News Column

Focus On: Composer Scott Gendel weaves an Appalachian tale through music

July 24, 2013

YellowBrix

July 24--Why you should know him: The Southwest Virginia resident composed the music for the original play "Unearthed: an Appalachian Musical," which was commissioned by Endstation Theatre Company and will debut this weekend (see box for details).

Background

Scott, 36, started playing the piano when he was five years old and took lessons for awhile -- until it conflicted with his little league baseball schedule. But he never left music behind.

"I made stuff up at the piano and just played constantly and sang in choirs and got involved in music," he says. "It was so much fun to write music that it basically took over my entire life."

He attended Bard College in New York, where he earned a biology degree while continuing to write and play music. He eventually realized it was his true calling and went on to earn a doctorate in music from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also designed and taught undergraduate composition courses.

Today, he works as a freelance composer, professional accompanist and vocal coach

In addition to "Unearthed" -- which was written by Nick Lantz and is being directed by Scott's wife, Kelly Bremner, a theater professor at Emory & Henry College -- recent projects include a cantata for choir and orchestra that premiered in Washington, D.C., in April and a song cycle for a soprano and cello that will be performed in multiple cities in 2014.

How did you come to collaborate with Endstation?

"It sort of started with Dan Gallagher, who is the lighting designer for Endstation, and he's also from Amherst. He's a friend of mine. We worked on a couple of shows together when we were both living in Wisconsin. He was here, and then I moved to Virginia. He had the idea about four years ago that we should do a show together. Dan loves local music and said, 'Would you be interested in doing something [with] folk music and folk stories?' Then he brought Nick into the discussion, and Kelly. We started workshops two years ago ... and now we're finally at the full production."

Where did you start?

"We've gone through a lot of different things. The initial idea was to do something that was an opera. Then we sort of turned it into a musical, because it just seemed like a better way to engage the local audiences. And then we sort of threw around the idea of [folk music and stories]. Nick and I came out here and went to various museums and hiked through the mountains and kind of learned all the local stories we could soak up. In the end, what sort of happened was, Nick, who is brilliant writer, took the feel of all those stories and created something."

What is it about?

"It's so hard to give a really good brief explanation. ... It takes place in two time periods, in 1900 and 2000. In both time periods, a strange man is discovered underground, who offers people wishes. And in both time periods, people sort of struggle to deal with the consequences.

"It was all Nick's [idea]. He was the mastermind behind the story. ... There are a bunch of ghost of the mountain stories out there -- lots of ghost stories that struck us as so interesting, and we wanted to do something like that, but be original to this concept. The hope is that it's bringing folklore into the present day. We tend to always have these folk stories that take place a long time ago, and that's what the 1900 story does. ... [We want to take] tall tales of the mountains into the modern day and as something that's part of our lives."

How did you and Nick work on it together?

"We sort of collaborated for a long time, playing with the story and where songs would go. Then last summer, I was in residency at VCCA for a few weeks, right when the derecho hit. It was kind of appropriate. I was without power, and I was writing this folk musical. I'd have access to email a couple times a day. I'd walk around with the lyric sheets in the woods [and] it sort of got me more into the mindset in some way. We wrote that way, with him sending me lyrics and me sending him music. Last summer, we wrote about half of it. Through the course of this year, we've been finishing it and revising it."

Tell me about the music in it.

"My background is very mixed. I work a lot in opera and classical music. I also work a lot in musical theater. I'm the musical director for 'Violet' here at Endstation this summer. I love doing a little bit of everything. I particularly love all the folk music of Appalachia. ... The idea was to try to get that music to interact with musical theater kinds of sounds and operatic kinds of sounds, and let them sort of coexist in a show together and create some kind of new thing. I think that [Appalachian] music can be so dramatic, and so can musical theater, and I wanted to sort of let them play together.

"From an organization standpoint, I love the idea of a singer who is very much a folk singer, who sings in this very sort of rough style ... singing on the stage at the same time as somebody who has operatic training and how those two voices can play together. There's a musical theater duet that has these interjections from one of the opera singer types. There's a big folk song that eventually musical theater sounds start harmonizing on top of it. There's a song that sounds like a folk song but isn't one. In the end, it becomes something very different and becomes a big choral musical theater moment.

"I love all this music. I want to ... create something new that hopefully is really interesting but also fairly natural. A new kind of music that lets these things coexist."

The orchestra offers a similar mix, too, right?

"It's a small instrumental ensemble of five people. We sort of want it to be [a combination of] a musical theater pit and the kind of folk band that would play on your front porch. There's a piano and there's a cello, which represent the classical side of things. But there's also a fiddle player and a guitar and an autoharp and the mandolin, and all these kind of folk sounds. The hope is that it all plays together, that it feels like musical theater but also feels like some people jamming on their front porch."

What's it been like to see it all come to life in front of you during rehearsals?

"It's really exciting. We're almost two weeks into our rehearsal process. ... I really think it's the kind of show that's very difficult to explain in a way, but when you experience it, it feels very natural. For the cast, they had a little bit of that too. They look at it on paper, and say, 'What? I don't really understand what this show is.' It's fun seeing people get really into it."

One of your other recent works was a cantata for a choir and orchestra. Do you typically work on such opposite ends of the spectrum?

"I do mix it up a fair amount. Almost everything I write involves voices. I do a lot of choral music. I do a lot of classical art songs. But I've written two musicals. I've written three one act operas. So it's a little bit of everything. But it also really gets tied together. I just love working with poetry and working with singers and working with voices. This show has been really exciting because I get to work with so many different kinds of voices.

"To me, I'm biased because I wrote it, but to me it really doesn't feel that out there. It's really just this ... musical that has this folk feel to it, and when the emotions push to the extreme, it goes to some sort of operatic places."

How did you become interested in music and composing?

"I started playing piano when I was a very little kid. I didn't always take lessons, I just played and played and played. I had a few opportunities in college to really start writing things, and just got completely carried away with it. I ended up getting a doctorate for it. I always [was] a kid who liked playing music. I made stuff up at the piano and just played constantly and sang in choirs and got involved in music. It was so much fun to write music that it basically took over my entire life."

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