Meeting with the Remarkable Mr. Mawby

Sometimes you can be lucky as an artist and meet someone very special early in your career whose influence remains with you throughout your life.

Colin Mawby and I first crossed paths in 1988 when I auditioned for the RTÉ Chamber Choir, a sixteen voice choir that offered a bursary to young classical singers and a professional environment in which to develop. By that stage my own fledgeling group, Anúna, was a year old. I didn’t think I had a hope of getting in, but I did. Colin was not shy about telling me that it wasn’t my singing that got me the place, rather it was my compositional aspirations. He believed that I would gain enormously from being part of an ensemble such as this.

I did in so many ways.

We met last March in London. Between a selection of inspired contemporary Indian dishes at the Lotus Restaurant of Leicester Square, and a very pleasant bottle of wine, we took up from exactly the point where we had left off last time we met, an unbelievable twenty four years earlier. Today Colin is very active as a composer, producing new work on a daily basis with an enviable schedule of commissions and performances. He divides his time between London and Dublin and despite the odd line and grey hair he appears to be pretty much the same as he was last time I met him almost quarter of a century ago.

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Michael McGlynn & Colin Mawby March 2016, London

He says the same things about choral music now as he did then. I wish I had been able to remain silent for long enough to allow his words to sink in so long ago, but it is the nature of young people that they ignore good advice. Experience is a cruel teacher, but it does help on the journey when you know that someone else has travelled that lonely road before you.

There is much written about Colin and his music. A superficial glance at his C.V. and a brief listen to his substantial choral output indicate immediately that he is a serious and gifted writer with a very individual harmonic language coupled with a sincere and deep faith. I am very lucky to have experienced his music with his guiding hand present. The passion he very obviously felt for the work he created was evident and often showed up our own lack of engagement with the process of making it for him. This may all sound very serious but working with Colin veered from profundity to absurdity within a single session. His sense of wicked humour constantly broke through even the most sublime choral moments.

Over the years my ideas about what a choir is have changed dramatically. In fact, many of the theories I now carry all over the world in workshops and presentations about the art of choral singing were formulated while I watched him work. Before, and after, my time with the RTÉ Chamber Choir I had worked with a number of other conductors. He was the first one that challenged my perception of what the relationship between the singer and the conductor should be. He did not give basic guidance. You were the instrument and as far as he was concerned you were in charge of what you did with it, and crucially, you were responsible for the musical impulse behind your individual expression. His job was to attempt to mould our collective efforts into a coherent artistic statement. 

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The RTÉ Chamber Choir, conductor Colin Mawby, 1990. Image copyright RTÉ.

The relationship between conductor and singer was, for many hundreds of years, very simple. The leader was one of many, but part of the whole. The advent of orchestral conductors in the 19th century has had a knock-on effect on choral music that has not been positive in the main. The precision that a conductor can offer more complex contemporary repertoire is not in dispute but so often today conductors take on responsibility for every aspect of the production of sound – shaping the basic lines and directing musical responses from singers. This makes the singer, the instrument, reactive and not proactive – a receptacle for direction.

There is a huge difference between being led by the nose and thinking for yourself, being the instrument and being permitted by the director to be the instrument. The skill of any conductor should be to create coherent shape from collective artistry, not to impose an artistic vision on top of an ensemble. It is very easy to put the blame on conductors for this, but in fact the blame falls squarely on the singers themselves I believe. A conductor can’t make singers proactive. 

I am very proud to say that over the last decade Anúna have evolved well beyond this limited relationship through observance and working with some of the finest choral minds in the world, through both compositional relationships with professional ensembles such as Chanticleer and New York Polyphony and through interactions with Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale in particular. I am very proud to say that that journey to this point in time began with Colin and is very much still ongoing.

For Colin, simplicity is the basis of great music, chant being a perfect expression of that. If it can’t be said in the simplest of language then maybe it shouldn’t be said at all. In the art of composition, complexity can often conceal vacuity.

He emphasised to us the responsibility we have as performers to the composer. When we sing their works they are with us. I remember a performance we gave of Palestrina’s “Stabat Mater”. Even thinking of it still gives me chills. It was the first time I ever felt the presence of a composer in our midst, listening, judging. Breathing with us. Colin explained the circumstances of the work and allowed us the freedom to sing the lines freely as individuals, but with one destination that he led us to.

