portrait of a composer

by Jemma Everyhope-Roser

composer - hands

By the time Anthony Bernarducci sits down at the keyboard, he’s already received the commission. Sometimes the request is more practical, a specific request, usually a capella, choir accompanied by piano, or occasionally even orchestral. Sometimes he’s asked to put a particular text to music, or sometimes he’s given a more open-ended commission.

With that sparking him, Bernarducci begins his research. For secular pieces, he’ll search public domain poetry, mumbling through it to sound the words aloud. He wants something easy, musical, but not too wordy. He wants to avoid cases where the diction is too harsh to set to music. For sacred texts, Bernarducci looks for pieces that are well known enough in the choral community to be familiar but haven’t been overused.

“Like ‘Ave Maria,’” Bernarducci says.

Bernarducci’s love of composition began at age twelve or thirteen, he says, when his parents gave him a Yamaha keyboard. He played with recording beats and experimented with sounds while taking lessons, emulating pieces he liked to discover his own unique style.

As an undergrad, he attended Westminster Choir College, where he immersed himself in the choral world. His undergraduate degree, he says, was both grueling and competitive. “You’re not only learning how to be an expert on an instrument, which can be quite a task, but you’re also learning music theory, music history, and you’re studying general education.”

After completing a master’s degree in conducting at the University of Arizona, he went on to teach high school. There he wrote his first composition, “Stepping Through.” It’s still performed every year. Even though the students may no longer know him, his music still creates a buzz and emotional response. “The idea of the piece,” Bernarducci says, “reaching that moment where you get to sing it at the graduation ceremony, still resonates with them.

“As an educator and as a conductor, I feel like I have an advantage when I compose for a choir,” Bernarducci says, “because I can always try to think about the educational value of a piece of music, what can be drawn from it in a classroom, and as I’m writing I’m also thinking about ranges, and I’m thinking about how the singers are going to find their pitches in this entrance or what leaps or skips might be easily done or not easily done.”

Bernaducci tries to balance his music, making it attainable and yet having sections that singers may need to spend more time with. He thinks about what he’d pick if he were to teach it, why he’d pick it, and what singers can gain from singing a piece. “Whether it’s understanding poetry, connecting to an ancient text, learning a Gregorian chant, I try to keep all of those aspects in mind as I’m composing, especially if I’m composing for a particular level.”

If he’s writing a piece for a college choir, for example, he wants to make sure it holds enough challenge to captivate the singers. But for a high school choir, he might take care that younger singers have a chance at mastery.

Bernarducci likens hearing a composition being performed live to meeting someone you’ve talked with over the phone for quite some time, and finally being able to shake their hand.

“I try to think about who my audience is and keep that idea consistent,” Bernarducci says.

Five years into teaching high school, Bernarducci and his wife began considering the ramifications of starting a family, and Bernarducci realized that if he wanted to take his education to the next level in graduate school, this would be his now-or-never moment.

His family picked up and moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where he started his doctorate at Florida State. Graduate work, he says, builds an already huge skill set even higher, and in addition, “There’s a great deal of research involved, whether it’s historical, analytic, or experimental. The music field itself has more substance than people realize.”

There, Bernarducci wrote “When Roses Cease to Bloom,” his take on an Emily Dickinson poem. It was the first piece he wrote that he did not conduct. Emily Dickinson’s poetry, as well as Christina Rossetti’s, are both very popular for choral music, and Bernarducci finds much of their work to be innately musical. The only line he found particularly troublesome was “when bumblebees fly.” The line “idling in Auburn,” however, inspired an “ostinato,” or a repeating pattern, that carried throughout the section. Sometimes, Bernarducci says, a single word, like “idle,” can compel him to come up with a technique that will work for the text.

Completing his doctorate, Bernarducci moved his family up to South Carolina. His time at Clemson marks the beginning of a very productive phase. While Bernarducci says that he can go a long time between writing pieces, once he gets an idea, obsession seizes him.

“I’m not very good at letting it sit for a week or two and then coming back to it. I will take breaks from the composing process on purpose. Over a weekend I’ll leave everything in my office. Sometimes I do need a little space because if you push it too far, you can wind up forcing things to happen that aren’t natural.”

Since coming to Clemson this past fall, he says things have taken off, especially with his well-received “Veni Creator Spiritus,” and recently he’s been doing more work with Latin texts.

When Bernarducci has the text he’s going to put to music, he says, “Normally, my process is to spend time with the text. If it’s a poem, I’ll read it for quite some time and try to understand it for myself. I talk to people in the English department, to gather as many interpretations as possible.”

To discover the text’s natural rhythm, Bernarducci spends some time speaking it aloud. He notates rhythms where he hears them in the text’s natural flow. Then, Bernarducci sketches how he might “sectionalize” the piece. Whether it’s in verse or free form, Bernarducci searches to differentiate the portions that can use the same music from those that can’t. “Once I make a rough sketch I can use as a baseline,” Bernarducci says, “then I might as well get going.”

A melody is his next step. He sits down at his keyboard and, “I just start making things
up until one little motive might stick,” Bernarducci says. “I know when I have it right when I can do it the same way every time. Then I’m not tweaking it anymore.”

