“Faith and Music,” with Nansi Carroll
Amanda: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Nansi Carroll. She’s a composer who has written over 300 vocal, choral, and piano works in her positions as music director of Saint Augustine Church in Gainesville, Florida; artistic co-director of “A Musical Offering”; and a faculty member at the University of Florida, Stetson University, and The Walden School. Carroll’s music focuses on settings of African American spirituals. Nansi, thank you so much for joining us today.
Nansi: Thank you for having me.
Amanda: Well, we loved having you on campus. You’ve been on campus for several days now and I think have some days left to go, and of course that means lectures and classes and some other fun things we’ll get to in a few minutes. But let’s start with your job as a composer. So many people understand loving music, listening to music, even making music. But to create not just for your own fingers to play the guitar and the piano, just for your own voice to sing, but to create something for a whole choir, for a whole orchestra, how did you become a composer?
Nansi: Well, a lot of that actually was in my early music training when I first started studies in theory and ear training and the nuts and bolts of being a musician. A lot of that training involved using the various sounds creatively, and I think it’s very much actually like finding a language, expressing oneself through language, that the language is music. Composers, we join a long tradition, and now we have available to us so much that sometimes we think the challenge is kind of choosing what to do. But I think that, particularly with theoretical studies, it’s kind of like learning to speak music and, within that context, discovering what are your musical ideas, how you may expand upon those. This is kind of a lot of what it’s about. Every once in a while, I get on a soapbox. Well, maybe more than once in a while because I’ve already done it, I think, twice here.
Nansi: But I’ve often felt that music study, that we become so specialized. People will concentrate maybe just on performing or concentrate and be just on composing. I think that there needs to be a nice balance of all of this, just as when we were in school and learning about poetry, for instance, and writing poems. I think that the two, composing and performing, sort of balance each other out. But again, also like developing a language, like learning to express ideas over an extended length of time, for instance, again, it sort of involves learning particular skills to do that. Again, just like language. So that, for instance, in writing a choral piece, there’s kind of a long tradition in Western music of writing choral pieces. Choral composers, we sort of join that tradition and expand it at times or sometimes extend it.
So there’s a lot of technique involved in taking whatever idea, making it into a piece of music. One thing, since you mentioned chorus, that is very, very helpful, is having a text, because that can often spark ideas. Sometimes, in fact, if I’m writing a piece of music that is instrumental, sometimes the inspiration for that would be a text. So that’s some of the stuff that’s involved.
“[T]here’s a lot of technique involved in taking whatever idea, making it into a piece of music. One thing … that is very, very helpful, is having a text, because that can often spark ideas. Sometimes, in fact, if I’m writing a piece of music that is instrumental, sometimes the inspiration for that would be a text.”
Amanda: What I’m hearing you saying is it’s a microcosm of a liberal arts education, that getting too narrow isn’t very helpful for us, that as we grow and expand in life, the more you can understand, the more different slices of the world that you can have exposure to, the better off you’re going to be in the end.
Nansi: Yeah, I think so. I think so. And the other part of my soapbox is I think creative expression, that’s part of our birthright, and in whatever we do. I remember talking with the general superior of a religious community that I was involved with for a bit, and she was talking about art, the arts in general, and she said, “And our lifestyle is our art.” I thought that’s a really wonderful way to think about it. So much in that creative expression, I think, in whatever way it manifests itself, needs to be nurtured, appreciated.
Amanda: Yeah. I think we don’t have to go back too far in time to have most of the world see it as whatever you do in your life, that is your artwork, right? That is what you are producing as a human that’s coming creatively out of you. And anti to the liberal arts like we were just talking about, I feel like we’ve gotten more and more and more specialized. “So what are you?” “I’m a singer.” “Well, what kind of singer?” “I’m a pop singer.” You know?
Nansi: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Amanda: And it’s like you do what you do and it’s the one thing, and then we decide if what that thing is is artistic or not, when that’s just not how most of history has lived their life. And I think it really takes away from us as human beings to think that our art is something that we do on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 o’clock instead of our whole life.
Nansi: Yeah, exactly. Yep.
Amanda: When you leaned into the genre of African American spirituals, let me just start with the obvious question. Why? You could have gone in multiple lanes of sacred music. Why is that where you landed?
Nansi: Well, it’s a very rich legacy, and I feel very personally about it. I’ve grown up with spirituals. They influence a lot of my work, not all of it, actually. But there’s something about just, in fact, thinking about purely the music, even without the texts, that there’s a simplicity but also a grandeur that is very powerful and kind of rare, actually. It’s interesting the way spirituals have entered into the work not only of Black composers, but even universally. There’s an oratorio by the English composer Michael Tippett called “A Child of Our Time,” and at the conclusion of each big section, he uses a spiritual. It’s sort of like a chorale, a Bach oratorio kind of, and they’re very powerful in that context. Also, the thing about spirituals is that they are music of a community that’s formed through struggle. Again, I think it sort of makes them speak to multiple generations. They never seem to go out of style.
