Until recently, Jenny Morgan stood with me and my fellow altos and sang solos in songs like Music in my Mother’s House and Blame it on my Youth. The first time I heard her voice, goosebumps stood the hair on my neck straight up.
Jenny has other hidden talents, one of which is composing music. In fact, Higher Ground will debut one of her compositions, Like Barley Bending, during our upcoming spring concert. Not being a composer myself, I asked her about her connection with music.
“My connection with music is natural, emotional, and visceral. It’s something that’s been an integral part of who I am since as long as I remember.”
Certain that performing a song is an entirely unique experience from writing one, I asked Jenny to describe the difference:
“That’s an interesting question. I think I approach music the same way, it’s just the vantage point that’s different.”
She went on to describe when she’s singing, she attends to the ways the notes help express the meaning and emotion of the text. When she’s composing, she writes the text, then she writes the melodies and harmonies such that they express its emotion.
“Having a composer’s heart, I think, may make me fairly sensitive at times to expressing carefully what the composer has written because I understand how much the composer wants me to do that.”
Since I started in September, Jenny and I have carpooled to choir practice on Tuesday nights. Recalling one of our first conversations when she joked that she wouldn’t be able to compose during the drive home any more, I asked when she does find the time to compose:
“Whether I’m walking or driving, it’s usually when I’m traveling somewhere… being alone is usually the only time my mind can be quiet enough and alert enough to begin creating.”
Although she’s alone – away from her kids and work and electronics and stress and and and – when she’s composing, she draws her inspiration from the creative people that surround her. Her creativity is triggered by a choir practice or a choral concert, a beautiful poem or an inspiring movie, but also:
“So much of my music has been inspired by being in nature, especially out in the country in Mission, BC, where my dad lives. That place has an almost sacred beauty to me. And, of course, love in its many forms whether it be love for my children, my husband, my friends. That is and always will be an inspiration for my music.”
Higher Ground sings music from a wide range of styles, so I asked if she tends toward certain musical styles. She described her compositions like assemblages of building blocks that can be reconstructed in many ways, for many effects:
“My first musical experiences were with classical music, but I always had a natural talent for writing sweeping, movie theme type music even as a very young child. Whether I’m writing choral, alternative rock, folk or instrumental classical music, a strong, emotionally stirring melody has always figured largely. I could take most of my music of any genre and re-arrange them for a film and it would sound as if it were originally written that way.”
She works with the material like a potter works with clay, moulding it, reshaping it, layering it:
“I’ve always had a fascination with harmony, and used to take two tape recorders, record on one, then play it back while recording on the other one, and so on until I had created many tracks of harmony. I remember recording the sound of music in seven part harmony as a child and being quite thrilled with the effect. The sound quality was terrible, but I taught myself by doing this for years how to use harmony in many ways and it became second nature to me.”
On hearing herself singing her own compositions, she described the experience as “a bit whitewashed,” as if it weren’t real, so I sent her a recording of our choir singing Like Barley Bending:
“I got goosebumps. It was thrilling. It’s such a giving experience all around. I write a piece of music, sometimes for a specific choir like Higher Ground, and then they give right back by singing the piece so beautifully, and bringing it to life. I love the whole process.”
This spring, Jenny will be in the audience listening instead of singing with us. She is taking a break from choir to tend to some health issues that ironically affect her hearing. She is already much missed and she misses us too:
“I think the people in the choir are my number one miss. They are my musical family and it’s like missing Sunday dinner with the family when I stay at home on Tuesday nights.
“I’ll also really miss learning new, wonderful pieces, and growing with the choir during this term as they learn and struggle, and triumph together as a unit.
“Everyone has their own strengths and unique sounds that they bring to the choir, and yet that all blends into one beautiful expression of sound. I loved being a part of that week after week.”
This term, we may not have the strength of her voice, but we do have the songs of her heart… one of them at least.
**UPDATE** Jenny has returned!