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Student’s composition unites W&M Choir during pandemic

  • Owen Peck
    Composing for choir:  Owen Peck ’22 is a music major, member of and accompanist for the William & Mary Choir.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Faced with a lot of time on his hands during the COVID-19 shutdown, Owen Peck ’22 got to work on a project he’d been mulling for a while.

Starting during the spring 2020, Peck shaped a composition for the William & Mary Choir. Then it turned into three pieces, a year of rehearsing and a virtual recording.

Peck, who had composed before, is a music major, member of and accompanist for the choir. But this more ambitious project would serve several purposes — occupy his mind and his time while away from campus, provide the choir pieces to rehearse in individual virtual settings and allow him to connect with his friends while they were physically separated.

“The first text that was the one that sort of started this whole thing for me was the poem ‘Demain, dès l'aube,’ which became the second of the three pieces in the set,” Peck said. “That particular poem I had known a little bit about, and I’ve done some choral composing in the past. And I really thought that music would sort of flow from it, and it would be a good text to try and set.”

{{youtube:medium:right|HydJxm1kLnM, Owen Peck ’22: Three pieces for the W&M Choir}}

French poet Victor Hugo wrote “Demain, dès l’aube,” which translates to “Tomorrow, At Dawn,” as a very personal lamentation on the accidental death of his young, newly-married daughter.

Peck asked W&M Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choirs James Armstrong if the choir might perform the piece, and Armstrong enthusiastically agreed to take a look when it was ready, according to Peck.

Peck wrote the music for voice and piano accompaniment for Hugo’s poem quickly, at home in Richmond. He said the key to composing is to find even the smallest starting point capturing the essence of a work and build from there.

“I made time for it because I found that it was really fulfilling to just have this project where I could be creative, and really there were no bounds,” Peck said. “It was just something that made me feel better about the whole situation. And also something that was really easy to do in isolation because composing is not a social activity whatsoever.”

Working on the compositions with the pandemic as the backdrop and separated from campus life, Peck said he wanted something that would resonate with his choir friends whom he no longer could see in person.

“Many choirs are very close, but the William & Mary Choir in particular is just really close-knit,” Peck said. “It’s 60 people, but we’re all just great friends and I think these texts were challenging and somewhat intense. And I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen that for a group that I didn’t think could come together and handle it and treat it with respect. But I really did feel that about this group.”

Expanding the work

Receiving the first piece in April 2020, Armstrong liked the work so much that he asked Peck to compose two more similar pieces. Finding suitable texts to go with the first one took a while, Peck said.

The first and third pieces are “Le Guignon” by Charles Baudelaire, which translates to “Evil Fate,” and “Le Mythe de Sisyphe” by Albert Camus, or “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Both make reference to the mythological figure Sisyphus and present different interpretations of the unending cycle of his rolling a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down. The first piece speaks about the sometimes difficult fate of the artist, while in the last piece Camus finds hope in the unlikely story of Sisyphus, according to Armstrong.

Completed in the summer of 2020, each piece consists of distinctly separate music for voice and piano with the choir performing in French.

“From a musical perspective, I tried to make the pieces challenging and something that would be worthwhile, that people would really have to sink their teeth into,” Peck said. “But also not something that would be frustrating and sort of like beating your head against the wall. So I tried to hit that sweet spot, and I think that turned out pretty well.”

When it became clear that the choir would rehearse mostly remotely for 2020-21 and would not perform live, Armstrong said the compositions formed the backbone of their work. Peck became conductor and accompanist, preparing the choir in rehearsals and recording the piano accompaniment as well as his own vocal part.

“Owen's pieces are, quite simply put, exceptional by any standard,” Armstrong said. “They are beautifully crafted, sensitive to the choral instrument and, perhaps best of all, they explore in musical terms universal human experiences with a deeply personal and mature voice.

“A mark of the importance and quality of these pieces is that they provided a compelling reason for the student singers and me to persist in making music in community during the pandemic when the nature of rehearsal and performance had been so drastically altered as to be nearly unrecognizable and most choral ensembles had decided to suspend activity.”

Choir member Alli Seifert ’21 agreed.

“He has a talent for being able to make his compositions speak to everyone, even if one can’t necessarily relate to the literal story being told in text,” Seifert said. “The story and the feelings associated with it are perfectly conveyed through his musical expression. Heartache, loss, longing, triumph, warmth and love are felt and understood without you needing to understand a word.

“The three pieces held meaning for me, as my family dealt with the loss of my older sister while I’ve been enrolled at William & Mary. Owen’s music evokes feelings of heartache and nostalgia for loved ones lost, so being able to sing them was a little therapeutic.”

Choir members recorded the pieces individually late this past spring semester, and those were combined into virtual performance videos. Though not ideal, the virtual project laid a foundation that strengthened the group for the future, Peck said. It also created a record to preserve an extraordinary year.

Peck, who will be applying to master’s programs in choral conducting this fall, will keep the pieces in his catalog to possibly be performed elsewhere in the future. His ideal goal is to one day conduct a university choir.

“So the fact that there was a personal connection, the fact that these pieces were going to be a premiere and the fact that I think they hold some emotional resonance — all of that helped people to keep an artistic mindset in what otherwise is not necessarily what seems like a very creative process,” Peck said.

“It seems a lot more just – I don’t want to say boring, but certainly arduous. So yeah, I think in that respect it helped us to find the creativity and sort of just the joy of music making in a difficult year.”