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CC: How has your background and experience as an organist and church musician influenced your overall compositional life?

DL: In a variety of ways. But, it's kind of a mixed bag in a way. When you think about the legacy of mainstream composers of the past who were organists and/or church musicians, it's really phenomenal. It certainly starts earlier than the baroque masters Bach and Handel (all the way back to the Medieval period, really, with Leonin and Perotin). Then moving through all the periods of music history we find that Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Messiaen, Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson and William Albright all played the organ, wrote for it and valued the instrument. Non-organists have certainly written outstanding works for the organ (with Ned Rorem immediately coming to mind). But composers in the 20th/21st centuries who don't play the instrument often speak of the special challenges of writing for it (with George Crumb and Joan Tower immediately coming to mind). With the number of fine pipe organs now going into American concert halls, it is my hope that many new composers and listeners will discover the glories of the instrument. I've certainly tried to contribute toward its repertoire and have achieved great satisfaction in doing so.

But, when I was in high school I had a bit of ambivalence between both the concert hall and church music, yet was enthusiastically throwing myself into both. I was playing trombone at a fairly high level then, already being a sub in the Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Oratorio Singers. At age 14 I had my first professional organist post and was extremely committed to the church and its music (and still am, I might add). So, I had both worlds and was stimulated by both. My young composer and musician friends really didn't do very much at all in terms church music. Certainly they did nothing in terms of the organ. One of the problems was the fact that mainstream 20th century styles of music were not welcomed in so many churches. I wrestled with that for many years, but served a number of churches with rich past musical backgrounds, like Binghamton's First Presbyterian Church (where I served for nine years), and found them to be open to a variety of mainstream musical styles. When I was in Binghamton, NY after my masters (1973-1981), I had the best of both the concert and church music worlds. I had a college post (Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY), a fine church music post, a splendid concert series that I led from First Presbyterian and had the freedom to develop as a composer and make lots of music at a high level on a weekly basis. Then, in 1982 (when I joined the faculty of Wake Forest University), I shifted to being a full time college professor and a full time composer. My work as an organist was lessened, due to the number of hours in the day! So I don't perform now nearly as much as I once did and I don't have a regular church music post anymore.

I am delighted that my organ and choral music winds up being heard by a number of people in many churches on a weekly basis. Due to the sophisticated nature of many of the churches in which my music is performed, those same people are very likely to hear an orchestral or chamber work of mine via radio or live concert. Thus, it all helps toward the building of a following for my entire catalog, a process that is always done one listener at a time.

I do believe that my spiritual life has influenced all my music and continues to do so. And I'm confident that my early involvement in church music has been at the heart of this.

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Copyright © 18 January 2005 Carson P Cooman, Rochester, NY, USA


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