British composer takes up residence at Lawrence

Olivia Hendricks

British composer Stephen McNeff spent last week here at Lawrence University as an artist in residence, collaborating with student composers and holding question and answer sessions. McNeff is popular in England especially for his work in opera, children’s music and musical theater. The Times says his work is “always impressive” featuring “canonic figures, harshly beautiful discordances and intervals.” Other critics have praised the emotional depth of his music.
McNeff’s music tends to be driven by the text; he has composed pieces based on T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” and Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” His work truly sounds like poetry in the form of music, expressing rapidly changing, wide-ranging emotions.
While McNeff was in Appleton May 26, a live concert of his work was performed in Harper Hall. The first half of the concert featured student compositions that McNeff had helped develop. Students Matthew Mohns, Diana Sussman, Drew Baumgartner, Andre Juan and Daniel Miller presented their individual compositions.
While all five student compositions were similar in ensemble and form, the characters of each piece were very distinct. Each piece featured a vocalist and pianist and used the dialogue between voice and piano to highlight the lyrics.
In this regard, McNeff’s influence was apparent – the music was closely intertwined with the text. However, this allowed each student composition to take on a very different personality, depending on the text chosen.
For instance, Mohns’ composition used 1 Peter 1:22, a verse typical for wedding ceremonies, as its text, and was romantic and intimate. In contrast, Miller used text from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Madman,” and his work was desperate and abrupt. With each piece, the audience was drawn in by the intense drama such short and simple compositions managed to convey.
After the student compositions, Stephen McNeff was introduced. He spoke to the audience about some of his musical ideas. He commented on his decision to speak, recognizing that some musicians feel the music should speak for itself. However, McNeff noted that “living classical composers have low visibility” and that audience members often forget that the person who wrote the music is a human who experiences things like “family, and paying tax.”
Personally presenting each piece allowed the audience to fully appreciate the humanity and creativity behind the music.
This concept of music as a link between a human composer and human listeners was also emphasized when McNeff discussed communication in music.
“Half of making art is communication,” said McNeff. The philosophy of music comprised of emphasis on text, the interaction between vocalists and instrumentalists and the intimate understanding between audience and performer defined McNeff’s music. Although those who are not musicians may not understand the unusual dissonance of McNeff’s work, each individual present undoubtedly felt the music’s innate ability to connect at the most human level.