Living Minnesota Composers

SBO Staff • ChoralNovember 2013Repertoire Forum • November 25, 2013

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By John Charles Hughes

The motto of Minnesota’s chapter of ACDA is “Land of 10,000 Choirs,” a play on the state’s moniker of “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Choral singing in Minnesota is taken quite seriously– public school music programs invest it, top-notch collegiate programs lead the field, and community, religious, and professional choirs keep people singing throughout adulthood. Many internationally known composers call Minnesota home, including Dominick Argento, René Clausen, Libby Larson, Stephen Paulus, and Dale Warland. This installment of Repertoire Forum focuses on other Minnesota composers, many of whom are at the very beginning of promising careers. One of the benefits of living in the technology age is that almost all of these composers are accessible through personal websites. Don’t be afraid to email composers, Skype with them during rehearsal, or even commission them. Working with living composers offers both singers and conductors the opportunity to participate in the compositional process and support the future of American choral music.


by Abbie Betinis
Abbie Betinis Music Company

Abbie Betinis (b. 1980) has quickly emerged as one of the strongest voices in American choral composition. Her music is characterized by eclectic texts and a unique, yet accessible style. Betinis composed “Lumen” in 2012 for the Waupaca High School (Wis.) Treble Clef ensemble. The well-known Latin text translates as: “Receive the light and pass it on. I give that you may give.” In the style of chant, the three-part canon is solemn and ponderous. The flexible voicing and performance practice give performers freedom to adapt the piece to their individual needs. The piece would work well as a processional at the beginning of a concert. More information about “Lumen,” including a recording, is available on Betinis’s website, where one can order either printed or downloadable scores.


“Being Who You Are” 
by Elizabeth Alexander
Seafarer Press

Elizabeth Alexander wrote “Being Who You Are” in 1992 for Waunakee Elementary School (Wis.). It won the KidSing Composer’s Competition and was honorable mention for the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Alexander wrote the text, which affirms individual differences by referencing the uniqueness of the Ugly Duckling, Rudolph the Reindeer, and other figures. The piece has a galloping piano part and calls for singers to play various percussion instruments to portray the characters (For example, a ratchet depicts the Ugly Duckling.). Full score and audio previews are available online, as well as online ordering.


“Jerusalem Luminosa”
by Abbie Betinis
Kjos Music Press

Composed in 2001, “Jerusalem Luminosa” (Jerusalem, City of Light) is a call for peace. An SA ensemble, TB choir, or duet can perform the piece. The work is unaccompanied, which can make some of the dissonances difficult to achieve. Betinis creates contrast by oscillating between lyrical passages and periods of rhythmic activity. Betinis includes glissandi, which can add a new sonic dimension to a concert. A partial score preview and full audio recording are available online.


“Winter, Snow”
by Carol Barnett
Santa Barbara Music Publishing

Carol Barnett has long been a major figure in Minnesota choral music and has recently enjoyed huge success with her “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass.” In 2005, Barnett composed “Winter, Snow” for the Michigan State University Youth Treble Choirs. The piano part is sparse and recalls winter’s frigidity. The dissonant harmonic language comprised of clusters further captures the text’s austerity. This composition fills a major void in choral literature: a well-crafted setting of a secular, winter-themed text. The ranges are quite accessible, but the piece will require significant rehearsal time. Full score and audio previews are available online.


“Lux Aeterna”
by Jake Runestad
Jake Runestad Music

Although not originally from Minnesota, Jake Runestad (b. 1986) has made the Twin Cities his home. After earning a Master’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory, Runestad has quickly received performances by major ensembles, including Cantus and Seraphic Fire, as well as commissions from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Minnesota All-State Chorus, and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. A setting of a portion of the Requiem text, “Lux Aeterna” is a progression from darkness to light. Runestad has a melodic, well-crafted compositional style that both pleases and challenges the listener. “Lux Aeterna” won the 2012 Essentially Choral Reading Session with VocalEssence. Full score and audio previews, as well as online ordering, are available.


“Goodbye, Then”
by Timothy C. Takach

Timothy C. Takach (b. 1978) recently ended a long tenure performing in the outstanding men’s ensemble Cantus in order to pursue composition on a full-time basis. The Minnesota Music Educators Association commissioned “Goodbye, Then” for its 2012–2013 All-State Men’s Choir. The work is quite lyrical with a 6/8 time signature and expressive piano and clarinet accompaniment parts. The choral writing is fairly straightforward with mostly two-part divisi, which allows ensembles to work on expressing Doug Wilhide’s thought-provoking secular text. Full score and audio previews, as well as online ordering, are available.


by Christopher Aspaas
Hal Leonard

Christopher Aspaas conducts several choirs at St. Olaf College. In addition to his busy teaching and guest conducting schedules, Aspaas has written several well-received compositions and arrangements. This setting of Rudyard Kipling’s well-known poem “If” was composed for the 2012 Minnesota All-State Men’s Choir. The setting captures the poem’s dramatic nature and can highlight a strong men’s chorus. Aspaas’s experience conducting the St. Olaf Viking Chorus, the college’s first-year men’s ensemble, is seen in his idiomatic writing for men’s voices.


“How Can I Keep from Singing?”
arr. Matthew Culloton
Hinshaw Music

Matthew Culloton is the founder and artistic director of the nationally recognized choral ensemble The Singers: Minnesota Choral Artists. Beyond his leadership of this professional choir, Culloton has written many wonderful arrangements and composed several original works. His arrangement of this favorite Shaker folksong treats the melody with simplicity, allowing the text’s deep sincerity to shine. The melody moves between different sections, which features each voice part. The piano accompaniment grounds the piece with rich block chords. Culloton’s arrangement would make a wonderful festival piece because it can be quickly learned but is tremendously expressive. It would also make a wonderful graduation piece 


“A Sprig of Rosemary”
by Jeffrey Van
G. Schirmer

This unaccompanied piece is a setting of a love-themed poem by Amy Lowell. Jeffrey Van, equally known for his work as composer and studio guitar faculty at the University of Minnesota, was commissioned to write this piece for a wedding. The title, “A Sprig of Rosemary,” does not appear in the text at all; it is a reference to the Rosemary plant’s symbolic representation of memory and commitment. Explore other works by Jeffrey Van, who has collaborated with many of America’s finest ensembles.


“I Lift Up My Eyes”
by Jocelyn Hagen
Graphite Publishing

This setting of Psalm 121 comes from the tremendously talented composer Jocelyn Hagen. At points, Hagen juxtaposes the men’s parts against the women’s, creating textural interest. When the texture becomes homophonic, the text is stated with tremendous conviction. Hagen’s voice leading is clear; however, some tonal clusters may be difficult for less experienced choirs. The ranges are also large, extending to a low E in the bass. While not for beginning ensembles, advanced choirs will enjoy Hagen’s beautiful setting. Full score and audio previews are available online, where one can also order scores.

John C. Hughes is a versatile choral musician and pedagogue, drawing from experience as a K-12 teacher, collegiate conductor, and church musician. Presently, Hughes is a candidate for the D.M.A. in Choral Conducting and Pedagogy at The University of Iowa and serves as music director at The Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City. Please contact him directly via his website:

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