Every week coming in to rehearsal was a new thrill, a new experience for us to savour. It was the formative experience of my life as a professional musician.

He treated my compositional aspirations with great respect. One day I found him in the office going through one of my pieces and muttering deeply flattering things. He was founding father of the magnificent Cór na nÓg (the RTÉ children’s choir, today in the inspiring hands of Mary Amond O’Brien) and it was through them he commissioned my first large-scale work “Gawain and the Green Knight”. He programmed a number of works of mine, allowing me access to my first professional experiences as a composer. 

So many people owe him so much. So many young people have grown into adults that remember him with deep love and appreciation. His work with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir is remembered by the singers with the deepest of affection.

As our lunch ended and we wandered on to the streets of London it struck me that I had done most of the talking. Throughout our meal he offered advice and encouragement. Colin hasn’t changed. Nor have I really. Time is only an illusion, and those of us permitted to document it in musically creative ways are among the most blessed.

On Saturday May 21st at 6pm in St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin there will be a very special concert of his work to celebrate his 80th birthday. Tickets are available from HERE

The Natural Voice

Once upon a time I would open my mouth and just sing. It really was that simple. A child singing, completely relaxed, no pressure to do more than savour the experience.  Living in a house full of music was taken for granted as it flowed through a day filled with Frank Sinatra, piano practice, three-part Beatles songs in harmony on the back seat of the car on the way from school to the latest number one by ABBA. It was all natural, unforced and part of the fabric of life.
Then we went to secondary school and things changed. Music was a minor subject in a day full of Mathematics and English. When the school did put on its annual operetta we made the chorus line, never a solo. We natural assumed that we just weren’t good enough to merit such things, and we could always sing our songs at home. The music continued to flow in our house but without the ambition to become a solo vocalist.

At nineteen I discovered choral singing and began studying Music and English at college. I decided that I’d get my voice trained as I had developed a passion for Early music and I knew I needed increased vocal strength to sing it. Teachers came and went, talking about “support”, “head voice”, “the ribs”, “registers”, “passagio”. This was the correct way to sing. Something I believed was so simple, so natural, became hugely complicated.

I managed to gain a place in Ireland’s only professional choral ensemble, The RTÉ Chamber Choir. The Artistic Director Colin Mawby told me without ambiguity that I had not gained the place as a singer, rather because he had recognised a fellow composer and he felt that I would benefit from the experience. Very few solos were forthcoming. Whenever I had a solo to do I became very flustered and nervous. I was aware that other singers around me could make a big noise that allowed them to attempt operatic arias or oratorio to a paying audience even at this very early stage of their professional lives. I was happy just to sing in the choir and luxuriate in the music that has fed my artistic soul since then. I had no aspirations to create the sound I heard from most of those around me. It seemed that they wanted to sound older than they were. I didn’t want to do that so I must be wrong and I left well alone.

Then things changed. My compositional voice began to develop and I needed an instrument, thus Anúna was born back in 1987. While it was just about acceptable to hear Purcell sung with voices of greater age than the bodies that they inhabited, it simply was not acceptable to do the same with my own music. If they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make the sound I wanted then I would have to sing the solos myself.

Often I avoided singing a solo, handing it to one of the other singers to record instead of me if at all possible. I just didn’t think I was that good and it was cowardice to some extent. I believe that unconsciously I wanted to concentrate on the way the overall piece sounded without letting my personal misgiving about my solo singing get in the way. I was also hampered by the confusion as to what I should be doing technically. What I noticed was that if the solo was to successfully transmit the story of the song, the message of the text, then I had to just disregard all the pushing, placing and projecting I had been trained to do.

I just wanted to get the singer out of the way and let the song speak for itself.

Time passed. Anúna became more and more successful and a succession of vocalists passed through our ranks. Due to a brief stint with Riverdance, Anúna’s vocal sound became associated with small, thin sound. Singers entered the group with that sound in their minds, and my technical knowledge was not sufficient to correct them and to get them to sing the song in the way I had intended it to be sung. I started creating music for these small voices, restricting the colours that I could paint.  What I did provide was the basis for successful careers for so many of them. But my own voice suffered.

