A Chat with Composer Maureen Gregory Print E-mail
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Written by Maria Nockin   
Tuesday, 02 April 2013

A Chat with Composer Maureen Gregory

When I interviewed Maureen Gregory, she was at her home in Rhinebeck, New York, a beautiful small town in the Hudson River Valley that has attracted many landscape painters over the years. She told me that she and her husband originally moved there “temporarily” when he was recovering from cancer treatments, more than five years ago. At this time, she and her two cats, Romeo and Zsa-Zsa, were relaxing in the “music room” at the front of the house. She says they like to watch while she works on her compositions.

Q: When did you first get interested in music?

A: My parents acquired a piano when I was a small child. According to family lore, most of which was probably fabricated by my mom, I began playing it by ear when I was about five years old. I am sure that my mother immediately thought to herself, “She’s a prodigy!” and signed me up for lessons. She was a stickler for formal training. It couldn’t be pop music. It had to be classical. My parents both loved to sing. Broadway musicals were always on the record player. My dad loved opera. It was understood in our family that his Saturday afternoons were dedicated to chores around the house while listening to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. On long car trips, my mom would keep herself awake at the wheel by teaching us songs from her parent’s day such as K-K-K-Katy, A Bicycle Built for Two, etc. Mom loved to break into harmony and add embellishments. She also wanted us to be exposed to the best of the best. In the summer, she took us to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet. We also attended Syracuse Symphony performances along with Syracuse University and Le Moyne College basketball games.

She was a benevolent version of a “Tiger Mom” when we were growing up. If we expressed an interest in music, dance, theater, or art lessons, she made that happen for us. There was a hitch, however. If we signed on for lessons of any kind, we were expected to apply ourselves and to practice. Consequently, at any given time in our home, you could hear voice, guitar, piano, French horn, drums, violin, or trumpet practice. This was in addition to the record player, the tape recorder, the kazoo, the recorder, the dinner bell, and whatever else we could get our hands on. I gravitated to the piano and never looked back. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t interested in classical music. There was a bust of Bach on our family piano, which sat right next to the metronome. I had a small medallion with Beethoven on it and a drawing of Mozart that I liked. Those guys were real to me. I was as fascinated by them as I was by my bicycle, my skates, my dolls, and my sewing projects.

Q: Where did you study when you became serious about music as a career?

A: I went to the Crane School of Music. I began college as a piano performance major and I graduated as a music history major. Those four years were so enlightening. In my first semester the freshman chorus sang the Mozart Requiem. A couple of semesters later, I sang in a rock opera called Cycles that was composed by a fellow student. In between I spent time in the practice room, in the dance studio, in the theater, playing in the Adirondack Mountains, visiting Montreal and Ottawa, working, and hanging out with friends. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Q: Who were your most important teachers?

A: When I was young my two best teachers were my high school math teacher, Tom La Rochelle, and my piano professor at Crane, Frank Iogha. Those two men taught me so much more than technique. They taught me to believe in myself, to try to be the best version of myself that I could be, and to dream of bigger things. They believed in the person that they thought I could become. Those kinds of life lessons are just invaluable. Currently, I am lucky to be working with James Bagwell, the conductor of the Bard Symphonic Chorus, and Ilka LoMonaco, a voice teacher at Bard. They are both very gifted musicians.

Q: What made you choose music as a vocation?

A: Playing the piano is like breathing to me. I have to play every day. Music chose me. As a vocation, it turned out to be a little trickier. I am living my life in sonata form. After Crane, I attended graduate school in dance, danced with a small company, and supported myself by accompanying dance classes. During that time I composed music for dancers. It was a time of utter austerity. I just couldn’t figure out how to make enough money to live in the style to which I aspired. So, I went to business school and became a brand manager. That was the “B” theme period of my life. After retiring from my business career I decided to dedicate more time to music composition again. My life was back to its “A” theme. It’s better the second time around, I can tell you that.

Q: What kinds of music do you listen to now?

