The brilliant Jeffrey Parola, Choral Chameleon’s composer-in-residence for 2009-2010, was good enough to be interviewed for a little segment I call, “I know who Jeffrey Parola is, but who IS he?”
Where did you grow up, Jeffrey?
I was born in Salinas, California, a small agricultural town most noted as the birthplace of author, John Steinbeck. I have a pretty large immediate family with 3 siblings, and my extended family also comprises of many. We all grew up within walking distance of each other, including my grandparents on both sides; so we were, and continue to be, a tightly knit family. I consider myself lucky to have such a close family.
My childhood in Salinas was a pretty typical suburban childhood. I grew up in a suburban cul-de-sac, and virtually every house on my block housed kids around my age. I played outside with my neighborhood friends from morning until night riding bikes, playing basketball or street hockey, building tree houses, etc.
So how much of a role did music play, during your childhood in Salinas?
The piano first caught my attention when I was 7 or 8 years old. In the house across the street from me, all three kids played piano, which intrigued and impressed me. I really wanted to play piano, too, so they taught me a few simple, single-fingered melodies, which electrified me. My parents caught on to this passion, and one day, while I was learning piano across the street, somehow managed to quietly move a baby grand piano into our living room. When I got home, family and friends were in the house as I entered the door. I saw the piano, and fell to the ground!
For most of my youth, I played piano while also playing baseball, basketball, and track, but after my freshman year in high school, music overtook my life. My passion for it made most other hobbies seem to be “in the way.” Though I left the world of organized sports, I continued to played basketball, touch football, and street hockey with my friends.
After high school, you pursued a degree in music at UCLA. Many musicians enter their college programs as music performance majors. What prompted you to pursue composition over performance?
Starting up piano lessons as a kid took some time, and even so, my first piano teacher ended up leaving for college not too long after we began. During these lulls, I improvised at the piano, and for some reason, didn’t think much of it. I think I was more impressed with the fact that I was merely making sound on the piano. It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that Mrs. Holly (my great piano teacher of 10 years) recognized that this natural ability to create was a gift. She wrote down my memorized “improvisations” for me in the beginning, and slowly began to introduce notational skills.
It was clear to me via her encouragement that what I was doing was special, and I initially composed to please her. Then I began to identify myself as a composer. I didn’t strive to emulate Horowitz or Van Cliburn, but Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. In fact, I was so obsessed with Mozart that even as a young kid, I visited the Steinbeck library to check out books on his life.
By the time I made it to college, after a brief stint as a business major, I chose to be a music major, and it was clear to me that I was first and foremost a composer. Thus, I majored in composition.
I think I speak for us all when I say we’re so very pleased you didn’t continue pursuing a business degree! In college, did you always have a sense of the genre/style of music you wished to compose or was that something that evolved over time?
I knew I wanted to compose classical concert music from the get-go, but in terms of style, I’ve made a real journey. My first compositions were little waltzes, reminiscent of the pedagogical pieces found in my early piano books. Then I discovered Mozart, and most of my teenaged pieces attempted to sound like they came from the late 18th century. At some point, I moved onto a Romantic style, and the compositions from this stage of my life were submitted in my undergraduate application portfolio to UCLA.
Once I arrived at UCLA, I was shocked to hear what fellow composers were writing, and I found it disorienting. It wasn’t until my second year in music history that I took two quarters of 20th century music, and learned about the incredibly diverse movements in music throughout that period. It all began to make sense to me, and the influence of this knowledge began to seep into my works. Minimalism was a particular inspiration because it possessed a sonic beauty that resonated with me almost instantly.
I’ll come back to minimalism in just a moment. How did you decide to pursue a Master of Music degree at S.F. Conservatory?
Because I lived in Los Angeles for a few years as an undergraduate, I saw the benefits of living in a large city, and how being a part of the big city music scene inspired me to write. So I set my eyes on a few big city schools, including the SF Conservatory of Music. The music scene in San Francisco is one of the nation’s most sophisticated, and the Conservatory is one of America’s premiere schools of music.
When I visited the Conservatory for my Master’s audition/interview, I was struck by the faculty’s warmth and encouragement, which made me feel comfortable and welcome. Upon making decisions, I had nothing but good feelings for the SF Conservatory, and I decided it was the best school for me.
Who is someone from UCLA or S.F. Conservatory that inspired or influenced your craft in a significant way?
At UCLA, I was fortunate to study privately with three of the composition faculty: Mark Carlson, Ian Krouse, and David Lefkowitz, all of whom profoundly shaped my approach to composition. Two other teachers at UCLA that affected me on intellectual and artistic levels were Mitchell Morris (my early music history professor) and Donald Neuen (director of the ULCA Chorale).
But, the greatest influence in terms of impact came from my composition teacher at the SF Conservatory: David Conte. His music, his life, his commitment to music is quite remarkable. He is man of great integrity and profound wisdom and intelligence, and his life and work continue to be a source of inspiration for me.
How would you describe your compositional style?
For me, this question is particularly difficult to answer, because my style seems to be in a constant state of flux, which testifies to the fact that my music continues to seek its own personal voice. I think it’s safe to say that minimalism as a technique, rather than a style, is a foundational element in much of my music. Also, I credit Mozart for instilling in me a sense of formal balance, which I think comes through pretty strongly in what I compose. I tend to write lyrical, accessible music, often supported by a tonal/modal/consonant harmonic framework.
