An exceptionally full year finds Giselle Wyers immersed in multiple large projects both at the University and beyond. Head of the School of Music's choral conducting and voice programs and director of the University Chorale (an auditioned ensemble of UW undergraduates), she also is in demand as a clinician and as a composer of commissioned choral works. Professor Wyers conducts all-state choruses this season in Kansas, Nevada, and Wisconsin. She recently completed five choral commissions on various socially-relevant topics for ensembles around the country, with new works premiering from late 2019 through June 2020. And her UW students this year are exploring contemporary American choral works as well as music from various parts of the world from Iceland to India. In this conversation, she contemplates her life and work, the concerns that keep her awake at night, and an alternate career she might have chosen had music not become the centerpiece of her life.
When did you realize music was important to you? Was it clear you would major in music and become a music professor, or did you take a more meandering path?
I kind of meandered, but not for very long. When I entered college, I was undeclared. I had been very musical all through childhood—youth symphony flutist, president of the choir, all-state choir, piano lessons through age 18—I was doing the gamut, but all throughout high school I considered myself to be avocational only. I was going to pursue marine biology as my degree. I think I was fairly unaware of what it would take to be a biologist. My whole interest was in cetaceans, and I had somewhat of a romantic view of being out on a boat in the ocean and getting to collect data. I found out pretty quickly from talking to science professors that also a lot of what is involved is being in the lab and spending a lot of hours under fluorescent lights, crunching numbers, and publishing papers.
Initially, the thought of being a music major was so intimidating. I had this view that it was going to be a rigorous, cut-throat conservatory approach, but when I ended up going into conducting I realized it was a much broader kind of study, where you study poetry, history, performance practice, repertoire, orchestration, and so many other aspects of music, and to me that array was really what appealed, and so that is how I became a music major (at UC Santa Cruz).
When you were choosing your instrument as a child, what made you decide on flute?
This is such a silly story. I was going to do two instruments, flute and cello, and after the first week, on the bus, in sixth grade, carrying both instruments, I was like: “Forget it, flute is so much easier.”
When did you first start writing songs? And how did you go from writing songs, presumably for your own enjoyment, to writing choral works for publication?
I had a pretty esoteric piano teacher in high school who was very interested in a broad curriculum for her students, and one of the things that she required was that we improvise at every lesson. I had already had some comfort with that growing up; it never seemed like a weird thing to do. And then I actually started learning how to notate and to write the music down that I had composed.
My first “solo piano” piece publicly performed was my junior year in high school. I wrote a piece, and my teacher said, “Do it on the concert.” I would say the style would be characterized as “New Age.” I was also listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett at the time, so I was interested in inflecting some jazz harmonies into what I was doing.
When I got to college I started writing a lot of Joni Mitchell imitation tunes on guitar and kind of pouring my heart out through the strings of my guitar, as well as piano, writing my own lyrics and all of that, and I sang in coffee shops. I was such a cliché (laughs)! And then when I got into my master's and doctoral studies, I was still writing some kind of folky personal stuff, but I was really putting myself on a trajectory toward serious conducting and preparing my career. It wasn’t until my first tenure-track job (at Boise State University), as I was surfing through all of this choral music in the summer, looking for titles and thinking, “This stuff is so junky; there is so much bad choral music out there.” And I started wondering if I could write something for my choir. I knew them, and I knew their capabilities. I thought, “Okay I am an amateur at this, but I have been improvising and writing music all my life. If I choose something easy to set maybe I can do this.” So I decided to set the Ave Maria, a a very short but archetypal, meaningful Latin text. We premiered the piece, and the audience liked it, and I thought it was good, so I decided to enter it in an international choral composition contest, and I won. After that, I thought, “Wow! I think I want to do that again.” So it just went from there.
Over the past few years you have been very busy with choral commissions, many of them addressing timely issues of social concern. You recently were commissioned to create a piece about gun violence for the Gilroy, California High School Chamber Singers—whose students experienced the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival last year—as well as a work for Hobart and William Smith College Cantori about the Flint, Michigan water crisis and pieces about homelessness and global warming for other ensembles. Are these topics largely chosen by the organizations commissioning the works, or do you sometimes determine the subject matter? How do you get into the right creative space to create something you know will be sung by large groups of people with enormous investment in the topics at hand?
Working on these topics—global warming, or the Flint Michigan water crisis, or gun violence—is just so wrenching emotionally because I have to read a ton of texts, either poetry or prose or even sometimes court proceedings or newspaper articles about the issue. I wouldn’t take a project that I didn’t care about myself. It is hard to get into a creative place where I can deal with the subject at hand and really display it musically, but my belief is that the piece shouldn’t just be a reflection of the problem; it has to be an enhancement of the possibility for change and transformation. So that means I have to get myself there.
For me personally, the hardest part of this process is just…the text. I spend so many hours reading, and I usually I feel like I’m in a hurry because I want to get permissions for this text because I know I can’t just necessarily take a poem in the public domain from a hundred years ago that’s going to talk about gun violence. I end up immersing myself in all of these very concerning poems and other kinds of textual content, and it can tend to become very upsetting. Then once I get permission, there is that little gap between when I ask and when I am granted permission to set the work to music. During that pause, I can tend to get myself into a better emotional place.
