Questions for Stephanie Martin: Babel

Stephanie Martin is a composer & conductor, associate professor of music at York University. I heard about her because of a brief controversy that has already been settled, concerning her choral symphony Babel to be premiered at Wilfrid Laurier University in April. It was a matter of great personal interest to me, considering that just a few days ago I had a bit of an epiphany listening to a sermon in my church that also involved the story of Babel.

anthonisz_babel_grt-150x150Here’s the passage in Genesis Chapter 11, and, as we’re talking about language and comprehension I thought it might be appropriate to cite the King James Version.

1-And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Here’s some of Martin’s bio (a more complete version can be found on her website):

Canadian composer and conductor Stephanie Martin is associate professor of music at York University, artistic director of Pax Christi Chorale, director of Schola Magdalena, a women’s ensemble specializing in the performance of chant and medieval polyphony, and past director of music at the historic church of Saint Mary Magdalene.
Martin is widely recognized as an accomplished composer of works for both voices and instruments. …Martin holds degrees from the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University, and is an Associate of the Royal Canadian College of Organists. In York University’s Department of Music, Faculty of Fine Arts, she teaches music history and performance, harpsichord, organ and coaches historical ensembles.

To discover more about Stephanie Martin and her choral symphony Babel I asked her some questions.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Ha ha! – Good question. I love both my parents. They have helped me through many a tough time and have been with me for all the truly important moments in my life. I hope I am my own person, but obviously my parents are part of who I am. My Dad is meticulous and likes to count things. My Mom is emotional and enjoys creating things. They are both sensitive musicians, life-long learners and active volunteers in their community. My Mom reads fiction, my Dad reads histories. My Dad works through puzzles in the news paper, and pursues family genealogy, while my Mom likes to be making something, like quilts or strawberry jam. My Dad likes to watch baseball, my mom likes Murdoch Mysteries. They both grew up in a close knit community and are not strangers to hard work, but they know how to have fun and enjoy a good joke. You can depend on them to follow through on their promises. I can only hope I’ve inherited a shred of their genes.

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2) What is the best thing about what you do?

What delights me most is seeing people becoming their best and true selves. I like bringing creative people together and seeing what results from a connection that otherwise would not have happened. It pains me when I see someone who shuts down or feels excluded, unhappy or unappreciated. It gives me great joy to see the light dawn on students, or performers who finally get it right, or successful relationships that foster the best part of people’s character.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Recordings? When I was a kid I listened obsessively to Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame written in the 14th century. Then I branched out to Palestrina. Today my play list includes The Chieftains’ Irish folk music, ‘The Mystery of Bulgarian voices’, Hubert Parry’s ‘Cambridge Symphony,’ Murray Schafer’s ‘Credo,’ Schola Magdalena’s ‘Virgo Splendens,’ and the British composer Alec Roth’s ‘Earthrise. ‘

TV? I actually only have bunny ears so I can watch 3 channels on TV. But I do watch lots of movies. Recently I loved “Room” and “Steve Jobs” but I could watch “Sunset Boulevard” every night.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Math and physics eluded me in high school, and now that I am older I find myself wishing I knew more about the laws governing the expanding universe, string theory, relativity, gravity. Unfortunately I have no aptitude for these pursuits. I take a French course once a year at Alliance Française, but I still find myself fumbling for words when I try to communicate in our second official language – just one of many languages I wish were better at. I wish I were a better cook.

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I have a weekly date gobbling up fabulous meals prepared by my friends Shawn and Dave (http://www.mondaynightdining.com ) and after dinner, I enjoy playing my violin very badly. Although I am at heart an introvert, I adore when my house is full of happy people eating, drinking and making atrocious music. I read poetry and I grow tomatoes from seed. I love visual art, history and architecture so if I’m travelling you’ll probably find me in a museum or art gallery, and checking out the oldest church I can find. Also, no word of a lie, I enjoy yoga, Scottish country dancing, chess, walking up hills, real ale, Shakespeare, tabby cats, Holstein-Friesian cattle, and Ontario wine.

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More questions for the creator of BABEL : a choral symphony

1- You are on the Faculty at York University, and are facing a kind of protest at WLU concerning your work. Please describe the protest, as you understand it.

I’m not sure that it can be called a protest anymore. There was a small group of students who found that my piece “Babel” challenged their personal, religious faith. I can understand that because the text of the piece, written by my sister Cori Martin, is very challenging and takes quite a bit of experience and worldly knowledge to comprehend. The really exciting story is that the conflict was thoughtfully and compassionately solved by Lee Willingham the conductor, and Gerard Yun at WLU. They met with the concerned students and used words to solve the conflict – amazing, right? We humans can actually solve conflict with words, and that is not a flashy news story, but I think it is inspiring. I would hold these profs up as people who are patient, intelligent, kind and demonstrate a constructive model for anyone working through a difference of opinion.

2- Please describe the poem (the text of choral symphony).

