Sarah Quartel is a Canadian composer, conductor, and educator known for her fresh and exciting approach to choral music. Her music is performed by children and adults around the world, and celebrates the musical potential of all learners by providing singers access to high quality and engaging repertoire. We spoke with Sarah about why she composes, how she approaches writing, and the pieces that mean the most to her.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
I’ve just moved from Canada to Hawaii and while things are a bit more adventurous than usual these days, I expect that life will soon return to normal. A typical composition day starts early in the morning when I’m most productive. After a breakfast that includes something either fresh or preserved from my garden, I go straight to my studio to work on the latest commission or edit a new submission. If I’m writing lyrics or starting a new piece I spend time outside on my property or I head to a local spot I find inspiring. Now that I’m living in a climate that’s warm year round, I have a feeling I will be spending more of my composition days outside!
How do you begin to approach a new commission?
When I write a commission, I want to make sure it is something that will match the commissioning ensemble beautifully and at the same time be something I love, too. I begin by getting to know the commissioners as I well as I can. I listen to their recordings, study scores they’ve recently performed, and ask them about the spirit of their choir. On occasion I will invite choristers to be in touch with me personally. I did a piece for the Radcliffe Ladies’ Choir a couple of years ago and had a marvelous time reading the ladies’ thoughts on what their choir means to them. I used their words to inspire the text of the piece. They even invited me for tea. Best tea of my life!
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
My favourite thing to do is spend time with my family. I also love to be outside. You’ll likely find me in the garden attending to my herbs or out with my husband going “holoholo.” My understanding of this Hawaiian word is that it means to go out wandering or journeying without a set destination. He and I regularly did this back home in Canada so it feels great to be living somewhere where there’s a word to describe our type of carefree adventuring.
What is the most exciting composition you’ve ever worked on and why?
I found ‘A Winter Day’ to be the most exciting piece I’ve worked on in recent years. I wrote it one autumn and discovered that composing a winter work during warmer months was absolutely thrilling. I could fully imagine winter around me and feel the chill on my skin. I also found this piece particularly exciting because I could watch it evolve and grow as I wrote it. I wasn’t expecting the melodies and colours that came out of this work.
What is your inspiration/what motivates you to compose?
Beautiful things. Relationships, landscapes, home, treasured memories, poetry, people.
Do you treat your work as a 9-5 job, or compose when you feel inspired?
Because all of my pieces these days are commissions, I do treat composing like a 9-5 job. I feel so incredibly lucky that I get to create art on a daily basis but I do see this task as work. To promote balance in my life I try to keep my composing to “work hours.” However, when I’m coming up on a deadline or feeling particularly inspired, I will hide away in my studio for hours on end. My husband Eric is great at bringing me snacks if I’ve stayed locked away too long.
Which of your pieces holds the most significance to you?
Currently my work ‘Sanctum’ holds the most significance to me. Consisting of four movements, each one depicts an aspect of the landscape of Vancouver Island, a stunning place I lived for nearly three years. The piece was commissioned by Ensemble Laude of Victoria, British Columbia and in writing the piece for these women, I came to feel very connected to them. In addition, my sister, cousin, two close friends and I sang the ‘Lux aeterna’ at my beloved grandmother’s funeral.
What made you want to be a composer?
I don’t think I ever decided to be a composer. Creating music has always come naturally to me. The phrase, “Sarah, that’s not Beethoven, you’re composing” could regularly be heard in my childhood piano lessons. (Whoops?) As my musical skill increased and my ear developed, I started hearing more and more melodies, harmonies, and layers of sound in my head. I really wanted to be able to hear them out loud and that is how I came to write choral music. Now, I continue to be a composer because I am always hearing new things and itching to make them come to life.
What might you have been if you weren’t a composer?
I would definitely be a full-time elementary school music teacher. When I finished university I immediately jumped into a classroom job and absolutely loved it. I still love teaching but with a full composition schedule, I’m in the classroom less these days. While living in Hawaii, I will be composing full time.
What’s your guilty pleasure listening?
I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure exactly, but when I’m feeling particularly self-indulgent I blast the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Fauré’s Requiem. I’ll often put the ‘Lux aeterna’ bit on repeat if I’m feeling particularly moody.
Featured image credit: Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island by jpbloggs. Public domain via Pixabay.