After Bernarducci has a melody, he’ll harmonize it. He says, “If it’s a mixed choir texture, for example, I might flip the melody up and put it into different voice parts and things like that.”

Moving from his piano keyboard to his computer keyboard, Bernarducci inputs the pencil-scribbled score into his music notation software. The MIDI-generated sounds give him, he says, a better idea of how voice pitches sustain, because piano pitches disappear so quickly it’s hard for him to hear how they mesh.

But his work’s not done there. Now revisions begin. He moves between computer keyboard and piano keyboard, clean electronic copy and messy handwritten copy, changing notes, adding notes, altering voice leading, and more.

composer - portrait

When that’s done, he prints off a clean copy, takes it away from both of his keyboards, to get a visual overview of the music. “I’ll sing each voice part myself,” Bernarducci says. “If I have any trouble singing a voice part, then I’ll know that something in there could be changed that could make it easier. I’ll look for any communicable indications I missed or should have put in.” He does general editing, repeating this process until it meets his satisfaction and “it’s smooth and working together.”

That could be just for the first section of the music. The whole rest of the piece awaits. Sometimes to create a tricky section, Bernarducci will take the piece away from both his keyboards yet again, singing through it and searching for “motives that might be hidden within the music that could be transformed into a whole new section of music.” This could be a few notes or pitches or rhythms that can be expanded upon to make something larger.

“I find the motives that are in a section of music that I wrote, so it’s new music but it’s related,” Bernarducci explains, “so it works in transition.”

For “Veni Creator Spiritus,” published with Hinshaw Music, Bernarducci tried to approach the composition with techniques that would make it sound ancient to the ear, “like drones, or perfect intervals, or with the mixed meter,” and he incorporated the original Gregorian chant tune with a modern harmonization. “This resulted in,” he says, “a mixed-meter piece, so it may start in four-four, four beats to the measure, but the next measure might have a new time signature, and the next measure might have one too.”

Before a composition goes near a choir, Bernarducci must show it to his critics. His wife is his first—and his hardest—critic. Bernarducci says, “But she tells me the truth, which I appreciate. Sometimes, even after eight years, it’s still hard to hear.” After acquiring essential feedback from his wife, Bernarducci hands the composition over to a close friend. Subsequently he may show it to others to garner their thoughts.

“I always show it to a couple of people before letting it out,” he says. Bernarducci likens hearing a composition being performed live to meeting someone you’ve talked with over the phone for quite some time, and finally being able to shake their hand. “I know the piece very well by the time it’s composed. But there’s something about having it be put onto the human voice, and real performers, and seeing the natural musicality come out of them that I am not imposing, and that the piano and the computer cannot possibly capture. It’s just wonderful.”

He says every time that happens, something about the performers’ interpretation surprises him. Earlier in his career, that made him nervous and he worried he wasn’t writing enough direction into his music. But later, he adopted the standpoint that this was actually a good thing, because it means his music has enough to it that it can be interpreted, and as Bernarducci says, “that a person can feel it in a different way than I do.”

Although Bernarducci tries to attend the first performance of his compositions, he doesn’t always get the chance, because his pieces are performed around the country.

“The most humbling moment was when I was at the American Choral Directors Association, the ACDA,” Bernarducci says. There, several hundred high school students from across the nation gathered to audition for the choir—and they performed “Veni Creator Spiritus” twice. The house was packed with choral directors. “It was vulnerable for me, not knowing if people were going to take to the piece.”

But people did, and since then it’s been performed across the nation.

“With that piece I am very happy,” Bernarducci says. He was also able to hear it sung in Atlanta by the St. Olaf’s Choir during its winter tour. “That was a spectacular moment. The St. Olaf Choir is, arguably, one of the best choirs in the country. To see this piece performed at such a high level was very amazing.”

Anton Armstrong, the conductor, brought Bernarducci backstage before the concert, and Bernarducci had the chance to speak to the choir. Bernarducci describes it as “an honor to even be on the program,” and when Armstrong asked for more of Bernarducci’s music, Bernarducci wrote a new setting of the Tennyson poem “Crossing the Bar.” He’s followed that up with “Dies Sanctificatus” and “Pordia Domini Misericordias Domini.” He’s looking forward to “Winter Roses,” coming out in January with Hinshaw Music, which is for a women’s chorus accompanied by piano. And right now he’s working on a commission for a full orchestra and mixed choir.

Usually Bernarducci’s choral pieces are between three to four minutes. When he’s not working under a deadline, completing compositions of that length takes him one or two months.

“It’s difficult, because when you’re creating a new piece of music, a composition, or you finish a concert after months and months of practice, there’s this personal stance to it,” Bernarducci says. “There’s so much skill involved, so much emotion, so much hard work. It’s a complete human experience.”

Anthony Bernarducci is the assistant director of choral activities at Clemson University, where he conducts the men’s chorus. He is an active composer. Visit www.anthonybernarducci.com for more information. Jemma Everyhope-Roser is the interim editor of Glimpse.