The Treble Maker

Author: Susanna Rodell; Staff Writer
The News & Observer
May 26, 2002

Chapel Hill -- It's Monday night in the basement choir room at University United Methodist Church, and Mary Lycan has stopped her choir for perhaps the 40th time.

"That went so well at the top of page 6 that we got smug at the bottom of page 7," she says. "Don't sing 'abuuuve.' That pulls your jaw forward and creates so much tension. Sing 'above.' Drop your jaw."

Lycan is preparing the Women's Voices Chorus for its annual concert on Friday. The program is divided into seasons, and winter is represented by a somber and eerie musical setting of the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver," about a woman freezing to death as she weaves a blanket for her son. The rhythms are tricky, and Lycan has had to stop many times and get the singers to chant the words in the proper timing, to set the shifting pattern in their memory. One singer off, and the whole thing will sound messy.

But now they've progressed to spring, with another poem set to music, e. e. cummings' "i thank You God."

"We're still sounding terribly determined," she says, standing on a wooden step stool among the singers. "We need to get across that things are going to get better after that poor woman freezes to death." Some of the singers start whispering to each other. Lycan shushes them.

She wants more life, a bigger sound. She quotes the next line in the piece: "I who have died am alive again today."

"That's very good news," she points out. "Especially after that poor woman froze to death." Giggles. "This is where we thaw her out."

Fifty heads turn her way. She raises her hands, cues Deborah Coclanis, her accompanist at the piano, and the voices burst forth, filling the low-ceilinged room. The sound is utterly glorious. This is what Lycan lives for: that sound, of adult women in full throat. And even sweeter, both these pieces were composed by women -- the Millay by Elinor Remick Warren and the cummings by Gwyneth Walker.

Mary Lycan lives one of those charmed lives. Her passion for women's choral music, a lifelong avocation, has also become her livelihood. When she is not directing Women's Voices, the chorus she founded nine years ago, she is tracking down and publishing music for women's voices, much of it by women composers. She serves a growing, and appreciative, clientele of choir directors across the country. It is a niche market in the vast music business, but one that Lycan fills nicely.

'The wonderful sound'

Lycan, who is 55, started singing early. A former Episcopal choir girl and third-generation church musician who grew up in New London, Conn., she studied music at Brown University, then married a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and followed his career to various places. During a year in Palo Alto, Calif., she discovered the Peninsula Women's Chorus and was "mesmerized by the wonderful sound." She liked the all-female organization, she says, and "the fun of a girls' night out."

Though she loved the group experience, she also had a disturbing realization: "Here I am in this splendid women's community ... and we're singing music that's all by guys." Maybe, she thought, there just wasn't any good choral music written by women. But she thought it was worth a look. She spent time in the music library at Stanford University and made what would be a fateful discovery.

"I found three Shakespeare songs for SSAA [first and second soprano, first and second alto] by Amy Beach." Beach, a Bostonian who lived from 1867 to 1944, is one of the best known of the recently rediscovered American women composers. "I thought, 'Ooooh, this is cool.' " But the songs were not listed in any of the published lists of music for women's voices, so Lycan questioned her own judgment. Surely if the songs were that good, she thought, they would already be acknowledged. "They were crumbling old glee club copies published around 1895. I took them out of the library and played them over and over on the piano, and thought I'd lost my mind -- they seemed so good to me," she says.

Still, she brought them back to Chapel Hill. And when she couldn't find a choral group to continue the kind of singing she had loved in California, she says, "I had to start my own." Lycan founded Women's Voices in 1993, and it gave its first concert in June 1994. For its first spring concert, Women's Voices performed the Shakespeare songs. They have become one of the group's staples. "They just love those Amy Beach songs," Lycan says.

With her own group to nourish, Lycan decided to get serious about finding more music. Her search took her to the Library of Congress, where she found a number of composers dating from 1890 to 1970. Back in Chapel Hill, Lycan told her old friend Ida Reed about her research. Reed, whom she describes as "one of my good witches," was a music librarian at UNC and told Lycan she didn't need to keep making trips to Washington for her research. UNC's music library, in fact, is the fifth-largest in the United States. She also found she could get much of what she needed via the Chapel Hill Public Library through interlibrary loans.

