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Central Standard

Kansas City Composer Mark Hayes Makes Music For The World

C.J. Janovy
KCUR 89.3

Mark Hayes’s musical career started with a decision: piano lessons or band instrument?

He was going to grade school in Normal, Illinois, and his school offered lessons. Since he had three siblings, his parents said that they could afford to pay for either one or the other.

He chose the piano, and, as he said, he never looked back.

“I just loved doing it,” he told guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR’sCentral Standard. “I started playing in church when I was 13, and that kind of got me into that whole scene.”

Now he’s a prolific composer of choral music. His music has been performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center to church lofts by choirs big and small. He has more than a thousand works to his name, many of which he’s cranked out from his Midtown home.

After playing in church through high school, he attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he majored in piano performance. Halfway through his degree program, though, he had second thoughts about his major.

“I figured out, gosh, this is hard. I don’t know if I want to practice nine hours a day to be a concert pianist with maybe no guarantee that I’ll have a job,” he said.

He became interested in being an arranger — someone who changes up a piece of already-written music.

When he graduated, he stayed in Waco and got a job as a music editor at Word Music, a Christian publishing company. He was also a part of a small singing group, and he started arranging music for them “just for fun,” he said.

Word gave them a recording contract, which led to an LP and a book. He was 24 years old.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could make a living doing this,’” he recalled.

Several years later, he moved to Kansas City in the late 1970s to work for a musical publishing company. He started doing contract composing work and piano performances on the side, which led to writing and arranging full-time. And he just started his own company, Holmes Street Publishing.

While he considered living in Nashville or Los Angeles, his Midwestern roots kept him close.

"I've lived here for 40 years and I love this town, I consider it my home," he said. "I travel around the world regularly, and this is a place I can get in and out of, but it's a great place to come home to."

His work ranges from from church choir anthems to piano solos, new arrangements of old hymns and even jazz numbers.

While one of his biggest works, "Te Deum," is for chorus and orchestra, a lot of what he writes are individual songs. He can compose those pretty quickly — sometimes it only takes a day or two or, in the case of some songs for a Broadway-style musical, even as little as an hour each.

“When I get in that zone, that creative mindset and just go … it usually works,” he said.

When people ask how he gets inspired, he said he as a flip answer: deadlines.

“But if I had to say just a bit more … and not to over-spiritualize this, but I really do believe that all the music in the world is already in the mind of God,” he said. “And so my job is to be quiet long enough to hear that and let it come out of me with my particular feel or filters or influences.”

His signature style includes his use of tonal harmonies, jazz chords, rhythmic changes, syncopation, modulations and an alteration of melodies. His work has a pop feel, he said, and he loves writing things like black gospel that are soulful and jazzy. Some classical works from his studies at Baylor have also influenced him.

"One of the things I learned every early on as an arranger is that I needed to be able to do all kinds of styles differently, because you can't make a living just writing just writing country-western music as a choral person or high church," he said. "You gotta do it all."

He considers himself to be a commercial composer, he said, so he has to be aware of what people want, what they're listening to and what sells.

"There's always that fine line about me as an artist and what I write ... and then what is going to be marketable. Is it easy enough that a simple choir can sing it? Because not everyone gets to write for the Kansas City Chorale," as he has, he said.

The music he writes appeals more to mainline denominations and churches that are more theologically progressive, where it's important to use inclusive language for God and humanity, he said. That's changed since the 1980s, when he used to write stuff that appealed more to the evangelical church market.

"I feel I like want people to understand God in a bigger way," he said. As he's grown spiritually, his music has mirrored his spiritual journey, he said.

Recently, the Heartland Men's Chorus commissioned Hayes to write a piece to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The premiere of his work, "I Rise," featured poetry by Maya Angelou set to music by Hayes.

One of the 30th anniversary concerts was on the day after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Hayes was at the concert with his partner, Mike.

The concert was very emotional for him, he said.

"There's a part of me that's the musician, the composer, thinking, 'I wonder how my music is going to be received? How does it sound to me? Does it live up to my expectations?'

"But I was also thinking, I'm a part of this community. And even though I don't know anybody in Orlando, those are my people and they were gunned down. And so, this is what I can contribute to the world at this moment to say, 'I stand with you.'"

For Hayes, it's challenging to compose for churches who aren't affirming of who he is. His journey in the 1980s was tumultuous, he said; some publishing companies blacklisted him and churches canceled concerts when they found out about his sexuality — and he wasn't very open about it at that point.

"But as I've grown up, I've figured out, this is who I am, this is who God created me to be," he said.

He's realized that their struggle to accept him is about them, and he's migrated to publishing companies and churches that are more open and accepting, he added.

He wants to write music that speaks to what the world needs now, which is more positivity ... and music that isn't in bondage to all the religious terminology "that some of us has grown up with," he said.

"There doesn't have to be so many rules," Hayes said. "I see God in you and I love you, and I'm not going to judge you at all. And I'm wanting the best for you, just like I hope you want the best for me. I want to make music that says that."

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.