Jen Chandler interviews Stephen Eisenhauer:
Composer and Cantiamo Parent
Welcome to the conversation I had with Ottawa composer Stephen Eisenhauer, whose new piece “Respira” will see its World Premiere at the June 4th Cantiamo Choir concert. “Respira” is a meditative, inspiring work for treble choir, piano and string quartet. His work in teaching music to children ties into his conscious hope of having the audience not only enjoy his compositions, but also find the spark to become involved in music themselves. Stephen describes himself as a “theory guy” but it is clear that he doesn’t get buried under theory but rather is a prolific teacher, composer and musician who has an infectious desire to spread music and all its benefits.
Tell us a bit about your day job and how composing fits into that.
I teach intermediate (grades 7 & 8) instrumental music and kindergarten at Jack Donohue Public School in Kanata. Actually, when I started at the school Jackie [Jackie Hawley, the Founding Artistic of Cantiamo and its Training Choir] taught intermediate instrumental music and I taught French and kindergarten. We worked together for a few years and then Jackie left to focus on her choral conducting career and I slid into that position. I learned a lot form Jackie in those days, and was counting down the days until my children would be old enough to join her choirs!
Being a school teacher is a huge and all-encompassing job. Along with having three children at home, composing fits into my schedule about as well as sleep does! I always have more music projects on the go than time to do them (which is probably a good thing), but I chip away at them slowly but surely, mostly in the wee hours of the night.
When did you start composing – and what or who were your early influences?
I remember writing a piano piece when I was 7 or 8, it was called “Little Dance”. My mother is a musician and was my first and biggest influence. I have extensive music training; as I was learning, I always had an ear towards writing. Performing and writing just sort of happens for me. I enjoy a huge range of musical styles, but focus my work mostly on choral compositions and being a singer/songwriter. When I first started writing I wanted to expand on the canon as it was. Obviously trying to progress from Rachmaninoff or Mahler was a very tall task. One of the greatest epiphany moments for me as a composer was when I decided that all I had to concern myself with was expressing my own voice, and not only not worrying about, but also trying to avoid, being too esoteric.
What do you usually start with when composing a new piece? How do you go about writing, step by step?
Hemingway said that in order to start writing you need to start with one true sentence. I always begin with one idea. Since I’m a theory guy, I like to start with a musical idea that I want to play with. I’ve written pieces whose core ideas were things like “playing with parallel fifths”, “common-tone harmonies”, or “ubiquitous suspensions”. In the case of the piece that I’ve written for Cantiamo, it began in another way, which also seems to be a relatively common occurrence in my writing-world. I was actually working on another piece at the piano, and I accidentally hit the wrong chord. I really liked the sound of this “wrong” chord. I decided to play with it, and within 30 minutes to an hour, the accompaniment was written. It just sort of fell out of me. I knew that I wanted to write something that the training choir would be able to sing, so I wanted to keep it relatively straight forward. I try to keep the ensemble that will be performing the piece in mind when I’m writing. With this piece, I managed to find the time to edit more than usual. I didn’t really have a time constraint in the writing of this piece that I have had at other times. I wanted to make sure that I was satisfied with the final product and all it’s inner workings, including the pacing, contour, inflection, etc.
What is your main focus when writing choral music? And how is that different from writing instrumental music?
I don’t write a ton of instrumental music. But when I do, the focus is very similar. However, the words/lyrics play in hugely when writing choral music, and these can, and usually do, greatly influence every part of the writing process. So, as I mentioned before, although I will likely have one idea of something musical to play with, the chosen text influences the way the piece is structured, including its harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic construction, its use of expressive controls, etc. Though any instrumental music that I write will likely have some mood that I want to reflect, when one is setting text, the mood is given far more clarity through the words.
Who do you see as some of the best writers of choral music?
My influences are wide ranging. I write many styles of music and am not necessarily influenced by writers of one particular style when I write in that style. I grew up singing with the Christ Church Cathedral Men and Boys’ choir here in Ottawa, and then completed a Bachelor’s of Voice degree at McGill University, and sang in many choirs while living in Montreal. I had the opportunity to perform many great works, and be influenced in many directions. Mahler, Willan, Lanza, Allegri, Radiohead, the Beatles, Jeff Buckley, McFerrin, Barber, Raminsh, Pärt, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Soundgarden, Tool; I could go on and on as far as influences are concerned. I’m sure that just that brief list will eventually frustrate me…like as if I won an award and forgot to thank someone important!
If you were not a music teacher and composer, what would you liked to do in your life?
I have no skill as a carpenter, but if I could do anything, I feel that working as a furniture carpenter would be interesting. I also find the idea of working in talk radio appealing. Unless, of course, I could completely program my own radio show, in which case I would have a music radio show on the CBC. Something like Gilmour’s albums…I’d call it “the Eisen-hour” (yes, I’ve already named it). I feel fortunate to have a job where I get to feel like I’m making a difference. If I wasn’t a school teacher, I’d be interested in working with a charitable organization, or perhaps even in politics (though I wouldn’t want to put my family through that).
Could you give a message of encouragements to all lovers of choral music? Why should they continue composing or singing or conducting?
I remember, when I worked at McGill, overhearing some of my students talking about owning a property in Tuscany, and New York, and Buenos Aires someday. They were just playing of course, but when I heard them say that I hoped that they didn’t actually feel that way. In my opinion, if you want to be any kind of artist it should be because you have to. That may sound a bit dramatic, but what I mean by that is this: I never sat down and thought “I’m going to be a composer; mostly of choral music!”, I just was fortunate enough to gain a great deal of music training and experience and writing just happened. I couldn’t stop it from happening. Now some people make a great living as an artist of course, and they likely took great risks to get to that point. As I mentioned earlier, when I began writing music consistently, I started out feeling like I had to build on the already existing canon. How could I write something that was an answer to Rachmaninoff? I was very liberated when I realized that that was not a healthy way to go about creating. My recommendation to anyone who wanted to be some type of musical artist would be to listen to a lot of music, perform a lot of music, and write a lot of music. Don’t worry too much. Just do it because it is who you are. And enjoy! When I write music I hope that the listener will enjoy it of course, but I also hope that some might be inspired to write too. When I teach my music classes I often talk about things in “music-land” (i.e. in music-land we get confused after the letter G, so we just start the alphabet at the beginning again). Music-land is an awesome place. Lots of room for everyone to move in, and very rewarding for the entire populace!
Be sure and join us for Songbird
Featuring the World Premiere of
Stephen’s new piece, “Respira“.
Saturday June 3rd
Dominion-Chalmers United Church
Advance tickets available here!