Well, folks, it’s the last of our “Goodbye Seniors” series of interviews. I had the chance to talk with Jon Mott, who, despite his name, is not at all related to the Mott’s Applesauce folks. He’s been the President and conductor of the Madrigal Singers of Boston College for the last two years, and had some wonderful insights on the group, the tights, and the art of coming up with extemporaneous singing analogies….
MP: What made you start doing Mads in the first place?
JM: I knew that I wanted to be in the group before I was even at BC. I looked it up, and I remember seeing pictures of Rob Duggan on the old Mads website and being awe-inspired by his beautiful red velvet costume… the one Anthony lost. We’ll never get over that [laughs]. I thought, man, I would really love to be in this group. So at student activities day I had a list of places I wanted to go, and I knew exactly what tables to go to, and I went to the table and threw my name down. So it was one of those things that I just knew I wanted to do right away.
MP: So had you done Mads in high school?
JM: Similar, yeah. I was in a group called the “Chamber Singers.” It was a long story getting into that. I had wanted to be in the pop a cappella group, which was very cool, and had existed in my high school for 20 years. The Chamber Singers started when I was a freshman—but I couldn’t be in it because I was a freshman—so I tried out at the end of my freshman year. I first auditioned for this pop a cappella group that I really wanted to be in. The auditions was on my birthday, and it took up the entire afternoon, and eventually, at 9 o’clock at night, after being there since 3 in the afternoon, they came out and said, “The following people will be called back tomorrow for more callbacks,” and my name wasn’t read. I was absolutely devastated, said I was never singing ever again, but auditioned a couple days later for the Chamber Singers. I was let into that group and ended up having a very potent, powerful experience there, so I continued to sing. Eventually I was struck by the beauty of My Bonny Lass She Smileth—Smile-eth, not Smell-eth!—because I was able to get the meter change, and that was one of the first things I ever conducted. After that I was like, all right, I have to keep doing this!
MP: That was the group that sang When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy, right? I remember you showing us that video my freshman year.
JM: Yeah, that was my senior year. Our teacher had to leave because she and her husband had to move to New Jersey because of his job, and I was like, I don’t want to stop singing for two months while they search for a new teacher, so why don’t we rehearse this really cool piece, and so we just learned it. And then when we got our new teacher, I was really nervous to ask him if we could do it in the concert, I was afraid he’d think it was junk, but then somebody else asked him. And he said, “Yeah, well, you sound pretty good, so you can go ahead and do it in the concert!” And it was awesome.
MP: That’s so great. I love that song.
JM: Yeah, all those Harris pieces are great.
MP: We did another one of those, and I don’t remember which one, but I really liked it!
JM: Lover and His Lass, and Fancy Bred, and Hark Hark the Lark.
MP: Yeah, I love those.
So, once you got into Mads at BC… do you have a favorite Madrigal memory?
JM: Hmm… As crazy as New York was, that’s definitely a good memory. It’s a memory… it’s certainly provided a lot of talking points over the years! Umm… I would stick with that. Even though it was crazy. There are general points to the story that everyone knows, but one side to that is often not told… the course registration nightmare I had. We went to New York on the day that I was registering for classes. And, it was my first time registering without the assistance of someone else. I really wanted to get into this harmony class, and so… we left here at 5 in the morning, but UIS wasn’t up at that point. We got to South Station at 6:30, and I checked again, and there was an internet connection, but I couldn’t log on. And then we got on the bus—it said it had wifi, so I tried logging on. Of course, it didn’t work on the bus, either.
MP: Does it ever work on buses?
JM: I don’t think it does! So I tried multiple times on the bus… and then we got to the hotel, and the hotel said something like, we want $25 for 10 minutes of wifi access, and I thought, I’m not doing that! So I wandered around New York for a bit while we were waiting to get into our rooms, and I wasn’t able to do it. I tried when we got into our room, and then when we were leaving the next day—early in the morning, this had been about 24 hours. It was maybe 3 in the morning, at Port Authority in New York, and I tried again, but it didn’t work there.
MP: Port Authority at 3 am is pretty sketchy…
JM: Well, there was some very… well, things happened and this is definitely not a PG rated story, so I can’t say it. I didn’t see anything, either, I was just hearing what was going on. Anyway. I tried in Port Authority, I tried on the bus… Eventually, the bus pulled into this rest stop in Charlton, Massachusetts, and I tried again, and guess what? It worked! Finally, at this rest stop in Charlton, Massachusetts. And I got my class!
I’ve always enjoyed, too, caroling around campus. And I’m usually a fan of the spring concerts, just because it’s the spring, and the end of the year, and it brings back nice memories of high school too, nice spring concerts.
