An Interview with Terry McQuilkin

by Grace Ho

picture-58-1390007359How does a composer actualize thoughts into music? I recently posed this question to Terry McQuilkin, who is composing a new work for Delgani’s opening concert on November 17.

McQuilkin explained that the process is similar to that of a novelist. He begins with an outline, sketching out a plan for how the ideas will develop through the course of the piece. As a composition instructor at University of Oregon, he teaches his students to create a timeline for each piece: a blueprint to plot out the different sections of the work.

For McQuilkin, the most difficult stage is the initial one. He confided that often, a great deal of “sweat and blood” is involved when searching for the motive (musical idea) that he wants to work with. Asked about his inspiration for Delgani’s piece, he said that usually he “tends not to rely on external or extra-musical ideas.” However, the concept for this piece took shape from an old musical tradition.

“The melodic motive is an American hymn-tune that has echoed in my brain for decades,” McQuilkin recalled. After doing research, McQuilkin discovered the tune (titled “Detroit”) was originally published in 1840, and is found in the “Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony.” The book of hymn-tunes was written in the shape-note music tradition, based on the practice of social singing from books printed in “shape-notes.” Although similar to Western musical notation, this style uses distinct shapes (triangles, circles, squares) as aids to reading the music. Sometimes called “white spirituals,” such hymn-tunes were sung in nineteenth-century America by congregations in remote rural areas.

The original setting has “very raw harmonization,” described McQuilkin. “It sounds different, not like Bach and Mozart.” The main melody was in the tenor voice, and it was performed in an aggressive manner that would sound “unrefined” to our ears. “I’m not asking the string players to play that way!” McQuilkin laughed. His composition will feature his own interpretation of the melody, a “free variation” fantasy based on the tune.

This is McQuilkin’s first collaboration with the Delgani String Quartet. “I was struck by their vibrancy, energy, and expressivity,” he said. “I thought, why not write a piece that draws on Delgani’s musicianship and general cohesion of the quartet?” McQuilkin enjoys the stimulation of working with performers, and looks forward to partnering with the members of the quartet.