I’ve been scribbling down little bits of music ever since I started piano lessons as a teen, but I never thought of myself as a composer. Composers were giants in my world, like Old Testament prophets. I loved them, the more gigantic the better.
Of the current crop, I loved Lutoslawski, and Ligeti and Eliot Carter and a whole host of American composers whose work I played with great affection. But I could never imagine joining their ranks. My own thinking was too simple, too straightforward.
I was sitting next to one of those composers one night in St. Paul — Joan Tower. We were listening to the premiere of a piece she’d written for Sharon Isbin. On the way out of the hall I told Joan how much I’d admired the way she’d handled the gear shifts. “Gear shifts — ”, she replied . “McGlaughlin, what’s wrong with you? You think like a composer.”A short time later I recorded radio shows with a pair of great singers, about a month apart. Tom Hampson and Sanford Sylvan showed up with programs of wonderful American music and I thought to myself as I sat turning pages for them in Studio M, “Well, you know, I could try my hand at something like that.
I’d been reading E. E. Cummings (and yes, he did use capital letters when he felt like it, sort of for ornamentation), poems about the seasons and the passing of time and I got to thinking of Kevin Oldham, a young composer who had died just after we’d recorded his Piano Concerto in Kansas City. “Kevin didn’t have enough springs,” I thought.
And so I made Three Dreams and a Question, Choral Songs on E.E. Cummings in Kevin’s memory. Now came the scary part — showing them to other people. I bucked up my courage and thought. “I’ll program them with the Kansas City Symphony. I’m the Music Director. I can get away with doing that. Once, at least.”
To my huge surprise, folks liked the music — singers, players, the audience, even our grumpy critic. The orchestra manager came up to me after the final performance and said, “Bill, write more.” And so I have.
I got a big break with Continental Harmony, a brainchild of the NEA and the Composers Forum. They thought each of the fifty states should have a brand new piece to celebrate the Millenium in 2000. I was chosen to write the piece for Montana — a work for eight hundred singers and orchestra. I burned up the poetry section of the Kansas City Library that summer searching for a text and finally came back to where I’d started. Walt Whitman’s Dream premiered in Missoula in July of 2000.
Just around that time my old friend Garrison Keillor asked for an orchestra piece. He’d like some music to help him tell a story (he doesn’t need any help, obviously) and sing a tune or two. The result was Surveying Lake Wobegon, which premiered at the Ravinia Festival in September of 2000. Garrison has since played that piece all over the world under his preferred title — The Aunt Eva Suite.
And so it’s gone. The latest effort is Brave New World honoring the 100th Anniversary of statehood for New Mexico.
Perhaps Joan Tower was right when she told me I think like a composer. Some of the time, anyway.