In terms of writing for the people in the ensembles—I try to picture their faces. I usually go onto the website for the group. There’s a choir in Boston that I am writing for right now, and I just went onto the website and looked at the pictures of them, and listened to them singing on video, and so when I’m sitting at the piano—because I do compose at the piano—and imagining all the lines and how they have to fit together, I just try to picture their faces. That helps me to make a connection faster so that when I’m actually there with them, I feel like I am part of their community already.
In terms of choosing topics: I keep trying to figure out why people are coming to me with these ideas. In two cases, they were repeat commissions with conductors who had worked with me before, so they already knew that I have a tendency to prefer to set contemporary American poets and that I really love the environment and nature-related texts. In both cases I had already found an unusual new kind of poem to display musically that wasn’t just your basic public domain poem. I had worked with these conductors before and with their choirs, so then they came to me with maybe a more fragile topic that’s a little bit closer to them and maybe even political, and ask, “How can we do this in a way that honors all voices in the choir and the community?”
Sometimes the topic is very specific. For Gilroy, the piece was about people who died, and high school kids from Gilroy who almost got killed at the town’s garlic festival. They thought they were there chopping garlic for a choir fundraiser, but in fact they were running for their lives. That one was super clear. But the other one was like, “We are looking at the history of water quality issues in our region for the past sixty years. Tell me what you got.” That one was actually a lot harder. I had the idea to talk about the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and I said, “I know this isn’t about your region, but we’re talking about one of the worst public health crises in the country related to water; Is that a topic you would be open to?” And they said, "Why, yes, we would, actually.”
In the Flint, Michigan piece, there was text by T.S. Eliot and Margaret Atwood that I was using as a refrain in different parts. The main body of that text is pulled from an article that I found in a newspaper, and these were living poets who had written poetry about Flint. Then I wrote some of my own lyrics because I needed a way to introduce the issue that worked musically. I went through lots of versions of that with the conductor, who has a fine poetic sense.
When I compose choral music, I certainly take inspiration from the poem. That’s how I start. I try to integrate fully the rhythm of the text in my imagination by speaking it over and over and over, as well as absorbing the overall emotional impact of the text and integrating that into the harmonic and melodic material I choose. I aim for vocal ease and accessibility, and yet I want to write something that is inspired beyond what people would consider typical “educational choral literature”. That’s the place I like to live in my creative process.
Lately you have been working with several different honor choirs. What does it mean when you are selected to go work with one?
I was looking through an old journal in which I had listed my goals for the next ten years. I had written this when I was 18, and one of the items on the list was "Conduct an All-state Choir someday." I didn’t even know I was thinking about that back then. It’s something that usually happens mid-career, and it’s definitely a very coveted opportunity. The students are selected through blind review. They have to send in a recording of themselves doing various things. Scales and singing America the Beautiful, and things like that. And they are screened, and they have a semi-final round and then a final round, and then they come to sing for you over a weekend. It’s an intensive kind of experience.
The ones that I’ve been working with lately are very exciting because they are the state honor choirs, so it’s the top singers in the state. It’s an intensive weekend with a concert, but what I really love about it is that it’s also an opportunity to really spark some ideas and energy in these young singers in this compact, retreat-like setting. For me, that is almost more important than the music making. I want to provide a model of leadership and show them the spark that I have for life and for music and kind of open some doors for them, because a lot of them might decide to do music, but they’re not really sure. They’re like I was. Sometimes it’s just about the music and training very rigorously and that can be great, but I also try to always take time to talk about the future and what’s possible in our lives, usually through the music. So I’ll choose texts very carefully that can become portals for these discussions. It’s fun.
You work with both undergraduate and graduate students as director of the University Chorale and head of the Voice and Choral Conducting programs. What do you enjoy most about working with university students? What are some of the major projects you and the students are engaged in this year?
The graduate level feels impactful because often I am one of the last professors they will have before they head out to work in the field for the rest of their lives. Plus, I just love working with grads because they are very committed, very fired up, interested in research, interested in performance, and I always learn from them. It’s not a cliché, it’s a true thing, that you can really learn a lot from your students. And the undergrads: In the Chorale I have a mixture of music majors and non music majors, and that kind of chemistry between the two is just fascinating and inspiring and really energizing. They’ve chosen to make my chorus a bit of a hub, a home base, for the rest of their undergraduate experience. So culturally it’s really rich to me, that I get to know these students over four years and see them becoming more confident and, in certain ways, more refined over four years.
I try to make a point of doing lots of different languages in Chorale to honor the diversity in the ensemble. I think about who is in the group, and what we can do with these amazing people. This spring we are working on a set of pieces from India. In the fall, we staged a whole concert of music from the northern regions. That was the first time I ever attempted to do an Icelandic piece, and luckily we got some help with language coaching from our incredible cello professor Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir. This year we’re also performing the Northwest premiere of a new piece by a composer, very young, who is just completing his doctorate in conducting at Cal State Northridge. He wrote this set of three pieces that are just really invigorating and beautiful. It calls for a string quartet with piano, and we get to play wine glasses, so it’s this really vibrant, exciting piece. In past years we’ve done choral works from Korea, Sweden, Latin America, Estonia, South Africa; the list goes on.
