LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Virginia Pike: Composing with Prayer

Virginia Hart Pike is a composer, piano teacher, and musical director living in New York City. She is cofounder and Artistic Director of Music for Skylight Dance Theatre. She has written two musicals, many choral works, and many more art songs, which have been heard at various venues throughout New York City and beyond. She has also worked as a musical director and piano/keyboards player on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in regional theatre. For three years she has held the title of Choir Director at St. George's Episcopal Church. She holds an M.F.A. from NYU and a B. S. from Duke University.

What role did music play in your childhood? When did you start composing?

Virginia: I actually didn't come from a musical family, and I started taking piano lessons at the age of 7, just because I was into trying everything when I was a kid. I stuck with piano probably for two reasons: 1) I was afraid of my piano teacher, and 2) I liked to show off. In junior high school I was addicted to Billy Joel and learned to play every Billy Joel song I could get my hands on, and for some strange reason would often get up in front of my math class and sing a Billy Joel song (at the request of my teacher!?!), even though I couldn't sing very well. When I was in high school I switched to a new piano teacher who opened my ears and my heart to the beauty of classical music. I was kind of a depressed a lot as a teenager, and so it was a breakthrough for me when I discovered Brahms, because his music has this deep longing that I found I could relate to. Before that, I didn't know other people felt those things.

LM: What is your composing process like?

VP: Well, it always starts with prayer. In fact, the process is similar to praying, because I start out trying to listen to God's still, small voice. From there it depends on what stage of the process I'm at. If I'm just starting a piece, I first have to decide what I'm writing exactly and what I'm trying to convey through each movement, or section.

For instance, in the song cycle I wrote entitled First and Fairest, I knew the overall work was about the journey of a woman who had just come off of a painful rejection by the man she loved, and finds herself in the arms of God by the end. It was told through a setting of six poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, set for women's choir. Each movement was a different stage of the woman's healing process. So in beginning writing for a particular movement, once I'd established what the movement's role was in the overall piece, then I'd start out by exploring different sounds on the piano, accompaniment patterns, musical phrases, etc. that might convey the particular emotion I'm after at the start of the movement. Or I might start out by finding a melody first (which is always easier when there are words to set - I prefer writing music for voice for this reason), which I generally do by saying the words out loud to myself and listening to their cadence. This gives me an idea of the shape of the lyric, or poem in this case. 'll often find a part of the poem where I feel like the whole song kind of lands or leads up to, and I'll shape the rest of the melody around that moment.

From there I'll establish a form for the piece - deciding where the music should be repeated, where it should change, and about how often I want the harmony to change. Then I'll start putting together melody and accompaniment patterns and harmonic colors and do a section at a time. In the case of First and Fairest, some movements took a couple of months, and others took a couple of weeks.

LM: You are the Artistic Director of Music for Skylight Dance Theatre. Why did you and Amanda Brewster, Artistic Director of Dance, start Skylight? Where did the name come from?

I never thought I'd start a dance company, my background being in musical theater. It came about because for several years I had been mulling over ideas for a piece I wanted to write that would incorporate some Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems I had discovered. I didn't know if the piece should be an artsy musical, or a song cycle, or what. Then I saw a piece at Lincoln Center that inspired me. It was a telling of Orpheus and Euridice using poetry, set for soprano, clarinet and piano, and also for modern dancers who integrated the musicians into the choreography. Seeing that production made me realize that I was limiting myself by thinking the piece had to fit into a form that was more established, and I was finally able to see that the piece swimming around in my brain wanted to be a song cycle for women's choir and set to dance.

Amanda and I had met at St. George's Church, where I was musical director, and Amanda was in the choir. She had choreographed and danced a beautiful piece to a reading of St. Mark's passion on Palm Sunday, and it was the first time I remember really being moved by dance. Soon after I saw the Orpheus piece, Amanda and I were at a retreat together, and she was giving a talk, and as I was watching and listening to her it dawned on me that we needed to do this piece together. When I proposed the idea to her, she nearly jumped on me she was so excited. I suggested we find people to produce it for us, and she said that she always wanted to start a dance company. So I figured, what the heck, let's do it.

Amanda suggested the name Sklight, and I knew it was right because my image of the company name was like light coming from a window in the sky.

More from Virginia Pike on Thursday.


Beth said...

My name is Beth McClain and I was one of the women blessed to be a part of Virginia hart Pike's piece First and Fairest. I must say that not only is the piece beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting and soulful, but it is completely full of God's grace and love. I can remember sitting in rehearsals and rehearsing one of the the songs entitled "Comfort." Half way through my heart was so full I started to cry. No one noticed, but I felt then and there the presence of God in that piece. I am forever grateful to Virginia for giving me the chance to be a part of her vision.

Anonymous said...

I was also in both productions (staged and recorded) of First and Fairest. Working with Ginny Pike is a dream. She is so fully engaged with the performers and, of course, with the material. I had been out of theatre for several years when I did that project, and it was an absolutely delightful re-entry! Skylight is a wonderful company, combining artistic excellence and creative innovation in an environment that values each performer's unique contribution. I'd work with them again in a heartbeat! (Christy Tennant, International Arts Movement)


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