You can access the entire poem on my blog entry from March 1st You will see that the poem is 3 pages long, and has a page of notes and translations since many languages are used.

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This is a tiny sample, a screen capture to show some of the poem.

The body of the poem is a profound modern reflection on the Biblical ‘Babel’ story which tries to explain why people have different languages, why we can’t communicate effectively, and why our attempts at great art usually fall short of our own expectations. I can only recommend that you read the whole poem several times and reflect on its meaning. It is truly a modern masterpiece, bathed in a lifetime of literary knowledge.

3-What kind of setting have you given the poem?

I was tasked to write a really, really big piece. It’s 45 minutes long which is the longest piece I have written, and all of the choirs and all of the orchestral instrumentalists at WLU were to be included in the piece. So it’s a massive orchestra, a double choir, with 5 soloists, and a particularly large percussion section. Since the text draws on many languages and literary influences, my music also reflects many styles. I would say you could possibly hear the influence of Benjamin Britten, Mahler, Handel, Verdi, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Adams, alongside something like a personal style. There are some hidden messages in the music that I will let clever students discover for themselves.

If I were to simplify, one element is that the more painful the text the more dissonant the music, and when the resolution of the poem comes at the end, I hope that the choir achieves an ethereal catharsis. It’s tricky music, but the Laurier music students are incredibly accomplished, curious and willing to try new repertoire. I heard the orchestra play a new music concert in January and it was astonishing. They sounded better than some professional orchestras I have heard. Paul Pulford, the orchestral leader, deserves much of the credit for their highly skilled performances. The choirs, under the direction of Lee Willingham, are equally accomplished and enthusiastic to tackle new and challenging repertoire.

4-Looking at your website I couldn’t help noticing a great number of religious or spiritual compositions (for instance a Gloria, an Ave Maria, and several other compositions alluding to God & the spirit). Please speak of how you understand the way music works with such texts.

The human voice is a wonderful medium. There are some things we find easier to sing than to say aloud. Sacred music can go to some of those profound spiritual places we can’t visit through mundane speech.

When I worked as the organist at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto I was stepping into the shoes of the “Dean of Canadian music,” that is the legendary Canadian composer Healey Willan. He found inspiration within those walls, and it found me there too – a place where music had a clear role and where the listeners understood and appreciated it. My church choir there was a well-oiled musical instrument, the singers were highly intelligent and learned music quickly and sang it with sensitivity and deep understanding. So much of my music was written for that liturgical context in the years 2006 – 2012 and I am very proud of the music we made together there.

5- At the risk of asking an impossible question: what do you aim to teach your composition students?

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It’s difficult to teach creativity, but I find there are ways to encourage, foster and enhance it. I attempt to balance strict compositional exercises with unregulated creativity. I hope the students feel they have learned something formal about their craft, but they’ve also had enough freedom to explore their passion. I also hope to share the nuts and bolts of making a living as a musician, and building healthy time- management habits. Any career in music poses a tough road if you aren’t organized or willing to work hard.

6-Is the current drama surrounding this Choral Symphony becoming a story you may one day tell in some other medium (song cycle, oratorio?)

At the moment I’d like to hide it under a rock. It’s become a tempest in a teapot! Initially I was taken aback when I heard that my work was being considered sacrilegious by a small group of students, and I felt compelled to respond. I never expected the copious online reaction. I suppose this hit a nerve, and I’m happy that the incident encouraged some thoughtful debate. I certainly hope the students involved don’t feel persecuted, since I think the whole problem has been solved beautifully by the brilliant profs at WLU. One positive outcome is that the controversy has inspired a lot of virtual “water cooler” conversations, and some delving into the issues that the work itself deals with – communication, art and conflict. This is good, because we spend most of our days just mechanically going about our business, executing our routine, and wondering when we can go home, and we don’t generally indulge in real intellectual debate with anyone in case we should offend someone. It’s actually pretty cool to be able to talk through a sensitive problem and come up with a solution that everyone can live with.

7- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I admire nurses who work long hours and deal with difficult people with grace, and treat their patients like celebrities. I admire men who have jobs out-of-doors, who work on construction sites in the middle of winter, who take their lunch in a box, and face danger every day without blinking. I admire students who support sick parents, work a part time job, and still study and hand in their assignments on time without skipping a beat. I admire journalists who put themselves in harm’s way to bring us news of what’s happening around the world. I admire people who have courage to help others without thinking about the cost.

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Stephanie Martin’s choral symphony Babel receives its world premiere presentations at Wilfrid Laurier University Theatre Auditorium Saturday, April 2 at 8:00pm and Sunday April 3 at 3:00pm.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Questions, Questions, Spirituality & Religion, university life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Questions for Stephanie Martin: Babel

  1. Thanks for your interest in Babel: A choral symphony. The choir sings every word of the poem, even the passages in Greek, Hebrew and Latin, so they are going to have a huge learning experience. I hope I’ll see you at the show Leslie, and thanks for a fun interview!

  2. Pingback: TSO – Fragile Absolute | barczablog

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