by Mike Telin
Cleveland composer Margi Griebling-Haigh has written a new piece on commission from Cleveland Orchestra assistant principal bassoonist Barrick Stees. Sortilège will have its premiere on Mr. Stees concert, “Instrument of Enchantment: the Supernatural Bassoon” in Tucker Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights on Friday, May 6 at 7:30 pm.
Ms. Griebling-Haigh comes from a family which boasts three generations of composers, including her father, her mother, her sister and her daughter.
A native of Akron, she began music study with her parents and before graduating from high school, had already won awards for her compositions from BMI and the National Federation of Music Clubs. An oboist, she took her Bachelor’s degree from Eastman, studying with Robert Sprenkle, and Master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory, studying with Marc Lifschey.
In addition to the commission from Barrick Stees, she has been asked to compose for other Cleveland Orchestra soloists, including principal hornist Richard King and the late principal oboist, John Mack. Other commissions have come from organist Karel Paukert, the Schenectady Symphony, the Greater Akron Music Association and the Cleveland area chamber ensemble Panorámicos.
Her daughter Gabrielle (Gabby) is following in the tradition. Currently training to be a classicist at Clare College, Cambridge, where she sings soprano in the Chapel Choir, her Symphony No. 1 was premiered recently by the Monterey Symphony Orchestra.
We spoke with Margi Griebling-Haigh by telephone to talk about her career as a composer, her remarkable family and about the new work she has written for Barrick Stees.
Mike Telin: I had the opportunity to look over your website this afternoon, especially your catalogue of works.
MGH: Oh you did?
MT: Yes, and I found it quite interesting; so my first question is, what is your attraction to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay?
MGH: It is actually kind of a family thing. My mom gave my dad the collective works of Millay when they were either courting or newlyweds, I’m not sure which, and my dad started to write Millay songs right away. So that book was in the house and by the time I was 10, I had discovered it and started to write Millay songs, and so did my sister.
Millay is amazing because she is one of these poets who are not self-conscious, and not self-absorbed. She doesn’t write a lot of depressing things about “poor me”, which I find that a lot of poets do, and yet her stuff is very lyrical, and whether it’s painting images of nature, or things that were going on in her personal life, which was pretty colorful, I think she just speaks to people who are of a romantic and creative nature. And this is the big one; Millay loved people who were artistic, and her estate has been one of the few that is extremely quick and forthcoming with permissions. Although she died in the fifties, when I was a very young composer, I would write to her sister for permissions. I have correspondence that is dear to me from her sister saying that I really get her in the way that I pick the poetry. Now Gabby has set one of her first choral pieces to a Millay poem. So it is a family thing. Mom, Dad, Karen, me and now Gabby have all written Millay songs. And we’re not going to stop.
MT: What also struck me in looking at your catalogue is that although you and I have known each other since high school, and I knew that you were composing, I never realized until now how much composing you were doing at that time.
MGH: Yes I was in it with both feet. You must remember the Akron Scholastic Composers Contest. By the time you get to high school that contest has six categories that you can write for, and between Karen and me, we were always driven to try to send something submit something in each category. So if it were chamber music solo or chamber vocal, choral vocal solo vocal or orchestral, we would try to outdo each other. It was a really great way to begin. A local competition like that was enough to get the juices going.
MT: I asked Gabby this question last year and in light of what you have just told me I’m going to ask you the same question; did the fact that everyone in your family composed ever cause you to reject composing?
MGH: No, I didn’t, although I believe Gabby probably would have said that she did. But here is how I came about it. I have both of my parents, my dad was actually an engineer at Firestone, and he was self taught and did it for the love of it. My mom’s degree was in music theory and she took some time away from composing but did get back into it later on, and I think that having an older sister that was gifted in it, and I don’t know, we were all creative, and so for me it was like if my older sister can do this and if my dad and mom can do this, why shouldn’t I be able to as well. So for me, it was not a rejection, it was more like; don’t leave me out.
MT: Regarding the piece you have written for Barry Stees: the title Sortilège, as you know, has a number of slight variations to its meaning, in addition to being the name of a Canadian whisky.
MGH: Now that I did not know, although that could put a whole different spin in things.
MT: So we can cross that one off.
MGH: Yes, cross that on off but on the other hand I am making a mental note. The title of the piece actually came after the piece was written. I sometimes struggle tremendously with titles, and other times I have a list of titles that I am going to write pieces to. I have several sets of pieces that I call Bocadillos, and each is a set of four pictorial pieces based on visual impressions of something I did while traveling. So those all came from writing the title first because I was so inspired, and then I wrote the piece. But for this one Barry did have something in mind when he commissioned me, and he specifically asked me for something that would fit into a program of solo bassoon pieces dealing with hexes, charms, witchcraft sorcery, you name it, and he also wanted something that was transforming.
