Q&A with Craig Hella Johnson

by Kayla Moore


You’re conducting the Vocal Arts Ensemble (VAE) in the Considering Matthew Shepard performance at CCM. Why do you think this piece is gaining so much attention now?

It has been truly gratifying to experience the response to Considering Matthew Shepard (CMS), and it has also been beyond any initial expectations. I composed this work as a response from my heart.

I needed to do it for myself as a creative person, and simply as a human being on a journey— it was an event that both brought out a depth of feelings and raised many important, challenging questions for me. The Conspirare premiere of the complete work in 2016 was the primary goal and was a fulfillment of my hopes for the piece. I had not planned or anticipated what has happened since then. Now to have personally performed CMS in over 25 cities and also to see the work being performed internationally by other ensembles is quite remarkable and deeply moving.

We are in the midst of difficult times, and there is a heightened sense that we are all separate from one another. As so many people seem to be looking for authentic and meaningful ways to connect with themselves and others, I sense that the underlying questions CMS raises strike a chord with audiences in some powerful ways. The music in CMS spans a broad stylistic spectrum and this was very intentional. I wanted the variety of musical styles and genres to represent a large spectrum of human beings and to provide entry points for many people. And, even though the story of Matt Shepard’s final days is a tragic one, the piece also very strongly points toward the possibility of hope and a vision for transformation and joy for all of us.

What are the challenges and opportunities you face when conducting from the piano?

As conductors, we do not make sounds in our performances; our communication is all through gesture. So to be a part of the “band” is simply pure joy for me. I find it very exciting and satisfying. It has the feeling of leading from within the ensemble and this is also powerful symbolically. The opportunity is to be an even more integral part of the storytelling with the other musicians on stage. With the recitations, which are spoken with a musical underlay, I can also respond in the moment in an improvisatory way if I am so moved.

During the concert everyone in the room is experiencing different spectrums of emotion. What are you feeling while conducting, and what do you think the audience is feeling as they listen?

What I experience most frequently when performing the work is a deep silence in the audience with the feeling of an intense participation as listeners. Their listening becomes a part of the drama of the work. Just like the other musicians and audience members, I feel differently in every performance as we share the journey of the piece. I love the word “consideration.” The title of the piece, Considering Matthew Shepard, is very important to me, as I have no interest in suggesting what any audience member should feel. I simply want to invite the listener to “consider” this story and also to reflect on their own story as they listen, because the piece is as much about the listener’s story as it is about Matt Shepard.

This performance is going to be in Corbett Auditorium at UC. What do you think this venue will add to the experience of this incredible music?

I am delighted we are in Corbett for this performance. With this piece, which has been called “choral drama” and “fusion oratorio,” it serves the performance well when we can have a variety of options available for light staging and presentation tools. VAE is all about exploring a great variety of choral presentation, always with the hope that we can continue to find ways to connect musicians and audience members in rich and engaging new ways. n