Organ and Beyond: An Interview with Pamela Decker
Pamela Decker leads a busy dual life as concert organist and composer. Educated primarily at Stanford University (and in Germany on a Fulbright), Decker is now professor of organ and music theory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She is a widely commissioned composer, especially of organ music. In particular, Decker has been honored with many commissions for the conventions of the American Guild of Organists, and her music is in the repertoire of numerous recitalists. For the Loft record label, she has recorded three volumes of her own music on the wonderful 1963 Flentrop organ in St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle. The newly released Volume 3 contains seven of her recent organ pieces, ranging from a series of Advent-Christmas hymn preludes to several dramatic concert works. A previous interview by James Reel from the time of the release of the first two volumes is available in issue 29:2.
Q: Were performing and composing always equal interests for you?
A: Yes, I can trace the beginnings of my inclination to compose back to a time parallel with my earliest activities in learning to play. I always had those two things as twin desires. I have one very vivid early memory from when I was about 11 years old. I remember where we were living—my father was the government contract administrator for the Office of Naval Research, and we lived outside of Washington, D.C., in Falls Church, Virginia. We had a second floor apartment, and I remember sitting there working on a piece in a little manuscript book. I was using certain kinds of arpeggios and was quite serious indeed about writing. I have a vivid memory of exactly how the music looked on the page. I was trying to do something very lush and lyrical, and at one point was imitating some harp effects. It was a bit orchestral in nature. However, my official file of compositions begins with works from when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the late 1970s.
Q: Did you study composition formally at Stanford?
A: When I was an undergraduate, I was a music major with organ as my primary instrument. I also studied piano and harpsichord quite seriously. I had music theory professors in my undergraduate years, who were quite strong in the areas of new music, contemporary techniques, and the branches of theory that relate directly to composition as a discipline. Even my freshman music theory class contained composition assignments. When I received those assignments back, there were comments from the professor implying composing might well be something that I could do very seriously, if I were so inclined. Of course I had been so inclined, but in the years before college my teachers were most keenly interested in preparing me for organ performance competitions. I had my first mostly memorized recital at age 13, and so the focus was really on performing.
The first serious encouragement I received as a composer was in that freshman theory class. When I was a junior, I took a big 20th-century analysis course that met every day. The main thing we had to do was to produce five or so works that imitated the styles of repertoire composers; I remember at least Debussy, Schoenberg, and Messiaen. I received a wonderful reaction from the professor to my first piece, which was a piano prelude in the style of Debussy. Close on the heels of that experience, I began writing music for the organ, and I decided at that point it would be an equal focus with my performance activities. As a graduate student at Stanford, I obtained special permission from the committee to do a dual degree and fulfill requirements for both performance practice and composition.
Q: Have your teaching positions been considered primarily organ appointments?
A: When I was the organ professor at University of Pacific at Stockton, that was officially an “organ only” position. The administration there in the school of music expressed hope that eventually my job description could be expanded to include some duties in music theory, but for the four years I was there, it remained an organ job. However, the position I have now at the University of Arizona was advertised as a job for an organist/composer who would be a touring organ recitalist, would serve on the theory faculty teaching 16th- and 18th-century counterpoint, and would ideally be active to some degree as a composer. It is the perfect fit for me, and I am considered by the university to be active in three areas: organ/harpsichord, music theory, and composition.
Q: Your catalog is most heavily focused on organ works. Is this primarily because of your own performing?
A: Since I’ve been touring and performing as an organist for many years now, I’ve written quite a bit of material for my own programs and for friends. There have also been many commissions. However, I definitely do have a number of pieces that do not involve the organ—a harpsichord duo, a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra, a work for trumpet ensemble, and several others. These have all been commissioned and performed by excellent musicians. Some of my other works also involve organ, but in combination with other instruments or voices. There are several choral works and a work for flute and organ. One of my most major pieces is an extended multimovement work for mezzo-soprano and organ entitled
life aromatic with red-hot pizzazz
on a poem by Diane Ackerman.
Q: In many of your pieces, and not just the works on the new CD, you’ve incorporated elements from Spanish and South American music, particularly tangos. How did this begin?
A: When I was very young, I had an LP of the pianist Alicia de Larrocha performing the complete
suite of Isaac Albéniz. I fell passionately in love with those pieces, and I later worked on some of them at the piano. Hearing that repertoire was a real watershed moment for me. Much later, I discovered Ástor Piazzolla, whose work was also captivating. These influences seeped into my writing and became a major part of my language. I feel the tango is running in my blood at this point.
