Self-doubt and Netflix: Composer and poet Dale Trumbore has accepted that both are an inevitable part of her writing process. So instead of fighting either, she has figured out how to incorporate them into her life in a healthy, productive, non-judgmental way. In 2015, self-doubt led to intense writer’s block for Trumbore, who at the time was living and working as a resident in Aaron Copland’s restored New York home.
She described how it felt to be creatively stuck during that residency in a 2015 blog post for NewMusicBox:
“I’d experienced writer’s block… but never to this paralyzing degree, where I immediately rejected everything I wrote as trite and terrible. So I walked away from the piano, from Copland’s Desk, to Copland’s Living Room. I walked away from composing, and I watched TV.”
Specifically, Trumbore watched Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley and Sex and the City.
“There may be no greater way to make yourself feel like a bad composer – the worst composer, really – than watching the fluffiest of all fluffy shows in the house of one of the Great American Composers while being paid, essentially, to live there and compose.”
In her non-fiction prose essays and forthcoming book, Staying Composed, Trumbore is refreshingly honest about the challenges of navigating a creative life as a full-time composer. She is frank about the lessons she’s learned through trial and error, like how to deal with the inevitable self-doubt that crops up during the composition process, or how to structure her day most effectively—for instance, a mid-day lunch and Netflix break helps clear her mind before afternoon composing sessions.
One thing Trumbore has discovered as she’s sculpted her career is that she is passionate about choral music, a genre in which she also regularly receives commissions. In the coming weeks, her choral compositions are being featured in both Los Angeles and New York. First, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will sing How to Go On, her multi-movement “secular requiem” for a cappella chorus and soloists, at Walt Disney Concert Hallon March 17.
Then, in New York, Choral Chameleon – for which Trumbore is currently composer-in-residence – will give the world premiere of a new secular work for choir and organ, What Are We Becoming? The former National Sawdust ensemble-in-residence will present the piece first in St. James Memorial Chapelat Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, (April 27), then at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Carroll Gardens (April 28).
We recently sat down with Trumbore in the living room of the Los Angeles home she shares with her fiancé and two cats to discuss her writing process as both a poet and composer, her upcoming book, and the similarities and differences between the two works she is having performed in New York and Los Angeles.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Where did you grow up, and when did you begin composing?
DALE TRUMBORE: I’m from New Jersey: first Maplewood, then Chatham. My background is similar to most composers, I think. I started piano lessons and I sang in church and school choirs from the time I was seven or so. I started writing down my own music at around age seven. I would be practicing piano, playing what I was supposed to be playing, then I would start rewriting the piece and playing my own version.
In high school I composed a lot of pieces for piano, sort of imitating the composers that I really liked and was playing at the time. I imitated Chopin, who is still one of my favorite composers to play. And I imitated Bach at the age of 12. It didn’t work and I failed horribly, but it was ambitious.
And then I started writing choral pieces, too. In high school I had a very small a cappella group that fluctuated between six and eight friends of mine. So I would arrange pieces for them to sing.
Do you come from a musical family?
My parents are actually both writers and editors. My dad worked as a cartoonist for the first part of my life. Then he started as a reporter at a local paper and worked his way up to editor-in-chief. My mom is now a children’s book writer. She worked as a children’s book editor for a very long time, and also worked in educational publishing. I have an aunt who was the poet laureate of Louisiana, and another aunt who was a magazine editor for years, although she’s retired now. So growing up it felt like everyone was a writer or an editor.
So studying creative writing in college was a natural choice for you.
I actually knew I wanted to double major. I went to the University of Maryland, and from there I have a B.A. in English and a B.M. in music composition.
And then from there you moved west to study composition at USC. What led you there?
Part of the reason I wanted to go to USC was that it feels like a very welcoming place for vocal music in particular. I think as a composer it can feel sometimes like there’s this big divide between the choral music world and everything else in classical composition. So part of my mission is that I would love to dismantle that schism.