So Lycan dived in. Among other things, she says, "I uncovered this whole culture of women's clubs." In the middle of the 20th century, they often had their own choirs. She found literature about a national convention in Atlantic City in 1942 with a massed women's choir of 1,000 voices. And there were women composing for those voices. Lycan found their work and brought it to her group to sing. Before long, word got around the choral community grapevine that Lycan had found some great music. People started calling her, asking for copies. They offered to pay. So in 1995, a business called Treble Clef Music Press was born.

Lycan started with works that were in the public domain, eliminating the hassle and expense of permissions and royalties. But "then I started finding things that were still protected, and then living composers started submitting things to me."

Now, seven years later, Lycan is riding a resurgence of interest in women's music generally. One of the names in her catalog is a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, who was an authority on medicine and botany as well as a musician and composer. Ten years ago, only medieval scholars had heard of her. Now a quick search on yields 81 recordings of Hildegard's music.

Lycan's list contains about 100 titles; she adds about 20 to it each year, "writing royalty checks to happy composers and arrangers." And 38 of her titles have been recorded.

None of this is making Lycan -- or the composers -- rich. Sheet music typically sells for a dollar or two per copy, and it may be the most pirated form of literature through photocopy machines in churches and schools. But modestly, Lycan's efforts have paid off. Although she accounts for a very small niche in a huge sheet-music publishing industry, Lycan's work is valued and recognized. One of her best wholesale customers is the Musical Source Inc., a supplier based in Washington.

"There's definitely a need," says its choral buyer, Nancy Caporaso. "There are women's choruses all over the country. A lot of the big publishers offer music written for two or three different voicings. All of her stuff is originally written for treble voices."

Children's choirs are also good customers. "Mary's catalog is unique," says Jean Ashworth Bartle, the artistic director of the Toronto Children's Chorus, a 300-voice group that includes singers 8 to 16 and performs all over the world. "Everything they put out is an A-plus."

Sara Lynn Baird, who directs the women's choir at Louisiana State University, says of Lycan's efforts, "Mary has made available things that are interesting and much higher quality than what has been available in the past."

By and for women

As Lycan finds and distributes the music she loves, she's hoping for a ripple effect: more respect for all-female ensembles.

Prejudice against women's music starts early, she says. It's double-edged: Girls' choirs are often viewed as second-best in schools, and neither mixed nor girls' choirs sing music composed by women. As a veteran of girls' choirs, Lycan experienced this strange double standard.

Traditionally, she says, "The select choir in a high school was the mixed choir; the girls' choir was the loser choir." That prejudice continues in college. Girls often outnumber boys three to one at auditions. "Typically, the girls are better," Lycan says. "If you actually had a merit system, the top choir would be the women's choir, and the second choir would be the mixed choir."

Women's authorship is important, Lycan believes, beyond the fact that women are capable of composing as well as men. Women notice different things, and that is reflected in the music. Lycan cites the "Harp Weaver" piece her group is working on. In a passage that describes a woman rocking a baby in a rocking chair, the piece calls for 6/8 meter and a very slow tempo. Lycan didn't understand this, she says, until she tried out several rocking chairs and found the meter perfectly reflected their rhythm. "How else would you know the tempo of a rocking chair?" she asks.

Confining herself to this music narrows her horizons a bit, but Lycan can live with that. "I have some regrets that I will never conduct the [Bach] B Minor Mass. But I don't have anything particularly new to say about that."

In the church basement with 50 women, some with gray hair, some in teenage braids, Lycan has plenty to say. For one thing, the altos are too loud. Stop trying so hard, she tells them. "It's so easy to sing that note. You don't have to push the piano through the transom."

They start again: "I who have died am alive again today ..."

Their voices form a big, joyful wind. The low ceiling seems to vibrate.

Nothing is missing.

Copyright 2002 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.

Reprinted by permission of The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina.