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Local Composer Wins The American Prize

In 2006, Plymouth resident and PSU Music Professor Jonathan Santore was named New Hampshire Composer of the year.  Just last month, he was awarded The American Prize in Choral Composition for 2013. As he tells NHPR's Sean Hurley, he's come a long way since playing trumpet for his high school marching band in Tennessee. 

French composer Erik Satie once remarked, "Before I write a piece, I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself,"  It's a creative prelude that Plymouth composer Jonathan Santore finds absolutely necessary.

I tell people the best way to watch me compose is walking down Main Street bumping into things with an absent expression on my face because that's where the work really gets done for me.

You may also see him chanting, whistling, or recording notes onto his smartphone - here set against a midi file of the developing hummed work in progress.

Dah da, dah da...something like that. Seven eight. You're gonna leave 8th notes, one of them to breathe - (bumping into someone on the street) Hey! How's it going? Well thanks, you? Good thanks -

In many ways a composer is like a screenwriter, creating the blueprint for a piece not yet realized. For the last 20 years or so, the Director of Santore's musical blueprints has been Dan Perkins, a fellow professor at PSU and Founder and Conductor of the NH Master Chorale.

He'll come back to me with the music, which I sit down at the piano and read through, sing through it, play through. It really is a process of bringing something that is inanimate and just on paper to life. And nobody really knows what that's going to sound like, even the composer.

Perkins will often suggest text or a general theme to Santore, as with their collaboration on the Kalevela Fragments.

Music:  Kalevala

Well I did a concert of Finnish Music and I went to Jonathan and I said here are some words from the Kalevela, the Finnish national epic and it's such a wonderful invitational text, here we clasp hands and join singing together the songs of our people... And I was trying to capture that hypnotic mystical quality of the text.

In another collaboration, Santore found his text by accident.

I was in the lobby of the Silver Center for the Arts at Plymouth State University downstairs, you know, going to get a glass of water and I noticed that there was this ceremony coalescing downstairs going on about Nathaniel Peabody Rogers.

As it turns out, Rogers, an outspoken abolitionist who edited one of the leading pro-emancipation newspapers in New England, lived in a house in Plymouth on the site where both Santore and Perkins now work. As Santore listened, glass of water in hand, to Peabody's anti-slavery writing, he was struck.

MusicThen Shall Be Heard Music Here

And I thought, Holy Cow! You know, that this man from this place where I'm living wrote this amazing moving text, I really want to set that.

When Santore dropped the manila envelope bearing a CD selection of his works into the mail he didn't expect to hear back from the people who run the American Prize. 

No. I was genuinely surprised and happily surprised when I won it. One doesn't take the message from it "I'm there - I've arrived." It's a lifelong process. You're never there. Terrific. That's great. Who am I gonna slap some stuff into envelopes and send it out to today?

But before he slaps any stuff into manila envelopes, Santore will be out on Main Street, bumping into things with an absent look on his face, occasionally mumbling into his phone.

That's the thing that's ba-da ba-da. I started to hear it in 5, which might be an interesting thing to do to have it continually shrink...Whistling....that's for the third movement of the Lope Piece.

Music:  Spring in New Hampshire

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at
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