Amy Bernon is one of Connecticut’s leading composers of choral music. She’s also a talented singer, pianist, conductor, and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet! Amy’s music is accessible and unpretentious, and she has received countless commissions from choral festivals and ensembles of all levels. Her works for treble voices are especially popular among women’s choirs and youth choirs. I recently had an opportunity to speak with Amy about her perspective on choral music, her experience working with women’s choirs, and her life as a full-time composer.
Can you please share a bit about your musical background?
My parents played recordings of jazz, Broadway, folk and classical music throughout my childhood. I began piano lessons at the age of 4 with Joyce Ucci, who still lives across the street from my parents 44 years later! I learned from her until the day I left for college, and count her among my mentors. In middle school, I sang and played French horn which I continued to do through high school. I developed a passion for Renaissance and Baroque choral music in college. Most summers, from high school through my early 20’s, were dedicated to writing/performing musical theater. My compositional “voice” arose from all of these influences.
Please describe some of the experiences you’ve have had conducting, singing in, and composing for women’s choirs and what has made those experiences unique.
In high school, I sang in a female barbershop quartet and fell in love with creating harmony with my friends. At Hartt, I sang in Pam Perry’s women’s ensemble, and she was kind enough to have the group read through my first piece for women. Years later, I founded my own women’s choir, Alamanda (2001-2007). As a composer, I enjoy the interesting and beautiful ways women’s voices can be woven together. I also admire the support that women’s choirs offer their members–the connection goes beyond singing.
Do you have any favorite women’s choirs (or other choirs), either locally or anywhere in the world?
I love Anonymous 4 and was thrilled to hear them live a while ago. Our local (Southbury, CT) women’s choir, Femina Melodia, is a fine group whose concerts I enjoy. I am a fan of Concora and their new director, Chris Shepard (a mentor and close friend) and an admirer of Craig Hella Johnson’s Conspirare. When I’m in NYC, I try to hear the St. Thomas Choir. In addition, I am always amazed at the high caliber of the high school and college groups at the conventions I attend.
How would you describe your style as a composer?
My music has elements of many styles, probably due to the variety of genres I was exposed to as a child and music student. Folk music has influenced my accessible melodies; early music, my melismatic passages. Some of my pieces have a theatrical feeling. What’s nice is that people say they can tell when they’re hearing one of my compositions. I like that my influences have converged into something of a signature style.
Please describe your compositional process.
I need to have an itch of sorts to feel ready to write something new. (Something needs to “bother me,” as I mention later in a comment about Libby Larsen). Once I’ve started, I will usually get some lyrics down so I don’t forget them. When I’m convinced that an idea has sticking power, I start sketching out a melody and some basic piano chords. For me, the intro. and ending of a piece are the most difficult–so much pressure to set the mood right away, and then how to end it? I work at the piano, and then it’s off to the computer to put my new material into Finale and work with it a bit there. Then I’m back at the piano. I work best in short spurts, putting the piece together bit by bit, like a puzzle. This process is followed by many hours of tweaking and revising.
I know that you write a lot of your own lyrics. Which comes first, the words or the music (or does it vary)?
It varies, but I would say that something as simple as a single word or short phrase can spark a new idea. Sitting at the piano and “fiddling around” works, too.
Do you ever experience writer’s block or composer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, I definitely experience writer’s block. I wait it out. Some composers prefer to power through, but if I attempt this, my music sounds strained. After a long period of writing, I need to take some time to re-charge.
Where do you find inspiration as a composer?
If a piece is commissioned, I try to get as much inspiration as I can from the director and members of the commissioning choir. I ask, “What is the mood you want to set? Do you have phrases or poems or ideas that you’d like incorporated?” Much of my writing is inspired by nature. Sometimes, a phrase, a word, or a bit of a melody will work its way into my brain and I feel compelled to develop it. I worked with composer Libby Larsen who said, “Let the music bother you.” If it won’t leave me alone, I know I’m onto something!
How many pieces have you composed specifically for women’s choirs (or for treble choirs in general that would be suitable for a women’s choir), and can you please describe a few of your favorites?
