“Music as a way of life”: Alice Parker | Women's History Month
By Tinky Weisblat
Just about anyone who has ever sung in a choir or chorus knows the work of Alice Parker. She has spent her 96 years composing, conducting, teaching, and embracing family and community.
The Hawley, Massachusetts resident has composed more than 500 pieces. Her work includes operas, song cycles, cantatas, and anthems. She is particularly well known for the spirituals, hymns, and folk songs she has arranged over the years, beginning during her longtime association with conductor Robert Shaw.
Parker spent summers in Hawley as a child at the appropriately named Singing Brook Farm.
“My father bought land in Hawley before I was born,” she says. “I think I was four months old the first time I came here, and it has always felt like home to me."
"No matter where we lived the rest of the year, mostly near Boston, the best part was coming up to the farm and having wonderful summers here.”
With her siblings she swam, ambled up and down the brook as far as she could, and developed a lifelong affinity for the hills around her.
And she sang and made up tunes. “It was pretty clear from the time I was eight or so that I was going to be a composer,” she recalls.
Parker attended Smith College and went on to Juilliard. There she studied music and choral conducting with Robert Shaw and was taken on as his collaborator, arranging music for the Robert Shaw Chorale.
“It was like being at the center of a hurricane,” she says of her work with the colorful Shaw. “The thing that made it wonderful was that he was so musical. I learned enormously from absorbing his sensitivity to text and to vocal sound.”
She worked with Shaw for 20 years. Their collaboration, she notes, “proved to be the perfect antidote to academic composing, which had its stress on theory and on doing something that nobody had ever done before
“The arrangements were exploring hymns and folk songs … dealing in a folk tradition that was transferring from voice to ear without any page intervention," she said.
"That turned into the main focus of my teaching: to get people to listen to the music in the air, not the music imprisoned on the page.”
Parker always knew she wanted a family. She married baritone Thomas Pyle, had five children, and did her best to balance work and home in their New York apartment. She dreamed of a grand piano that would make this easier.
“The ideal piano for a composer-mother would have the whole area underneath the piano enclosed so that she could keep an eye on her child while she worked,” she says, laughing.
She began baking large batches of wholesome bread to feed her family. Her loaves of bread are prized to this day by relatives and neighbors.
After 21 years of marriage, Tom Pyle died suddenly. “He was gone when I was 50, and I was faced with crafting a career for myself in uncharted waters, and also supporting these five children as they grew,” she sighs.
Asked about difficulties she faced as a female composer, Parker is sanguine.
“I am not combative in my daily life. If I was presented with a difficulty, I didn’t fight it. I found a way around it, under it, to get a substantial part of what I wanted,” she says.
In 1985, after working mostly with amateur choruses and choirs, the composer started a not-for-profit corporation called Melodious Accord. It enabled her to form a professional chorus to perform and record her works. It also helped her continue her work as a teacher of composition and choral music.
She savored her complementary actvities. “Part of composing was setting a poem or making music that hadn’t existed before to a text, but I loved juxtaposing that with arranging a folk song because those melodies would draw things out of me that were quite different from what I was composing,” she explains.
“Composing is a very solitary job. I loved the conducting and the teaching as a balance to that.”
When Parker turned 70, she decided to move full time to Hawley, to what she had always thought of as her “heart’s home.”
She had already begun restoring Hawley’s old town hall, the Town House, to use on her frequent visits to help care for her aging mother. In 1996, she sold her New York apartment, added a studio and a heated garage to the Town House, and threw herself into life in Hawley.
She became active in the local church and in the historical society, the Sons and Daughters of Hawley. Hawleyites still chuckle as they recall the time she dressed as “Alfred Parker” in order to enter a pie contest that was restricted to male contestants.
And she taught for more than two decades. In New York, she had traveled to her students. In Hawley, they often came to her. Composers, conductors, and song leaders would arrive for a week of intensive study, staying at the family farmhouse up the street from Parker.
The fellows cooked for each other and for Parker, who says with a twinkle in her eye that she thinks good musicians are pretty much always good cooks. They gathered daily at the Town House to make music.
“It was planning our lives together,” she says of this experience. “It was music as a way of life.”
Each fellowship week culiminated in an event that delighted teacher, students, and neighbors as Parker led a community SING at a nearby church.
Parker’s voice is not big. That soft voice is her superpower. It creates a space in the room that invites those gathered around her to join in. Even individuals who don’t think they can sing open their voices and their hearts as they respond to Alice Parker.
She is eloquent about the experience of sharing music this way.
“We really listen and echo what we hear, enter into the song. When we do this there is a feeling in the room that is indescribable. It’s as though we are all pointing our lives in the same direction.”
”Our society tends to look at music as entertainment. This is a much more theological view of music. It’s giving us a way to communicate with each other through our senses rather than through our busy minds…."
“It seems to me that choral music is given us to provide that kind of mind cleansing. You forget the struggles of the day and enter into the experience.
“The incredible thing is that this is right there for the taking, all the time. You don’t have to have studied. You don’t have to know anything. The smallest children, even babies, join in.”
Over the decades, Alice Parker has produced 16 books and 14 CDs, not including the many recordings of her music with the Robert Shaw Chorale. She has received seven honorary doctorates and numerous awards for her contributions to American music. Tributes have included the Smith College Medal, the Harvard Glee Club Medal, the National Opera Association “Sacred in Opera” Achievement Award, and New England Public Media’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Chorus America has called her “a living musical legend and a true champion of the power of the human voice.”
The pandemic and macular degeneration have forced Parker to cut back on her work. Today she finds that her head is “full of memories of experiences and thoughts about teaching.” She is working on writing down some of those memories and thoughts. She hopes eventually to emerge in public again from time to time.
The Ashfield Film Festival plans to show the 2020 documentary ALICE: At Home with Alice Parker by Eduardo Montes-Bradley when it resumes operations. Parker will be there to lead a SING after the film and reinforce her overall contention that music is something one makes, not something one buys.
For more information about Alice Parker, visit Melodious Accord https://www.melodiousaccord.org/