Phoenix’s 2021-2022 season is called, Emerge: A Season of Premieres, as we wanted this year to represent various forms of new beginnings and to be able to commission several premieres from talented composers and introduce them to the Phoenix audience. One of those composers is Laura Hawley, whose piece O the Snow, we had the privilege of premiering at our December 11 in-person performance of “Lux.” We are sharing our interview with Hawley now in hopes that this inspires you and your household to tune into the digital broadcast of “Lux” beginning Saturday, December 18 and running through New Years Day 2022.
Tell us a little bit about yourself; introduce yourself to our audience.
I am originally from Ontario, and started my career in Ottawa. I’m now based in Edmonton, where I live with my partner (who is also a conductor) and work as a conductor and composer. I’m artistic director of Da Camera Singers, an auditioned mixed-voice chamber choir currently celebrating its 60th anniversary season, and conductor of ChandraTala, an auditioned upper-voices choir founded in 2019 as part of the Kokopelli Choir Association. I also teach composition at Concordia University. I mainly compose choral music, and mainly write for Canadian groups of all levels from young training choirs to amateur adult groups to professional ensembles. Currently I’m composer-in-residence with Halifax Camerata Singers, and am looking forward to travelling to Nova Scotia in March as part of this residency. When not engaged in musical things, I enjoy cooking delicious vegan things, spending time with my partner and his two daughters, our delightful dog and cat, and getting out doors for long walks, camping, cycling, or cross country skiing.
Tell us about the inspiration behind your composition, O the Snow. What’s the story?
For this piece, Nicholle was looking for something bright and dancing for a Christmas/winter program. I love this idea and totally relate to it – I really love the winter, and find Edmonton winters particularly wonderful! Despite this, it took a long time to find a text that felt just right, and I was chatting with my mother (who is also a conductor) about my ongoing text search, and within an hour, she had sent me this text. It was PERFECT. I’d actually already started sketching musical ideas for a completely different text, and the ideas mapped right onto this poem as if I’d been working with this one from the start. Phoenix is a special choir, and I had the opportunity to hear Phoenix perform in the Banff Choral Art program in 2020, so I had a good sense of what the ensemble can do, and thought it would be interesting to work in a double-choir texture with these really fun interlocking rhythms that, as a whole, would really sparkle. The vocal accompaniment texture actually began as a piano accompaniment I’d sketched out about a year ago and decided to ‘save for later’ – it was the sound I wanted for this text, so I reworked it for voices! The waltz section that comes at the end was also a sketch I’d done in the summer to ‘save for later.’ Sketching ideas is an important part of my compositional practice, and gives me a little library of ideas I can go to when I receive a text, to see if I’ve got something worked out already that captures a certain texture or mood.
What pleases you the most about the piece now that it’s complete?
Great question! What pleases me most about this is that I really enjoy singing it, myself! I think the accompanying lines are really fun and satisfying to put together (although not for the feint of heart!), and the melody lines feel really great to soar through. I also really enjoy conducting it – the changing and hybrid meters in the middle section feel somehow more free than they would have if they plodded along in 4/4 all the way through. There’s a pattern to it, but it’s unique, dancing, and changing, like a snowflake. I think when the final waltz section arrives, the culmination of that moment feels really freeing and lovely.
What do you hope the audience will experience while listening to O the Snow?
I always hope that in my piece there is something that every audience member relates to or feels curious about. If my piece can spark someone’s imagination and give them an experience that is all their own, that’s great, and I think that’s where the art lives, in that connection and exchange between composer, performer, and listener.
Obviously Phoenix had the privilege of premiering your piece on Dec. 11. (and again, during our digital concert Dec. 18-Jan. 1). What will you be listening for during the premiere performance? What do you look most forward to hearing it performed for the first time?
Listening to a premiere is always kind of a weird experience for me, like I can’t actually hear it properly. I have to remember to use my imagination to pretend I am NOT the composer of this work and I’m hearing someone else’s piece for the first time, otherwise, it’s hard to actually hear it through the version in my head I’ve been living so closely with. In my mind, this piece has a few changing moods to it, and a lightness, and requires careful attention to balance, timbre, blend, and articulation, so I know I’ll be hearing all of those things. On top of all of that, I really hope that the choir has a lot of fun singing it, and that the fun is transmitted to the audience.
A fun question that we’re asking everyone this time of year: what’s your favourite holiday carol and/or holiday tradition?
My favourite Christmas carol is the Wexford Carol. I arranged it for Elektra Women’s Choir in 2017 as part of a trilogy of carols, and their recording is really stunning. As for tradition…it’s hard to choose a favourite! I think decorating the Christmas tree is always really special and carving out time for that is a particular priority. This year, I’m flying back to Ontario to see my family and friends for the first time in two years, so that’s going to be a highlight. Last year, I wrote some Christmas carol duets for two mezzo-sopranos so that my mom and I could sing duets together over zoom, taking turns being on mute. So I’m definitely looking forward to singing those together in person!
Purchase tickets to Lux Online (available for streaming Dec. 18 – Jan 1., 2022)