What would you say has been the greatest achievement in your compositional career to date?
Besides the honor of an invitation from Choral Chameleon to become its first composer-in-residence, I was especially honored that my recent orchestral work, The Long Valley, was the winning selection for the SF Conservatory of Music’s annual Jim Highsmith Orchestral Composition Competition. Because the work won the competition, it was premiered for a live audience in San Francisco this past April. It’s not every day that a composer hears his/her works played by a real orchestra in any context, let alone in several rehearsals which culminate in a live performance, presented for a large, enthusiastic audience. It is an experience I will never forget, and an honor I will never take for granted.
Do you prefer to compose for vocalists, or instrumentalists?
I don’t prefer one over the other. I enjoy writing for both equally, as all instruments, voice types, and ensembles pose their own unique challenges to the composer.
How do you know Vince Peterson, Choral Chameleon’s artistic director?
The first time I met Vince was at a beginning-of-the-year party at Conrad Susa’s house, held annually for SF Conservatory composers. If my memory serves me correctly, Vince’s task at the party was to serve hors d’oeuvres to guests. By then, he was an alum of the Conservatory, and I was just beginning studies there. We ran into each other several times afterward, and he even sang Giant Mirror as a ringer in the SF Conservatory Chorus.
What’s it like to be the composer-in-residence for Choral Chameleon?
This residency with Choral Chameleon is a benchmark for me, as this is my first experience as a composer-in-residence. When Vince called me to ask if I’d be interested in such a thing, I seized the opportunity immediately, and have since been excited, honored, and humbled by the trust Choral Chameleon has placed in me as their inaugural resident composer. With the residency also comes a serious responsibility to deliver high quality music for a high quality group, which undoubtedly intimidates, but also inspires and motivates.
“High quality.” I like that! What is like to compose music for a chamber choir on the other side of the country from you?
It is fascinating to think that while I’m here in Oregon, my music is being studied and prepared without my direct involvement. It’s thrilling to think that my compositions are beginning to have a life of their own.
It’s no secret that I’m in love with your three movement work, Sempiterna. What was it like to compose that piece?
Sempiterna is a very personal work, as I wrote it for my grandfather the summer following his passing. I was fortunate to be with him the moment that he died, and that event spurred a lengthy internal conversation about the implications of mortality. Prior to writing this piece, I hadn’t written any music for over three years for personal reasons. But the event of my grandfather’s passing affected me so deeply, I felt the need to express my thoughts and feelings in music, and consequently returned to composition. Instead of writing a requiem or a simple memorial, I chose to write a large a cappella piece that would confront the process of death, since the experience with my grandfather pulled me closely to it. Over the course of the month it took to write the Sempiterna, the compositional process resembled that of a spiritual meditation, as I considered the purpose of creation, of God, of temporal and spiritual planes of existence.
Sempiterna is very moving, filled with striking emotional moments. Do you hear the music before you compose something like Sempiterna, or do you perhaps have the emotional moments in mind before the music itself comes to fruition?
Before I picked texts, I knew I wanted a three movement composition that progressively illustrated the transfer of the soul from the body to the afterlife. This basic concept helped me decide what kind of texts I needed for such a “narrative,” and also set the darker, more serious tone of the piece. The musical materials themselves became increasingly apparent as I explored the deeper meaning of the texts themselves, and how they related to one another in the larger context of the composition.
I promised I’d come back to this. Do you consider yourself a minimalist?
No, I do not consider myself a minimalist, though, I often use minimalist techniques in my compositions.
What are you most looking forward to when Choral Chameleon presents your new composition in April 2010?
I am most looking forward to hearing Such Beautiful Things come alive, sung by the ensemble for whom the piece is intended. I am also thrilled to have a large work performed for a New York audience, which I hope will generate further interest in my work. Plus, it will be great to socialize with the Choral Chameleon community, and to get to know you all better!
If you could meet any composer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to say or ask them?
Bach. I choose Bach because I think he was a rare composer who, on the deepest level, keenly understood the spiritual imperative central to music’s profound effect on humanity. Many composers who preceded or followed him wrote/write exceptionally meaningful music, but for some reason, in my own experience, rarely reach the level of spiritual consistency present in Bach’s music. It seems to me that every composition he wrote was intended to be an expression of the divine. If I were able to ask him one question, I’d ask, “How do you do it, Johann?”
Anyone who knows the story of La Boheme sees the struggling composer in society. Did you ever think you’d just call it quits and take a desk job?
I pondered the notion, but my loans insisted that I stick with it to avoid trivializing substantial financial debt for an education in music. As funny as that may seem, it’s true. So, I eagerly sought full time jobs in the field, and was lucky to find a position as Assistant Director of Music at a private high school in San Francisco. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if I were to abandon music for an office job, but, that is not even an option anymore, and I cannot fathom life without daily, full time interaction with music.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself writing substantial works for a wide variety of ensembles, instruments, and voices. I see myself teaching composition at the college level, imparting what knowledge I have to the next generation of composers. I see myself living in or near a big city, rich with cultural and artistic diversity.
How can people hear more of your music, other than coming to the Choral Chameleon concert in April to hear Such Beautiful Things?
They can start by coming to the concerts in November and December, and, they can also visit my website at www.parola.org to listen to my music, and check for upcoming live performances.
“I can’t wait to get the season rolling. Here’s to a great year!” -Jeffrey Parola, Choral Chameleon’s composer-in-residence for 2009-2010