Faculty member ventures into Robert Louis Stevenson’s Land of Nod with ‘curious music’ of his own

by | Jun 1, 2017

Zachary Cairns’ new choral piece “The Land of Nod” earned kudos from the Missouri Composers Project earlier this year.
Zachary Cairns, associate professor of music at UMSL

The Missouri Composers Project named Associate Professor of Music Zachary Cairns’ choral piece “The Land of Nod” one of four winning works earlier this year. The Columbia Chamber Choir and the St. Louis Children’s Choirs chorale have each performed iterations of it. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Zachary Cairns was tucking his young daughter into bed a couple years ago when he spied a book on her shelf that he hadn’t opened in a while.

“She had this collection of Robert Louis Stevenson poems that I think we got for her when she was born,” recalls Cairns, a music theorist at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Paging through the volume, he stopped when he got to “The Land of Nod.”

“That poem, which I’d read before but not for a long time, just really stood out to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘This would be perfect for a children’s choir.’”

Inspired by the cherished verses, which tell of a dreamscape filled with “curious music” and only traveled by night, Cairns set to work composing a choral piece for the St. Louis Children’s Choirs.

“My wife’s a director with that organization, and it’s a fantastic group,” he explains. “They do so much music education in the area and everything. And so I wrote them this piece, for two-part choir.

“They performed it last May [2016], and it was wonderful – but there was a lot of stuff in it that I felt like I could flesh out for more experienced musicians, with denser harmonies and more complicated parts.”

Last fall, Cairns came across the perfect motivation to rework and develop it: the Missouri Composers Project.

Now in its sixth year, the University of Missouri–Columbia-based effort annually invites submissions in several musical composition categories and then selects winning pieces to be performed each spring.

As the contest deadline neared, Cairns further developed the piece for a four-part choir accompanied by piano, clarinet, violin and percussion and sent it along to the judges.

“There are a lot of contests similar to this for composers, and some of them involve entry fees and some of them don’t,” he says. “This one didn’t, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s no harm in sending it, and if they like it, great – and if not, I’m just out the price of postage.’”

Indeed they did like it, and in January the UMSL faculty member learned he’d been named one of four winners of the 2017 competition. Along with a $500 honorarium, Cairns was awarded the opportunity to have the piece performed by the Columbia Chamber Choir March 19 at the Missouri Composers Project concert.

Primarily a teacher and scholar of music theory, Cairns insists that his forays into composition in recent years are a side project. But he’s been having fun with it and is writing more and more. This summer he’s working on a commissioned piece for a middle-school band in State College, Pennsylvania, and he’s had a couple pieces published, too, including one for seven tambourines.

“I think it’s almost inevitable for a music theorist to at least have ideas about composing, whether you actually put them down on manuscript paper or not,” says Cairns, whose scholarship focuses on the mid-20th-century Soviet avant-garde. “By taking apart pieces of music and analyzing them, there are just so many times where I look at a piece and study it and say, ‘What if they had done this instead?’

“It’s also that I’m simply finding the creative energy to write, and at this point I’m just really interested in sharing that music with other people. And hopefully they enjoy it and get something out of it.”

So far, audiences and musicians alike have responded very positively to “The Land of Nod,” and that’s been encouraging to Cairns.

“I’ve gotten a lot of really positive comments on it,” he says. “A woman from the choir in Columbia this spring came up to me and said it was one of her favorite poems as a little girl, and so that was really nice.”

To hear the piece, play the track on Cairns’ SoundCloud page – and plan to attend the University Singers’ fall concert on campus later this year as UMSL students perform it under the direction of Cairns’ colleague Jim Henry. That event is set for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

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