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Interview with IFCM Choral Composition Competition winner Marie Herrington

Updated: Apr 11

Arjay Viray, Editorial Board Member, Philippines



Marie Herrington is the winner of the 2023 IFCM Choral Composition Competition in the Mixed and/or Equal Voices category. In this interview, she talks about her creative process, her influences, insights on composition and art-making as a whole, and of course her winning piece “The Jellyfish”, a setting of a poem by Marianne Moore.

Aside from winning an international composition competition, find out in this interview how Marie also tries to champion various advocacies, such as her explorations on the human voice through her music, advocating for women poets and composers, and promoting her cultural roots through poetry and the music of Ukraine.


Arjay Viray (AV): Good day, Marie. Thank you for doing this interview. It’s an honor to have you with us here today. To start off, can you briefly explain what you currently do – from teaching gigs, composer residencies – your affiliations in general.


Marie Herrington (MH): Absolutely! As of right now, I spend a lot of my time as a Music Director. I work at a wonderful church in Baltimore, Maryland where I have two choirs – I have a handbell choir and a semi-professional choir and I get to write a good bit of music that my choral singers perform which is very, very wonderful for me.

I spend the rest of my time on a few different musical endeavors. I do sometimes get hired to compose songs for people – people will send me their ideas and say “Hi, can you make recordings of these?” you know, “how does that go?” or I will create transcriptions for other people – sometimes people will send me songs that they like that they want musical transcriptions of and I do that as well – that is less frequent. I do spend most of my time, though, as a classical singer and composer. And I do tend to stay in the realm of new music so I work with a few great living composers and I try to compose music for as many different singers as I can – including myself. I run a concert series through the church where I work. For the previous two churches I worked in, I ran concert series through both organizations and I am working on starting a virtual concert series out of my living room. I’m hoping that I can just create as many musical spaces as possible.

I used to teach. I first started teaching private voice and piano lessons 10 years ago, and last year I was the head of the music department at an all-girls private high school in Maryland but I have not been teaching lately in order to spend more time working on my freelance work.


AV: Interesting that you’ve mentioned about the concert series from your living room. It sounds, to me at least, like something that happens in popular music more than classical. And this is a good segue to my next question. You are a relatively young composer. How much of that plays part in those innovative ideas and creative pursuits?


MH: That’s a great question. And I think my age has a lot to do with my creative pursuits. I try to do as much as I can with my voice. I recently put out an all-vocal album that’s just my singing and electronic effects that I’ve put on the voice. And that album, I still consider it post-classical new music or avant-garde music, but I think a lot of people would not consider it very classical at all. I’m mixing styles and genres all over the place and that is something I like to do. A lot of my musical influences happen to be film score composers, you can probably tell from the piece.

But I’m also heavily influenced by musicians like Björk, Radiohead, and quite a few different experimentalists or avant-garde musicians as well. I try to listen to as much music from all over the world as I can. The world just has so much to offer as far as music is concerned and it’s really common in the United States that people get trapped in this world of Western music and they don’t branch out, and I find that if I just stuck to that, I would not be doing as many creative things as I can. Of course, I still have much more to discover as a composer and as a consumer of music, but just trying to branch out as much as possible as far as style, variance, and everything, all of that, somehow end up influencing what I do. That might not be super noticeable in the piece that I submitted for this competition, but hopefully it is a little more noticeable in some of my other pieces.


AV: I visited your website and I listened to some of the works. I scanned through a lot of your works on your YouTube channel of course and I can see what you mean as you give descriptions of your work. Now, since you mentioned avant-garde and post-classical works –not that there’s a need for us to pull people in – but would you say that those goals, those advocacies, are easier when you’re writing for vocal music as opposed to instrumental music? Do you feel that there’s this greater sense of alienation when you’re writing contemporary instrumental works as opposed to text-based, i.e. vocal, music?

MH: That is such a great question again. I’m so glad that you asked that because I myself haven’t probably thought enough about this. I find, and I’m sure a lot of composers of vocal music would find, vocal music to be limiting because oftentimes we have to use text, and I would have said that when I started writing vocal music (probably about 12 or 13 years ago) but now I’m at the point where if I like the text enough, I’m able to look at it and I can just hear almost how I want it to sound.