MP: What makes Mads special, do you think?
JM: In terms of what?
MP: Well, why is Mads worth your time?
JM: It’s worth my time because music is a necessity in life. For me personally, music has very special properties to it where it brings out very strong positive emotions, or more nostalgic or sadder emotions. But the fact of the matter is that it gets you to feel things. And so, that to me is why it’s a necessity. It allows people to reach in, and sort out whatever internal dissonances might exist. And so I think what I like about Mads, and the thing I’ve always tried to do with Mads, is that for both the people in the group, and for the audience members who come to our concerts, we make the best music so that our joy in the experience, or just our experience, gives the audience the experience of sorting out the internal dissonances they might have, via the emotions in the song. What makes it special is that BC really only has two classical choral groups—the Chorale and Madrigals. So there aren’t very many groups trying to do stuff like that, that are really committed to the high quality of the music making. So for me, that’s what makes it special. And it makes me happy to know that there are other people on campus who feel the same way, who are willing to be a part and be in the group and come and here us. So, huge shout out to everybody who’s ever been in the group!
MP: That was beautifully said, Jon.
Is there any one moment where you felt like the group really clicked?
JM: Yeah… I think there have been a couple times. But the one time that was especially potent for me was last year’s spring concert. When we got into Gasson and we were rehearsing, the blend and the musicality were really coming together. And I think everybody knew that too, and I think everybody knew we were going to have a good concert. And we did—we had one of the best, I think! That’s definitely one of the best experiences, I think. And it was great, too, that we were singing Peter’s piece, something that was brand new, giving it a world premiere—I was really happy that we were able to do that.
If I could think of one particular chord that clicked at one point in time… In Lux Aeterna, freshman year, we were singing in St. Mary’s Chapel, and at “dona eis,” there’s a suspended fourth, in just a men’s section, and it just clicked, in St. Mary’s Chapel. It was really nice—there’s a nice recording on YouTube. And it just clicked, which made that night click, I guess. Sometimes all it takes is a chord, to make the whole night click! A chord that was perfectly in tune, you know, it’s hard to get things perfectly in tune, but that chord was.
MP: Everybody else has talked about Mads as a place where they feel comfortable on campus. Gloria said it really nicely, that Mads is a group that’s so diverse in their interests and yet we can all come together to make beautiful music. Is that something you see as well?
JM: Yeah. I think for the group especially…. I think it’s related to the larger issue of choral singing in general, and what the purpose of a choir is. You can have the choirs that are just absolutely rock solid on making really good music, and you come and rehearse for three hours, and then you leave. But at a school like BC, or at school in general, I think, the purpose becomes more one of connection and communication. And that’s what it’s doing for us. It’s not to take away from the art at all, because people are ultimately dedicated to making really high quality art. But especially at BC, it’s also that people can have all of these other interests, and bring themselves together into the group and do something that’s all the same, at the same point in time. It’s one of the deepest forms of communication because essentially you have to know what everybody else is doing at the same point in time, and know what you’re doing, cause otherwise if you don’t, if one little thing is off, the piece will sound wrong. So it’s ultimately able to unite, in a very positive way, all sorts of people.
MP: Do you have any advice for future madri-guys or madri-gals?
JM: Well, first of all, join the group!
I would say just join the group! If you have any sort of singing abilities or interest, it’s a great way to have a positive impact on a lot of people. It’s a great outlet for yourself, too. It does so much more good than anybody really realizes.
I’m going to have to come up with a written answer! I’m not great at thinking on my feet—that’s why I come up with weird analogies; they’re the first things that pop into my head! [laughs]
MP: [laughs] I think my favorite analogy is still the needles…
JM: Oh, the needles, yeah! I mean, resonance is roughness, and needles have points to them, so roughness… Resonance has a point to it… Yeah… I dunno… [laughs]
MP: [laughs] We like your analogies! We appreciate your analogies! We may mock your analogies, but we love them.
JM: [laughs] You’re allowed to mock my analogies!
MP: So do you have any hopes for where the group will go, after you graduate?
JM: I really hope it continues to thrive, and that it continues to bring new members in. Seeking outside advice and seeking mentoring is very helpful—I wish we could have done some more master classes again this year. And really, further defining the niche where the group exists on campus is important too. There definitely is a need and a desire for this sort of music on campus, and I would just hope that the group will find that and be confident and use it as a launching off point to flourish in the BC community. To me, it’s not about popularity, it’s about having respect for what we do, and for the mission of the group and what the group is.
MP: Thanks, Jon!