Tag: choral music

Go Tell It To The Choir—A Report from ACDA

Part of the Salt Palace building with a large sign for ACDA

A late night view of part of the Salt Palace where the 2015 ACDA Conference was held.

I had been told that last week’s gathering of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) in Salt Lake City, Utah, would be the largest national music convention held in the United States. More than 10,000 people were in attendance two years ago in Dallas when the ACDA held their previous biennial convening. The event had attracted not only directors of professional, amateur, church, and school choirs from around the world but also tons of singers, publishers, and composers of choral music. This time around, thanks to a newly added composer track at the conference (organized by Steven Sametz) and a greater emphasis on new music, even more composers and new music aficionados were expected to show up. According to ACDA’s associate director Craig Gregory, counting conference registrants, exhibitors, members of performing choirs and their chaperones, more than 12,000 people were there. (The only music convenings I can think of that are larger than that are those of the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA), which is not national, and MIDEM, which is international.)

Anyway, suffice it to say, it was incredibly crowded at the so-called Salt Palace (officially the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center), even though it boasts more than 500,000 square feet of meeting space and feels larger than most airports. In fact, many of the local hotels were completely unequipped to handle the onslaught. There were several reports of attendees showing up to the hotels at which they had confirmed reservations only to learn that all available rooms had already been booked. A promotion associate from one of the large music publishers reported that another conference registrant was given the same room assignment as hers and unknowingly barged in on her. When I showed up about 1:00 a.m., I was also assigned a room that was already occupied; luckily the person who arrived there before me remembered to bolt the door and by 3:00 a.m. they had found a new, empty room for me to get a few hours of shuteye before the whole shebang began early the following morning.

Continuing the airport comparisons, waiting in line to officially register and then in another to pick up conference materials resembled the check-in and TSA lines during the busiest time at O’Hare, but ultimately ACDA was way more efficient. Even though there were so many people, it moved pretty fast, though admittedly this is perhaps because no one had to take off their shoes.

Two long lines of people and carts filled with score packets

Waiting to pick up score packets after registering for ACDA.

But, before I get into any greater details about the sessions I attended, here’s Steven Sametz explaining the thinking that went into the composers’ track.

Excited to plunge into new music-focussed sessions from the very beginning, I jaunted in a mad rush up one level and what seemed like a half-mile down various corridors to attend the first one on the schedule, called “Thirty-Something: New Choral Music by Today’s Hottest Young Composers,” which was to be hosted by Dominick DiOrio, a Bloomington-based composer and conductor who leads NOTUS, Indiana University’s Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, due to numerous flight delays (ah, those airports again), the session was postponed for later in the day during a time I was unable to attend, although I did get to hear DiOrio lead the fabulous singers of NOTUS later that week. More to follow on that later.

Meanwhile, not wanting to waste time, I zoomed into the first room where a session was taking place and—as luck would have it—I stumbled into a fascinating discussion about barbershop quartet singing featuring live demonstrations of various techniques by The Fairfield Four and Crossroads. One of the central themes of the presentation was how what we now instantly recognize as the classic barbershop sound derived from an earlier African-American quartet singing tradition which involved a greater use of microtonal intervals—yes, I was in heaven here—which got straightened into equal temperament when white groups appropriated it. Perhaps an even greater takeaway, however, was a comment made by one of the presenters about how valuable barbershop quartet singing can be in schools since it “brings out the best in imperfect voices.”

Circle of men in white shirts singing together.

I later heard some impromptu barbershop harmonies near the booth of Barbershop HQ in the exhibition hall.

From there I ran to the ballroom to hear the legendary 82-year-old Minnesota-based conductor, composer, and new music advocate Dale Warland being interviewed by 28-year-old composer/conductor Jake Runestad who has been a rising star in the Twin Cities choral music scene. Warland, who has been one of the most active commissioners of new choral music, spoke about the very first piece of music he commissioned, from Jean Berger in 1953, before he knew that commissioning a composer required a payment. He said that “money shouldn’t be an obstacle” and there is always a way to make a piece of new music happen, imploring the audience “to keep the art alive and to take risks.” He was proud that there are now “15 full-time composers in the Twin Cities; 50 years ago there was only one composer who wasn’t part time and he was supported by his wife.”

