Meet A Member: Kirke Mechem, Composer, Author, Librettist

At 91, Kansas-born Kirke Mechem has often been called “the dean of American choral composers.” That does not mean he is slowing down, however.

Mechem recently completed his latest opera, Pride and Prejudice, and last year released a book: Believe Your Ears: Life of A Lyric Composer, which just last week won the 2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thompson Award for outstanding musical biography.

A former collegiate tennis player, he might still be on the courts if not for the common ailments that eventually catch up with athletes of his sport. Instead, says Mechem, “I swim half a mile three times a week and I hike on the other days. I’m a morning person—when I’m working on something, I often wake up at 6:00 am and compose all morning.”

In the latest edition of our ‘Meet A Member’ series, Mechem talked with president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about his book, his path to choral music, and his advice for the next generations of composers.

You’ve composed music for many different types of ensembles (orchestral, chamber music, opera, piano). What do you find that’s unique about writing for choruses, and how did you get hooked on choral music?

KM: My mother was a pianist, but for a rambunctious kid like me who was more into sports than anything else, she wasn’t the ideal teacher. So I didn’t practice the piano very much, but I did play by ear a lot. I taught myself harmony, and I taught myself how to write a lot of really horrible songs—I’m talking popular songs, except mine weren’t very popular.

I went to Stanford as a tennis player and I was an English major in creative writing—I had been a newspaper reporter for a while. I had also been in the army, so I was an adult. Music was my hobby. During my sophomore year, I decided to take a harmony course just out of curiosity. I didn’t know any rules; everything I had done was intuitive and by ear. As luck would have it, Harold Schmidt, who had just come to Stanford as the new choral director, happened to be my first harmony teacher. He made a rule that everyone in his class had to sing in the chorus.

Mechem John Brown premiere
Mechem on the set of his opera John Brown during its 2008 premiere.

So I went to that first rehearsal. We were singing Handel, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that changed my life. To hear all these different voices, all singing beautiful melodies, and that is what was forming the harmony. This was a whole new idea to me.

The whole idea not only of singing melodies against other people, but of counterpoint is something I have loved about choral music. I've sung lots of rounds and madrigals, and written dozens of both. It's just such a wonderful way to make music. You don't have to buy an instrument, and it comes from your own body, your own feelings, your own voice, your own heart and soul. Anyone can sing most good choral music. Singing is the original way of making music.

What advice do you have for choral composers building their careers?

KM: My stock answer for this is the quotation from Oscar Wilde: "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken." In my day, if you didn't write atonal music, you just didn't get it. You were like a flat earth freak. I was fortunate that by the time I studied formally, I was older and had already formed my musical tastes. At Stanford, I had wonderful teachers who were cognizant of atonal music but they didn't believe in throwing out the traditional harmony books or counterpoint either. Leonard Ratner, my principal theory teacher, didn't teach out of a book. He wanted to know why Mozart didn't sound like Chopin or Bach.  He taught you to write like Mozart, write like Bach, to learn about musical history and handle different kinds of compositional problems by seeing how the masters did it. All learning at first takes place by imitation—everybody did that, including Mozart and Bach.

How do you approach the process of commissioning with choruses?

KM: I usually do this in a very informal way. Often it's a conductor that I know. If not, we talk, and he or she tells me about which pieces of mine that they have already performed. I try to get an idea of what he or she is really looking for, and get a feeling for the type of ensemble—large or small, experienced or amateur. Text is very important to me, so I will bring that up. I don't ever want to try to write a choral piece using a text that I don't like, because the very first thing about producing a choral piece that speaks to you is that you love the poem, you love the words, you love the feeling.

See Kirke’s “Commissioning New Music Checklist” prepared for ACDA

I always consider what the director wants, so I have him or her send me ideas, or ask people in the chorus to submit poems. However, I recognize that many fine poems don't make good choral pieces. So just as often, they will ask me if I have any poems that I would like to set. All my life, whenever I find a poem that I think would be good for a chorus, I put it in a file. I’ll go to my file and find two or three poems that I think would be the sort of thing that they're looking for. Sometimes we get stuck, and they don't like what I suggested and I don't like what they suggested. This happened a few years ago, and I just ended up writing a poem that incorporated everything that she wanted. For the last piece I wrote, I took a fragment of a real poem and then I made it into my own. I write my own librettos for my operas, so I guess that's what happens sometimes when you work with an opera composer!

