Before the inauguration ceremony for President Donald Trump, those in attendance heard two new works from composer John Wykoff. Wykoff is assistant professor of music theory and composition at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, and a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga. Wykoff talked with byFaith about what he hopes to accomplish through his music.
How were you selected to compose music for the presidential inauguration?
I have a friend and colleague, Cameron LaBarr, who is the Director of Choral Studies at Missouri State University. He called and commissioned me. One of his choirs was invited to sing in the inauguration. That’s when he called me about writing something. In the end, we decided on me writing two pieces. One is an arrangement of the folk-hymn “Beautiful Morning.” For the other, we commissioned poet Michael Dennis Browne to write a new poem for me to set for the occasion. The name of the new piece is “Now We Belong.” Both works are for an eight-part a cappella choir.
What themes or ideas did you want to incorporate into your inauguration compositions?
Whenever I set a text, I want the music to inflect and interpret the words. Music has a way of finding all the nooks and crannies of meaning. Music can also do and be the thing that words describe. One of the texts, “Beautiful Morning,” speaks of a future reality where “sin and sorrow are no more.” The refrain is, “In the morning, what a beautiful morning that will be, when we all rise together in the morning.” The other text, a new poem by Browne, is more particularly about the nation. It expresses a kind of national identity based on humility, with reference to Exodus 22: “Once we were strangers, we were welcomed, now we belong and believe in this land.”
What do you hope to communicate to listeners through your music?
I would be gratified if these pieces pointed to hope that is grounded in truth. Hope that is not grounded in truth is sentimentalism, and it is always disappointing. The word “hope” has been used sometimes as a slogan. That treats hope as a feeling with no motivation and no direction. Hope for what? Hope because of what? But my music doesn’t trade in feelings. I aim for something that lasts longer and is more predictable than that. If my having three daughters has taught me anything, it’s that you shouldn’t try to manage other people’s feelings. I don’t try to manage people’s feelings through my music. I try to show things that are true, beautiful, worthy or important. Sometimes I try do this subtly, from the side, so to speak. Other times, more directly. These inaugural pieces are fairly direct, though I hope not too much on the nose.
What is it about composing that you find most gratifying?
Starting a piece and finishing a piece are delightful. The middle part is miserable. But the best moment is hearing a piece a few years later, after you’ve gained some distance, listening to it and realizing that it isn’t half bad.
Click here to listen to a recording of Wykoff’s composition “Now We Belong” performed by the Missouri State University Chorale.