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.
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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.

  • Composition

  • Audio

Old American Songs (mostly) for G.K.

  • Baritone and full orchestra (5/13/08 — Symphony Hall, Boston Pops, Garrison Keillor)

The Heart’s Light

  • Full orchestra (3/30/08 — Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 4/2/08 — Carnegie Hall, NYC, Temple University Orchestra, Luis Biava)


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Premiered at Wolf Trap, February 22, 2008

My long time broadcast partner in the radio series Center Stage from Wolftrap, Rich Kleinfeldt is also the tenor sax player with the Washington Saxophone Quartet, whose playing is known broadly from their hip harmonizations of NPR’s All Things Considered theme.

After four years of stalling I finally coughed up a piece for the Quartet, which they were kind enough to play beautifully.

The three movements, played without pause are:

  1. Antique Dance
  2. Ground Round
  3. Fast and Loose

Remembering Icarus

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Remembering Icarus was commissioned in 2005 by KRWG, a public radio station in Las Cruces, New Mexico in remembrance of its founder, Ralph Willis Goddard, a pioneer in broadcasting who was killed in an electrical accident at the fledgling station in 1929.

I’ve always liked the myth of Icarus but the classical tellings of the story right down to Ovid always struck me as reductive. The story’s told as a precautionary lecture — don’t go too far from home, dear, look both ways, remember to be polite. It’s all good advice but we know it backwards by the time we’re ten. And sometimes we even remember to follow the good advice.

But the part about Icarus that I really like is the imagination —  we all walk around this planet staring at our feet. I really love the moment when for some reason, we let our glance rise. And continue to rise, all the way to the sky, maybe following a lark. And then, the courage to imagine ourselves up there. Flying. Imagining what we could do if we let ourselves. That’s what’s precious.

So of course, I couldn’t let Icarus fall at the end. He thinks about coming back to earth. After all, how sad it would be to leave this beautiful planet, to turn from our family and friends. But — how sad would it be to give up flying. So, the cello lands on a C# for a little while and sighs. And then the others start to sigh with him. And pretty soon, it’s the old line. Forgive me while I disappear. Off into the blue. Ralph Willis station is still flying, carrying its signal across the southwest seventy five years after he tended the knobs at the station.

The Bells of St. Ferdinand


  • Trio for Violin, Horn, Piano (8/2/03 — Bennington, VT)

Three by Six

  • Oboe, clarinet, violin, violas, double bass (7/30/03 — Bennington, VT)

Three Sketches for Three Winds (1)

Three Sketches for Three Winds (2)

Three Sketches for Three Winds (3)


  • Full orchestra (3/17/02 — Minneapolis, MN, Minneapolis Civic Orchestra)

Carol Antiqua

  • Ensemble of neglected instruments (12/23/00 — A Prairie Home Companion, Town Hall, New York)

Surveying Lake Wobegon

  • Narrator and full orchestra (9/3/00 — Ravinia Festival)

Walt Whitman’s Dream

Bela’s Bounce

Three Mile Table

Aaron’s Horizons

Three Dreams and a Question

Crooked Timber

  • Full orchestra (1/23/98 — Kansas City, MO, KCSO)

Solstice: A Fantasy on Old English Carols

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