Sadly, following that, a scheduled conversation with Jake Heggie was also cancelled since he had caught the flu and decided not to travel, but an afternoon talk to a room packed to capacity called “Integrating Technology in Choral Music” by Christopher J. Russell, who maintains a technology in music education blog, more than made up for the loss. He began with a provocation and an analogy that was difficult to contradict: “Are you here to learn or are you here to change? You wouldn’t go to a hospital that looks the same way now as it did 50 years ago.” Then he systematically went through eight ways in which choral directors could integrate elements of technology into their rehearsals and performances that would make the experience more efficient and, he claimed, more exciting for younger audiences. He was particularly passionate about using digital musical scores instead of physical sheet music and was prepared to ruffle a few feathers when he argued that it was better for a chorus to perform with a MIDI accompaniment than a live pianist if the pianist or piano was sub-par. I kept wondering throughout his talk how a chorus that was more comfortable using technologies he was advocating for such as NotateMe, SmartMusic, Weezic, and Kahoot could be persuaded to be more comfortable performing newly composed music rather than the old classics. He might write about this for us later this year. Stay tuned.

The highlight of events the following day was a master class by composers Steven Sametz, David Conte, and Robert Kyr in which the three finalists in the ACDA’s Brock Student Composer Competition (Nathan Fletcher, Connor M. Harris, and Cortlandt Matthews) had their pieces discussed by the three mentor composers and performed by NOTUS led by DiOrio. Conte spoke persuasively about thinking like an orchestrator when writing for chorus—which he called “chorestration”—and Sametz spent a lot of time focusing on specific issues when text setting—being aware of the relative audibility of text in various registers—and making sure that what was on the page was performable without help from an “interpretative conductor.” It was another well-attended session. My only disappointment, which could have easily been remedied by other conference attendees and people in that very room, is that the three mentoring composers, the three composers being mentored, and the choral conductor (who frequently added his own advice from the podium) were all male. There could have been a greater ethnic diversity as well. In 2015, this seems far more anachronistic than singing from an octavo, which is exactly what every group I heard perform at ACDA did, pacé Chris Russell.

I spent quite a bit of time wandering through all of the exhibitions and meeting with various composers there, among them a young composer/organist Julian Revie who is in residence at the St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale.

It was particularly intriguing to learn from Nebraska based composer Kurt Knecht about the new promotional platform for composers he has set up called Music Spoke.

And then there was the actual music. A particular standout performance was by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in Abravanel Hall, which is usually the home of the Utah Symphony. Though their hour-long program took place in the middle of a hectic day of conference sessions, they made time stand still with their magical interpretations of works by their compatriots Arvo Pärt and the late Lepo Sumera, plus a stunning post-modern take on the music of Gesualdo incorporating electronics by Australian Brett Dean. Sadly, no American composers were represented. That evening, a long line circled the Mormon Tabernacle and stretched outside the iconic Temple Square to experience a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This Grammy and Emmy Award-winning 360-voice volunteer choir was founded in 1847 and since 1929 has performed on a weekly radio show, which is one the longest-running broadcasted programs in radio history. While new music is not the centerpiece of MoTab’s repertoire, they did devote a portion of their program to American music, which included their orchestra playing an excerpt from Morton Gould’s 1941 Spirituals, as well as a hymn composed by the current MoTab music director Mack Wilberg. There were also several arrangements scored for a large antiphonal handbell ensemble, which sounded somewhat surreal. Though almost everything performed on the concert ended in a bombastic climax, they waited only about a second or two before proceeding to the next selection, the audience having been instructed in advance not to applaud until the very end of the program.   And applaud they did, for what seemed like the same duration as most of the selections.