But anyway, I moved to L.A. almost ten years ago now. I knew Morten Lauridsen was teaching there, and that I could specifically focus on writing choral music. And also, I knew that their faculty was so strong in general—that on the flip side of that, I could get a really solid education in writing instrumental music as well. And I feel like I did get that. It really it felt like a place where lots of different styles and techniques were welcome. That was something I was really looking for, that openness.
Did you make a conscious decision at some point to focus your career around choral music?
When I was in grad school I already knew that I loved writing choral music, and that I wanted to write it as much as possible. During those two years I was already getting paid commissions for my choral music, more so than my instrumental writing. I did both, and I still try to do both. But for me, writing for voice and writing for chorus in particular is the overlap of what I love doing, what other people ask me to do, and what actually will make a living.
Was part of the pull towards choral music the fact that you enjoy working with the written word?
Yes, very much. Recently I’ve gotten back in to writing poetry for my own compositions. But even before that, I think writing for chorus has always been a way of keeping that love of language in my life. With every piece I write, it’s a matter of how do I take the words that exist already and how do I translate them into music? What is the music contributing. and how? You’re not trying to make the words better, as much as allow them to take on a new or different shape. It’s asking what music could possibly do to illuminate them and bring them to life in a new way.
I find that even when I’m writing for instruments, I still think in terms of narrative more so than the development of the theme. I tend to think in terms of what the plot of the piece is; even if I never articulate that aloud, it has to happen in my head. So language very much informs everything I do as a composer.
You regularly write poetry, non-fiction prose, and music. How different or similar are those writing processes for you?
I’ve actually found that my own personal process is really similar between composing, creative writing, poetry, or non-fiction writing. In the earliest stages, I’m just capturing fragments of tiny ideas. I try to catch them as they come in, without worrying about organizing them. Then it’s a matter of sitting down and seeing what those little tiny fragments add up to and starting to flesh them out. That happens during a really messy first draft, and then I do multiple rounds of edits until it feels like things are done.
In addition to completing compositions for various commissions, you’re writing a book right now. Where are you in that process? And can you tell us a little about it?
The publication date is June 4, and right now everything is on track to do that. The book is called Staying Composed, and the subtitle is “Overcoming Anxiety and Self-Doubt Within a Creative Life.”
I’ve chosen to self-publish it, but with a team of professional editors and designers behind me. I’ve been writing these essays about composing and making a living in music and overcoming anxiety, and I just think there’s so much uncertainty in making a career in the arts. It’s really hard, especially if you’re, say, just coming out of grad school or undergrad and looking at the idea of a professional career as a composer.
The book addresses the idea of day-to-day creative struggles, like procrastination, and then it journeys through what you face over the course of a creative career. There’s an abundance of this kind of book for writers. But there aren’t really, at least that I have found, any that are specifically geared towards that anxiety and self-doubt and uncertainty for composers. So it comes from lessons learned from composition and from music, but the hope is that it will apply to anyone in a creative field.
I love how honest you are in your writing about self-doubt and writer’s block—like when you talk about sort of giving up for a while and just watching TV at Aaron Copland’s house.
[Laughs] Yes! Watching Sex and the City at Copland’s house.
I think it’s a common thing people experience. It’s something that now I have incorporated as part of my daily routine. I usually end up watching Netflix or some TV show for like around half an hour while I eat lunch, and then sometime again in the evening when I’m done working. It’s an example of taking something that’s going to happen anyway and just carving out time for it, putting it in my schedule and not feeling guilty about it. It’s mental rest.
Let’s talk about the performances you have coming up in Los Angeles and New York.
Yes! It feels really meaningful to work with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, having lived here for almost 10 years. I think we all just want to be loved at home. As an artist, that feels so much more personal than performances anywhere else. And then having grown up in northern New Jersey, for a long time New York City felt like my city. So being composer-in-residence for a group in New York City, and then having this huge Los Angeles performance—it feels like a really fulfilling time.
Tell us a little about How to Go On, the piece the Master Chorale will perform in L.A.
