It was the summer of 1974, in Baltimore and local composer James Grant was mowing the lawn when he had a musical epiphany. In his head, the 20-year-old heard a choir singing the lines of “Te Deum Laudamus.”
“I turned off the lawn mower, ran inside to the piano and grabbed manuscript paper,” Grant says during a phone interview last week. He’s en route from his summer home at Oxtongue Lake, Canada, to Siesta Key.
He didn’t know how to set up the manuscript or write it down, but growing up as a choir boy at his family’s church he could read music enough to get the four-part acapella composition on paper.
Grant couldn’t play what he had written, but this first composition changed his life. In the spirit of a true transcendentalist, it was his divine message — he would become a composer.
“My primary instrument is a pencil,” he says. Although he can work his way around the piano and he’s competent as a conductor, he leaves the performing to the professionals. “I much prefer to make the blueprint.”
Grant has spent his entire career making musical blueprints.
“The economics of creating new art are formidable,” he says. “Composing a piece of music takes a long time, and preparing parts and the score take a long time, not to mention the rehearsing and finding the appropriate funding.”
It took him three years to write “Such Was the War,” the 45-minute work that Gloria Musicae will perform for its Nov. 11 Veterans Day concert.
The piece was originally commissioned in 2001 for Norman Scribner, the artistic director of the Choral Arts Society, in Washington, D.C. In the same year it was commissioned, Grant was one of the six musicians to win the Aaron Copland Award, which gives composers the opportunity to hold a two-month residency in the famous Americana composer’s former house.
In a similar style to Henry David Thoreau, Grant would escape to the studio’s solitude where he planned to create something cobbling together a variety of work by American transcendentalists. But it took a different form.
“I took a break from working at Copland’s studio, and I was looking through his personal library where I found a slim blue volume that said ‘Specimen Days’ on the front,” Grant says.
Inside was the prose Walt Whitman wrote during the Civil War.
“I had not been aware that he had been so active as a volunteer nurse, assisted in surgeries, or that he witnessed battles, or spent hours sitting next to a wounded soldier as the soldier died,” Grant says.
A switch clicked — “Such Was the War” was the result. The following summer, he holed up and, in a methodical manner, read almost all of Whitman’s works.
He mentions one image specifically that stood out: Whitman’s imagery of devastating carnage, placed next to the natural beauty of a full moon rising.
“There is a juxtaposition between horror and beauty in his writing that I found absolutely compelling, and as much as I could as a composer, I emphasized that paradox,” Grant says.
“Such Was the War” premiered in 2003, at The John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a chorus of about 80 players from the Choral Arts Society led by Scribner. At the time, Gloria Musicae’s artistic director, Joseph Holt, was the associate music conductor working under Scribner. Grant and Holt became friends, but didn’t see each other often.
In 2009, when the Choral Arts Society commissioned the same piece for a smaller chamber group, Holt and Grant worked together again. After talking, they realized Holt was moving to Sarasota, where Grant spends the winter seasons. The coincidence proved they were destined to work together again. It’s only appropriate that Holt’s group will perform the song that introduced the two men again.
“I’m hoping this is the first of many collaborations,” Grant says about working with Gloria Musicae.
IF YOU GO
Veterans Day concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11
Where: First United Methodist Church, 104 S. Pineapple Ave.
Info: gloriamusicae.org; 360-7399
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