Michael John Trotta has had a busy and adventurous year. The 38-year-old composer has just released his debut recording, Mystical Voices , with 17 of his choral compositions, and he is poised to fanfare-logolaunch a new online digital music publishing venture with Hampton Roads Music Group, which he hopes will revolutionize the way performers can acquire printed music and composers can disseminate their works to a wider audience, on demand. All this, in addition to his regular agenda of choral conducting, teaching at Virginia Wesleyan University, and touring as a conductor of numerous choral ensembles, makes Trotta one of the most exciting and prominent contemporary composers of choral music. He took time shortly after the holidays to speak to  Fanfare from his Virginia Beach home about the exigencies and rewards of his profession.You have said that “great music engenders thoughtful presence” and participating in musical experiences “is a way to slow down time and allow beauty of life to catch up with you.” Can you explain how music has done this for you in both the personal and collective senses?

When I am composing, I very often have the experience where time seems to stop; it seems as if I get so immersed in what I am doing that I lose all track of time. It is almost as if I am being written through. The inspiration comes from the muse, and then I am responsible for translating it into something useful to other people.

I also frequently experience this when making music. I came to music first as an instrumentalist, then as a singer and conductor, and finally as a composer. I find that when I am engaged at the highest levels, regardless of how I am participating, there is possibility of my connecting to something greater than myself. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Many traditions have used different labels for such an experience, but I think the key ingredient to such a phenomenon is that the experience points to something beyond the music itself.

Anything in life that lifts us out of the ordinary allows us to experience life more deeply. This could be watching a sunrise unravel over the sea, or a cloud formation sweep through a mountain range. For me, great music has always been something that allows me to feel connected to something much bigger than myself.

In my experience, it’s very similar to falling in love; it’s something that happens to you. You cannot plan it; you can only be open to cultivating it when it comes. I most often feel this experience as I hold the creative tension between inspiration and manifestation. A huge part of what I do is to try to find a way to express what the text is saying musically; it is as if the music is trying to come into existence to better describe what the text is already saying.

I just finished a commission for an a cappella choral multi-movement work entitled Songs of Presence that expounds upon these themes both musically and poetically. It will be premiered later this year in June. I am working with a wonderfully artistic conductor and musical high school choir in Plainview, New York, for the June premiere. The conductor and the ensemble were looking for a text that spoke to them, yet one that was not confined to any particular faith tradition. As I began looking for a set of poetry that met their needs, I found that writing the texts myself enabled the music to speak to a deeper meaning that exists beyond the confines of a specific belief system, one that is common to human experience.

How does this experience translate especially to choral music?

In choral and vocal music, time slows down literally when speech is elongated and certain words or phrases are repeated for specific emphasis. I think choral music is particularly well suited to expanding on themes carried in the text. The cantatas of J. S. Bach are perhaps one of the greatest examples of how music can serve the text.

What motivated you to concentrate on choral conducting and composing?

My father was a singer, and I spent a great deal of my childhood sitting in choir lofts of churches listening to him rehearse and perform as part of liturgical services. I became involved in music as a choral singer at an early age, and it is the musical vocabulary that most resonated with me. The additional layer of text provides a point of inspiration as well as another texture of expression for the composer.

What are the rewards for you?

The rewards are dependent upon how I am involved in the process. I find composition to be a reward in and of itself. The composition process is wonderfully complete, whether or not the work is to be performed. There is something sacred about the pure potential—not getting tied up with the messiness of rehearsing, performing, and producing—when capturing the inspiration and getting it down on paper. I find a boundless energy that is different from the blood and guts reality of bringing the work off the page that I am called upon to access when I take on the role of conductor.

As a conductor, the greatest reward occurs when the performance serves what the composer had/has in mind. This is most true when I am conducting the music of the great composers. There is nothing more rewarding than when an ensemble is able to realize the wishes of the composer. I just finished conducting a series of concerts of Handel’s Messiah for the holidays, I was thrilled that the choir and orchestra sounded as if they were performing the music of the late Baroque. Handel should sound like Handel; Bach should sound like Bach, Brahms should sound like Brahms, and so forth.

What do you see as the important attributes of a choral conductor?

I think all conductors have the primary goal of serving the music—not only the music that is notated in the score, but also the expression that is implied by what is written there. At the highest levels, I do not make any distinction between choral and orchestral conductors. According to Bernstein, after all of the technical, expressive, and contextual issues have been worked out, there is the possibility of an ensemble experiencing a synergy with the music, a oneness with what is happening, that goes beyond mere participation and communication to being immersed what the music is saying. That is what I am constantly chasing, and perhaps what all great art is constantly seeking.