His commission came in the middle of a lot of other commissions I was working on, and I had a lot of nebulous ideas going on in my head while I was writing it. How can I accomplish what he wants? Should I make them literal charms where the bassoon turns into a lover and then into a frog? Should I do something humorous or something completely evil? And this piece, like many of mine, kind of decided what it wanted to be. Sometimes they do take you where they want to go after you have all of your main ideas going. And when I was done with it, it didn’t seem evil and it didn’t seen like it had specific charms in it.
One of my early working titles was “Curses!” but I thought that it didn’t uniformly sound like curses. The piece is written on a cipher for Barry’s name, which is something which I sometimes do and it’s kind of fun, so it is a set of variations set on that cipher, though you will never hear it unless you know what my code is. But the title; quite honestly I just looking through thesauruses but no word that I found in English hit the nail on the head. So I turned to French, and started looking around, and this one [Sortilège] seemed to be nebulous enough. For lack of a better word, it was a vague enough title that sort of refers to magic and charms, and I was thinking of l’Enfant et les Sortilège of Ravel, and it just felt like a good title.
MT: Very interesting, I like that.
MGH: Very often I title things in foreign languages or with made up words because I hardly ever find the right word. It is like when you see a painting: how do you put one word on that painting that captures what you are seeing and feeling? When I am using titles in foreign languages or with made up words, I am not trying to be pretentious in the least, or make them difficult to pronounce, but the idea is that I don’t want them too easily pinned down.
MT: You did achieve that with this title.
MGH: Oh good.
MT: Oh, there is also a French heavy Metal Band called Sortilège.
MGH: I wouldn’t doubt it, there has to be!
MT: You have written for the bassoon before, but I believe this is your first solo piece for the instrument.
MGH: Yes it is.
MT: What do you find challenging about writing for the bassoon?
MGH: I was kind of fortunate, because Barry told me to do everything that I could, because it is a competition piece as well. [It is the required piece for the 2012 Meg Quigley Vivaldi competition.] Now playing the oboe as I do, I understand completely about articulation, breath, slurring and phasing on a double reed instrument. The sound is in my head without any question at all, so I didn’t feel that I had much of a challenge writing for the bassoon, other then making sure that the piano wasn’t on top of it. The bassoon is a lighter instrument that doesn’t cut through the same way that an oboe does, so with the bassoon you do need to be a little bit more cautious.
MT: I hear that it is a difficult piece that uses the entire range of the instrument.
MGH: Oh yes, in fact there were a couple of notes that I was questioning, and we decided to put the two highest notes in the piece in as an ossia [optional passage]. Ideally I do want them to be played and Barry said that it was no problem for him, and that in a competition setting, people should be able to hit those notes, but not every bassoonist in the world is going to be able to do that.
MT: Which notes are those?
MGH: The E and F, an octave and a half above middle C. I didn’t even know, until Barry told me, that a bassoon could play that high.
MT: Is there a particular flavor to the piece?
MGH: Yes, there is. The piece has sort of pillars here and there, where it returns to the opening. It is a place to kind of feel at home again. Each time you do get there you will probably feel a different character, although you will recognize the material without a doubt. The character does vary through the piece from somewhat rhapsodic at the beginning, and then we get into some wicked or evil sounding low music. It also has some march and scherzo places, and at the end there is a very heavy driving syncopated section. There is also a wistful waltz and, for lack of a better word, there is a section that is dreary. It is a piece that covers a lot of ground within the thematic material.
MT: Tell me a bit about the harmonic structure.
MGH: Well I tend toward extended harmonies, but within a tonal framework. I do use a lot of bi-tonality, I just kind of like the sound; early influences of Stravinsky and Poulenc, that feels very natural to me. Although I don’t think there is anything in there that is so dissonant that you just sit there wondering why.
MT: What’s it like to hear a piece of yours performed in concert for the first time?
MGH: Lately it has been nothing but a thrill every time. I am so incredibly fortunate to live where I do and have friends in high places in the performing world, so without a doubt I practically always feel really great about it. For this piece, of course Barry is a fantastic player, and Randy Fusco is great player — the three of us were at Eastman together. Randy has played a lot of my pieces and I keep throwing hard stuff at him, and I’m sure he wishes I would tone it down a little, but he does keep playing everything really well.
A catalog of Margi Griebling-Haigh’s compositions can be found on her Web site.
Read an interview with Barrick Stees here (the article incorporates part of this conversation).