What is your proudest achievement (so far) in your UW work?
There have been many mileposts and challenges/opportunities that I have really enjoyed working on while here at UW for more than 13 years now. One thing that springs to mind is my work with the professional twelve-voice ensemble of solo singers, Solaris, in various projects focused around contemporary American works. Our work together is always challenging, exciting, collaborative, and creative, in a very short time frame (usually five rehearsals and a concert). We’ve been able to produce a commercially released CD as well as winning the Ernst Bacon Award for American music through the American Prize, which is really satisfying.
I am also fortunate and pleased to have toured to the Baltics with my UW colleagues Geoffrey Boers (Choral Conducting) and Guntis Smidchens (Baltic Studies) for songfestival appearances, concerts, and even an appearance for the President of Latvia. But it’s the impromptu singing, often late at night in bars, that is often the most deeply satisfying because it’s a true cross-cultural experience, where choirs from America and Baltic countries “throw down the gauntlet” to each other to sing popular tunes until everyone is completely depleted of ideas!
What is your proudest achievement in life?
That’s so easy for me. Finding such an incredible husband and partner and having a child with him and watching my son grow up—he’s fifteen now—it’s super satisfying. When I was in grad school I wasn’t sure I wanted children because of the demands. I was laser focused at that age, and my mom kept sending me these newspaper articles about the average American female finding great satisfaction in balancing career and motherhood, all of this very statistical information—“Scientific studies prove that women with careers also find satisfaction as mothers.” I remember thinking, “I get it, Mom.” I would always tell her, “We’ll see.” And then she got really sick, and I did a lot of thinking, because I wanted to be able to tell her something before she passed, and so I did finally did tell her before she died that I thought I would have a baby someday. It’s been great to build my own family.
“If I weren’t a music teacher, I would probably be….”
I am very lucky that I get to do what I do because I don’t think I would be happy or do well in many other things. Last summer I started volunteering with PAWS of Lynnwood, and I wanted to work with the wild animals instead of the pets, and it was a pretty steep learning curve. I had no idea how hard it would be in certain ways. There’s a lot of detail involved in knowing what diets to be feeding them, how to hold animals when there is medicine to be administered, how to catch a bird without injuring its wings, how to feed a live squirrel, or even how to get it out of the cage without getting bitten. I wouldn’t exactly call it fun. It was really interesting, but it was also really hard, because there is so much I don't know, and it felt like starting over. I thought, “This is what it’s like to start a new job," and then I started musing about it and realizing that maybe I would have a career in wildlife rehabilitation if I were not doing what I do. It seems like it could have that level of intensity and depth and continual growth. I could become maybe a wildlife vet, and then maybe a wildlife surgeon….
What music do you listen to when you are not at work?
When I get home I’m usually ready for a change of gears, as is probably the case with a lot of classical artists who focus on “serious art music” all day! When I’m cooking I love to revisit some of the old tunes from my adolescence, especially English New Wave bands like English Beat, Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, Roxy Music, etc. I am also a huge singer-songwriter fan, especially women artists such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Veirs, Imogen Heap, Sarah Siskind, and Jonatha Brooke. Sometimes my students help round out my music tastes by sharing their latest favorites. Each year they create a Spotify playlist for me, and I’ve found some really surprising finds there, such as Agnes Obel from Denmark.
What keeps you awake at night?
I am very concerned about the global climate crisis. That to me feels very concerning because it’s right in front of us, but it’s sort of this nebulous thing at the same time. Most of us know that it’s a concern, but knowing what to do today to solve it is harder. I have made some personal kinds of decisions that I try to stick to, mostly regarding my commute. I don’t have a permanent parking pass at the University; I try to drive two days a week and bus or bike the other days. And as a family we try to do things like that that are very grass roots. And of course, we give money to environmental organizations. That issue keeps me up at night because we need to get the whole world on board, and we need to do it soon. I wish I had more solutions in mind. That’s part of why I wrote “Fire in the Garden,” the choral piece about global warming for Cantilena Women’s Chorus of Boston. I figured through art we can at least raise awareness about certain issues.
What makes you feel excited to wake up in the morning?
You know how in the summer you have more time? One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if I am idle for very long, bad things start to happen to my spirit. I seem to do a lot better when I’m busy, so even in the summer, I need to be doing things that I can feel excited about. So I guess what excites me is that I always have a lot of projects on the burner. Right now, I’m working on a wind ensemble piece, and I’m helping the grad students because Geoffrey Boers is gone this quarter on sabbatical, and I’m preparing to go to Nevada in March for another All-State, so that is starting to percolate. That’s one great thing about our work—the work we are doing is always kind of renewing itself and unfolding and changing in different ways, and every day is a little bit different. Although there are days that I wish I could have sort of a normal day, I do also feel like I flourish in that kind of more chaotic atmosphere.
Giselle Wyers conducts the UW Chambers SIngers and University Chorale in a program of contemporary American choral works on Thursday, March 5 at Meany Hall.