Conversation with Central’s Composer-in-Residence

In 2018, Central welcomed a new position to its music ministry - Composer-in-Residence. Abbie Betinis has been a familiar face at Central for several years, but in this new role answered a new call from Central - to compose one of several new hymns about the mission, culture and worship at Central.

In May, Central premiered our first new hymn ‘Forever Embracing’.  We are not sure if this is a first for this congregation or not, but it certainly is a unique opportunity worth celebrating.  Jennifer Anderson asked Abbie if she would share some things with us about her as a composer, and she graciously agreed. 

What do you love most about being a Composer?

I love so many parts about composing.  I feel like I’m a professional dreamer. I also really love the business of being self-employed. I get to create my own hours and vacations (though I’m not very good at taking vacations), follow my heart for projects that I love to do, and keep challenging myself to learn something new with every project. My brain feels good when I write music. And – if I’m doing it right – my soul feels good too.

In 100 years, what 3 choral works (other than your own) written thus far in the 21st century do you think choirs will still be performing and why?

· Path of Miracles (Joby Talbot, 2005)

· The Little Match Girl Passion (David Lang, 2008)

· The Deer’s Cry (Arvo Pärt, 2008)

I think great storytelling never goes out of style.  These pieces invite us on a journey and hold us all the way through, while also leaving a lot of space — silence even — for the listener to imagine. 

What is the hardest part about being a composer?

There are a lot of hard things and every day it is something else. Getting motivated, keeping doubt out of the creative process, project management. A lot of my days are spent answering emails about my work, mostly from conductors or some like this from students, and filling orders for my music. It is hard for me to get to the piano to practice and to write.

Right now I’m trying to work through a lot of fear for some reason - fear of trying something new in art, and wondering if I can do it. I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to work myself up to writing (like quite literally saying to myself in the mirror “C’mon Abbie! You can totally do this!” “No one else can do this but you!” “You have things to say!”), and in trying to trust the music that comes out.

And now that people know my music around the world, there’s even more pressure to try to do a really good job with every single project, and it’s hard to guarantee that it’s going to be perfect when I don’t know how the music goes yet, especially when I’m trying to stretch myself and make each composition different from the last one.

Who are your favorite composers and how have they influenced your pieces?

Some of my favorite composers are Johannes Brahms, Giovanni Palestrina, Francis Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky. They’ve all influenced my music in different ways. Some for counterpoint, some for harmony, some for the element of surprise, others for rhythm and texture.

How has choral composition changed in the last 20 years? How will it in the next 20?

Twenty years ago, I cried hearing Water Night. It was the first time I had experienced harmony being released from harmonic function.  Now I get emotional hearing Ted Hearne’s Privilege (2009) and Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices (2012).  It is so exciting to hear texture having emerged as a primary storytelling device. In the next 20 years, I expect the roles of texture and timbre to expand, and a more complete vocabulary for those important musical elements to become standard.

What are the biggest challenges facing choral composers today?

Climate change, nuclear war, gun violence, voting rights, mass incarceration, and finding the courage. . .

What advice would you give a student who wants to major in composition?

Don’t worry too much about being unique, you already are. And if you think your music isn’t unique enough, or resonating with people, change yourself - travel, ask questions, go to the theater - don’t change the music to be something you aren’t.  Honest storytelling and vulnerability are assets in a composer.  But do practice the craft all the time, so you can most fluently be yourself.

We invite you to learn more about Abbie Betinis here.