You can hear, and see, how difficult I found solo singing in this video from 1999 of my song “Where All Roses Go”. I reference Jeff Buckley in the introduction having shared a stage with him a few years before. I spent a wild night with him in London talking about the singer and the song. He produced a sound that was free, with an untamed passion. This was the antithesis of what I had been trained to do.

My voice survived on despite shouting my way through rehearsals and then presenting and singing in concert. It lasted for a long time – longer than it should have. Then in 2007 it began to fail. It had always been somewhat variable and the final outing for me was as part of the Celtic Origins project that year.

And then it was over. I couldn’t sing live except to bolster up the performers that surrounded me. I continued to record, but it was a staggeringly stressful experience that never allowed for spontaneity. Then I met Sylvia O Regan. Sylvia is a gifted teacher, and she coaxed my voice back from a very dark place. You can see her in action here with some of her students.

She has allowed me to sing again. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn’t but her patient determination and positive outlook has allowed me to regain confidence in my voice. You can hear me sing on the album “Revelation” by Anúna, older, a little more frail, but the sound comes now. Returning to a natural sound shouldn’t be such a difficult thing to do, but we are the measure of the experiences we have in life, good and bad. All joy, all sorrow write themselves on our voices. Thank you Sylvia…

An Interview with Michael McGlynn by Naoki Hayashida

In advance of visits to Japan this Autumn, and the release of the album “Illumination” there, journalist, writer and broadcaster Naoki Hayashida interviews Composer and Artistic Director of Anúna Michael McGlynn.

Please tell me about ANÚNA at its foundation, just come together in 1987, for example, the concept and atmosphere of the members.

First it was a sound in my head. Then I had to get people to make it. I didn’t realise at the time that that was not the way things were supposed to be done in classical music as I only began to sing in a choir at the very late age of nineteen years. I spent about four years trying to create the noise that I could hear very clearly in my ears, and I wrote songs to help my singers create that sound.

Early concerts were a mashing together of medieval music, contemporary music, some traditional and rock music and then my own material of which there was very little performed by us at that stage. I remember us standing on Grafton Street singing an arrangement I had done the night before of U2’s “Mysterious Ways” with Bono listening on the launch day for the album in Dublin. We did everything – and Anúna could have just turned into a novelty choral group able to do jazz, rock, folk and classical. But even at this early point in Anúna’s life it was my own work that was getting the strongest reaction from the audience. So I chose very early on to stop performing works by other composers and writers, and to concentrate on reinterpreting the music and literature that inspired me from my homeland.

The singers were and continue to pass through our group. Some are very influential and have a deep personal relationship with what Anúna is and what it stands for. Some do not really understand what the basic nature of the group is, but everyone of us is affected by what we do. In the very earliest times of the choir the singers were not engaged with the ethos that we now recognise as Anúna. This is very understandable, as I did not clearly see what we were doing myself! It is very hard to explain a sound.

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What has been inherited, never changed, since the beginning until now where ANÚNA has became a world renowned ensemble?

Me I suppose!
I have a sound in my head that I want to create and mould as I wish. The singers are the instrument, and I encourage and train them to be the most accomplished that they can be as vocalists. In recent years we have clarified and created the Anúna Method of choral singing, and this has helped enormously in unifying the vocal sound of the group. Also many of the singers in the last two years in particular have become actively involved in defining that special sound we make, and this has been very exciting to see.

Our Method is a simple idea – a child can breathe, stand and sing naturally and with a relaxed flow of air. We spend our later childhood and adulthood forgetting what we could do so naturally when we were five or six years old. So, I try to take the singers back to that time, before they were able to hide their true selves. It can be very hard with some people to be honest and open when they sing. Much of our adult existence is taken with concealing how we feel. The purpose of the Anúna Method  is to facilitate the singers to transmit genuine emotion and truth – both the true nature of themselves as singers and, for me at least, the truth that is within the texts that I set to music or the songs that I arrange.

