Michael John Trotta: Music Born of  Necessity

Scene4 July 2017 Vol 18, Issue 2
by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. – Rainer Maria Rilke

Michael John Trotta, composer, conductor - Formal Headshot

Choral composer and conductor Michael John Trotta believes the German poet Rilke’s words provide an apt description for this moment in his creative life.  “It’s a great quote that defines the season of my career right now,” Trotta explains, citing his decision to leave full time academic work for full time composing and conducting.  “Everything is a tradeoff.  I have traded one classroom in one location for many classrooms in many locations. There is so much fne music being made, not only in high-end venues like Carnegie Hall, but artistically, passionately, and quietly in ‘classrooms’ across this country.  I now have more time to work with many groups from all over America and to take on the larger works when the need arises.”

And in recent years that need has propelled the already much-sought-after musician to make his debut recording of his own choral compositions, Mystical Voices, in 2014 and on May 27, 2017, to conduct, for the first time, one of his major compositions at Carnegie Hall on a program that billed Trotta’s Seven Last Words as a “new American masterwork.” Trotta’s poignant retelling of the Passion shared the evening with Haydn’s Mass in a Time of War  and Fauré’s Requiem, performed by the New England Symphonic Ensemble, soloists soprano Susanne Burgess and baritone Kenneth Overton, together with two hundred singers from the four church choirs which had originally commissioned the work.

There is no question this opportunity has proved a watershed moment for Trotta.  He speaks of the thrill of his composition being programmed with such classic composers and of the incomparable acoustic of Carnegie Hall. “There is a great warmth of space and sound.  It would be hard for me to reproduce anywhere else how special it was particularly in the a cappella movements.”

And while that sensation may be ephemeral, its effects have had lasting ramifications for the composer. Not only has Seven Last Words been given radio time – no minor accomplishment these days – played on a program of Stabat Maters which included Rossini’s and Verdi’s, but Trotta says that the “premiere spurred everyone to ask me what would be the sequel? I have been able to get five churches to commit to my next project, which will be a Magnificat set for performance in 2019.” Trotta goes on to say that this model of having several choirs pool their resources to commission a major work seems to be finding favor these days. “Each church or group can acquire the right to participate in a major work for the price of one movement.  They each have a stake in it, and it brings together so many wonderful singers and musicians.”

Response to the concert and recording have also been hugely positive. Choral Scholar called it “a significant achievement, a worthy participant in the choral tradition, and a welcome contribution to the literature,” while Fanfare magazine called it “a monumental, poignant retelling. . .The seven-movement work has a sweep and grandeur at the same time that it achieves a quiet, deeply emotional intimacy. As in all of Trotta’s choral writing, there is a strong sense of archietecture combined with drama, an arresting command of thematic material and melody, and a haunting layer of mysticism that etches the work into memory.”

Music and singing have been integral to Michael John Trotta’s life since childhood.  “My father was a church musician, an organist and singer at a Catholic church, and my earliest memories included being propped up against the organ while he rehearsed and my drinking in all that sound. Then I received a fantastic musical education in the public schools I attended.  I began to play trumpet and French horn in the fourth grade and studied music theory all the way through high school.  I attended Point Pleasant Boro High School which had a tremendous choral program. I owe so much to Paul Caliendo, my theory teacher, and Loren Donley, my choir teacher, for the incredible music education they gave me. I thought everyone sang unaccompanied Bach motets in high school – that’s how challenging the program was.  I was introduced to all the masterworks there and that’s where my passion was sparked.”

Trotta says that “in many ways music chose me.  I always loved participating in the rituals of practice and rehearsal, and I dreamed of making it a profession. I first saw a chance to make this happen through teaching; my undergraduate degree is in voice and music education. My master’s degree in conducting gave me an opportunity to deepen my musical skills and foundation.  Then my doctorate is in choral conducting and performance.”  And so, Trotta began his career teaching choral music at the primary and secondary school levels before becoming a professor at New Jersey’s Rowan University where he taught choral music and music history and directed the various performance choirs. While pursuing an academic career, Trotta also traveled extensively to conduct numerous choirs across America and made three European tours which have taken him to venues such as St. Peter’s Basilica and Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, St. Mark’s in Venice, Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence), and Carnegie Hall.

Increasingly in recent years, however, Trotta has devoted his energies to writing over thirty choral pieces, among them Songs of Presence, Song of Myself, In the Bleak Midwinter, Hidden in Plain Sight, Veni, Creator Spiritus, and Break of Day. Seventeen of his works are compiled on the CD Mystical Voices, and they seem to serve as meditations on the place of the individual in the universe, the meaning and manifestation of time, and the experience of being present in the moment and receptive to the beauties of life.

Now based in New York City and having just completed almost five months of touring as a conductor of various choruses, Trotta is looking forward to “staying in one place” and turning his attention to writing the twelve works with which he has been commissioned.  He waxes eloquent on why composing fills his soul as it does. “I find composition to be a reward in and
of itself.  The 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 – which is what I am called upon to do as a conductor.”

That said, Trotta acknowledges that his work conducting so many choirs has helped shape him as a composer. “Teaching and conducting afford a composer the opportunity to understand truly the needs of singers; not only does it highlight their strengths, but it 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. That cycle always begins with the inspiration, which is released by the conductor ,translated through the performance of the singers, and experienced by the audience.”

Composing with the ensemble who will perform the work in mind is very much part of Trotta’s mission and his success. Noting this in the Choral Scholar review of Seven Last Words, Robert Rawlins writes that “Trotta responded directly to his charge by producing a work that is appealing, adaptable, and within the capabilities of any competent ensemble.”


The accessibility of his music, not only to his performers, but also to his audience is another priority for Trotta. “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 oftentimes 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 the composer, “melody is the chief access point that helps audiences connect to new music. I think that melody is what people remember about the music and it often offers an unparalleled way to paint the text.” And text, Trotta continues, “ is always the departure point for anything I write. Everything I do is an effort to translate the words into some kind of musical form.”

That special combination of song and words makes choral music special to Trotta. “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 my heart, 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.”

For Trotta the act of composing is an almost mystical experience.  “When I am composing, I very often begin to feel that time seems to stop. 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. Many traditions have used different labels for such an experience, but I think the key ingredient to such phenomenon is that the experience points to something beyond the music itself.For me, great music has always been something that allows me to feel connected to something much bigger than myself.  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.”

Trotta says that in a certain sense all his music is autobiographical in that he is “writing about what I would like to have more of but do not necessarily have. I am always amused when people think I have some kind of special spiritual edge because of the themes of my compositions.  In fact, it is the exact opposite. I am searching.”

Searching and discovering – allowing the void to be a catalyst to inspiration – these are the motivators in Michael John Trotta’s creative life. He describes his vocation as a composer with an architectural conceit. “We just got back from Italy where I was making arrangements for the Italian premiere of Seven Last Words next year.  We visited all these beautiful cathedrals, which have all this empty space inside. They seemed to be wonderful frames waiting for something equally wonderful to happen within. For me, it is this quiet, this emptiness in my schedule, this pregnant stillness that helps me create.”