A: Recently, my favorite place to listen to music is at the home of my friend Gary Schiro, who is the director of the Hudson Opera House. He has the most amazing play lists that include everything from Pat Metheny to Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Dave Brubeck, K.D. Lang, and on and on. All are my favorites. I love to listen to music in my car. At the moment, I’m alternating the new Mumford and Sons album, Babel , with the Beethoven Mass in C. I’m generally singing along. I’m sure I look very silly at the stoplights, especially during the “Amen” sections in the Beethoven. There are certain artists who are like Jane Austen novels to me. I find myself returning to them for sheer pleasure. I have always loved Pat Metheny. He and Lyle Mays do such wonderful fusion work. I am a huge fan of Keith Jarrett. His pieces are like painterly landscapes. I worship Bill Evans. I listen to Chris Botti, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett for their melodic lines, intonation, and phrasing. Recently I heard a NYC group called Transition. They play a fusion of Middle Eastern music and jazz and they have tight, tight melodic lines combined with wonderful, driving percussion. Great stuff. I feel the same way about old recordings of the Jacques Louissier Trio.

I listen to classical vocal music, because I am a lover of tonal melody. There are lessons to be learned from listening to the way a composer writes the emotion of the words into the music. Mozart and Verdi arias are favorites at the moment. When I listen to voice, I’m also listening to the underlying harmonics. Chord progressions that surprise and challenge me are a delight to my ear. It’s like turning a corner and finding a brand new room. Among classical composers of piano music, it’s hard to choose favorites. Bach and Chopin are on my piano at the moment. The most riveting musical experience for me, one that I have never forgotten, was seeing Bill Evans in a tiny bar at Delaware Water Gap. At the time I was recording at WHYY Public Radio in Philadelphia, and one of the producers knew Evans was going to play at that remote location. I am aware that he had demons in his life, but I can tell you he played like a dream. The melodies absolutely sang, and the underlying harmonics were surprising, lilting, sometimes downright haunting, and stripped to their essence. It was the first time that I heard a musician play in such a way that there was not one extraneous note. It was as if he listened as he played, and he gave equal weight to the listening as well as the playing. I don’t think I breathed fully once. I was mesmerized. The experience is a wellspring of inspiration for me still. It taught me in one single evening that listening is essential, that the harmonics can affect mood tremendously, and that the piano can sing. Those ideas inform every piece I compose.

Q: What is most helpful in starting a career as a composer?

A: The young musicians I meet today are extraordinary. They are skilled in multiple genres and they play multiple instruments. They compose, they conduct, and they are founders of contemporary music ensembles, small orchestral ensembles, and a cappella and shape note singing groups. Going forward, however, they will face the same challenges my generation has faced. The fact is that outside of the academic incubator or mom and dad’s garage, the econometrics of the music industry are extraordinarily complex. I would first offer the same advice that Charles Ives’s parents must have given him many, many years ago, e.g., “Get a day job,” and “Have a skill you can fall back upon.” That sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? As does the idea that one should probably spend a great deal of time studying music theory, music history, world music, choral music, all music genres, instrumentation and computers, sight singing, tonal and atonal music, and on and on. Developing one’s own musical ear through complete musical immersion is probably the best way to start developing one’s own musical voice, whether it’s on YouTube, playing with a group, or in music school.

Q: How do you go about composing?

A: I once heard Philip Glass say that composing is like an underground river. He isn’t sure where it’s coming from and he isn’t sure where it’s going. He just knows that it’s his job to listen. That’s exactly how it feels to me. It’s a peculiar process, like trying to capture smoke in a box. I constantly sketch ideas. I am always hearing little rhythmic and harmonic riffs and fragments of melody in my head, and I write them down. Consequently, I have musical ideas in notebooks all over the place. At other times, an entire piece arrives in my head, almost fully formed. It’s always a bit of a feverish experience. It’s weird, exciting, and extremely visceral. The music is in my head, yes, but it also seems to be in my fingers. I see the chordal progressions on the keyboard. I had exactly that experience when I began to compose Waltzes for a Summer Night. I was visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. When the tour guide took us into the main gathering room where Jefferson and his family spent their musical evenings, I began to hear waltzes in my head. It all happened so fast that I felt like a medium for the next five weeks. I hear my musical ideas in two predominantly different ways: either linear melodies, or washes of sound, harmonics, and arpeggiated chords. Those are the two things that I listen for every day.

