Marquette native’s compositions are being performed around the globe


Composer Thomas Lavoy is a native of Marquette.

By Katherine Larson
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? If you’re Marquette composer Thomas LaVoy, you start writing music at the age of six. You are nourished by a solid public high school music program, encouraged by a music-loving family, and end up earning a Ph.D. in composition. But mostly you write and you write and you write.
And then you write a choral work entitled I Shall Not Live In Vain. It will be performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 1 by the National Festival Chorus, Alan Zabriskie conducting.
April is a busy month for LaVoy. In addition to the Carnegie Hall event—which actually represents his second appearance in that venue, his work White Stones having been performed to acclaim there in 2015—April marks the first in a series of premiere performances of his In Heaven, Hereafter by seven different choirs in three different countries.
In Heaven, Hereafter is, LaVoy said, “a passion project, an intense artistic statement.” He was struck by a black-and-white linoleum print block depicting a woman flying through the air with a flock of chickens. Embedded in the artwork was a curious rhyme. “‘What IS this?’ I wondered.’”
Research uncovered the eccentric story of Nancy Luce, who raised hens and wrote poetry on Martha’s Vineyard. LaVoy said, “Her writing was remarkable: dark and prophetic, and mixed with idiosyncratic advice about caring for hens. I loved it all, including the names of her hens—Ada Queetie, Beauty Linna, Pinky.”
LaVoy contacted the artist, Dan Waters, who still lives on Martha’s Vineyard, and found that Luce was something of a folk hero there. “I went and visited her cabin, and paid my respects at her grave. And I knew I had to write this music, based on her life and her writing.”
Because of the size of his envisioned work, LaVoy “started contacting conductors to propose that we do this by consortium, and seven signed on. So now this year the work will receive seven performances, in five different states plus England and Scotland.”
Pulling together consortiums is very much part of the life of a 21st-century composer. Indeed, making a living is a challenge. LaVoy said, “Most contemporary composers have other jobs—teachers, church musicians, insurance adjustors—it’s very difficult to make a living at it. I’ve been fortunate: out of grad school a year, and I’m in the black.”
That is in part because of the quality of his music, which has earned commissions and performances by choirs across the globe—the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Poland, New Zealand and Taiwan.
Locally, last fall NMU’s Arts Chorale sang a commissioned LaVoy composition, Our Waking Souls, at the statewide convention of the American Choral Directors Association. NMU choral director Erin Colwitz said, “It was a great success. The students absolutely loved the piece, and all that have heard it have given it rave reviews.” Colwitz is excited that the spring 2020 concerts of the Marquette Choral Society, which she also conducts, will include another LaVoy commission.
LaVoy’s success also comes from the fact that he works hard at it. He said, “My days are typically spent 40 percent composing, 60 percent networking, forging connections, working on my website, preparing scores for publication, and so on.”
The world of music is feeling his impact. Before this article goes to press, a superb chamber choir, Voce, under the direction of Mark Singleton, will present the first full concert LaVoy knows of that is fully dedicated to his music. With funding from Choral Arts New England, Voce is performing a total of ten works including a long and challenging work that was originally commissioned by the John Armitage Memorial for the BBC Singers.
What is it about choral music that draws LaVoy? He said, “The human voice is the only instrument exclusively contained within the human body. Choral music is a group statement. Energy comes from deep within each individual, and then collective energy emerges as the individuals come together as a large body.”
“The actual act of singing is strange,” LaVoy added. “You have a semicircle of people standing around a conductor who is waving her arms, and the people all yell at the conductor. Lots of other people sit and watch this going on. Objectively, it’s strange. And yet we experience it as peaceful, beautiful, moving, profound.”
That is certainly the case with I Shall Not Live in Vain, the work to be performed at Carnegie Hall. LaVoy encountered the poem by Emily Dickinson at Westminster Choir College. Then, when the college faced turmoil, Grammy-nominated conductor James Jordan and the Westminster Williamson Voices commissioned him to set the poem to music on its behalf. The resulting work went viral.
“It serves as a reminder that in spite of our difficulties, our mission as musicians and practitioners of choral artistry has not changed; to make a difference in one life, any life, is at the heart of it all,” he said.
