Meet a Donor: Hussein Janmohamed and Joan Szymko

Chorus America's 2018 Commission Consortium Composers

Each month, Chorus America profiles one of our members in our Meet A Member interview series. To mark the season of giving, we often change things up a little bit for December by speaking with Chorus America donors. This year, we spoke to Hussein Janmohamed and Joan Szymko, the two composers donating compositions for Chorus America’s 2018 Commission Consortiums.

“Even though I am donating something, I will most certainly be gaining from this experience,” says Szymko. Adds Janmohamed, “I’m honored to be contributing and I look forward to seeing how this journey with the choruses flows.” Szymko and Janmohamed spoke with Chorus America about where they draw inspiration for their compositions, and how they are approaching their upcoming pieces for the Commission Consortiums.

Janmohamed and SzymkoHussein Janmohamed and Joan Szymko, 2018 Chorus America Commission Consortium composers.

What got you hooked on choral music?

JS: My very first experiences hearing choral music were listening with my family to recordings at home— Gregorian chant, Britten, the Missa Luba, Mitch Miller. As a little girl I loved singing my heart out with Mitch and still remember the words to all those old songs. That visceral joy I felt while singing out loud is what got me hooked. When I was a teenager I heard a live performance of Samuel Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915— and that was the moment I knew that I needed to have that magical marriage of music and words in my life.

HJ: I had an instrumental background from playing in band at school, and I had a singing background from devotional recitation in our cultural community. When I was in junior high, I heard the jazz choir sing and immediately knew that was where I needed to live, to understand myself and the world around me. It was that sound that captured me and brought me in.

Did you come to composing through choral music initially, or from composing for another art form?

JS: I came to composing directly from choral conducting. I cut my teeth on vocal arrangements I created for the lesbian feminist choir I directed in the 1980s. Both this chorus and the progressive church I was serving as music director at that same time had repertoire needs that weren’t readily met with what was available on sheet music store shelves—so I did a lot of arranging. Eventually I started branching off into composing completely original material on poetry that moved me and that I wanted to share.

HJ: Growing up in rural Alberta, I was looking for ways to explore my identity and heritage, especially in response to racism as a child. I'm a peacemaker, so it became urgent for me to find ways to respond peacefully, rather than in violence or anger. Music seemed the perfect way to do that. The Ismaili Muslim youth choir I conducted, which was diverse within itself, was also exploring how our cultures could talk to each other in a peaceful way. Composing and arranging became an important part of that experience.  

Where does your inspiration come from as a composer?

JS: As a composer that is for the most part self-taught, my musical voice is very much my own, and at the same time a synthesis of all the music that has deeply touched my life. Inspiration is a mystery. What I got hooked on was being immersed in a feeling. For the most part I seek out and am inspired by poets and poetry that expresses the “yearning for good.” But I do feel that my life as a composer is very much a vocation— a sacred calling.

While I find many composers inspiring, I’ve not consciously emulated a particular composer or genre. However, I am most definitely inspired and influenced by music with strong rhythmic character. In my 30s I studied Balkan music, West African drumming, and performed in a Zimbabwean African marimba ensemble. Rhythm is how I primarily hear and feel music, and this is key to much of my compositions.

HJ: I listen to everything from older Hindi film music to ’70s country music to soft rock to classical music records that my mom had. I can't specifically say what one thing inspired me because I think those things come together in a way that makes me feel whole. I remember the first week of high school chorus, my teacher used to say that if we're completely in tune and unified in our vowels, then we will hear the angels sing – meaning the angels were the overtones. That motivated me – if we were singing together, we could be one in heart and intention. I think the other thing that inspires me is the quest. Composing becomes a way of going on a journey to see where we unify.

How would you describe your writing process?

JS: Finding the right text is probably the first and most time-consuming thing I do, both in searching for it and living with it before ever composing a note. I want to be the vehicle for a text – not the other way around. I do not impose my musical will onto a text. And so I feel that I am very much an equal partner with the poet or writer.

Once I've arrived at the text, I discern what the energy of the piece will be. I look for the innate musicality in the words.  I discover the energy by reciting the text aloud over and over, discovering rhythm in it, the pacing, the shifts in emotion or color, repeating elements, inner rhymes. Sometimes I will set the text at the piano and improvise chord progressions or rhythmic riffs.

When I begin composing, sometimes I know the overall structure — or then again, I may begin in the middle because that is what jumped out and revealed itself to me — and then I'll work from there outward. I do work at the piano as I explore the energy of a piece, but for the most part, I compose vocal lines with my voice — I sing lines into being rather than working them out on the keyboard. I make sure every line is “in the voice.” If I’m in a flow but then hit a snag, I may try to work it out, but most often I will step away — take a break, a walk and come back later. I’ve leaned that forcing my way through blocks is usually not fruitful.