The exhibition booth for the Mormon Tablernacle Choir

The 2015 ACDA Conference offered attendees not only an opportunity to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but to sing along with them as well.

The members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were also the stars of ACDA’s exhibition hall back at the Salt Palace. Placed directly in front of one of the two entranceways to the exhibition area, their booth maintained a perpetual video loop that alternated between a brief documentary history of MoTab and the chorus singing “Amazing Grace” for which ACDA attendees were invited to join in and be green screened into the video singing along after which they were then given a file containing their “performance.” Throughout the conference, there was usually a line of folks waiting to have this post-modern musical experience—one person I witnessed even turned around and started conducting them. I wonder what she’s going to do with that video clip.

On the third day there were two back-to-back sessions in the composers’ track, both of which merit some mention here. The first was about composers who conduct and conductors who compose and how in the choral community the line between the two is often quite porous. David Conte, who moderated the session, pondered whether Bernstein’s advocacy for Copland on the podium was ultimately more significant than Copland’s mentoring of Bernstein as a composer. He also spoke at length about Robert Shaw revoicing a chord in a Poulenc choral work, a revision that bordered on being compositional. While Conte and Karen P. Thomas, who leads Seattle Pro Musica, were both composing music long before they began conducting, two of the other participants—Steven Sametz, who leads The Princeton Singers, and Eric Banks, who leads The Esoterics (also in Seattle)—confessed that they were conductors long before they ever considered themselves composers even though both are now very actively writing music. Sametz, who described walking out of his only composition lesson at Yale, claimed he was a “closet composer” for over a decade, at first just writing pieces to fill holes in programs he conducted. Banks is also completely self-trained. There seemed to be a general consensus during the session that academic training is damaging to composers, particularly to composers interested in writing choral music. In addition to being a composer and conductor, Fahat Siadat, who arrived halfway through the session, recently added publisher to his range of activities. His company, See-A-Dot Music, grew out of his work as a conductor and was started as a way to advocate for some of the other composers he met through his involvement in the NYC-based group C4, the Choral Composer-Conductor Collective.

The latter session, called Composers Speak Out, offered an even broader range of perspectives from composers spanning several generations. Alice Parker, who will turn 90 this year, boasted that she only writes a piece of music if she gets a commission, saying, “I never want to write something that doesn’t get performed. You don’t cook a big dinner and then find people to eat it.” She further commented that she does not think of the music of the future, only the present.

Japanese composer Ko Masushita, who also divides his time between composing and conducting, spoke about how precious his composing time is. Norwegian-born and now USA-based Ola Gjello (b. 1978), who was the youngest composer on the panel, talked at length about his compositional process. He works mostly in Logic, improvising ideas which he then bounces onto mp3s and listens to far away from his studio, walking around outside: “I try to put myself outside my music as much as possible.” Carol Barnett perhaps made the most polemical statement of them all:

Music is an art of nostalgia. Nobody is writing completely new music. You’re always referencing something you’ve heard before.

While that philosophical position seems diametrically opposed to the impetus for perpetual innovation and revolution that has long been de rigeur in many quarters of the new music scene, it seems to more and more central to musical aesthetics in the 21st century.

Julian Wachner: Transcending the Sacred and the Profane

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
As the director of music and the arts for Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner wears many hats. The 45-year-old composer, conductor, organist, and pianist oversees the music-making at this Lower Manhattan Episcopal house of worship, navigating both what the extremely versatile Trinity Wall Street Choir sings during religious services and a broad range of secular concerts held both in the main church and in St. Paul’s Chapel, which survived the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center across the street. But while religion is central to his musical as well as his personal life (he is a practicing Episcopalian and his wife, Rev. Emily Wachner, serves as a priest at Trinity), he also is a regular conductor for the PROTOTYPE Festival, earlier this month conducting Ellen Reid’s Winter’s Child. (His own opera Evangeline Revisited was showcased on the New York City Opera’s VOX series in 2010.) And in February he will conduct Charles Ives’s 4th Symphony and a rarely performed Alberto Ginastera choral work at Carnegie Hall.