And that feels like, I don’t know, a gift or a little trick, or something that just makes writing music with text a lot easier. But the thing I will say about avant-garde music is anyone who listens to my album – if they hear any vocal effects and things like that – all of the vocal effects are me and my voice. The only electronic effects I put on the voice were different filters, you know, different compressors, reverb, etc. I’m not using any synthesizers. And I do think that with the voice, more than with communicating language, we are constantly exerting sound. So when we think about the world of sound around us, let’s say sitting in the subway station, you can probably get a bunch of singers of every voice type to mimic all of those sounds of the subway station. Because the human voice is just so capable, and we see a lot of this type of replication happening in a capella music in particular. I personally believe that we have barely scratched the surface of what the human voice can do as far as the variety of sounds we can make is concerned. As far as choral music specifically goes, I feel like it might be a while before we popularize variety of different vocal sounds other than humming, rain sounds, etc., but I do definitely think that we are on the verge of exploring just this beautiful creative realm as far as using all the different capabilities of the human voice in vocal music is concerned. I hope that answers your question. [Laughs]


AV: Yes. Definitely. My next question, though, will briefly go back to your background because this has something to do with multiculturalism and cultural diversity. Can you share with us briefly your cultural origins and background and how much of it impacts the creativity and innovations that your compositions embody?


MH: Sure! I’m so glad that you asked this because this is one thing that is very important to me, and I have not mentioned it. I am half-Ukrainian – my mom was born in Ukraine, she lived in the Soviet Union and she had my half-sister while still in the Soviet Union. They managed to move to the United States in the midst of all of that which, as a woman living in a poor area in Ukraine, was a very, very challenging thing to do; I don’t know how they managed to do that. There really wasn’t a lot of freedom or accessibility for people coming from that background at all. Seeing and getting to know a good bit of my family over there in Ukraine, the livelihood and everything is so different from America. And ever since this war began, it really has been not only eye-opening to Americans but also to so many other countries and cultures of the world as to what really is going on in Ukraine and how much Russia has been incredibly and negatively influencing Ukrainian culture.

I have always wanted to set Ukrainian texts and I always thought nobody would really care. Unfortunately, that’s really sad to say but, you know, Ukraine has always seemed to be a forgotten country when it comes to casual conversations with United States citizens. They typically didn’t know what the flag looked like, or what the country’s exports were, what the capital city was, all of these things. But now, everyone knows so much, including the country’s symbol, the sunflower, all of these things have now become so familiar to the world because of the war and that has just made me really want to jump into advocating for other Ukrainian voices even more. Other than my arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem, I wrote two other art songs. I do write a lot of art songs and one is in Ukrainian by a Ukrainian poet from the late 1800s and the other art song I’m actually going to be premiering in New York City in January of next year.


AV: Wow! Congratulations on that!


MH: Thank you! I’m very fortunate! But instead of singing it in Ukrainian, I am going to sing it in English so that the text can really impact American listeners. I don’t know about you, but I personally hate it when you see someone pouring their heart out performing on stage and all of the audience are buried in the program notes. You should be watching the performance, that is the number one reason why I wanted to write the piece in English so that people will be impacted by the performance. I say all of this because we all know that Ukraine is not the only country at war right now. There’s just so much devastation all across the world. And the fact that we all have all of this knowledge about such intense situations going on between countries, that’s a lot on everyone’s hearts. And I do think that getting the voices of those who are oppressed out there is super helpful, other than hoping, praying, and trying to donate money to relief. I think we can also share art from these countries that are oppressed. And even countries that are not oppressed, just sharing as much art from as many different cultures as we can, it’s such a beautiful thing that we have access to. So, I do really feel privileged that I have these connections to Ukraine, and I can share the lullabies that my mom sang to me growing up, and I can share the music from Ukraine that I listened to, that I can also collaborate with Ukrainian poets, and just continue this journey of sharing cultures. I think it’s all very beautiful and very impactful.