It’s a 30-35 minute a cappella secular requiem for chorus and soloists—the soloists come into play whenever the text goes into the first person.
The text is by three living writers: Barbara Crooker, Laura Foley, and Amy Fleury. The eight movements of the piece can actually be performed in any order, so it was really fun working with [Master Chorale associate conductor] Jenny Wong to put it together for this performance, just seeing what order she chose. I didn’t have a hand in it. I wanted elements of chance and unpredictability in the piece, so the movement order is one way that that presents itself.
Can you explain what, exactly, a “secular requiem” is?
I’ve been saying that this is a requiem with a lowercase r specifically because it doesn’t use the Latin mass texts at all. But it does address all of the themes we associate with a requiem, like confronting grief, confronting our own death. Confronting the idea of moving on, if not specifically the afterlife.
The title refers to how to go on after a loved one dies. When I wrote the piece, I wasn’t thinking specifically of any one person; I was drawing from various losses I’ve experienced in my life. I also was thinking very much about how we confront our own mortality, and how that can feel insurmountable whether or not you have a religious background. With or without the sort of scaffolding that religion provides, it’s still terrifying to confront your own death.
Right. Because even if you believe in an afterlife, no one really knows what death is like.
Right, no one knows! I usually say I’m agnostic, or I say I’m an atheist who hopes I’m wrong—which of course puts me back at being agnostic, cause I’m admitting what I don’t know.
The piece you’ve written for Choral Chameleon is called What We Are Becoming? and it will be performed in sacred spaces. How are the two pieces similar or different?
This was a commission for a secular piece for chorus and organ. It’s kind of interesting that this season I keep getting performances of pieces that traditionally would have been sacred forms, but I’ve done in secular ways.
There are two movements, each based on a poem, and the title comes from the first movement. Both poems ask questions about how we move forward. The theme of the concert is “Deus ex machina,” and so I was thinking about how that might translate, and also how do we acknowledge emotions that are really difficult.
Some choral music is one note, thematically” it’s like, “we’re sad because we’ve lost our lover.” Part of the reason I love using almost exclusively contemporary texts is because there’s so much room for nuance and more complex emotions. Like in How to Go On—maybe while you’re in the throes of grief you’re also experiencing moments of feeling the most alive you’ve ever felt. I think that as a composer writing now, it’s important to acknowledge that things are usually complicated—like joy is not always an easy emotion, and even grief is not necessarily.
Whether it’s school shootings or movie theater shootings or climate change – and both of these poems came from a place of trying to respond to those things – it feels important to me as a choral composer to stay away from the old texts that have been set to death, and to set texts that feel relevant. What works for me is finding texts that reflect everything that I’m really concerned about right now.
There are a lot of questions presented in the texts of both of these pieces.
Yes, and I don’t want to impose answers with the music. These things are unanswerable. But I think even if we don’t end up with answers at the end of a piece, there’s something valid in asking those questions, and in moving through all of them and actually trying to find the answers that feel meaningful to us.
In these pieces, and in much of your music, you draw your texts almost exclusively from contemporary, living female American poets. Is that purposeful? Or just an affinity?
Yes, predominantly. Not always, but yes. When I started consciously seeking out works by living female poets, it felt like a way to sort of right an historical imbalance.
You write for the voice and think narratively about your compositions. Do you have any plans to write an opera?
I actually really want to write a musical, and I have an idea for that! It’s so early in the process, so there’s not much there yet. I used to accompany musicals in high school and all throughout college, too. I was like the go-to accompanist for any student production. I loved that music, and I don’t get that so much anymore. So I will write a musical. It’s just a matter of finding the right timing and the right people to collaborate with.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs How to Go On at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 17 at 7pm; lamasterchorale.org. Choral Chameleon gives the world-premiere performances of What Are We Becoming? at Union Theological Seminary on April 27 at 8pm, and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Brooklyn on April 28 at 5pm; choralchameleon.com.
Catherine Womack is an L.A.-based arts and culture journalist who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter: @cewomackwrites
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.