Amanda: Yeah, the word that comes to my mind is human. There’s just something so innately human about the cry and the struggle and the hope that, like you’re saying, relates to, it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or when you were born, that we all recognize that.
Nansi: Mm-hmm, yep. I feel very pleased, actually, to have that also. The legacy of my own ethnicity feels very wonderful.
Amanda: And you’re carrying the torch in a really wonderful way. I heard you describe one of your pieces as “hope and determination in the midst of uncertainty,” and somehow that felt like exactly what you and I are talking about now, that who doesn’t need hope and determination in the midst of uncertainty? Especially now.
Nansi: Yeah, exactly. That was something that was very much on my mind, yeah.
Amanda: When you set out to write a new piece of music, what is that end goal? When do you say, “Success?” When you hear it performed and you yourself hear that hope and determination? Or where is where you let it go and say, “Yes, that’s what I intended to do?”
Nansi: Well, I believe that the piece really isn’t completed until it’s performed and heard. Then hopefully what happens is that each individual listener finds the meaning for themselves in the piece. I’m rather fond of the Peter Wimsey Mysteries, and Harriet Vane, the mystery writer who’s Peter Wimsey’s love object, she was talking about the experience of writing and when she feels it’s right, and she said, “You feel like God on the eighth day.” (laughs)
“I believe that the piece really isn’t completed until it’s performed and heard. Then hopefully what happens is that each individual listener finds the meaning for themselves in the piece. I’m rather fond of the Peter Wimsey Mysteries, and Harriet Vane, the mystery writer who’s Peter Wimsey’s love object, she was talking about the experience of writing and when she feels it’s right, and she said, ‘You feel like God on the eighth day.'”
Nansi: And I think, again, it’s sort of hard to describe when I feel that the composition thing is right. I have a definite feeling of when it isn’t. I was talking to a friend of mine about that. I said, “I’ll get sort of squirmy.” And I’ll play it over and over again and isn’t not. Maybe it’s there, but it isn’t, really. And it’s when I kind of stop squirming. That’s it. Sometimes it can be just a tiny little thing that drives you crazy until you get it right. I do feel that sense of the process of people actually listening to the piece, and I experience that so much in listening to pieces of music. I was listening to a performance some years ago I heard of the Schumann piano quintet, and they were in the slow movement and I was listening, and everything about that performance was so exquisite that I felt lifted in a whole different plane. Sometimes I might be able to listen to the same piece of music and something else catches me. That’s the hope I have, actually, that a person listening to my music can make it their own, in a way, as to how they experience it.
Amanda: Obviously, I understand the squirmy parts. Anyone who’s ever tried to create understands: “That’s not what I want it to be.”
Amanda: But those transcendent, lifted moments, do you have those moments with your own pieces where you’re almost like, “Did I write that? Did that come out of me?”
Nansi: Sometimes. Rarely. (laughs) It always feels like a gift, though. In fact, it’s funny, I was really stuck with a piece that I’m working on now and I woke up thinking about it and things began to fit in place and I started to write them down. But then, of course, I might come to it later and think, “No, I don’t think so.” But I consider it definitely like a gift. When I get something that I think is right, I can feel a smile. “Hmm. That feels right.” (laughs) Not exactly the transcendent thing, but I go, “Hmm.”
Amanda: (laughs) Aha. No longer squirmy.
Nansi: Yeah, worked that one out. Yeah, exactly.
Amanda: Can you talk about your new piece that you brought to SPU to have the students work on?
Nansi: It’s a setting of a poem by Denise Levertov entitled “A Tree Telling of Orpheus,” and it’s kind of wonderful. Of course, we all know the mythological Orpheus whose music was so exquisite that it could influence the forces of nature. It’s this tree experiencing Orpheus’ first being aware of a presence but not quite knowing what it is, but beginning to experience something different. It goes through all kinds of stages until, through the transforming power of Orpheus’ music, all the trees of the forest become sentient and they understand language, and further, they uproot themselves and learn to dance. I think it’s a really wonderful description of the spiritual journey, actually, and particularly that bit of having to uproot oneself in order to preserve and continue into that new realm of understanding. It was actually Brian Chin’s idea that maybe it would be a piece for the choir and Torch. So I said, “Okay.” I started working with that, basically. What we’re going to hear is pretty much half of it. The choir’s been working very, very hard on it and very, very well. It’s in six movements, which is kind of like a … That’s a lot. They will do three of them. That’s what it is. (laughs)
Amanda: If each student walked away with one takeaway from this experience of interacting with your piece, what would you hope they would say?