That is my big spiel as regards my cultural background and what is most directly meaningful to me. I hope to write more Ukrainian music and I hope to just use my voice as a kind of mail delivery system [laughs], just to get as many positive messages and advocacies out there as possible.


AV: Wow. Thank you for sharing not just your personal stories but also your personal truths. Just listening to you tell all these, I think you are a blessing – not just for us, musicians, but to the world.

Now, let me proceed to the next part of our interview, and this is about your work  – “A Jellyfish”. Briefly walk us through your creative process in general. Why those three movements/segments? Are those pre-divided in accordance with the text and the poetry? I understand it was based on the poetry of Marianne Moore. Tell us more about it.


MH: That’s a good question. I thought it would definitely be an odd choice that I chose such a short poem and I decided to break it up into three movements. I knew that each movement was going to be about a minute or so and I do believe the whole piece altogether is around 5 minutes in total, so maybe each movement is a little more than a minute. I thought it would be an odd choice, which would make it a fun choice.

The number one reason why I thought it would be great to break it up into movements is I thought I could create really distinct imagery with the music for each of the scenarios. First, viewing something like it’s this amazing spectacle in the water and it’s just shimmering and gleaming. And that feels different mentally from attempting to touch it. That’s like going from this admiration state to this adventurous state. And so, movement two is a lot more adventurous and there are these constantly moving arpeggios. I really get that from Ola Gjeilo. He was a composer who I had in mind when I was doing that and who inspired me a lot this year. Earlier this year, my choir performed “The Dark Night of the Soul” by Ola Gjeilo and that was such a very beautiful, very tricky piece and getting into that music, that particular piece, just inspired me tremendously. So I’m definitely inspired by Ola Gjeilo in that piece and in that movement in particular. And then, going to the third movement, the jellyfish swims away. So we went from admiring it, “Oh my gosh! How interesting! How cool! How beautiful!”, to “Oh my goodness, I’m going to touch it, I’m going to go for it! We know it stings and it's not pleasant but I’m going to do it anyway” and then the jellyfish goes away, so there’s this sense of disappointment. And I really thought those lush chords and hanging on to the V chord in particular – the dominant chord – I really thought that that would just create this scenery of – I don’t want to say disappointment because it doesn’t really end on a dark note. I do think whoever the protagonist is taking in this whole scenario still really has enjoyed this whole process, but it does end in the disappointment of [sighs] “The jellyfish swam away”. [laughs].

And I will say as far as breaking things up into movements, and going back to one of your previous questions, I do think one of the things that influences me as a young composer in particular is thinking about the timing of pieces. I do feel like pieces that are of smaller durations are becoming more and more popular.


AV: I totally agree.

MH: And unfortunately, a lot of that has to do with different media platforms that we consume. All of the 10-second reels, and 10-second videos and things like that. We are all very accustomed to short things. And when I look at who has viewed my YouTube videos and who has listened to my Spotify music, you always see that the average number of people listened to the first 40 seconds approximately. And it’s always like, you know, I wrote like 13 minutes of music for people to listen only to 1 minute of it. It’s just clear to me that, I don’t know if it's everyone’s attention spans, or just the busy-ness of life and the constant running of the world, but it’s hard for people to make time and sit down and listen to music. And when I think about popular music and how short all of those Top 40 hits, all of the pop songs, are, it makes me feel like writing short pieces – that’s comfortable! That's good! People will look into that. People do have the time to listen to a short piece. I don’t know about a 20-minute-long piece, I hope they do eventually have the time to listen to it too but I personally don’t have any reservations about writing short pieces. When I wrote my album, I did explore doing and writing pieces that have only about 3 to 4 lines of text or sometimes just one sentence. I wrote this one piece – that wasn’t on the album – which was just a Franz Kafka quote about suffering and it’s a very, very short quote. It’s about 2 lines long. And I believe I made a 3–4 minute-long piece for voice and electronics out of that, just as a fun little exploration. All this is to say that I think there is a lot that can be creatively done with both short poems and just, you know, music that doesn’t have to be long in duration. I hope that answers the question as for the structure of the piece.