In the last year or so we have begun to give workshops of this Method. We learn as much from these as the participants do, so I am very excited about travelling Japan in advance of the tour to pass on some of these methods to singers and choral ensembles. This technique, I believe, is at the basis for what distinguishes Anúna from so many other choral groups all over the world today. We analyse and develop our vocal sound at every rehearsal and every show. No two performances are the same in any way. That is what it has always been like, and why I continue to perform with the choir after so long.

Which composers of church music of the Medieval/Renaissance are you influenced by? Also, how are you influenced specifically?

Gesualdo, Victoria, Tallis, Palestrina and Machaut would be my greatest influences. I love the work of Purcell and early Medieval music too. I have also been strongly influenced by the work of Hildegard von Bingen, the great German mystic. I’m not particularly interested in whether something is sacred or secular.

I recently wrote a piece for the American ensemble New York Polyphony which strongly echoes the tonalities of Carlo Gesualdo called “O Pia Virgo”. I particularly like his work, as the sense of the unexpected can catch your breath. Hildegard’s influence can be strongly heard on my arrangement of “Jerusalem” and my “Sanctus”, with their meditative purpose and the arching soprano lines that echo her own musical phrases.

My use of block, homophonic writing could be traced back to Renaissance masters. Palestrina has been a particular influence in relation to the use of motifs within phrases and harmonic structures. I love also the energy of early music. The first time I heard Perotin’s “Viderunt Omnes” many decades ago I knew that this was the kind of atmosphere I wanted to generate in my own compositions.

The oldest forms of Irish and Scottish music have always been of great inspiration too – Psalm singing from the Western Isles, Puirt a Bueil and the long and elegant phrases from Irish traditional slow airs have blended together with these medieval colours to produce my particular compositional voice.

Is Anuna music created by singing with a clear musical score, like a classical choral ensemble? Or is each member doing something improvisational or using personal decoration? Otherwise, do you it create only in a studio while recording?

Unfortunately there is no improvisational element to Anúna. That may change with time, but every note that the choir sing or that is heard on CD is notated. In Ireland the art of classical singing is not old. People from Southern Ireland have a great sense of being musicians, and there is much great music happening in other musical forms such as Traditional music and Rock music. In Classical music it is very different. It is often closed and a clique. I don’t like cliques. I often find it difficult to get Southern Irish singers that can read music, but it is almost impossible to get young Irish singers who do read music adequately and have choral experience to audition for Anúna and they often have no understanding or appreciation of what Anúna does and what it stands for.

Anúna and my own work as a composer have always existed outside of music in Ireland. Far too difficult to put in a category or musical box. Riverdance was not a help to us in that respect, as people still associate us with the myriad of Irish shows that promote Ireland as a country of athletic dance champions or ballad groups. We are not a traditional music ensemble, nor a classical chamber choir. We are admired by some musicians here, but in my specific field of composition and choral music we are pretty much ignored.

In the last few years most of the singers we have taken in are from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. They have a much better music education system and Anúna is very well respected there by many musicians. We also have singers from other cultures – Dutch, Italian, American, English – I am always very happy to include singers from different musical backgrounds. It provides a perspective to the music that is vital to keeping it fresh. Although we travel with only twelve singers, they are drawn from a pool of up to twenty five from all over the world.

ANUNA’s music consists of not only Irish but also various traditional music from all over the UK, Europe and beyond. Is there any point in common?

There is no conscious point. Sometimes when I put an album together I see patterns forming that I was completely unaware of after the fact. Yes, I have a very strong sympathetic reaction to Ireland itself, understandably. I use it as a battery charge in many ways and that helps me work. But it is only one place, and the people’s experience here is often limited and sometimes, as with all small countries, parochial and without a world view. My inspirations are sited within the land of Ireland, but my intellectual stimulation comes from outside it.

In my art forms of choral music and composition, I no longer gain inspiration or stimulation from working in Ireland, which has always been a source of regret to me. I don’t work here either as a composer or as a performer with my group Anúna despite my best efforts. This has had quite a negative effect on my work unfortunately. It is hard to create in a place where there is no interaction with other artists. So when I travel, and increasingly I am doing that, I interact as much as I can with everyone I meet. That, I suppose, is the thing that ties my work together in an indirect way.