Q: Do you have a particular affection for waltzes and other dance music?

A: I used to dance and, once upon a time, some of my friends were dancers. I think dance forms will always intrigue me. I have a particular affection for waltzes because I love the three-quarter time signature. However, I’m not writing waltzes at the moment. I have just begun to write lullabies. That is a one hundred eighty-degree turn from dance music! My producer, John Wager, said to me, “Lullabies? Really? Are you sure you want to put people to sleep?” Having said that, wouldn’t you know? I just can’t stay away from three-quarter time. One of my new lullabies is definitely going to be a very sleepy waltz.

Q: Are you planning any new recordings?

A: Because I have recorded and released five albums since 2008, I’m trying to slow myself down a bit. I am still deciding what to do with 12 new pieces I’ve written. Their working title is Mysteries . I just did a recording session in which I laid down 12 new tracks of the new pieces I have written. I haven’t even listened to them yet. When I huddle with my producer, we’ll decide the right time to release the work.

Q: What can a reader find on your website?

A: My website (maureengregory.com) includes clips of my music, my biography, information about each of the five albums I’ve released thus far, links to iTunes and CDBaby, and contact information. My designer, Paul Sickles of The American Classics, really “gets” me. We consciously tried to create a site that is quietly lovely, lyrical, and simple in feel. We want it to be a reflection of my music. I encourage readers to contact me!

Q: Do you use much modern technology in your career?

A: No, I am as old-fashioned as it gets. I am in love with the sound of an acoustic piano and I enjoy the process of writing music. I won’t rule out using an electronic keyboard and one of the computer programs like Sibelius at some point in the future, particularly if I’m traveling with my husband. I often whine at him, why did it have to be the piano? Why could I not have fallen in love with the flute or the guitar? Something portable? Life would be so much easier! I should mention that I record on a gorgeous, circa 1911 Steinway piano at Galileo Media Arts in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. That piano is the greatest acoustical love affair of my life. No electronic keyboard could match that sound, touch, and feel. I like to be as pure as possible: I play, and I am recorded. That’s it. I like to write music on paper and read music on paper. I still read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times on paper, too, by the way. Times are changing though. I attended a vocal master class recently where one of the singers kept flicking her music stand. It took me a few beats to realize she was turning pages on an electronic score. For the record, her accompanist was working from a paper score.

Q: How do you see the future of classical music?

A: I love this question! I see a healthy future for the classical music repertoire and contemporary additions to it. I am with music students all the time because I sing with the Bard Symphonic Chorus. I am dazzled by their love for, their respect for, and their intense dedication to classical music. Given our culture’s current predilection for screens and electronic gadgets, I do think music, the music industry, and all visual and performing arts will continue to mash up, fragment, fuse, and morph in astonishing ways. I think of this process as mostly a good thing. I believe we will all continue to pay homage to the great classical composers, even if it’s sometimes by using Beethoven as our ring tone. I worry, however, about the future of symphony orchestras. Our young people today have frenetic lifestyles. They are always doing something. When they stop to listen, it’s in sound bites and highly fragmented segments. The grand and glorious arc of a large orchestral work, which is inherently not a visual piece of art, is not an easy fit with their receptors. I am concerned that the children of tomorrow won’t have an opportunity to hear a timpani drum in a symphony concert. They won’t know what an oboe or a bassoon looks like. This bothers me a lot.

Q: Do you manage to have much of a private life?

