Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An interview with Dr. Sara Doncaster

The following interview was conducted via e-mail with Dr. Sara Doncaster, world premiere commission composer for the 2007 Made in Vermont Music Festival statewide tour. Her piece, "Rush Patrick's Vision," will be performed at nine venues across the state during the tour beginning next week on September 27. For dates and venues, see the sidebar or visit The final question comes from our audience survey that patrons will find in their program book at each concert. The completed survey will serve as your entry into a drawing for a Cabot gift basket valued at $100.

Was it a natural choice for you to write music about your family's farm? Do you find that nature and/or Vermont themes pervade other music that you write?

Nature is often the inspiration behind my music. Rhapsody (1998), Song ofNature (2005) and several early works from my undergraduate years stem directly from perceptions of nature. I wrote a short flute and harp piece a long time ago based on a James Hayford poem "Ring of Hills." I also wrote a woodwind quintet this summer with the same name (based on themes from "Rush Patrick's Vision"). However, I consider "Rush Patrick's Vision" the first major work directly inspired by the farm. Rush Patrick would have been as old as my great-grandfather. He was a farmer who lived on a high hill farm on my parents' property. The Patrick family moved off the hill about 100 years ago. The land was purchased by the Ware family and made part of their property, which my father purchased about 50 years ago.

What elements of nature did you incorporate into the music? If we closed our eyes, could we hear anything that we might in the woods or on the top of a mountain?

"Rush Patrick's Vision" is primarily conceived as a journey through emotional states I imagined Rush Patrick might have experienced while working the land. There is a certain rustic quality to some of the melodies and woodwind doublings that are edgy, quirky, humorous and robust. I'm not sure if that is a depiction of the Patrick Family or my own! These sections were a great pleasure to work out. Even though there is no pictorial program, there are a number of times where I had an image of nature in my ear when I was writing the piece. The view is expansive and panoramic from the old farmsite. It's peaceful, but teeming with many sounds, in layers, all working together. Some specific sound images you could hear might be the hum of insects, the rhythm of haying equipment (not really a sound of nature but definitely a sound you'd hear on a farm), gusting wind. If the bright sunlight of late summer were a sound, it would be in my piece. The end of "Rush Patrick's Vision" represents the culmination of that hilltop view. The concluding harmonic progression is fairly static. Repeating patterns and melodies are played over and over, and they seem to phase in and out of the texture, sometimes recognizable, sometimes not. The final section represents the mountains in the distance, the sky, clouds and the wind blowing through the trees.

What was your favorite part of composing the piece? The worst part?

My favorite part of composing "Rush Patrick's Vision" was letting go and allowing myself to experiment. I loved writing some of the non-melodic rhythmic sections, because I was thinking in a way that I normally do not when I compose. I think the worst part of the process was proofreading -- making sure all of the phrasing, staccatos, accents, dynamics, notespellings and the like were all consistent and correct. I could lose myself for hours creating the music, but it seemed to me that the nuts and bolts aspect of the work took forever.

What's life like for a composer in Vermont? Do you think your life as a composer would be different if you were in a bustling city? Is it hard to make a living?

I love living in Vermont. I enjoy the quiet, small-town life. Irasburg is quite different than living in Burlington or other locations in central Vermont. Here in the northeast Kingdom musical events and performers are not so close by. There are wonderful concerts here in Vermont, but Montpelier and Burlington are often too far for me to drive, given my schedule and the often questionable winter driving. I do miss the city in several important respects. I miss the concert season. I lived in Boston for 18 years, an exciting center for new music, and there was always an exciting musical event to attend. I miss hanging out with other composers, and I also don't have access to performers that I can show my works in progress to. I think it's hard to make a living as a composer no matter where you might live. I am a music teacher in three public schools, so that's the way I earn my living. My commissions, grants and prize money that I win from time to time supplement my income nicely. Composing time is short, and it's often hard to write much after a full day of teaching. I have to jam a lot of work into the summers and school vacations. I have no complaints about any aspect of my career. Yes, my life as a composer would be different in a bustling city -- perhaps more performances and commissions, but I don't think my nerves would have held out. I enjoy and need solitude and quiet -- perhaps that's why I became a band teacher. :-)

Do you think that new/concert/contemporary music will gain footing with the traditional audience? Why do you think some people are turned off by this type of music?

Is it really true that modern music is not accepted by traditional audiences? I hope that isn't an issue. After all, we are in the 21st century! I am not against traditional programs, because my training as a composer began with Renaissance counterpoint and went chronologically from there. I have learned so much about my craft from writing in the style of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. However, it's important that we give equal or even more time to modern masterworks and newly composed music. From my perspective, contemporary music has gained a tremendous amount of footing, and will continue to gain even more footing as this new century unfolds. As long as presenters are willing to program modern music and audiences are willing to develop new listening strategies and are open to new ideas, new works will be heard more and more in the concert hall. There are so many exciting new works and new voices to get to know. I've been fortunate enough to see firsthand how well-received modern music can be as Director of the Warebrook Contemporary Music Festival. For 15 summers, we had a jam-packed weekend of concerts and lectures of American Music with an emphasis on music written since 1945. I was not afraid of giving our audiences the most edgy and progressive programs I could, yet well-balanced and diverse - that's important. The concerts had a steady following and we always saw new faces every year. It’s an exciting time now for presenters -- I know first hand that audiences are ready for something new.

If you were the Big Cheese at Cabot and could create and name a new flavor, what would it be and why?

I love Cabot Cheese. The milk from the beautiful Jersey cows on Hillandale Farm, who graze on the meadows of Rush Patrick's old hill farm, goes into Cabot Cheese. With fond memories of hot apple pie, homemade vanilla ice cream and sharp cheddar cheese, I'd like to see an "Apple Cheddar" developed.