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Stephen Edwards interview with 'New Classical Tracks'

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New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Stephen Edwards.

transcript - The greatest thing about being a film composer, says Stephen Edwards, is doing something different every single day. "I just finished a movie called Dead Trigger which is a zombie movie with an extremely high body count and it's kind of futuristic and it's you know lots of peril and disease and death and mayhem. I'm doing commercials. I'm doing film scores. I work on TV shows. I do a lot of songwriting and then occasionally I get to go work in the classical world." 

His most recent classical endeavor celebrates the life of his late mother, Rosalie Edwards. 

Let's talk about the role that your mother played in your life because your most recent work is a Requiem for My Mother that also became a public television special. Tell me about this. 

"So, my mom was a very talented musician in her own right. She was a flutist and a piano player and she graduated from the University of Michigan in the 50s and became a private piano, flute, and voice teacher. And then she started teaching in high schools and then she started teaching at the University of Michigan where she resurrected the Women's Glee Club which, to this day, is still going. So, when I was six or seven years old, there's a Steinway piano in my living room and there are four of us kids. Part of the deal was, 'hey you're taking music lessons, what do you want to play? What instrument?' It wasn't whether it was what. So, I started playing the piano when I was seven and she was the main force behind my music. She was the biggest influence. She was my biggest cheerleader. She literally gave me the gift of life and the gift of music. And was that way till the day she died."

Well, what inspired you to write the Requiem? 

"Well, it was her death. So, she died in 2006. And actually, if you back up [to] what I was originally going to do...Pope John Paul the second died in 2005 and he was such an inspirational figure for all of us. My parents went to a private audience with him in Vatican City so I paid attention to him. I thought he was an inspirational character and sang for him when he came to L.A. I sang in a choir with this famous conductor called Paul Salamonivich. Paul got invited to sing the papal mass at the small church. So, there he was and there I was singing for him. I was like, 'wow this guy was such a powerhouse.' So, when he passed away in '05 I was like, 'wow this would be really interesting to write a requiem in his honor.' So, I started forming that idea and there's a conductor I work with in New Jersey called Candace [Wicke] and she has an organization called Continuo Arts. Continuo Arts does concerts at Carnegie Hall and they also do concerts in Vatican City. So, I sort of threw the idea of like, 'hey what about a requiem for John Paul?' She said, 'mm, that's interesting.' There's a lot of steps that you have to do and as soon as we started kicking it around a little bit, my mom got sick and she died very quickly from cancer. So, when that happened it was kind of obvious to me like oh you know I'm going to write it for Rosie."

I'm thinking about composing a Requiem versus writing songs for films, or film scores. How did you make that transition?

Well, I made the transition. It's interesting - there's a lot of parallels so you're right there. Because when I write for film I'm writing to a fixed image with timings. The only thing I had to write [in] the requiem was the text and I decided, the first decision I made, was it has to be in Latin because the Latin language is just so cool. So cosmic. So, what I had was a text, I had the words. So, I decided what the words were. I was going to use the words that had been there for over a thousand years and I wasn't going to change them. So, that was the first thing and then really what it is. I just sat down and wrote tunes to the lyric essentially. 

It's like writing a book. You have a chapter heading and then you say, 'OK the character is going to do this in this scene and then I'm going to flesh it out this way and you just sort of pull that string' and suddenly you've got this giant score that's 150 pages long and it takes 50 minutes to perform."

Do you have a favorite part? 

"There are some favorite moments that I had writing it. The first one was coming up with a tune for the very first movement called the Requiem Aeternam because the first one of the first decisions I made was there's going to be a children's chorus. There's a certain sound that children make when they sing that's just unique. It's got its own [sound], there's an innocence, there's a hope. So, knowing that the first tune was going to be children, this whole tune kind of fell out of me. And when that fell out, that was a very seminal piece of 24 bars of music that ended up being a lot of connective tissue for the rest of the of the work. 

And then the Dies Irae, which is one of the more dynamic movements. That text is just so bombastic and fire[y]. If there's a more fire and brimstone text, I don't know it. It's like death and wrath and the devil taking over the world. I mean it is just...I mean if I can't be inspired by that text, I should go be a plumber. You know what I mean?

The last movement is called In Paradisum. The text takes you through all these moments. There's a lot of fire and brimstone and then it's like Requiem Aeternam is like, 'rest in peace' and then the last movement is In Paradisum and like, 'may your soul rest in heaven.' It's kind of like it's wishing someone well, sending them off and the In Paradisum starts with the children acapella by themselves and then the women sing this theme and there's this huge climax at the end of it. And then the kids sort of run with it again and they finish the Requiem by themselves. So, they started the bookend [to] the Requiem.

I get the sense that you didn't write this Requiem just for your mother. 

"I did write it just for my mother. But what I found was as soon as I gave it away, it was for other people. I learned very quickly after I wrote it, it was really not for me and it's really not for just my mom, it's to give away, it's to offer up to others, which has been really gratifying."