In describing her career as a composer, Joyce Solomon Moorman, a humanities professor at LaGuardia Community College, calls herself a "late bloomer." But she is happy to report that she is in very good company.
"I was reading about Tchaikovsky the other day, and he actually studied law and was working for the Czarist government before he went to the conservatory to study music," she says with a chuckle. "So there are other examples of composers who were not child prodigies and started composing late in life."
Moorman began studying piano at age seven and dabbled with composition as an undergraduate at Vassar College, but it was not until she entered graduate school at Sarah Lawrence that she seriously refocused her musicianship on composing. Since then, she has been making up for lost time: In the 20 years she has been composing, the LaGuardia professor has produced more than 30 pieces, including an ambitious three-act opera about the 1976 student uprising in Soweto, South Africa.
And she is making her mark in the music community. For the past five years Moorman has received a music award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, an organization that recognizes deserving composers of serious music. Her compositions have tended to be chamber works scored for various combinations of instruments. Most of them, she says "mix the European art-music tradition with contemporary influences like jazz and rock."
The opera, however, forced her into uncharted terrain. "It never crossed my mind before that I should attempt to write an opera, because up to that point most of my music was instrumental," she notes. "I had done only a few vocal pieces." What convinced her to tackle a work of evening-length proportions was a meeting with Rash-ida Ismaili, a Nigerian poet who had written a sequence of poems about the Soweto massacre titled Elegies for the Fallen. "It was Rashida, who had already thought of her elegies as constituting a poem-play, who said, 'You should take my poems and make them into an opera'," she recalls.
Thus began six arduous years of bringing back to musical life the countless unarmed students killed by South African police in the aftermath of anti-apartheid demonstrations in June 1976. Tackling the project "little by little," she would complete a scene and show it to Richard Flasser of the After Dinner Opera Company and a former Queensborough Community College professor. With his encouragement, Moorman applied for and won a grant from Vassar that allowed her a sabbatical to focus fully on the opera, which she gave Ismaili's own title. By the end of 1991 she completed the piano-vocal score for the three-act opera.
Taking the powerful emotions in Rashida's poetic response to the massacre, Moorman loosely wove a story line into her libretto that chronicles a year of struggle between whites and blacks. Each act focuses on those groups that were directly affected by the violence: the defiant student protesters, the mourning mothers of Soweto, and the wives whose husbands were imprisoned.
Moorman is now circulating the score for Elegies for the Fallen to stir interest in a full-scale production. In the meantime, she received a CUNY Professional Development grant to put together a performance of excerpted scenes at LaGuardia. John Williams, a fellow humanities professor, sang the baritone part, and his LaGuardia voice class served as the chorus. "It was a great experience for them," says Moorman. "It was also an honor to have Ismaili take part in the performance as a narrator."
Ismaili, who arrived in America in 1957 and is now director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the Pratt Institute, concedes that, "Working with Joyce, I have learned to subjugate my own artistic needs to accommodate the music." And she adds, "It is very strange--sometimes even frightening--seeing my words meant for the printed page become so active. 'Is that what I said?' I have to ask myself!" But on the eve of another concert performance of Elegies for the Fallen, this one at the 92nd Street Y in early March, Ismaili looks back with satisfaction on the countless hours of collaboration...and the friendship the grew along with it. "Joyce sensed from the beginning why I had to write my poems, and it humbles me that such a wonderful composer has devoted so much creative energy and passion to them."
When the opera is performed in its entirety, the composer envisions as part of the staging the use of a video documenting the struggle of black South Africans from the time of the slave trade to the massacre.
Moorman has been teaching at CUNY for 14 years, briefly at Queens College, then for five years as an adjunct professor at BMCC and another year at York College. Since 1992 she has been teaching LaGuardia's introductory music and piano courses. Though degrees in music are not offered on the campus, Moorman has been impressed with the seriousness of her students there, especially the pianists, most of whom immediately invest in keyboards for practice at home.
The composer shares her passion for music with her husband, Wilson, a professional percussionist who comes from a long line of musicians and singers. His family includes Dennis Moorman, a classical and jazz pianist who teaches at York College, and pop singer Melba Moore, who in the 1970s received a Tony Award for her performance in the musical "Purlie." "When the family gets together," says Moorman, "it becomes quite a musical event."