AV: Definitely. And I just wanted to say, that was such a positive insight to what you said a while ago. As opposed to simply pointing fingers, and blaming people for having shorter attention spans, what we can do is just continue to write and to create art regardless of the perception and the perspective of our audience. Thank you for that.

Now, you’ve given a lot of insights about the text. But was there a particular or special reason for choosing this specific poem?


MH: Yes. I was looking through like a lot of composers, I was looking for public domain poets. I do always try to go on a little quest for non-public domain stuff but since it is a lengthier process, sometimes I just want to write. I wrote all of this music in a span of two hours at a coffee shop. I was definitely very inspired and so once I found the Jellyfish poem, well, first I found Marianne Moore. And I really like her poetry. I thought that it’s a kind of poetry that’s beautifully creative but really easy to understand so I do think her poetry is more accessible to a wider variety of age groups. And I also thought, “A Jellyfish”, Oh, how imaginative and how cute a piece! And I have no reservations when it comes to writing about cute, adorable, little scenarios or anything like that. I do think anything that gives us joy is good to write about. I do like to write about very sad and very dark things too, but you know, the human emotions are just such a wide range. So of course, like the jellyfish, which is honestly probably the most adorable, cheesy piece that I have but, you know, the human emotions are so vast, so you know, I wanted to have a piece that catered to that side of the human emotions rather than constant seriousness or the abstract per se.


AV: Yeah. Just for context for our readers, most composers have their so-called literary muse that usually provides the text for their vocal works, and I have listened to your Kafka songs that you’ve mentioned earlier. We have these poets that serve as our literary muse. I was just wondering if you have other works featuring Marianne Moore’s poems, or was this the first time?


MH: That’s a good question. It was actually the first work that was penned by Marianne Moore. And one other particular reason why I wanted to utilize her poetry is also just the fact that even though it is 2023, there are still not as many popularized poets who are women and popularized composers who are women. And I love the power duo of woman composer–woman poet. And Marianne Moore might be a popular name in the poetry community but as for all of the people who have heard my piece, the ones who have talked to me have never heard of her before. So you know, I do think it’s amazing to be able to provide opportunities like these. And sometimes you just wonder, where in the universe is Marianne Moore? We know she passed a long time ago, but we all wonder like you know, what if she could hear that there are composers 200 years, 100 years, 300 years, however long after her death who are writing or setting her words to music, how cool an opportunity would that be?


And I love setting texts by women poets, like I said, this power duo thing is very lovely. And I mean some of my favorite poets and writers of all time happen to be people like T.S. Eliot, so you know, some of the more popular men. But we all know there still is that inequality when it comes to exposure and accessibility of career opportunities for women in these fields. So anything that I can do to work with poets who are women – and similarly with Ukrainian poets – and give these opportunities to these people is great. Well, I don’t want to phrase it like I’m giving opportunities to anybody because that’s really not true. It’s just kind of an amazing thing that we get to do something that once upon a time, we would not be able to do. If I had been born in a different decade long ago, I probably would not be a composer or a singer at all. Especially if I had been born in Ukraine for example, there’s just a lot of different possibilities that we have nowadays that we didn’t have in the past. Needless to say, I really hope that I get to set more Marianne Moore poems in the future because I definitely like her writing style a lot. And I do have some lesser-known books of women poets who passed a long time ago and I just feel like there are all these wonderful resources out there that can be used in music and so I want to use as many resources as possible and give voice to as many women as possible.


AV: We’re now down to our last question. What does it mean to you to win the IFCM Choral Composition Competition? And again, just for context especially for our readers, the IFCM has been known for its advocacies in bridging and connecting people through choral music. There are lots of projects initiated by the organization that are driven by these ideas – of peace and unity through choral music – so what does it mean to you to win this competition?


