What was your earliest memory of performing music?

Dr. Deon Price: “I started out as a vocal soloist. I started very young child and by the time I was two I could sing 25 songs. And then by the time I was three to seven, I was singing solos everywhere. When I was in school, kindergarten through second grade, I remember standing up in the middle of the multi-purpose room with all the students sitting around me on the floor singing a solo: Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, Silent Night, and so on; those are my earliest memories.”

James: Did you always want to compose music or did an interest in composition come later in life?

Deon: “It came when I was a teenager. The first thing I composed was a group project for the senior day production when we graduated from high school. We wrote a song called Science, and it was fantastic. Someone suggested to me that I should become a composer. I thought about it, but it wasn’t until I was in Europe in the mid-1950s, this was after the war and my husband and I had just got married, that I thought about it again.

“We spent a few years in Heidelberg, Germany. We helped sponsor a family from Eastern Europe, this was when the Soviets controlled East Germany, and they came to West Germany. Their son was riding a bicycle on the Autobahn, the big highway where the cars go 200 miles an hour. He was used to East Germany and didn’t understand how fast the cars went, I guess, because he was hit and killed. The tragedy was so awful, they had come from East Germany for freedom, and he was immediately killed. It was very traumatic and I wrote music just for the piano, and I played it for the family. I found that I could express myself better in music than in words.”

Dr. Deon Nielsen Price

James: When I’m writing poetry, I almost always start by just writing and not thinking about the form until later, after getting images, sounds, rhythms and ideas on the page. Is composing music similar? At what point does the form of the composition take shape?

Deon: “It begins with a feeling, a message, a musical idea, and you don’t know what you’re going to do with that musical idea. It might be a rhythm, it might be a melody; I don’t know where it comes from. Then you take that idea and you see where it’s going to lead you, and then that leads to the form as you develop and make more out of the original idea.

“It’s different with a song, because with a song the words dictate the music. They dictate the rhythms, they dictate the style, the tempo; the words are the kernel that I work with.”

James: What was it about my poem “gallery” that convinced you there was music to be created around the words?

Deon: “There are many levels. First, I saw the poem on the page, with each verse you add a line. There is an expansion, so that form hit me first. Then I started looking at the words, the individual words. I like to set music to words that don’t have too many syllables, that have lots of long vowels in them, because they make beautiful music. I saw that’s the way your words are, they’re very direct. Some poetry is so complete in itself that I don’t think music would add anything to it.

“I was thinking of a poem from your book ‘canvas’, your poem ‘etchings’, it begins like this: ’i start writing perched waist-deep on a bahamian sand bar / tracing letters in azure-blue surf / the letters momentary wisps on an endless swelling tide’. I could not set that as a song. However, I might write an instrumental piece, for instruments without words, and perhaps you read the poem before the music starts. Those words are so complete in themselves.

“The first level was the visual form on the page, and the second level was the individual words, the phrases, their rhythms. The other thing I liked was that you put it all in the first person. You have this person walking through the gallery. but it’s all ‘I’ and that pulled me right into the emotions of the story.

“When I got to the end, which is a wonderful surprise and I don’t want to talk specifically because I don’t want this to spoil the mystery, the ending really captured me. I could hear the music for each of these sections. Each of the verses are in a different room in the gallery, and they seem to want a different style of music. We start with innocence, someone just walking by, seeing this gallery, maybe I’m a tourist and I decide, well, let’s see what the bronze markers say. I write this in triplets and a very light, traditional style of music.

“Then you decide, ‘I think I’ll go in’ and so it goes to the first room. I wrote that as a march because I’ve decided to take this tour. Each verse suggested a different style of rhythm, tempo, even the chords, so in this song there are several different styles of music.”

James: It’s an incredible honor to hear you break down the poem and also pick up on some of the things that made it so challenging to write, one of the most challenging poems I’ve ever written.

Deon: “I appreciate that and it made it easier for me. And when I got to the end I realized there was a deeper meaning to the story. Your intense work made each of those levels clear, made a wonderful work of art, and made my job easier. I knew what I wanted to do as soon as I read the poem.”

James: When writing poetry, I recite the poem out loud as part of the editing process. When composing music for multiple performers, and for instruments that you don’t personally play, how do you ensure the music is appropriate for each instrument – not just the sound and emotion of the instrument, but also the performance challenges unique to each instrument? I ask that because I played oboe for 8 years when I was a teenager, taking after my mother who is an accomplished oboist and composer. Many notes on the oboe are very tricky to play quickly. Do you think about those instrument-specific challenges?

Deon: “Absolutely, they call that orchestration. I’m a pianist and I’ve worked with a lot of instrumentalists and a lot of singers as an accompanist collaborator, and they often wanted me to write music for them. They would sometimes give me suggestions, and so I kept learning all the idiosyncrasies of different voices and different instruments. I thought to myself, it’s really good for me to write just for piano and violin, or a soprano and piano, just one instrument at a time. Then, when I write for a whole orchestra, I will have a good sense of what each instrument can do in certain ranges.”

James: The premiere for “gallery” on November 14 is part of a free concert series you’ve organized at the Presidio Chapel, a spectacular location with beautiful acoustics, and spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco National Cemetery. Share a bit more about the concert series and what people can expect.

Deon: “We love to have people come in person. We do them as a service to the community and we’d built up a nice audience and then the pandemic hit. We have just completed 15 concerts online, and that has spread our audience geographically, and our artists geographically. We had one concert that came to us from Japan, another one from Boston, and that was really quite exciting. We had, overall, successful productions.

“We’re back in person in the Chapel, but we’re also streaming the concerts. We have people who come from all over who would like to perform at these concerts. The next one in November features Jeremy Huw Williams, who is a world-class baritone. He’s on tour in California in November, and he’ll be singing Welsh and American composers, and at least two of the poets are going to be present. We’re going to ask you to read ‘gallery’. This will be the first time that you and I will hear the song performed.”

“gallery” World Premiere at the Presidio Chapel
“dissolving in the gallery” in Beyond Words Literary Magazine (March 2022)

Deon Nielsen Price is an American composer, educator and pianist. Dr. Price has degrees with honors from Brigham Young University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California. Dr. Price has composed more than 200 works for soloists, ensembles, bands, orchestras, and choirs, and choir with orchestra, and film. As a pianist, she has performed throughout the Americas, Asia and Europe. Dr. Price is an advocate for new music and living composers, on the boards of the International Alliance for Women in Music and the National Association of Composers, USA. As educator, Dr. Price has taught music theory, history and composition at CSU Northridge; UC Santa Barbara, USC and more. I could fill the podcast sharing her accomplishments, so I encourage you to read more about Dr. Price.

Interested in appearing on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast? Submit your poetry for consideration: https://viewlesswings.submittable.com/.

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