A composer comes home

Gregory Brown '93 debuts two original works at Exeter. 

Nicole Pellaton
July 30, 2018
Play VideoComposer Gregory Brown ’93

Composer Gregory Brown '93 in The Bowld.

Gregory Brown ’93 turns to a visitor after hearing his vocal piece “Te Deum” rehearsed by The Skylark Vocal Ensemble on a day in late January. “You hear that it’s not happy music,” he says. Wearing worn blue jeans and a gray sweater, he sits on a couch in the Forrestal-Bowld Music Center’s library, a space where his mother, Connie Brown, then the Music Department secretary, used to work. “A giant tuba sat on that ledge or near here somewhere,” Brown says, gesturing, as his face displays a mix of joy and incredulity. “I used to blow it and it made a horrible, huge noise. That was something I was allowed to do when I was 3 or 4 years old.”

As music faculty enter the library seeking scores and CDs, each teacher banters with Brown, who is widely recognized; he grew up on campus, the son of revered Exeter Math Instructor Richard “Dick” Brown. Between greetings, the composer describes the genesis of “Te Deum” and its companion piece, “Sepulchrum Mutum” (Silent Tomb). Both are scheduled to premiere that night in The Bowld, Exeter’s state-of-the-art music performance space, and to be performed the following day as a meditation in Phillips Church.

The genesis for “Te Deum” reaches back to Brown’s childhood — at about the tuba-blasting age — when he accompanied his family to a christening in Phillips Church. “That is one of my first memories, being there,” says the composer, who remembers looking up at the colorful stained glass, which incorporates excerpts from the traditional “Te Deum” hymn of praise, and discovering in the window’s design both power and mystery. Several decades later, he found himself looking at that stained glass again during the memorial service for a close friend, the boy whose christening he had attended years earlier.

Soon after, searching for a way to respond to this unexpected death, Brown attempted a score, using the words of the “Te Deum” from the Phillips Church window. Although the text is typically “a very joyous, reverent act of faith to proclaim,” Brown says, “for me, for a variety of reasons, it was not that. My associations with it were not of joy, not of faith.” The music, instead, expressed “a certain anger and confusion.”

“I hated it. I put it in the drawer,” Brown says of his first try. Three years later, he opened the drawer and made some major changes: “I removed things. I added things. It made more sense.” Still, he wasn’t happy. “The material didn’t support the structure,” Brown now sees. “I was trying to build a skyscraper out of mud. I had to go back and rethink what the shape of the building was.”

Years later, he picked it up again, this time with success.

Why are the angels crying?

“There’s something very visceral, very elemental about people coming together to sing,” says Brown, who composes instrumental and vocal music and is interim director of choral activities at Amherst College. He sees power and value not only in trained choral performances, but also in the combined voices at an English soccer match. (“It’s rowdy and raucous and it’s 20,000 to 30,000 people singing.”)

“What’s great about vocal music is that the music and the text can sometimes be working together and sometimes working against each other, and the tensions create something that is new,” Brown says. 

In “Te Deum,” he builds on some of his childhood interpretations of the hymn’s meaning. “The line breaks in the window are unusual because they have to fit into a circle,” he says, referencing the stained glass design. “‘To | thee all | angels cry,’ for example. As a kid, I misunderstood it. Why are the angels crying? Why are they sad? That’s something that I work to illustrate in this music, something idiosyncratic not only to me but to this window.”

There’s something very visceral, very elemental about people coming together to sing.”

“It’s been cathartic,” Brown says of the day’s rehearsal, which marked the first time he heard “Te Deum” performed. “There’s something about creating music over 10 years that only you can hear, and then having it made real by other people — it’s a great experience. You get to see what risks worked — you’re always taking risks — and which ones didn’t quite work out as planned.

”And the experience of listening, when you’re no longer in control of the music, can open the composer’s eyes, ears and heart to what he has created, Brown explains. “Very good musicians can show you things about your score that you don’t know are there — that are subconscious, or maybe you forgot why you did them a certain way. It becomes a real moment of sharing, of illumination, as they come to understand what you have done. And in a way you come to understand what you have done.”

Meeting Skylark

When Brown first heard The Skylark Vocal Ensemble, a Boston-based a cappella group that performs widely in New England and recently completed a London tour with some of the world’s top choral ensembles, he knew he wanted them to premiere one of his pieces.

Matthew Guard, the director of Skylark, was excited by Brown’s “Te Deum” but felt it needed a companion piece. “It was too open-ended, too unsettled,” Brown says. “I started looking at texts and found a piece by Catullus. It’s the voice of someone who isn’t quite sure about the afterlife — maybe not believing in it, but believing that comforting his friend is absolutely important.”

Brown completed “Sepulchrum Mutum” in under a week, a far different experience from the decade-long “pulling of teeth” for the “Te Deum.” The new score allowed for a form of resolution, both musical and emotional, for the audience and the composer. “That’s the pairing you have: confusion, anger, discomfort, discord, despite that text of the ‘Te Deum,’ and then something that it takes a while to figure out — to get to that moment of comfort, of intimacy between people who are struggling to work through something,” the composer says. With its “open, embracing” ending, “Sepulchrum Mutum” seemed “the perfect answer to the first piece.”

Home to the window

“The emotions are overwhelming,” Brown says, as he considers the next day’s meditation in Phillips Church, the culminating event of his four-day visit. “When I started writing ‘Te Deum,’ I knew that I wanted it performed in Phillips Church. It is music for this space. Music of this space.”

Emotions flit across his face as Brown remarks that these two pieces are among his most revealing. “I’ve written some very personal piano music, but there’s a level of abstraction when there’s no text — it doesn’t necessarily have to be about anything specific. When you incorporate a text into the composition, there are conversations that you can’t escape having with your audience.”

Flashing a recovering smile, he concludes: “I’m just happy to be here. I consider this home.”

With that, Brown stands up to ready himself for “American Voices,” the evening concert that will bring his two new compositions to the world. 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.