Outside influences are what have created Anúna and my own compositional voice. The musical inspiration I have gained from my home country has come from my limited exposure to the traditional music of my land and the sublime texts that flood out of the mouths of Irish writers, past and present. Writers in every culture have drawn on their own homeland for their inspiration. It is no different in most great literary countries.

Ancient words from past centuries are often used in ANÚNA’s lyrics. I guess you have researched these a lot. So, how has experiencing many languages from ancient cultures influenced you?

I majored in English when I went to college. Throughout my career as a composer I have concentrated on the relationship of language to music. I see my compositions and arrangements as creations to transmit information, not really as entities in themselves. Often I will choose a text because it touches me very deeply, and more often I will write a song text because I have a feeling that I want to transmit, maybe something I have felt while out in the Irish landscape.

Ireland is an ancient place, and all ancient places have a resonance or an echo from the past. I believe that my compositions have a dual relationship to this resonance. I remember those people that lived, loved, worked, played and died in the past. But also there is something else – something I cannot put easily in words. You could call it a subliminal understanding of the land itself. Ireland has a particularly strong aura within the landscape. I have been to many countries, and often this aura is hidden under cities or manicured by farming or even tourism, so it is less obvious than in Ireland. But it is there nonetheless. In a recent visit to Arizona I was deeply effected by the sensations of the American landscape in that area, and it has compelled me to find out more about the Native Americans and their relationship to that land.

One of the reasons I love travelling to Japan is because I believe that many Japanese people understand this aura better than Westerners. It is part of your culture, your heritage. It is in your literature, your art, your traditional and contemporary music. The main reason I set older texts is because I believe that virtually everything that we need to say about the human condition as artists has already been said. All we are doing is finding new ways of saying the same thing over and over again. It was David Bowie who said that he has been writing about the same things all his artistic life. Maybe that is because only the simplest things are of any importance in the greater scheme of this existence.

The lyrics of “Illumination” which is the album title, is like a letter from past to present, I’m very interested in it. What kind of person was James Galwey who passed away in 1627? Why is this song titled “Illumination”? Please let me know about the source of this song in as much detail as possible.

There is nothing more illuminating than death. In modern culture it is seen as a horrific thing, something to be terrified of and to deny. In ancient cultures death was present in every aspect of daily life, so it is seen as something inevitable and part of the natural cycle of things. The atmosphere I tried to create in this piece was one of acceptance of what cannot be changed. We remember those who have passed on because the realisation of the fragility and beauty of life enhances the experience of it. You could imagine that Lucy Champion’s voice on the solo is that of the soul itself, soaring above the declamatory voices of the congregation. It sings with them, but also exists above them, almost like an angelic guide to acceptance and illumination. We know nothing about Galwey except what is left carved on a stone, but I imagine such a philosophical man is one that I would have liked very much.

Strangely enough, the song “Mignonne Allons” which is in French and dates from the sixteenth century is like a companion piece to “Illumination”. For the Japanese release of the album I have recorded my eldest daughter Aisling, who is ten years old, singing with me as a duet. That song expands on this theme. The rose, so beautiful in flower, has scattered its petals all over the grass. We are no different to a flower, so we must value what we have and accept what we cannot change.

In the case of a Japanese Amateur Choir trying to sing one of your songs, what points should they take note of?

If you buy my music from my website at www.michaelmcglynn.com, it comes automatically with pronunciation guides if it is in the Irish language. While the language is difficult, it is less difficult that English! No, Japanese choirs have no problem with singing my songs at all. If they do not make the sound artificial and forced, for example, singing the songs that are folk-like in a classical manner or ignoring the speed markings, any choir in the world is perfectly capable of singing these pieces.

I am so proud that my choral music has introduced so many people all over the world to the beauty of the Irish language and the songs that I loved as a child. However, much of my output is in other languages – Latin, English etc. Choirs would need to approach such pieces as they would any other work by a contemporary composer.

I heard that you performed for the children of Fukushima Elementary School. Thank you very much. Please tell me your impression of that time. The tragedy is still continuing in silence. Please give your message to the people in Fukushima who are still suffering having been driven from their contaminated homes.