“For me, all music is meant to induce a transformative experience upon the listener. … I want it to be life changing,” exclaimed Wachner, when we spoke with him at Trinity’s office shortly after the start of the New Year. He actually sees it as “moral responsibility of the compositional craft and the performative craft as well.” In booklet notes he wrote for the first CD devoted to his vocal music conducted by someone else, a 2010 Naxos disc containing both sacred and secular choral music performed by the Elora Festival Singers under the direction of Noel Edison, Wachner described an often-perceived schism between music he calls Apollonian (either music for worship or academic music) and music that is Dionysian (popular music or theatrical music including operas and ballets). His own aesthetic inclinations, he pointed out, have led him to ignore this schism and to freely mix approaches that have traditionally been polar opposites.

Cover for Naxos American Classics Wachner CD

This is in no small part due to his family background, how he first became involved with music, and how that involvement led to his own personal religious awakening. He describes his parents as “sort of California hippies” and remembers that there was “no religion in my life at all.” His mother “grew up Catholic but totally rejected that,” and his father had a Jewish background but was also a non-practitioner even though Wachner learned from his paternal grandmother, who had been a strong influence in his life, that among his ancestors “were all these chief rabbis in Germany.” But there was another important influence—a musical one. Wachner’s stepfather Robert Cole was a conductor and served as Michael Tilson Thomas’s assistant at the Buffalo Philharmonic during Wachner’s childhood. “So I had that whole world of post-Bernstein energy,” he acknowledges. An early piano teacher of his recommended that he sing as a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, so he started doing that at age seven.

“It was really just a performance opportunity,” Wachner explains. “When I went there, I thought of my identity as Jewish, even though I had never been bar mitzvahed or anything like that. But it was understood that that was what I was and it was cool with everybody.”

Wachner holds framed memorabilia as FJO looks on.

Wachner shares some family memorabilia with FJO.

But a few years later, he had an epiphany. By this time, he had moved to New York City and was singing with the St. Thomas choir:

Part of it was the music and the power of the liturgy. But the other part of it was the actual mission and message. We would sing the Byrd Mass in Five Parts and this incredible music by Howells, but then we’d go out and feed the homeless. That was part of our training. That whole gospel message really resonated and I became an Episcopalian at age 11 or 12.

After his conversion, however, Wachner remained deeply involved with a great deal of music outside of the Christian sacred repertoire. In high school, he even played in rock bands while sporting a Mohawk and an earring. “As I went through life, I had always a sort of wilder side and a more conservative side,” he confesses. At the same time he was immersing himself in the downtown rock club scene, he was composing his first polyphonic mass, a Missa Brevis for chorus and organ; he points out that “the Sanctus of it is has almost an ‘80s pop ballad chord progression which comes from the Depeche Mode/Smiths/Howard Jones world I was living in during that period.”

Wachner holding a page of music manuscript with a electric keyboard and a bust of J.S. Bach on top to his left.

Wachner studying a score in his studio.

That 1987 mass, which appears on the Elora Festival Singers’ disc, sounds more secular than parts of his ethereal cycle of Rilke settings, Rilke Songs (2002), or even his 1998 E. E. Cummings-inspired cycle Sometimes I Feel Alive, despite their texts. (Both of which also appear on that recording.) For Wachner, finding the sacred in the secular is as important as finding the secular in the sacred. In fact, he believes there is a fluid continuity between the arts, the sciences, and religions—all religions. That multiplicity of perspectives is something he aspires to tap into as much as he can in anything he composes or performs.

My definition of sacred is so liquid that I am able to interpret everything in that direction in the same way I see everything as theater as well, how action follows action and produces some kind of response or result. … I’ve been drawing on not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but also Islamic, the Buddhist world, the Martial Arts, as well as the scientific. I’m also a Feldenkrais practitioner. For me embracing all that is available to us now is actually a sacred act. The gift of intelligence and curiosity and seeking is a God-given act, if you want to say that, or that humans are endowed with as part of our make-up.

