From in between the lines: Interview with Monica Houghton

Dec 2, 2016

The San Francisco Choral Artists will give the world premiere of Monica Houghton’s Te lucis ante terminum as part of SFCA’s December 2016 concert set, Light In Winter. In this interview, Jason Carl Rosenberg speaks with Ms. Houghton about selecting and setting text when composing for choir.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: SFCA will perform your setting of a pretty famous Latin text – one that is still heard today: Te lucis ante terminum (“To Thee before the close of day”). I’d like to begin by focusing on the text and your setting, if that’s okay.

Monica Houghton: Sure, first let me say how pleased I am that Magen Solomon selected this piece for her winter program, especially because these will be the first public performances of the work.

To answer your question: I’ve always liked the way Latin sounds when it is sung, and also the way that it feels in the mouth when sung, in contrast to English for example, with its many “thorny” consonants.

When I was first looking for Latin texts to set, it was the imagery of this text that really struck me: in particular the second stanza, which begins (in translation) “from all ill dreams defend our eyes, from nightly fears and fantasies.”

JCR: I know the origins of this text date to at least the 8th century, but when I think of this text and its many settings (for instance, by Tallis and Britten), it seems to be steeped in the Anglican tradition. You mentioned elsewhere that you sang with an Episcopal church choir. Did this experience lead you to this text?

MH: I was a member of the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio for two years while earning my graduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I was a member of the alto section, which is a great place for a composer to be: in between the melody and the bass line!

When I decided I’d like to set some liturgical texts for chorus it was the organist there, Karel Paukert, to whom I turned for suggestions.

JCR: Part of the reason I’m interested in your thoughts on the text comes from the fact that your composition uses primarily a strict homophonic texture, allowing a consistently clear text to emerge.

MH: Well, for me the text is what determines the form of any musical setting of that text. And by this I don’t mean only the original form of that text, in this case a hymn, or even just the individual words in themselves, but the feeling that emerges “from in between the lines” of the text. In this case it is a feeling of vulnerability one often gets as evening approaches … an unease, perhaps a real fear of things unseen in the darkness. We all wish to be relieved from that fear. This prayer is a plea for protection from that fear, a plea to a greater power.

Intelligibility of words is, of course, something of utmost importance to me as a composer of vocal music. I think perhaps that syllabic settings are more conducive to understanding words on the part of the listener, in some cases.

JCR: The other by-product of the strict homophonic setting is that your Te lucis ante terminum maintains a clean, solemn, hymn-like quality.

MH: True, but even within this context there is drama. The music is very serene in the opening, but then it becomes more searching… ardent even, before relaxing into a more respectful tone, meekness perhaps, after the climax…at least that’s how I experience the piece.

JCR: Thanks to the simplicity of your rhythmic choices, you allow not only the Latin text to take center stage, but also your harmonic language. Your composition embraces mostly traditional tonal sonorities (if you don’t mind me saying so), but there are unexpected shifts at unexpected places. Can you talk a little about your process for creating harmony?

MH: Well, I am an unapologetic humanist. I want to communicate with audiences! I prefer direct and simple means of expression whenever possible. I pay only slight attention to most of the so-called ‘rules’ of composition. Mostly, I let my ear be my guide. Listening to so many great works of music in my life, all of us really, we are so privileged in our day to have access to so many great performances of the great works from our Western musical tradition, as well as from other traditions from throughout the world. I have figured out, often through close study, what it is that I like, what works for me as a listener in music. Then I allow my own musicality to guide me in making the many decisions that a composer must make in constructing a piece like this, hoping that others will listen as I do, and enjoy the music as I do. It is a form of communication of something personal. Maybe harmonies are like the colors on a painter’s palette? I choose whatever seems to me to suit the situation at hand.

JCR: I hope this doesn’t let the cat out of the bag, but there’s one moment, an unexpected moment of text painting, that I particularly enjoy. On the juicy Latin word “phantasmata” you break away from the homophonic texture and unleash an elaborated, racing gesture in the soprano, which is then imitated in the next bar by the tenor. This important moment also seems to come at exactly the midpoint of the work, creating a symmetrical structure and a watershed dividing the different perspectives of the text. Am I reading too much into this or is this related to your intentions?

MH: Yes, I like that moment very much, too. The melisma on that word is an instance of blatant ‘word-painting!’ Apparitions are flying about, and their cries echo (hence the repetition). After that there is an intensification in the music, some added dissonance, which leads into the more straightforward and ardent pleading on “Praesta, Pater piissime” (O Father we ask). This to me is the climax of the piece, where the true meaning comes across. Even for those of us who do not practice any religion, we understand the urge to appeal to a higher power.