What kind of choral “sound” do you attempt to create, not only in this recording but also in your other performances?

One that serves the music—ideally, a sound that holds the dynamic tension between clarity and passion. To err on either side is to miss all that the music has to offer. Perhaps the hardest thing to do is to find how to maximize one without detracting from the other.

What is the place of choral music in a modern world—especially in an increasingly secular society?

I think the world needs excellent music now as much as ever. Chorus America has said that over 42 million American’s participate in over 250,000 choirs right now in the United States. I think great music that is performed well is always relevant because it is communicating something that is universal, something that is not secular or sacred, but something more, at the intersection of the great traditions where the deepest truths reside.

Singing is everywhere. On television, there is The Voice, American Idol , popular shows such as Glee, Smash ; and just recently two live musicals have been broadcast. This shows that singing is popular. While a portion of our culture may have veered away from making religious institutions their primary focus, it is clear that our society is one looking for connection, spirituality, universal peace, hope, and beautiful music. I think in today’s society, music, especially music that is sung, is more popular than ever before. As a composer, my goal is to write music that speaks to the emotional needs of the current world. My music should be a reflection of what is most important, and a reflection or a lens for the world in which I live. In fact, this is a dialogue I have been sharing with several of my fellow composers for the past few years; our role as composers is to reflect the changes in the human condition and culture while preserving the beauty and history of the past. This philosophy hopefully shines through in my music, and it is also the impetus of the larger project with Hampton Roads Music Group.

Tell our readers about that project.

As a result of the excitement generated by the Mystical Voices album release, and in conjunction with the demand for sheet music for pieces on the album, I have partnered with Hampton Roads Music Group (hamptonroadsmusicgroup.com) to launch a new web-based publication company that distributes contemporary works by outstanding composers that represent accessible music that connects with today’s conductors, choirs, and audiences.

It is my intent to reflect the world of instant access, (think iTunes for sheet music) by having contemporary vocal/choral music instantly available and printable on the spot. The goal is to touch people immediately with sample recordings and allow them the joy of being able to begin working with that music right away, rather than waiting for weeks as would be the case with some brick and mortar publishers. In addition, by keeping the cost low, it will allow more accessibility to beautiful, new music that might otherwise be overlooked, while at the same time providing substantial savings to the people buying the music.

How has new technology helped you with this venture and in general as a composer?

I don’t think composers and musicians need to be afraid of this technological revolution. Some people are afraid that if we put this music out there on the Internet, we artists will all lose money, but I don’t think that this has to be the case. Hampton Roads Music Group is now involved in finalizing and patenting a process of digital stamping that allows for instant accessibility to an exclusive catalog of new choral music that is cost effective for the performers.

When people purchase a title from the site, they are instantly sent a PDF file that is digitally stamped to reflect a license for their whole group. Our model allows them to pay one price and then distribute to their group either digitally or photocopying it legally. Many directors have admitted that they buy one copy and photocopy the rest. Our digital stamp provides proof of the license for the customer and safety for the composer, because people are far less likely to make illegal copies when their name is printed on every sheet. Our model deals with this reality by making it legal for musicians to get the materials they need on demand, while our composers are able to make a living through a higher than average royalty rate we are able to offer because of the reduced overhead. Our model can be summarized in the following way:

1. Immediate Download—preview, purchase, rehearse

Preview the music NOW . . . rehearse it today

Purchase and Print your .pdf copy INSTANTLY

Share with your group (digitally or through photocopying)

2. Exclusive Access—new music only available here

Exclusive titles only available on our site

Quality that is accessible for your choir

New titles constantly being added

3. Cost Effective—purchase one copy for your group

One price for your whole choir, savings of up to 75 percent

Copying for your group ISN’T illegal with our titles

Get more music for your money

And besides your own work, what others composers will Hampton Roads publish?

We are going to feature a small group of composers in our launch in February 2015. My criteria for choosing their work has been that their music “makes sense” in the contemporary choral tradition and that they are composers who are excited by the opportunity to reach a larger audience, contributing to making meaning for performers and audiences alike. Over the coming months customers can look forward to a regular supply of new music that is relevant, accessible, and meaningful. Over the coming year, we will be accepting submissions and building our catalog.

Going back in time, what led you to music as a profession and calling? What was your musical background and training? Who were your special mentors?