At the time that these influences really began to manifest themselves in my own music, I had a very well-timed piece of good fortune: I received a commission from the organist Janice Beck to write a work in tribute to Piazzolla. This was
Flores del Desierto,
a set of three concert tangos that has now gone on to have a very active concert life. It was required repertoire for the semi-final round of the National Young Artists Competition in Organ Playing (NYACOP) by the American Guild of Organists (AGO).
Q: Have you ever heard a performer compellingly interpret one of your pieces in a totally different way from how you yourself imagined or played it?
A: Yes, in fact that very work at the NYACOP semi-finals gave me that experience. I was invited out to Des Moines, Iowa, to hear the competitors perform. Bálint Karosi (who was then a student at Oberlin and has now gone on to a very distinguished career as an organist and composer) had obtained my
Decker Plays Decker, Volume 2
recording on which I played the work, and in every respect he played it exactly like I had. It was almost eerie, since his interpretation was so like my own that I almost imagined it was me playing it. However, another competitor, Robert Horton, took a very different approach. He made some adventurous and creative interpretive decisions that were quite different from the score. I spent a few measures being quite surprised, but then I ended up liking it. It was quirky and different, but very compelling on its own terms.
Q: What have been some of the other influences on your writing?
A: Besides the Spanish and South American music, I would say Stravinsky, Frank Martin, and Olivier Messiaen are my most important influences. I love Martin’s use of harmony, and I love Messiaen’s use of his own invented modes. I don’t use any of Messiaen’s original modes in my own music, but I do use very often modes of my own design.
Q: In terms of writing idiomatic music for your own instrument, what are some of the things you bear in mind?
A: I have several mandates for myself in writing organ music. No matter how difficult the piece may be, there can’t be anything in it that by practicing it would result in any sort of repetitive strain injury. I’ve never had RSI problems myself but have known people who have, and they are terrible things. I also always use a 56-note manual and 30-note pedal compass, so that people can take the pieces on tour to Europe without having to make any adaptations for the shorter keyboards. Also, every piece has to work on any organ, from a large five-manual romantic cathedral organ to a small two-manual mechanical action instrument. I often try and provide strategically placed grand pauses to allow for stop changes.
, which appears on your new CD, is an unusual work, in that it uses only right hand and pedal. How did this come about?
A: At the 2004 AGO national convention in Los Angeles, I encountered Mark Thallander, a wonderful organist, editor, and speaker who lost his left arm in a car accident. Mark has continued to remain an active performer, and I left the convention very inspired to write something for him. My specific musical inspiration came from all the left-hand piano pieces that were commissioned in the early 20th century by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Anybody who has ever heard the Ravel Concerto, to name just one famous example, knows how viable it is to have a marvelous piece of music with that kind of technical constraint. An organist also has the advantage of being able to play multiple pitches with the pedals.
Since Mark has made many arrangements of hymns, I thought I would write a work that was also based on hymns and could be used in either a church service or in recital. When I was making the demo recording for that piece before submitting it to my publisher, the engineer at University of Arizona had set up his control room backstage, and so he was not watching me as I played out in the hall. When I went back to hear the playback of a take, he looked up at me and said, “Wow—are you using three hands out there, or something?” When I then told him that I was not even using my left hand, he was absolutely astonished. I think when one hears a performance of that work, it isn’t really possible to tell that a hand is missing.
Q: The new CD contains a piece called
, inspired by a day in the life of a tiger. You also have a concerto for organ and orchestra of this same name. Are the two pieces connected?
A: Yes, they are. The concerto was a commission from the 2011 AGO Greensboro, North Carolina, regional convention. It was premiered by the orchestra of Eastern Music Festival under the direction of Gerard Schwarz. The
solo piece is related to the third and final movement of the concerto. It is not a verbatim realization, but some parts are directly transcribed. It has a different introduction and coda. It’s a bit like the situation with Messiaen’s
in terms of comparing the orchestral and organ versions.
Q: How did you come to choose the Flentrop organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral for your recordings of your music?
A: I first heard that organ while attending the 1985 AGO Seattle regional convention. I remember bathing in its fantastic sound. Although it is an instrument in the neobaroque style, I think it is remarkably versatile, and it handles many periods and genres very well. I made my second CD recording (
, 1989; Arkay) on that organ and have used it since for the Loft series of my own compositions as well as an Albany disc of contemporary music (Decker, Bielawa, and Albright).
