Gwyneth Walker

Sense of Humor Sets Composer Apart

by Frank Magiera, The Telegram and Gazette, Worcester, Massachusetts
Published 3/5/99

Return to Gwyneth Walker Home Page
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Return to Gwyneth Walker Recordings Page Read notes for Love -- By the Water (1997) for SATB chorus and piano
Read notes for Fanfare for the Family Farm (1989) for orchestra
Read notes for Match Point (1985) for orchestra

Gwyneth Walker once had a music educator's dream job.

After graduating from Brown University and the Hartt School of Music, she joined the faculty of the prestigious Oberlin College Conservatory. The only trouble was that by then she had decided that she wanted to be a composer. So, she quit her job and started publishing.

Now, 20 years later, Walker is a popular composer of new choral music. Her work is frequently performed by community choruses, colleges and high school groups.

Three Walker works will be featured Sunday when the Worcester Chorus, the Westboro High School Concert Choir and Madrigal Singers, and the Worcester Symphony Strings join forces for "A Choral Festival of Song," a concert sponsored by Music Worcester at 7 p.m. in Alden Hall at WPI.

So, what's with the cows?

"I befriended them," Walker said. "They're on the farm where I live in Braintree, Vt. During the day they're the only creatures around.

Walker concedes that the cows and the rural atmosphere have inspired some of her music. She's written several pieces about farm life and the beauties of farms.

Beyond that, however, are the novel turns inspired by her own sense of humor. In an overture she wrote called Fanfare for the Family Farm, the conductor is instructed to use cow-milking gestures to lead the orchestra; the percussion instruments are milk pails, cowbells and other farm equipment.

In Match Point a piece inspired by another of her interests, tennis, the conductor uses a tennis racquet instead of a baton. And in her adaptation of "Banks of the Ohio", which will be performed Sunday, the chorus must don bathing caps and goggles. She said she fills a niche writing new music for programs often overladen with classical and sacred music.

"Community choruses frequently end programs with one or two new pieces or an updated work written by an American composer, some updated spirituals, something a little more fun and with it. That's where I fit in."

The Walker works that are to be performed by the Worcester Chorus are adaptations of familiar songs about love and water. For "Blow the Candles Out", Walker added a guitar accompaniment that was tranposed for piano. She composed a new melody for "Fare Thee Well", and a new verse for "Banks of the Ohio."

About the latter song, she said: "It always struck me as really odd that (the woman in the song) would be thrown into the river and that would be the end of her, since most of us can swim. So I made this more of a lighthearted feminist piece."

"He throws her in the water and she says, 'Well, that's fine .. that's enough of that relationship. ... I'm going to swim away.' Then he is so distraught that he leaps in and swims after her. So she's not a helpless person."

Although Walker is pleased that audiences seem to appreciate her sense of humor, not all of her music is comical.

Some is sacred ("because I'm a Quaker and that means, you know, life is a good thing."). She particularly enjoys writing music for the works of poets such as e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, and May Swenson.

"My musical settings just aim to do justice to the words," she said. "They're quite melodic, not too cluttered -- open and sparse, people would say. You can hear a little of Copland and Gershwin passing." Walker, 51, has published more than 100 pieces.

She said Gerald Mack, the director of the Worcester Chorus who also teaches at the Hartt School, helped launch her composition career.

"He started programming my music at the Hartt School, where there were many chamber music students and music majors, soon to be choral directors. Within 10 years, those people were out across the country. When they wanted new choral pieces for their groups, they started contacting me. At first I was flattered and would do it almost for nothing. Then I started charging a small amount. Things just got bigger and bigger."