Ottawa Choral Society: Composer Laura Hawley is moonstruck by sonnet

The Ottawa Choral Society takes to the stage on May 13 with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel reading poetry and the choir performing moon music. One of the pieces to be performed is by Ottawa composer Laura Hawley, who has been making a name for herself with choral repertoire. To get a sense of her music and her career, ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb emailed her some questions. Here are her responses.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. Sure. I’m based in Ottawa, where I have a pretty full and varied life as a musician. I teach at the University of Ottawa as well as in my home studio. I conduct Hypatia’s Voice Women’s Choir which I founded in 2015, I compose mainly choral music and I work as a church musician at St. John’s South March in Kanata. I’ve also accompanied the Ottawa Children’s Choir and was the accompanist and associate director of Cantiamo Girls Choir for about 14 years.

Laura Hawley is an Ottawa-area composer.

Q. Where does the passion come for choral music?

A. I grew up singing in choirs. My mother is a conductor and taught voice and guitar from her home studio when I was younger. I also grew up playing in orchestras and am passionate about instrumental music as well, but when I started composing, it was for choirs, and things grew naturally from there. I love working with choirs and the limitless possibilities of the voice, as well as the enthusiasm within the choral community for new music. There is also something immediate and enveloping about a choir singing that reaches us very deeply. When the vibration of the music comes directly from the human body, it’s different.

Q. What drew you to Sonnet 43 by Shakespeare as a possible piece for choir?

A. I had been looking for a Shakespeare sonnet in the summer of 2013 and while I was away teaching at a day-program in Deep River called Summermusic, where I teach each summer. I read all of the sonnets carefully, and I have a treasured memory of sitting outside in the gazebo at the cabin I shared with several other staff members — some of my favourite musicians and people in the world — and reading the sonnets slowly and carefully together by candlelight over a glass of red wine, and having a pretty magical time all around with friends who were equally entranced with both music and Shakespeare’s genius. This particular sonnet stood out to me because it felt so playful, and the opening lines, ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see’ made me think of an Ani Difranco song in which she sings ‘Every time I blink, I have a tiny dream.’ In this case, the sonnet seems to say, ‘Every time I blink, I have a tiny dream about you. Hurray.’ I loved the excited feeling it had of being sort of caught up with a person that you go through your day just thinking about all the time.

Q. Was it a commission?

A. It was not a commission, actually. In the summer of 2013 I had been visiting with a good friend of mine who is a well-known composer, and we were talking about how I’d stopped composing for the past couple of years, and how I wanted to come back to it and focus on developing myself as a composer, and on growing that area of my musical career.

He had suggested that I look for something by Shakespeare since we’d be coming up soon on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and, likely, choirs would be looking to mark this in their programming, so it would be a good strategic move. In fact, he mused that perhaps Oxford University Press might publish a collection of choral works for this, and my big fancy dream was to have OUP pick this piece up for such a collection.

So I decided I would write this piece, and also pushed myself to write in a style I hadn’t explored before. OUP wasn’t able to take on any new composers, so publication with them didn’t happen, and I also submitted it to the Ruth Watson Henderson Choral Composition Competition and (but) they weren’t very excited about the piece. However, at the same time I had also emailed the scores to some conductors asking for feedback and also offering the score if anyone was interested, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and several choirs programmed it immediately. Now I’m pretty sure it’s become my most popular work. A major highlight for me was performing it with the Larkin Singers in Toronto, and then having Ontario Youth Choir perform it both within the first year of having written it; that was a huge boost for me and now I’m hearing all the time about choirs performing it and from choristers letting me know how much they love it. It’s a great feeling to know that something I wrote is bringing a lot of joy to a lot of people.

Q. It’s a beautiful piece. It has an ageless quality to it even though it is also modern. Are you drawing upon a particular musical style in it. Is this a “typical” Laura Hawley piece?

A. This is such a good question. I thought setting the old text in a modern way fit amazingly well with this sonnet. After all, Shakespeare is ageless, and writing in this style with this text felt very natural.  The text is always the starting point for me and the style emerges from there. The style in this case was also influenced by some of the composers I was spending a lot of time with at the time; Mia Makaroff, Jussi Chydenius, Bob Chilcott and Joel Nilson.

It’s so hard to say if this is a typical ‘Laura Hawley’ piece. Some things I’ve written have been similar in style, but sometimes I head in a more dissonant direction and I also love the harmonic language found in the music of Howells, Leighton and MacMillan and I find myself going there frequently.  Every time I write something, it’s a bit of a surprise how it turns out, but so many people have said to me that they can tell a piece is mine just by the sound; even pieces that have been arrangements rather than original compositions, or pieces that I really feel I’ve gone way off the map. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that’s really neat.

I’ve also had listeners say ‘Wow, that was NOT what I was expecting,’ which is great — I want to always keep growing and trying new things. So often I hear a work and I think, ‘Oh, I wish I wrote like that’ and then I try to do it.  If I can somehow have a sound that is mine, but also be unpredictable and interesting, that feels like an optimal balance to me.

Q. This concert is essentially about the moon. Are you moonstruck as a musician?

A. Yup.  I’m also a fairly dedicated yogi, so I’m all about that kind of stuff. My husband and I have a Border Collie named Stella, after the stars.  One of my favourite pieces to program when I’m performing as my pianist self is Claire de lune. I’m actually currently working on a program for my women’s choir to mark the autumn Equinox.

Ballade to the Moon

Ottawa Choral Society with Eleanor Wachtel, Matthew Larkin on piano

Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

When: Saturday, May 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets and other information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.