A: I have a rich and wonderful private life and I feel very blessed by that. I come from an enormous family. We’re a tribe, really. There are west coasters, east coasters, and a London outpost. The e-mail correspondence alone is like chaos theory. My counterpoint to that is to find moments of quiet reflection. I love my time alone. I love how it feeds my soul and allows me to process ideas at my own pace. My husband is a pilot and a stage four cancer survivor. He retired from commercial aviation and currently flies antique planes in the shows at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. He’s made of the right stuff. He’s also extremely intelligent, an excellent judge of character, and he doesn’t interrupt me when I’m in the zone. He’s a keeper. He and I share our lives with Romeo and Zsa-Zsa. They are both formerly feral cats and are, therefore, certifiably insane. They enjoy my work when I’m composing and practicing. They lounge on the day bed and the rug, and even join me on the piano bench sometimes. However, they clear the room faster than a speeding bullet when I sing. They are obviously highly musical and extremely intelligent cats.

Q: Do you have a humorous story for us?

A: I once attended a band concert where three tuba players in the back were horsing around during the performance. I’m sure you know where this is going, or should I say, where those three guys were going. They fell off the risers. With no injuries, they literally bounced back up. Their sheepish looks were priceless, and we all had a totally excellent time.

M. GREGORY Waltzing with Shadows. Almost a Waltz. Take Me Dancing. Summer Waltz. Unexpected Waltz. Monticello Waltz. Tiny Waltz. Haunted Waltz. The Lover’s Waltz. Mystery Waltz. The Broken Waltz. Yesterday’s Waltz Maureen Gregory (pn) RIVERSCAPE MUSIC LLC rvscmwg05201201 Available at maureengregory.com (30:06)

Maureen Gregory is a rather reclusive artist who seems to want her music to do all the talking for her. It’s incredibly melodic and it definitely does put her best foot forward. I wish she had told us a little more of her background and her thinking in the form of a booklet with her disc, but she must have wanted us to make our own mental pictures as we listen to her lovely music. She studied with Frank Iogha, a member of the piano faculty and head teacher at the Crane School of Music, part of the State University of New York at Potsdam. She has been composing music ever since and she can still be found in that part of the state. On her website, she tells us that she loves to work alone at the piano, and that many of her pieces come into her head almost fully formed. She thinks of the music as coming through her rather than from her labors. Like many contemporary composers, she listens to a wide range of music. Among her favorites are music by: Pat Metheny, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, the Dave Matthews Band, Frank Sinatra, as well as Mozart and Chopin. I can hear the references to Chopin and possibly Schubert on this recording.

She has a definite talent for writing catchy melodies that set you humming her waltzes, even if you don’t dance. The first piece, Waltzing with Shadows, creates a mental picture of shadowy figures whirling smoothly and gracefully past the window of a dimly lit room. The onlooker cannot tell who they are and maybe they want it that way. Almost a Waltz is a charming composition that seems to have a mind of its own at times, but always returns to answer the strong chords that bring it to order. Could Take Me Dancing be a suggestion made by a gentleman to his lady? I can see this piece accompanying tea dancers in a rather nostalgic ballroom. The robust Summer Waltz must take place in a breeze-filled summer salon. I can see gentlemen in white jackets and ladies with deep décolletage above billowing chiffon skirts. Unexpected Waltz doesn’t really take anyone by surprise, but it’s fun to listen to. Monticello is a city in upstate New York, so its waltz fits into Maureen Gregory’s biography. Could Tiny Waltz actually be a dance with a small child? Perhaps it is baby’s first dance. My favorite piece on this disc is Haunted Waltz because of its minor key and unusual harmonies that make the listener think of ghostly apparitions. Mystery Waltz is rather similar but does not have quite as much of an edge, while Lover’s Waltz might be for a couple who are renewing their vows after 20 years. It’s an ode to married love. Broken Waltz also has a contemporary feel, but the final Yesterday’s Waltz was made for dreaming of past glories on a rainy evening. Maureen Gregory has written a group of waltzes that could well be ballet music. I would love to see these pieces danced. Best of all, she plays them with consummate skill and, most importantly, a large helping of love. The sound is clear, too, so I recommend this disc to lovers of the waltz. Maria Nockin

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 02 April 2013 )
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