One thing we found at the Choral Ecosystem Forum this spring where we convened many corners of the choral field was that composers were identified as a pivotal “species,” as we called it. What can organizations like Chorus America do to support these people who play this central role?

KM: I think it's kind of the other way around! Chorus America and ACDA are pivotal in the composer’s life. Some of the most inspiring times I've had recently listening to choral music have been performances by children's choirs. There are so many wonderful programs in my area and around the country. The older groups are doing commissions from composers that can write anything they want—they don't have to worry about writing down to a lower level just because they are writing for younger singers.

That may not be a direct answer, but I suppose the answer that you could deduce would be to encourage children's choruses, and encourage composers—maybe through commissions—to occasionally write pieces for different levels of entry. I've written lots of rounds—many of them were written for my own children and nieces and nephews. That's a wonderful way to get kids learning how to sing in parts. They all learn the same tune, they just start at different times.

How has your book been received so far, and have you been surprised at any reactions to it?

KM: I've had a lot of very good reviews and not any bad reviews, which is kind of a surprise—eventually I know that some academic who is wedded to atonal music is going to rake me over the coals. I think it's sold well enough so that they will now release it as a paperback as what they call a trade book, so a lot more people will be able to buy it, see it in bookstores, and see reviews of it. That's when I'll find out what the general response is to it.

Believe Your Ears:
Life of a Lyric Composer

Believe Your Ears
2016 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thompson Award
Outstanding Musical Biography

Part memoir, part advice manual for music lovers and aspiring composers, Kirke Mechem writes of his journey to music and his experience studying composition in a period that was dominated by atonal music.

"A lot of the academics who absorbed the atonal systems as students are still teaching today, so it's going to take another generation or so before a certain class of academic composers don't look down on composers who use tonality,” said Mechem.

The book is “addressed to all who love classical music,” whom he asks to “believe their own ears, and not the lectures of ‘experts.’”

View book on Amazon

In the book, I do talk about Chorus America, and in particular the Chorus Impact Study in 2009 (on page 67). I give specific mention to how many people sing in choruses, and the positive characteristics of choral singers. All of it is so true. I hope people will know about that.

Tell us about one big success that you’re really proud of.

KM: I think the one that brings all of my successes together is the performance of Songs of the Slave—which is a suite from my opera John Brown—which was a featured piece at the 1995 ACDA National Conference in Washington DC. I had the enormous good fortune to have it performed by three great choruses: the Moses Hogan Chorale, the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, and the William Hall Chorale, with the Washington National Opera Orchestra.

What made it particularly poignant for me is that it was done not only in the Kennedy Center, but also in Constitution Hall, the place that would not permit the great singer Marian Anderson to perform because she was black. I have sung on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House with the Stanford Chorus while Marian Anderson sang the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, so I had a very personal feeling about that. John Brown and Songs of the Slave is probably the best music I've ever written, because it's meant more to me than anything.

What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?

KM: I'm getting my newest opera, Pride and Prejudice, going. I should say I finished it 3 times. There's a saying that good plays are not written, they’re rewritten—and I think that holds true for operas. Pride and Prejudice is full of everything you want in opera: wonderful characters, a great love story, caricature, dances, lots of high-spirited flirting, and a real serious story about two people who each have to face how they have been wrong themselves. This is a great human lesson we all have to learn, that we all have our own prejudices and our own pride to break through. I think it's as topical today as the day that Jane Austen wrote it.

Can you tell us about a time where your Chorus America membership has helped you?

KM: Well, the last Conference in Cincinnati was probably as helpful as any, or more so—they are a gift to composers. Not many people can compose in a vacuum. It takes a lot of support from colleagues and friends. I meet so many people who tell me I have sung this, or we love that, or when are you going to write something about so-and-so, or could we commission you to do something. And there were a number of breakout sessions that I found very interesting. I just had a wonderful time.

Is there anything you hope to see in the future for choral music?

KM: I'm so grateful to so many directors. If there was one thing I would wish for more of them to do, I think it would probably be to perform longer works in their entirety, beyond just the individual movements that people often select from them. For example, so much of my own choral music has been composed in cycles or suites; putting together pieces to form a unified whole—either to tell a story, or show a variety of perspectives on a particular subject, such as love or nature, etc.

When you take off your composing hat, what else is an important part of your life?

KM: Last year, we not only celebrated my 90th birthday but our 60th wedding anniversary. Helping us celebrate were our four children, our four grandchildren, and many cousins, nieces and nephews, and all the usual suspects. It was one more opportunity to realize how amazingly fortunate my life has been. 

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