Nansi: I would hope that they would finish it with an enhanced experience of the text. I would hope that the text would really become, in a way, increasingly meaningful to them, and also that they understand how well they’ve developed their skills in order to be able to do this, because this style turned out to be something of a stretch. I would hope that they would come out of that realizing how much their own skills have increased by doing this. The students here are just amazing, actually. They’re just really wonderful and have done me the enormous honor of working on my music with such very, very, very great commitment. It’s very humbling.
Amanda: There’s something so magical about, like you said, working with a text, taking a narrative, and working with it in three new ways. You’re singing, you’re moving, you’re embodying what the composer was trying to say with the piece. I think it’s a pretty well-known idea that the only time we change our thoughts, our patterns, is when we start telling ourselves a new narrative, right? When we start telling ourselves a new story. And sometimes you can hear the truth, but it’s very, very difficult for you to bring that into your bones and live it out.
Nansi: That’s very true.
Amanda: And the idea of taking a new narrative and working with it in a way that you’re using your body and your mind and your community to really take this in, it just seems like instead of a rare experience, the way I think it is these days, it feels like something that everyone should have the ability to do, to really chew on a narrative that could be life changing for them in this way.
Nansi: And again, just like Orpheus appearing in the forest, I think that also is a gift, something that can surprise us often.
Amanda: And even just on the simplest of levels, we know that music is a way to learn that sticks with us, right? Like Sunday School when we were kids. I don’t remember every verse I had to memorize, obviously, but everything we sang I can still sing to this day. I’m sure I’m not the only one that immediately verses come to mind.
Nansi: I heard the most incredible thing, actually. It reduced me to tears and reduced the interviewer to tears. (laughs) I heard it on NPR. They were talking to this member of a family — the father in the family had early-onset Alzheimer’s, and with it he was sort of hostile. Not only did he not know anybody, but he was really sort of hostile and really agitated and nobody could figure out what to do. And then a music therapist entered the scene, and it was just a question of listening to the music and he calmed down, was able to allow himself to be touched. I was sitting there crying. And the interviewer’s going (tearfully) “Thank you very much.” (laughs) But it was just beautiful, the power of music.
I, at one point, had a regular thing of visiting this one particular nursing home once a week. We would bring communion and music. But it was really neat, actually. Everybody, we’d all meet in the common room and just play. I had this book of old songs, like “Blackbird” and other stuff and some things they suggested and all. It was just amazing, actually, the things that people remembered. When we did “School Days,” they even sang a verse. I’d never heard a verse of “School Days,” and I can’t remember it now, actually. But it was just a wonderful communal moment.
“I, at one point, had a regular thing of visiting this one particular nursing home once a week. We would bring communion and music…. Everybody, we’d all meet in the common room and just play. I had this book of old songs, like ‘Blackbird’ and other stuff and some things they suggested and all. It was just amazing, actually, the things that people remembered. When we did ‘School Days,’ they even sang a verse. I’d never heard a verse of ‘School Days,’ and I can’t remember it now, actually. But it was just a wonderful communal moment.”
Amanda: What’s next for you? What are you working on?
Nansi: Well, right now I’m working on a duet for two bassoons. I write a lot of stuff for bassoon because I have a friend who’s a bassoonist. (laughs) No, actually, folks will hear him play, Javier Rodriguez with Sean Fredenburg. They are the Post-Haste Reed Duo, and they’re just, they’re gods. I mean, they’re just incredible. But I’ve known Javier since he was 13. He had requested a piece for his senior recital in college, his undergrad senior recital, and so I wrote a piece for him then. That was over 20 years ago, and so it’s been pretty steadily after that. That’s what I’m working on now. It’s based on a piece by a medieval Italian composer named Landini, and it’s called “Ecco la Primavera.” The duo is based on that. Then after that I have a commission to write a piece for French horn and piano.
Amanda: That sounds so daunting to me. I’m sure you’re like, “That’s my Thursday,” and to me, I’m like I can’t imagine having to do that. (laughs)
Amanda: But we all have what we’re good at, and thank goodness there are people who are good at things that I am not. Well, Nansi, I’d like to wrap us up here with our favorite last question that we ask all of our guests.
Amanda: If you could have everyone in the Seattle area do one thing tomorrow that was going to make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Nansi: Well, as I saw that question, I thought, “Oh, that feels presumptuous.” But then I thought, continuing with the music thing, I think listening. And I’ll give this as advice to myself also, to really listen and be invested in listening, I think, could make a big difference, I think. And a lot of what goes on nowadays, I think that so much of our division I think comes from not really listening. I think that we sort of do these internal arguments and aren’t really open to listening.
Amanda: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Well, Nansi, it’s been fabulous talking with you, and I hope you will come back to SPU and bring your compositions with you again someday.
Nansi: Well, I’m really enjoying my time here. The students are just wonderful and you guys must be really proud.
Amanda: Oh, we are very proud of our students. All right, thank you so much.
Nansi: And thank you.