The roots of his music sink deep into Marquette soil. “I’ve always liked tunes,” he said. “I grew up here, going to the Hiawatha Music Festival every year, enjoying my family’s annual Christmas singing party. I’ve been surrounded by accessible music all my life.” LaVoy’s mother is poet Esther Margaret Ayers, known locally as Esther LaVoy Barrington. She taught him piano, and “my older brothers Lucas, Charlie, and Logan were a huge part of my upbringing. The music they were interested in surrounded me. We had a band, the LaVoy Brothers Band, which played what we called ‘circus rock.’”
At Marquette Senior High School, LaVoy was the beneficiary of a “trifecta of influence and support” from choral director Jan Brodersen, who also gave him voice lessons; orchestra director Janis Peterson, for whom he played percussion; and band director Matt Ludwig, for whom he also played percussion. Beyond these ensembles, though, “they all became good friends of mine. They all taught me music, and all taught me patience. They got me focused.”
Other important influences included “my first composition teacher, James Hansen, a fascinating character, and Carrie Biolo, my percussion teacher and a composer herself. I love watching and listening to what she’s doing.”
Then came LaVoy’s first big commission, from the Marquette Symphony Orchestra. LaVoy said, “It was huge. Absolutely huge. I was getting to the end of my time at Westminster Choir College. I had been singing these enormous works with enormous orchestras—Mahler 2, Brahms Requiem, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had all those pieces in my head, and I needed to write a big piece.”
A traumatic fire at his father’s house proved to be the catalyst. LaVoy said, “I remembered the 1913 story of Calumet’s Italian Hall, where 73 people, mostly children, died when someone shouted ‘Fire!’, and I knew I wanted to write it. I pitched it to Janis Peterson, and she said yes! And we pitched it to the MSO board. Amazingly, they said yes too. To offer a 22-year-old kid that level of trust was extraordinary, unheard of.”
The result was A Child’s Requiem, a major work for full orchestra, soprano solo, and two choirs, which the MSO performed in 2013. LaVoy said, “Matt Ludwig conducted the thing. If you watch the video, you can see he’s the star. He really studied the score, spending months working it out. I was deeply impressed by his professionalism. And of course my mom! Her craftsmanship with that libretto was stunning.”
With partner Sarah Rimkus, who is also a composer, LaVoy is pulling together another consortium, “Scattered Light,” for choral work based on poems by Dana Gioia. In addition, he said, “Last year, I did a commission drive to get more ensembles involved in commissioning work, and ended up writing eight pieces, ‘Starlight Anthology,’ a collection of works for mixed choruses. This year I’m doing it again, with eight pieces called ‘Fire and Water.’”
He is starting to write texts himself, too. “As part of the ‘Fire and Water’ project I have a commission for Nazareth College with music director Brian Stevens. He and I are both passionate about fishing, so I looked for good fishing texts. I couldn’t find anything that worked, so I wrote my own: O Great River, a kind of secular fisherman’s prayer based on my experience out at Laughing Whitefish Falls.”
Then there is publication. “I publish music with GIA Publications, out of Chicago, along with my own online brand Hewitt Hill.” And recordings. “I’m a founding member of a choral ensemble in Philadelphia, The Same Stream. We have one CD out [Songs of the Questioner, available at] and two more coming, one of which will feature O Great Beyond, the work commissioned by the BBC Singers.”
“And I think the time is ripe for me to do more conducting and clinical work.” A recent experience with the State Honors Choir at the Michigan Music Conference helped crystallize this feeling. Brodersen led this group as clinician, and programmed the Lux aeterna movement from A Child’s Requiem. She invited LaVoy to help work the group, and he shared important aspects of the musical structure with these teenage musicians. Their response overwhelmed him.
“Many of them were moved to tears, and, judging from their social media posts afterward, many of them had likely not been confronted with the idea that the manipulation of concrete musical ideas can a very real and visceral effect on the emotional impact of a piece of music. That ‘Aha!’ moment was one of the most rewarding moments of my life.” LaVoy added, “For me the real meat of that experience was the hour or so that I spent in the rehearsal room with the choir,” talking and singing and conducting.
And further into the future? “There are certain things that I think about and dream about, but I realize I’m not ready for them. Next year, or in the following years…”

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