MH: I’m very glad you asked because this opportunity really made my year. I have spent so much of my life being an opera singer and being a singer working with composers and stuff like that and I only got my first real opportunity as a composer about a year ago. And so the fact that now I’ve won in an international competition and one organized by the International Federation for Choral Music, no less – that’s a very big deal to me. The idea of not only exposing myself to people from various countries outside of the West but also being exposed to all these other wonderful musicians and composers from other countries I would not have been in contact with otherwise – this is all the stuff that I find the most meaningful, and it goes back to wanting to share different cultures and everything like that. And when I looked at the variety of musical minds on the judging panel of the competition, I was so impressed. You have such a great representation from so many different countries. It just feels truly amazing to have received this opportunity. And I love how much the IFCM does for choral music. I mean it just really brings all of these people from different countries together to partake in the one thing that we all love which is choral music. I’m just totally impressed with the ensemble.

I think I did find this opportunity about two to three days after I finished writing the piece, and all I did was I just googled “composition competitions for choral music” and it’s funny how everything about the IFCM popped up on Google. I typically find all of my opportunities through different websites specific for composers like Ulysses and the composers’ sites, and things like that. I did find it amazing that it was just a random Google search that had me find this particular competition and the fact that I wrote this piece two or three days prior to applying, it just feels like magic has been happening. I’m so grateful for this organization and for everything that this organization does for choral music. You really promote the livelihood of music and the sharing of cultures. And encouraging living composers, I do think, is the best thing for music. The music that is being written today, it’s the music of now, but it’s also the music of the future. And everything you all are doing is just so spectacular and I’m just so grateful to be a part of it.


AV: I would love to discuss a whole lot more with you especially about your creative process, not just for this specific piece but for your other works as well, and of course a whole lot about intercultural and cross-cultural artistic pursuits. We really appreciate, first of all, your participation in the competition. I’d say that after having this interview we are blessed to have your work entrusted and submitted to the competition. Of course we are also grateful to you for granting us this interview. Personally, I’d like to thank you for doing this interview with me. Now, to end what has been an insight-filled and amazing conversation, since one of the advocacies of this competition is to promote and give opportunities to young and emerging composers as well, do you have any parting ideas, insights, or message of inspiration for young and aspiring composers?


MH: I’m so glad that you said that because I do have a big, long journey, I guess even for my age with just trying to understand really how to partake in this lifestyle and in this career, in a non-complicated, non-aggressive, just very organic way.

I do think that the best advice for young composers is to go out there and create. And if you ever feel stuck, if you ever feel like you’re coming from a competitive place or just a place that is not super positive, just remember that you are creating art at the end of the day. And art is sustaining life everywhere. It is a joy to be able to create art and I don’t have to work a so-called nine-to-five job because I’m working all of these jobs that are all about creating art. And it is art that so many people will enjoy and it’s art that gives people life and reminds people to smile and reminds people to cry, and reminds us to have open hearts. And wear your heart on your sleeve when you’re creating music because you have a little voice within you. My best mentor ever, Libby Larsen, told me to always listen to your muse. So we all have a muse within us, we all have a voice within us, always listen to that voice and let that voice radiate your true artistry and true creativity. It’s not about being better with this person or being more versatile with that person. It’s definitely not about revolutionizing the world of composition. It’s just about making art and lifting up your own voice and lifting up others’ voices. These are just all the best things that we can do in our society. It’s easy to get bogged down when you’re trying to make all of this into a career because it’s all application, application, application; fee, fee, fee; rejection letter, rejection letter, rejection letter; and it’s really, really easy to get into a negative headspace. But at the end of the day, you are creating art, you are letting your voice sing, you are letting other people’s voices sing, and this is one of the best things we can do for humanity. That is my advice to young composers and it’s the advice that I use every single day and it has gotten me inevitably more opportunities than when I was more in a fierce or intense mindset. Art is joy.


AV: Wow. What a way to end this interview! Marie, it has been a wonderful conversation. I wish we could have another session in the future and just talk about music, art, and culture. Thank you very much and I'm looking forward to hearing the premiere performance of A Jellyfish.


MH: Yes! Me too! I’m so excited about that. I have no idea what to expect, I’m just so happy that there are people who want to sing it. So yes, and thank you so much for the interview, Arjay.


Arjay Viray is a choral conductor, educator, researcher, and curriculum designer. He currently teaches full-time at Guang Ming College in Tagaytay City, the Philippines, running courses in Music Theater and the Performing Arts.


Edited by Katie Sykes, UK


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