Dorothy Van Andel Frisch ’75 hears voices in her head, singing voices, voices entering and answering one another. “It is,” she said, “perhaps my best gift from God.”
It was not always so. A music major, Frisch concentrated on the organ, like her grandfather, Henry Van Andel, Calvin’s first college organist. As a composer of choral music, she was, in her words, “a late bloomer.”
“The first big breakthrough came in 1982 when I studied with Alice Parker. She taught that, before writing any notes on a page, I must first listen to the voices in my head sing the words of a song or hymn. What do the words want to do, in music? Who will sing first? Who will answer? Do the voices overlap? You don’t tell the music what to do; you listen. Gradually it emerges and jells.”
Now composer-in-residence and associate organist at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Southbridge, Mass., Frisch writes music—as she always has—for the choir and congregation she’s involved with. Uppermost in her mind is encouraging everyone to sing and celebrating the talents of the church’s musicians.
“The choir and instrumentalists are there to encourage the congregation to sing, but never to take over as the professionals,” she said. “And I think music should be written for whatever gifts the people of the congregation have.”
So, for example, because the church where she worshiped in Midland, Mich., had an Appalachian dulcimer player, Frisch wrote a piece for dulcimer, glockenspiel and children’s choir. For a church in New Brighton, Minn., she wrote a jazzy arrangement of Jesus in the Morning for baritone, soprano, congregation, choir, alto sax, trumpet and piano.
She’s also written—and published—more conventional choir anthems. For her choir at Holy Trinity, Frisch has composed both a Christmas and an Easter cantata.
It was four years ago, when her daughter left home for Calvin, Frisch said, that her composing really took off. She began to set poems to music, free-form compositions that don’t repeat the same melody for each verse, as a hymn does. This allowed her greater freedom for tone painting, using music to create pictures, just as the words of the text create pictures.
For example, in her setting of John Milton’s poem At a Solemn Musick, Frisch worked to compose “clouds of sound”—two beautiful ones of four different melodies sung at different times and rhythms when the saints and angels in the poem are praising God, and a horrifying, hair-raising one when “sin … with harsh din broke the fair musick.”
She succeeded brilliantly, according to the judges of the 2011 Sorel Composition Competition. At a Solemn Musick was awarded third place and premiered on June 8 by the professional Voices of Ascension choir accompanied by a magnificent new organ at The Church of the Ascension in New York City.
“Though it was a hot night in an un-air-conditioned church,” Frisch recalled, “I had goose bumps all the way through. It was tremendously thrilling.”
“It’s an exciting time in my life,” she said. “I’m learning and growing. I have to live to be 100, because I have so many things I would like to write.”