I’ve written about 25 pieces that are SSA/SSAA and some 2-part treble with descant that would work for women. (Many of these are additionally voiced for other choir types). I am partial to I Am Being Woven which was originally written for a middle school choir and then evolved into an SSA piece. I feel it’s better-suited to women’s voices and has a text that resonates with women. Three of my pieces, Some Kind of Music, Paint Me a Song and Your Voice is the Wind, are unabashedly romantic and full of rich harmonies. Alleluia, Alleluia!, for SSAA choir with percussion, is rhythmic and fun.
Are there any upcoming performances of your compositions that you would like people to know about?
I am lucky that my pieces are performed nationally and internationally, but often in places that are too distant for me and my CT friends to visit. Currently, I know of a few upcoming local performances that will take place in schools but are not open to the general public.
What have been some of the highlights of your musical career so far?
Finding my way to Heritage Music Press/Lorenz and my editor, Mary Lynn Lightfoot (now head of Sing!, the Educational Music branch of Choristers Guild) has been the highlight of my career. I have been nurtured and encouraged every inch of the way by her. Other highlights include visiting schools and working with wonderful students and teachers. I also like running reading sessions with fun and enthusiastic groups.
What advice do you have for young musicians and aspiring composers?
Listen to lots of recordings, attend concerts, and stay active as a participant in ensembles. New composers: Experiment–don’t lock yourselves into one style. And probably most important: Embrace revision. You may feel that everything you create is precious and shouldn’t be changed. With time and maturity, you’ll realize this isn’t true.
Do you have a specific aesthetic ideal in terms of the sound and/or artistic approach for a women’s choir (or any choir)?
I feel that expression of the text is paramount and beautiful vowels, a must. A connection to the music in body and face brings the audience into your world. When the members of an ensemble feel close-knit and share respect, it’s apparent in the performance.
How do you feel about the use of vibrato in choral singing?
In Romantic music, I love a big, lush sound full of vibrato. Straight tone is beautiful (to my ears) in music Baroque and earlier.
What are some of your favorite styles, periods, composers, and genres of music (within and/or outside of the choral realm)?
I love early music and have sung a lot of it–from Lassus to Monteverdi to Bach. I am a sucker for the Romantic period, too–Mendelssohn’s music in particular. In the world of current music, I am a big fan of the young Scandinavian composers writing so beautifully today–especially Ēriks Ešenvalds from Latvia who incorporates folk songs and unearthly textures into his gorgeous, expansive writing.
Who are the mentors, role models, and composers of the present day and/or former generations who have been most influential in shaping your work as a musician and composer?
Chris Shepard offered me my first job and has been a mentor and friend since college. At Hartt and Yale, Gerry Mack, Pam Perry and Maggie Brooks shaped my love of choral singing. Robert Carl and Martin Bresnick encouraged me to stretch and experiment in my composing. I have admiration for colleagues and friends who share my love for writing quality educational music: Victor Johnson, Mary Lynn Lightfoot, Ruth Elaine Schram, André Thomas and many more. And I must mention my effervescent high school choir director, Bonnie Nye. She introduced me to an abundant array of choral and theatrical music, and she encouraged me to write and perform.
What are some of your favorite pieces (repertoire recommendations) for women’s choir by other composers?
I like creative arrangements of popular music — Gershwin for Girls, arr. Chinn; Dream a Little Dream of Me, arr. Huff are examples. Alice Parker’s arr. of folksongs and spirituals work well for women. Some gems: Casals’ Nigra Sum; Jeffers’ Three Mountain Ballads; Spevacek’s The Lark Ascending.
Is there anything else you would like to share or discuss?
I’d like to encourage directors to consider looking at full catalogs of composers’ works, including older pieces. Sometimes, directors are tempted to look only at the very latest pieces, or continually use one or two pieces by certain composers year after year. It’s fun and educational to dig deeply into a favorite composer’s back catalog. Additionally, consider commissioning a composer. It’s a meaningful way to bring a creative project to your school–and you’re helping to introduce a fresh, new work into the repertoire!
A version of this interview was previously published on the CT ACDA blog.