In many ways, I feel that music chose me. I always loved participating in music, mostly in the rituals of practice and rehearsal. I always dreamed of making it a profession. I first saw the chance to make this a possibility through teaching; my undergraduate degree is in voice and music education. My Master’s degree in conducting gave me an opportunity to deepen my own musical skills and foundation. My other graduate degrees are in choral conducting, and I earned a doctorate in choral conducting and performance. In the past decade, I then saw a way to expand my service to the profession as a composer.

Teaching has been an integral part of your career. How do you find it complements your work as a composer-conductor?

My composition grew out of an impulse to create music that would meet the needs of the ensembles I was conducting. I started my career teaching in a public high school in Clearview, New Jersey, where I conducted nine choirs of varying ability and experience. Now, when someone commissions me to write a composition for a choir, I draw on my experience as an educator to determine what might best highlight the strengths of that ensemble—in short, to make the choir sound as good as it possibly can.

I find that my professional activities, whether teaching in a traditional school setting, guest conducting honor choirs, or doing a composer residency, have given me the ability to tailor the composition to meet the needs of the group, regardless of its level. For this I am forever grateful to the thousands of singers with whom I have had the chance to work. It is the singers themselves who have taught me what works best in a given situation.

Teaching and conducting affords a composer the opportunity to understand truly the needs of singers; not only does it highlight their strengths, but it also allows you to tap into what inspires them, find what other music touches them and what words speak to them. When we, as choral composers, write, we see the faces of future singers and feel what they are going to feel when they sing, bringing the cycle of creativity full circle. The cycle of creativity always starts with the inspiration, which is released by the conductor, translated through the performance of the singers, and experienced by the audience. Hampton Roads Music Group is now collaborating with successful and impactful educators and conductors, whose writings are a reflection of thousands of student interactions, in an effort to highlight the equal role that the singers play in the creative process.

When did you begin composing?

I have been improvising my whole life, but I see composition as the place where the inspiration of improvising meets the craft of counterpoint, text setting, form, balance, etc. It was not until I was in high school and took some introductory music theory classes that I had the ability to write down what was going through my head. In many ways, my continuing study of music is always propelled by finding new ways of communicating using the traditional means available while exploring and refining my own individual voice.

What are the realities of being a modern composer in the practical sense and how does one navigate those realities?

As a conductor, I find there is a great deal of excellent music in the classical canon. I could spend my entire life performing music that is already written and never run out of music to perform. As a composer and a creator, life is constantly expressing itself in new and wonderful ways. I think that is possible for modern composers to capture some of the energy of life constantly renewing itself and use that in their compositions. A critic once remarked that my music was “grounded in tradition yet offering new expressions,” and I took that as a huge compliment. I think it is difficult to find your own voice, but even more so to stay true to that voice once you have found it.

You have toured Europe, as well as the United States. How has, if it has, the experience differed in terms of venues, audiences, etc.? Do you have a favorite venue?

In Europe, there is a history to many of the performance venues themselves that is absolutely amazing. There is a great thrill to performing music in the spaces it was originally written for, such as when performing Gabrieli in St. Mark’s, or Palestrina in St. Peter’s. In terms of American venues, conducting a concert of my own compositions at Carnegie Hall was a particular highlight. The acoustic of the hall was very ambient and suited the unaccompanied concert in a most amazing way.

Over what time period were the works on your new recording, Mystical Voices , composed?

All of the music on the album was commissioned during composer residencies during the past five years. Previously, my recorded music was only available as demos from brick and mortar sheet music publishers. Since I write to meet the needs of each different group, the music represents ensembles of different voicings and abilities, yet is thematically tied to the timeless wisdom that is common to all of the traditions.

How did you go about selecting and constituting the choir of Mystical Voices and the instrumental ensemble?

There was a multi-tiered audition process that connected me with some wonderful new artists, as well as including in the process artists with whom I had worked before.

Where was it recorded?

Christ and St. Luke’s Church in Norfolk, Virginia, was chosen specifically for its ambient acoustic.

More and more artists do what you have just done—produced their recordings themselves. What has been the experience been like for you?

There were many times when I felt that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew. There are so many aspects that I have discovered, about which I previously had known nothing. Perhaps the biggest surprise to me has been the demand for the published music that has arisen as a result of the project. To help serve that need, pieces that had not been previously published, or were not yet in the process of being commercially published, are now being released through Hampton Roads Music Group, through both digital and traditional means.

Many of the works draw on ancient traditions and forms, and yet they sound refreshingly modern. How do you achieve that?

