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Composer spotlight: Judith Cloud

Our “Desert Song” concerts are coming up on March 7-8! We are excited to feature compositions from many talented composers in these concerts, one of which is NAU’s Coordinator of Voice, Judith Cloud. To learn a bit more about her and her music, we are featuring her on ChoirTap this week.

How did you get started with music? Do you come from a musical family? Everyone in my family sang. My father and my mother were church soloists. In fact, the organist at our church imported my whole family to her new town because she wanted us to sing in her choir. She was my first mentor and taught me so many valuable things from a very early age. I started out singing Bach! I played the flute and the guitar and I taught myself a little oboe and trumpet! I just loved exploring new instruments and I wanted to play everything!

What impact does living in the Southwest have on your life and your music? I grew up in North Carolina. I spent a short time teaching in Terre Haute, Indiana and moved to Flagstaff to teach music at Northern Arizona University in 1989. Discovering Arizona and the Southwest, with its brilliantly diverse and awe-inspiring landscapes, had a profound influence on my composition.

What is your favorite thing about teaching music? I’m so glad you asked this question because I do feel that I teach music. I also teach people how to sing but I hope I do that with an eye out for retaining the essence of what it is to be a musician. Often voice teachers get lost in the production of sound to the exclusion of the more important business of being the conduit for the composer and the poet.

How has your role as an educator allowed you to strengthen your own musical talents? Because I have been a singer and a conductor, I have learned about composing from being in the daily laboratory of all the composers whose works I teach and perform. When you are an educator, you are in the daily business of leading students to places of discovery. During this process, you benefit from the slowing down of music and words and seeing structure in a methodical, meticulous, yet inspired way.

How is poetry important in your life and your music? I spoke about the slowing down of music and words. When I search a poem, I often discover it more deeply through the process of composing. Something about a poem may inspire me to try to set it to music. But often times a poem seems complete without any attempt on my part to make something else out of it. When a song setting does not seem to capture the essence of a poem, I will make an instrumental piece with the poem in mind. My most recent attempt at this was a piece for brass quintet called “Three Dogs from Greek Mythology.” The poem is to be read projected on the screen while the brass quintet plays each music movement. This concept is fairly unusual for Brass quintet but my experience was that its performance was quite moving and successful. The brilliant poems of Michael Collier were my inspiration. I am working on an orchestral piece to one of his poems that will be much like a tone poem.

What is the process of how you select which texts to set with your music? Sometimes it’s just serendipitous. I work with poems and texts daily in my teaching and each spring sit and listen to dozens of music major voice recitals where I hear even more texts and poems that allow me to consider setting them. But we live in a time where contemporary voices are interesting and relevant. So I do look for poetry that reflects what is going on with us spiritually and in our evolution as a culture. Sometimes I will contact a poet and ask if he or she would be interested in having me set their work to music. The response has always been favorable. Betty Andrews was a wonderful collaborative poet. She sent me the most gorgeous hand created books. Unfortunately, she died before she could hear any of the music I created from her unique voice.

Where do you find inspiration to compose? I love finding special places. The majority of my work is done in my music room at home. But there have been many times when I have been visiting friends or colleagues and used their pianos in the quietude of their homes. Mesa Songs was actually composed in Berkeley, California in such a place. One of the last special places I visited was in Lake City, Colorado and a teeny tiny church. I used the out of tune piano and composed several art songs. I was blissed out!

How does your experience as a singer help you when writing vocal compositions? I know what works technically. I know what vowel feels good on a high note or in the middle register or chest voice. I know how long a phrase can occupy the breath. I know what vowel and consonant combinations are really pleasurable and visceral to sing. And I know what singers really like. That may sound overly simple but it is important!

What is it like teaching at NAU? I have had a very good career here. Students have been very talented. My colleagues in the music faculty have been excellent and awe-inspiring musicians to work with. If that were not the case, I would have left long ago. In particular, Rita Borden, the collaborative pianist I have given multiple recitals with has been a huge inspiration for me as a composer as she has interpreted almost all of my songs.

Now that we know a bit more about Judith Cloud and her music, we are even more excited to hear her work, “Mesa Songs,” which will feature Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. Watch the concert trailer here >>

-Samantha Allen, Marketing and Communications Intern