There is no need to thank me or any of the singers who travelled so soon after the disaster to Fukushima. We were honoured to have been able to sing for those children. We were not representing Ireland, just ourselves. We were humbled by the strength and positive mindset of the people we met. Our intention of going there was to raise awareness in Japan of the great horror that had been visited on these innocent people.Our music is often called healing music in your country, and if it gave any comfort at all to the people of the area I am very grateful for that.

In great disaster we see the true nature of humanity. If there has been any good to be salvaged from this terrible event it is that there has been a greater strengthening of community and a desire to help others. I am so looking forward to returning to meet the children of Iwaki, as they performed brilliantly for us and their energy and joy on that day has stayed with me

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On Choral Music in Worship

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My parents endeavoured to give me every opportunity to be exposed to a vast range of music, strongly encouraging our explorations, be they rock or classical music. In school the main exposure to singing was musical drama in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan with a few hymns in unison at every church service. It is understandable, therefore, that when my first exposure to sacred choral music at last arrived at age nineteen in University College Dublin Chamber Choir, it was like being hit with a mallet on the head.

I clearly remember my first rehearsal. We sang two songs, “Christus Factus Est” by Anerio and “O Sacrum Convivium” by Messiaen. Suddenly much was made clear to me. Maybe this was why people still spoke fondly of the extinct Latin Mass, with its remote and mysterious ceremony? It also helped explain to me why services were structured as they are. Music wasn’t simply a chance for the congregation to sing together, rather it was a series of sonic sign-posts angled towards illumination of the underlying spiritual truth of the service.

The Latin language, with its soft and non-percussive sound, had a natural affinity to the music that it was carried by. Later I discovered the music of Tallis, Gibbons and Byrd, being struck by the beauty of the harmonic language and the mellifluous use of the less-musical English language. Simple, direct statements of belief were woven into a powerful lattice of spiritual affirmation. Exposure to more recent music written for the Church today plainly showed that composers were acutely aware of their musical ancestry and quite capable of working within the practical constraints of service structures and the capabilities of the performing groups that they composed for. Indeed, the love of singing contemporary music among the better choral groups was a great pleasure to behold, even if much of the music demanded skills that were just on the edge of what the singers were capable of.

With respect to my Roman Catholic upbringing, I had rarely understood how the odd hymn here or there and the simplistic one-line responses and calls in the vernacular could compare to the carefully constructed musical structures that I participated in while singing in my first Church of Ireland services.  It irritated me that much of what was musically beautiful in the pre-Vatican II church had simply been consigned to performance repertoire, rarely heard within its originally conceived context.

Sometimes I felt like a starved man who eats as much as possible very quickly, deputising and singing at the two major Church of Ireland Cathedrals in Dublin, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals as often as I could. I sang for free at weddings, funerals, services – anything I was asked to do simply to experience this music in the context of its original conception.

By this time I was beginning to compose on a regular basis. Although the main thrust of my composition was towards the development of a new form of Irish choral music, I was consistently drawn to spiritual texts. Two early efforts I wrote for competitions organised for use in the Church of Ireland service were “Codhlaim go Súan I’d Chroí” (I Sleep Softly in Your Heart) and the anthem “Come Let us Sing” the former for a competition to find an anthem in the Irish language and the latter a setting of a more traditional Church text. This work eventually gave rise to my “Celtic Mass”, a combination of texts in Latin and Irish on diverse texts. Latterly my spiritual output has included the four “Tenebrae Responsories”, a “Missa Brevis” for St David’s Cathedral in Wales and a diverse collection of individual sacred works that include my “Agnus Dei” which was commissioned by the American choir Chanticleer in 2006 for their five-composer project “And on Earth, Peace: a Chanticleer Mass”.

Despite it being nearly thirty years since I was so profoundly influenced by this music, it continues to be a part of my life. I attend regularly at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Dublin which has a fine and ambitious musical programme. I believe that the power generated by community singing of good quality has a ripple effect on the entirety of society. This music and literature has survived because it is simultaneously functional and art. It is important to bear in mind that composers who have written this music for over a millennium have done so with a desire to articulate their own spiritual ideas while transmitting genuine and heart-felt insight to a congregation. I now realise why this music has influenced and affected me the way it has. Choral music in worship can bring congregation, singer and composer together in a unique and wonderful way. The power of this should never be underestimated.

This article appears in the magazine Soundboard, Winter 2011