My choral music vocabulary is not new. My music is strongly tonal, though tinged with a jazz sensibility. The music tends to have forward movement, propelled by rhythmic interest. Although I occasionally will compose music with parts that stack in clear vertical arrays, I am more inclined to have lines that continue off one another. In truth, this makes my music somewhat challenging for amateurs to learn; but often singers have a tremendous sense of satisfaction when they see/hear “how it all fits together.”
My formal musical training started at age 8 with traditional piano lessons with a close family friend, Lillian Kersh. I was not a very disciplined student. Rather than practicing I would spend hours at the keyboard composing piano pieces. Lillian actually encouraged my composing, allowing me to include my little piano pieces along with the classical pieces in performances of her year-end “recitals”. When I was 13, Lillian sent me to her teacher, Isaac Levin, to study harmony and theory. Again, I was not a very disciplined student; after one year, Mr. Levin suggested I was wasting his time and mine and urged me to quit, a suggestion with which I gladly complied.
By 1957, at age 16, I had stopped all formal study. I had “good ears”, and was drawn to playing in dance bands. For a long time before I began composing music for choirs, my musical endeavors were limited to playing in combos for weddings and bar mitzvahs and composing songs for theatre productions. These experiences have influenced my choral music significantly: the first in my affinity for the 32 bar song-form and second in my belief that the music should serve to elucidate, not obfuscate the text.
Actually, I see my affinity for the 32-bar song as a pernicious constraint, and in my choral music (especially that composed for adult ensembles) I try to intentionally break away from that box by mixing meters and extending phrases. For better or worse, my experience of writing show music has left me with the bias that the dramatic meaning of the words should be very clearly conveyed in a choral setting. Therefore, I will sometimes repeat text for that kind of emphasis and I will occasionally change text slightly if I believe that the clarity of the message can be improved. I also enjoy writing my own lyrics, particularly for children’s choirs; that gives me the opportunity to express my somewhat sardonic, non-romantic view of the world.
I do not see myself as breaking new ground in composition, and I am very comfortable composing music that is functional. About one half of my approximately 250 choral pieces are settings of Jewish texts and most of these pieces were composed for use in worship services, especially the Sabbath and High Holidays. (Despite that, many have been presented in concert programs.)
Still, I enjoy the challenge of composing music with “hooks” that can be learned quickly by the entire congregation: in 2004 I composed Shabbat Shir Chaddash, a Friday night service that consists of 17 new congregational melodies (accompanied by guitar, bass, drums, and synthesizer). I also have written several works that integrate simple congregational responses with more formal choral sections. In addition I have written arrangements for voices, oboe, strings, and piano of about 30 pieces for the High Holiday liturgy (pieces by Helfman, Janowski, Lewandowski and others).
My settings of non-Jewish texts have drawn upon the words of a wide variety of poets and include several pieces that use poetry by Shakespeare, Sara Teasdale, Christina Rossetti, May Swenson, and Langston Hughes. As mentioned, I have also composed my own lyrics for many pieces. Many of my pieces have been written specifically to respond to the thematic programming that choral directors have planned.
In addition to composing choral music, I am drawn to playing jazz piano. Playing jazz is a little like composing: it involves improvising new compositions within the given structure of the tune that is being played. I have been especially interested in composing jazz arrangements of klezmer repertoire (on the CD Hora and Blue, 1992 on the Global Village label) and of traditional Shabbat melodies (on the CD Friday Night Jazz Service, 2007, available at this website). My son, Mark (who is an associate professor of composition at Stanford University) and I, formed the Applebaum Jazz Piano Duo in 2000. Our repertoire includes jazz standards as well as our own compositions. We have played concerts at colleges on both coasts and in the Midwest, at the Music Institute of Chicago, and in Tunisia and Singapore. We strive to write idiosyncratic arrangements of well-worn jazz standards—as we see it to resurrect these tunes with fresh approaches and still leave ample space for improvisation. Our 2002 CD, The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree, is available on the Innova label.