Interview with Lev Mamuya: Songs for the Spirit

Last April, we celebrated the premiere of Lev Mamuya's final composition for Winsor Music as a high school student, and this fall, we welcome him back as a freshman at Harvard and NEC (fortunately for us, he didn't go too far!). Lev is contributing to Winsor Music's collection of Songs for the Spirit, an ongoing project in which we invite composers to compose a hymn based on the text of their choice, asking only that the text should deal with themes of peace, tolerance, and unity. These pieces are performed on our Chamber Series concerts by both the audience and our professional musicians. To learn more about the project, and to see the full list of participating composers, click here.

Lev very graciously took a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to speak with us about his contribution to the Songs for the Spirit: "I Dream a World," a setting of the famous Langston Hughes poem. You can hear, learn, and sing this remarkable work during our annual Thanksgiving Concert on November 30th, at Follen Community Church in Lexington. More information and tickets can be found here.

How has your first year of school been?

It’s been alright; it’s definitely been an adjustment getting used to scheduling and new independence and responsibilities, but it’s definitely been good, I like it here a lot. 

How does it feel to be joining a project that John Harbison, Peter Child, and John Heiss have all contributed to?

It was definitely intimidating, but it didn’t really hit me until I asked Peggy to send me some examples of songs from the past, and when I started getting Peter Child and John Harbison songs… It’s definitely intimidating, but a fun challenge. 

One of my favorite aspects of the SFS project is that the composer chooses the text. Tell us about your choice, Langston Hughes' "I Dream a World."

I have always been attracted to his poetry since we did a unit on Modern American poetry in my junior year of high school. It was one of the first things that I thought of when I was told that the text should have something to do with tolerance, peace, love. It just seemed like an obvious choice to fit that description. We learned about this particular poem in school and it has all sorts of historical ties to the civil rights movement. I guess it’s a little bit personal: something about the language reminds me a lot of an MLK speech. It’s very declaratory and optimistic.

Peggy describes these pieces as secular hymns, because they draw on the Christian choral tradition of communal, four-part singing. Did you grow up with any sort of hymn-singing tradition, sacred or secular?

In terms of hymn experience… I’m Jewish, so we used to go to temple or to synagogue, and there’s obviously a singing culture there, so that was a part of my life, especially earlier on. In terms of singing, outside of a hymn context, I’ve sung in chorus and at a variety of music festivals and especially at school, we’ve sung religious hymns and texts there. 

How did that experience (or lack thereof) inform your writing?

I think in writing this particular piece I tried to take a couple of things into consideration more than I normally would in terms of carrying melodies more easily and the types of harmony I wanted to use, what type of voicing and accompaniment was suited for a context like a hymn. I definitely think that knowing pieces like that affected how I went about writing this particular piece. 

Do you have a favorite hymn (or any choral work)?

This isn’t a hymn, but I have a special relationship with the Fauré Requiem which is a piece that I’ve sung at camp a couple of times. In terms of hymn-sounding works, at camp this past year we sight-read a short piece by Olivier Messaien based on bird songs, “O Sacrum Convivium." Something about the harmonies and the style of that really appealed to me as well.

Can you describe your setting of “I Dream A World”?

The poem is very optimistic and very hopeful, and I tried as best I could to echo that tone in the music and the writing and create something that was simultaneously very peaceful but also exuberant in an understated way. In creating it, I really was trying to echo Peggy’s vision of peace and unity and tolerance, being hopeful and happy. 

In all the writing you’ve done for Winsor before, you’ve always been writing for professional musicians, but this is writing for the audience. How did that affect your composition process?

I had a conversation with Peggy about this about how perhaps it would be a good idea for it to be more tuneful, and the parts to be easier to follow, and flushing out the accompaniment a little differently to saturate some of the harmonies. I thought it was a very special challenge, trying to keep it in a place where it would be quickly accessible for an audience to learn and to sing.