I sketch things out by hand on manuscript paper — sometimes fully voiced with accompaniment fleshed out; sometimes just the melodic line with harmonic suggestions. The accompaniment sometimes drives my process — there’s often a lot of energy there. I tend to compose piano accompaniments concurrent with vocal parts — as another voice, another character that's telling the story. My last step is moving to the computer and using notation software to complete the score. 

HJ: I would say my composition process is cyclical and linear at the same time. I'm inspired by soundscapes rather than texts. A lot of my initial conception of a composition will come from an environmental experience, like witnessing darkness until the moment a sunrise comes over the horizon; or a concept, such as gathering. That becomes a starting point. Then I think of musical material, either by improvising in response to the stimulus, or draw on melodies from my cultural soundtrack, and start to see how elements of the melody weave into the concept that I've sketched out. That curiosity takes me forward, and at the same time I'm gathering materials. I'll read a poem, hear a song, or meet someone at the prayer hall, and all these things become layers that I will weave into the tapestry of the composition. I think in terms of layers, and how they weave together to tell a story and how our voices can come together symbolically and hopefully find a sense of harmony.

I sketch by hand — it's not done on the piano. I'm inspired by drones and chants — I may hear a chant, and start improvising on that chant in my head. I'll actually sketch out diagrams and literally see how these things fit together in a picture, horizontally and vertically. Choral music can be artistic material that is molded like clay, where we can take sounds and explore our ideas together in a room.

What stage are you at with the pieces you will be composing for the consortium?

JS: I've written extensively for treble voices — primarily for adult women, and have been commissioned by tiered programs children's choruses with advanced ensembles. While a lot of my SSAA music has been performed by younger children's and youth choruses, with few exceptions, I’ve not really composed much with younger voices in mind. At choral conferences I find that I am often most impressed with the children's chorus' programming and so I'm excited to make an addition to the repertoire. I'm not sure what topics the piece will explore, but I know that I want to honor the depth of young people and their capacity for sophisticated and artful expression. Before selecting a text I will explore themes and concepts that are important to these singers. My goal is to empower and to uplift. We are living in times where I think most everyone is feeling the need to be aware and to pay attention.

HJ: At this point it's hard to specify a given endline. I'm definitely aware of the call for healing and peace across divisions in our fragmented society. The larger theme will be about finding healing, and finding unity across diversity. And also what healing might sound like, and how the healing can happen as we come together — so that we're not only reliant on ourselves or our own communities.

I'm not sure how this will be possible, but I'd like to ask the commissioning body what themes or topics they want to explore together. I'm coming from a very specific cultural perspective, so I want to make sure that whatever is written speaks to the broader community. And to be honest, I want to challenge the choral ear a little bit by introducing sounds and textures that might not be familiar but can enrich the choral palette. 

How did you first get involved with Chorus America?

JS: I went to my first Chorus America Conference in Seattle in the 1990s, where I remember very well my buttonhole conversation with Alice Parker. The chorus that I conducted then was part of a large consortium of choruses from Portland, and our whole group went to the Conference. I've also had my music performed at Conferences. But I've mostly been involved through Aurora Chorus, a member chorus. I’ve been with Aurora for over 20 years, and I can't tell you how times during board meetings I've said, "Call Chorus America — I'm sure they have an answer."

HJ: I was involved in choral music as a master's student at the University of British Columbia from 2011-2013, and the director of choral activities, Graeme Langager, re-introduced me to Chorus America. Then in January this year, I was thrilled to get a wonderful email from Catherine on the kind recommendations of Len Ratzlaff and Bob Cooper inviting me to participate in a Conference session on a new choral music with composers Dale Trumbore and Nilo Alcala. I didn't know what to expect, but what I found was this unique, collegial, supportive environment. I met so many of my mentors, Canadian and American, the "choral greats," and so many amazing young people in the field. I came home refreshed and charged up — I was so inspired.

What upcoming projects are you excited about?

JS: Lots of persisting and resisting! I’m presenting a session at NWACDA in March: DARE TO BE POWERFUL: strategies for the womens choir rehearsal room. I’ll also be headlining three women’s choral festivals this Spring: Women in Song Festival at East Tennessee University and Festival of Womens Voices in West Hartford, CT, both in March; and conducting the premiere a new work for the Lakeside Women’s Choir Invitational Festival in April in Kenosha. 

HJ: My focus right now is developing a thesis proposal for my dissertation. They say the best kind of PhD is a done PhD. I just had a conversation with the Nai Children's Choir thatformed a few years ago. It works with children who are refugees from Syria who are now living in Toronto. We're looking at possibilities of working together.

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