Q: Several of the pieces on the new disc were written for or premiered by the excellent concert organist Douglas Cleveland? How did your relationship with him begin?
A: My friend Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra was a featured artist at an AGO regional convention in Appleton, Wisconsin, and was going to include my
Rebalos I: Pange Lingua
on her recital. This was during the period when I lived in Michigan with my late husband William Albright, and since it wasn’t too far, Pamela suggested that I come along with her. While there, I met Doug Cleveland for the first time. As a result of that, he began playing my piece
. In the summer of 1998 at the AGO national convention in Denver, Doug was featured as an emerging artist, and he included
on his program. He’s since played the piece all over the world.
(2007), which is included on the new CD, is dedicated to Doug because his fiancée (now wife) commissioned it as a gift for a major birthday. Then, in 2010 Doug had a recital on our series at the University of Arizona. I was composing
Jesu, dulcis memoria
at that time. The piece is basically a prelude and fugue, and I had the prelude completed and some of the fugue. I played what I had from my drafts for Doug, and he was incredibly enthusiastic. I had not yet decided on a dedication, and since he liked it so much he hinted that he’d love to have it for himself. He has also recorded that piece for Loft, on his new CD on the big E. M. Skinner organ at Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.
Q: What are some of your recent and upcoming projects?
A: I finished a piece in March 2012 for the University of Alabama’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of their Holtkamp organ. Faythe Freese, their professor of organ, commissioned a large-scale three movement work based on the work of the artist known simply as Nall. Faythe owns several of his works which I saw in 2011 when I stayed at her home while there to play a recital. If I hadn’t been a musician, I would have been a studio artist, so art remains a very big interest of mine, and I was quite captivated by his work. Faythe then became very excited by the idea of my writing something inspired by Nall’s art.
The art for the first movement is a violin decorated with a surrealist painting with a very striking eye painted on its back. I titled my movement “Augenmusik,” and the musical motives in it trace out almond eye shapes. The second movement is called “Lirio y amapola,” based on a painting of a lily and a poppy. The third movement is inspired by something that is made out of actual organ pipes. Nall made it after attending one of Faythe’s recitals, and it’s a cross made from metal organ pipes. So, my third movement is called “La croix de foi” (The cross of faith)—a little pun on Faythe’s name. It’s a “pedal to the metal” samba that begins with a dramatic pedal solo, and never lets up. It’s definitely a virtuosic movement, with its rather gymnastic pedal part.
I just completed a 2013 AGO regional convention commission for a duo piece (two organists: four hands, four feet) for Raymond and Elizabeth Chenault. It is based on the plainchant
Conditor alme siderum
. I’m now working on a solo organ commission for the AGO 2014 national convention in Boston. It will be a required repertoire piece for the NYACOP finals and will also be performed in recital by Renée Anne Louprette.
On This Day, Earth Shall Ring. El Tigre. La Pantera. Liturgical Suite. Ave maris stella. Jesu, Dulcis Memoria. Golden Gates
Pamela Decker (org)
LOFT LRCD 1130 (66:47)
This recording, entitled
Suite Dreams and Fantasies
, forms the third release in an ongoing “Decker Plays Decker” series. Included across the three volumes are most of Decker’s currently published organ compositions. Newly composed works and future projects will almost certainly lead to more volumes. The previous discs have received very positive mentions in
, with good reason: Decker is an excellent composer whose music is very rigorously constructed, but also possesses a great deal of surface appeal and makes attractive and wide-ranging use of the resources of the modern concert organ. Though she has written in a number of genres, the vast majority of Decker’s output is organ music, and it is clear why her pieces have entered the repertoire of many prominent concert artists.
As with much organ music, many of Decker’s pieces are based on preexisting material. The current volume contains two suites based on hymns, including the very unusual
, for right hand alone and pedal (composed for organist Mark Thallander who lost his left arm in a car accident.) There are also two works on plainchant themes, and the fantasy
(a tribute to the city of San Francisco), which quotes a Chinese folk melody. As discussed in the companion interview, Decker is heavily influenced by Spanish and Latin American music, though the pieces on this album show that in much less overt ways than works on the first two volumes.
Though very idiomatically written, Decker’s music is always difficult and is designed for professional concert organists. Since the works are outside the abilities of most organists in the U.S., these recordings are particularly valuable in allowing this fine music to be heard. She herself is a player of great flair and an ideal interpreter of her own music. The Flentrop organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle is justifiably famous, and is a particularly excellent instrument for contemporary music.