As a composer of new music, I am frequently called upon to craft music that meets the needs of the group for which I am writing. A few years ago I was approached by a conductor who had a big concert and he asked if I would consider creating a new work on the theme of old and new, ancient and modern, finding a place where the past meets the present. As I have searched for my own voice in music, I have always been guided by the tradition that has gone before me, yet I have sought to present that tradition in an innovative way. When listening to new music, I find that there are often times when the music is too much like that which has gone before. At the other end of the spectrum, there is music that is so new, so innovative, that it risks lacking relevance for the performers or for the listeners, or even worse, lacking relevance for BOTH performer and listener. Seeking to navigate between these two extremes, I enthusiastically accepted the challenge of finding something that would not only speak to the performers and audience, but also be a way to tie the whole concert together.

For example, as a point of departure in one song, I decided to use a chant melody that dates back to the ninth century, the popular Veni, Veni, Emmanuel , commonly heard during the winter holidays. It is astounding that the melodic ingenuity in this tune has lasted for over a thousand years.

I also knew that the performers were comprised primarily of high school students who were excellent musicians, dedicated, and had a passion and enthusiasm for performing music that is commensurate with their energy for everything else they did. In short, these singers were as energetic as they were youthful, but with serious musical skills. It was a composer’s dream. So my task became to make a 1,000-year-old melody relevant for a group of high school students who were between the ages of 14 and 18. I decided the best way to proceed was to give the chant a highly rhythmic underpinning and use extended tonalities to give this chant a more modern flavor. The result was a work that is both energetically rhythmic and captivating, while at the same time being accessible for the performers and audience.

As a modern composer, how difficult has it been to hang onto melody as a means of expression? Why is melody important to your work?

I think melody perhaps offers the broadest access point to a musical experience for many people. I have been always enchanted by the great melodies of Brahms, Puccini, Vaughan Williams, and so many more. I think that melody is what is people remember about the music. I also think melody offers an unparalleled way to paint the text.

Why did you choose the instrumentation you did for the recording (strings, piano, oboe, flute)?

I was approached to write a setting of “Break of Day” for choir and strings. From there it seemed natural to set some of my other works previously scored for piano that lent themselves to having string accompaniments.

What are the pleasures of setting texts a cappella and why did you choose to do that for a number of works on the recording?

It is a double-edged sword of sorts; in some ways it is utterly vulnerable and exposed; in others, it is absolute freedom. When I set a text a cappella it is generally because the words and or tradition of the text and the strengths of the ensemble suggest that style.

What is the unifying theme of the works on the disc? In how many different senses might these compositions be “mystical voices”?

Timeless wisdom for the present moment. The texts themselves seem to suggest an intersection of tradition and innovation, a sense of “both … and,” a place where sacred and secular intersect in the ordinary, thereby rendering the moment extraordinary. This is what the mystical traditions have been trying to name for centuries: a place where past, present, and future come together in harmony, where heaven and earth blend.

On what, if any composition project are you currently working? Do you have plans for another CD? Are there any upcoming concerts of special interest?

I am currently balancing the need to produce existing music while leaving space in my schedule to complete new works. I always like to leave space in my schedule to accept new commissions and composer residencies. In many ways they are life-blood of what I do. To that end, I am making sure to leave space over the next 24 months to accept new projects of interest as well as complete several smaller commissions already underway.

From the production end, the rest of this year is dedicated to publishing the music on the Mystical Voices CD. In response to the great demand for published versions of the music, specifically This Present Moment , Hampton Roads Music Group will launch its new site that delivers not only recordings, but also scores on demand, as well as through the traditional channels of CDs and printed scores. Part of my work is to give voice to works, whether it be my own or those of other talented composers, that create meaning for singers and audiences throughout our country and around the world.

Then, too, this year, two of my new compositions will receive world premieres: Songs of Presence and Songs of Devotion , both multi-movement works for a cappellachoir. I am also currently completing my Requiem:I Saw a New Heaven , a large-scale multi-movement work for soloists, choir, and orchestra that will be published and released in 2016.

My travels both personally and professionally have inspired the project on the horizon for 2017, Missa in voce Populi (Mass in the voice of the people). I have noticed that every country has a culture of begging, specifically around sacred sites. Whether in New York, Paris, Rome, or London, when you are outside a sacred site, there are always a great number of poor people who are begging for alms. I find their cries and pleas to be have a sincerity that is quite moving and the goal of this work is to notate these melodies and use them as the basis for a work that is truly in the “voice of the people.” I am currently creating partnerships with sponsors, choral groups, and charity organizations, as the project will raise funds and increase awareness of the unrepresented and speak to that which is most important to us all.