Susan LaBarr

Q&A: Susan LaBarr

An interview with the composer, whose work based on an Emily Dickinson poem will be performed in the Women's Chorus of Dallas' Voices of Women.

published Saturday, March 5, 2016



Dallas — On Monday, The Women’s Chorus of Dallas (TWCD) acknowledges Women’s History Month with a concert themed as Voices of Women. TWCD will partner with choirs from area college (Texas Woman’s University and University of North Texas) and DISD high school choirs in this songfest that begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Meyerson Symphony Center.

The program includes Jocelyn Hagen’s four-song cycle How to Survive Winter, which TWCD commissioned and premiered last year (our review), with Allegro Strings joining; as well as Diana V. Saez’s Plena, Ivette Herryman’s Sigue, Andrea Ramsey’s Letter from a Girl to the World, and Joan Szymko’s It Takes a Village.

Included in the program is "Hope is the Thing with Feathers," a composition by former Dallas resident Susan LaBarr that utilizes the text of the Emily Dickinson poem of the same title. Researchers believe the poem was written in 1861 during one of the most emotionally trying periods of the poet’s life. The early 1860s were difficult, but also the most prolific for Dickinson, yielding more than 300 poems in the year 1862 alone. So, “Hope is The Thing with Feathers” was not just a poem. It helped Dickinson to survive.

A video of the song, as performed by Michigan State University Children's Choir, is above.

TheaterJones chatted with LaBarr about her work.


TheaterJones: "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" was commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Chattanooga Girls Choir in Chattanooga, Tennessee. How did that materialize?

LaBarr: I lived in the Chattanooga area for three years. My husband was working at a university there. We actually only just moved back to Missouri in 2014. While in Tennessee, we made connections with the musicians there. The conductor for the Chattanooga Girls Choir was on the faculty at the university where my husband was working. It was a fabulous choir ranging in grade level from the third grade up to high school. Hope is the Thing with Feathers was commissioned by the top choir for the organization.


What was the appeal of Dickinson’s poem for you? Did you select the poem, or was it selected for you?

Photo: Caitlin Denman Photography
Susan LaBarr

I have to be motivated by the text. I chose the poem. It is very important that I have this creative control going into a commission. I need to find the musicality within the text, and I need a set meter to work within. Some composers work very well with prose, but that is not my preferred style.

I like to be aware of females and collaborating with other females whether they are alive or not. Sara Teasdale and Emily Dickinson are among the poets I find appealing. As a young female professional, I feel it is my responsibility to be a role model for younger musicians. One day we will get to a point where we are equal but right now, we are still working toward that.

As I was browsing a collection of Dickinson poems, this one resonated because of the simplicity of the words. I felt that people would immediately understand every word of the song, that there is nothing an audience member would hear and not understand. I think my music is spiritual without being religiously so. The poem “Hope” has a lot of words that sounded as if they could be put to song.


How would you describe your style? What voices do you most like writing for?

I definitely like to write for choir, all levels of choir. Because I connect so deeply with the text, the music comes out of the text for me. The biggest challenge is in writing for choirs that are at more of a beginning level. You have to take care to make every vocal part interesting, to make every sound rich without it being complicated. I have learned that something can be simply constructed without being simple. We sometimes think of simply constructed music as being easy or elementary when actually it is within simple construction that the most knowledge is required. 

When I first began composing, I wasn’t really thinking about what the alto was getting to sing, and whether or not it made sense.

When writing for young people, I want to find a text that they can relate to but isn’t childish.  Students have to connect to what they are saying. When I visit choirs, students talk about that.  The text sparks something in them and creates a deeper connection with them, the music, and with the choir.


Which composers influenced you most strongly?

I have been composing for 10 years. Early on, I was heavily influenced by Broadway scores such as Rent, and the work of Jason Robert Brown, folk music, bluegrass music—things that are melody driven and timeless in their melodies. In those early days, I did not experience a lot of choral composers. During my later years I studied with Alice Parker, one of the most famous choral arrangers and composers in the world. Among the most important things I learned from her were why a melody is timeless, and understanding how to craft a melody that honors the words you are using. I learned that the composer must give the natural flow of how you would say the words and build the melody so that it will naturally flow in the same way.  She taught me about making every vocal line interesting so that they are not just there to make a pretty chord. A melody needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.


Were you already familiar with The Women’s Chorus of Dallas?

No. I lived in Dallas for four years. My husband was working toward his doctorate at the University of North Texas. I did not know about The Women’s Chorus of Dallas. If I had known, I would have wanted to be in it.


Do you have anything else you would like the readers to know about you?

Sometimes when I visit schools the students often ask me whether I begin by writing the music, or by working from the text. I would like to reiterate that the text is very important for me and that is what I start with.


» You can read the text of Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” here Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Susan LaBarr
An interview with the composer, whose work based on an Emily Dickinson poem will be performed in the Women's Chorus of Dallas' Voices of Women.
by Janice L. Franklin

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