Cover for Musica Omnia Wachner 3-CD set

Wachner’s “little c” catholic interpretation of faith is the inspiration behind all of the music that is featured on a 3-CD set devoted to his vocal and instrumental works released last year on Trinity’s own Musica Omnia label. The track list includes extremely flamboyant settings of psalms, a majestic symphony, and a powerful trumpet and organ duo, Blue Green Red, whose only immediate sonic relationship to sacred music is that it features a pipe organ. Also included is Wachner’s over-the-top arrangement of the ubiquitous “Joy To The World” by George Frederick Handel (a composer whose sacred and secular works he has frequently conducted and whose own balancing of the sacred and secular is perhaps the most famous compositional precedent for what he is doing).

Yet despite his own musical omnivorousness and his firm belief that any kind of compositional technique can serve both sacred and secular music, Wachner admits that he approaches sacred and secular music differently as a performer.

“In terms of musical language and compositional technique, I think it’s all available to both areas,” Wachner explains. “In terms of what’s off-limits, I haven’t really found that yet. I interpret work theatrically; I tend to do that with everything. But if I were to do a sacred work in a liturgical setting, I tend to downplay my physical performance. I do that to draw more focus to the specific theater of the liturgy and not the theater of me as performer. I tone down my gestures; it feels more appropriate to temper the extremities. For me temperance comes in the performance; in the creation of a piece of music, the possibility of using everything at my disposal adds to the ecstasy of it and those ecstatic moments are the high point.”

Wachner standing in front of seven framed portraits on a wall.

As the music director of Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner is part of a long lineage of music directors and vicars at the church. Pictured behind him are portraits of seven of Trinity’s previous vicars.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, Parts 10-12: Stick to Texts Even Though It’s All About the Music…Actually, It Isn’t

“Do you remember…?” is how the song starts. AlleeWillis was writing a song with Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire and thought that the nonsense phrase “Ba de ya” was Maurice’s place holder. She kept thinking they were going to change it, but they never did, so “Ba de ya, say do you remember / Ba de ya, dancing in September / Ba de ya, never was a cloudy day” stayed, and “September” became one of EWF’s biggest hits.

Songwriters can change lyrics, but composers generally don’t, unless we collaborate with a librettist or a poet on a new work. I’m guessing that, because of the two-edged sword of copyright, we mostly work with old texts by dead people. Our choice, then, is limited to what texts we decide to set.

In church music we have that choice, too, up to a point. We match, say, an anthem or hymn text to one of the many church themes, knowing that it will fit somewhere during the year. (We could use more Doubting Thomas anthems, by the way.) Even in liturgical music, there are numerous texts in a variety of traditions. But they’re written, if not in stone, at least in a tradition, so once we choose a part of the liturgy to compose music for, we have to stick to it.

10. Stick to the Text

What a good education this has been for me. The “21st night of September” follows “Do you remember” in Earth, Wind & Fire’s song only because they already had “remember,” which rhymed with “September,” and “the 21st” fit better than all the other dates of the month. (Willis said they tried them all.) The intro was already finished, and the “greatest lesson” in songwriting, she says, kicked in: “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
musical setting of Alleluia
But composing to a locked-in text upends that. Take the example I mentioned in the first essay, the Easter Alleluia. “Alleluia. Christ being raised from the dead will die no more; death has no more dominion over him. Alleluia. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. Alleluia.” Three Alleluias sandwiched around the words of Paul in Romans and the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John. Those were the words for the Fifth Sunday of Easter in the liturgy we were using. If I were to write an Alleluia verse for that Sunday, those were the only words I could use.

That’s the deal. My job, reversing the songwriter’s, is never to let the music get in the way of the text. If I don’t like the words, I can find a church whose words I do like, or I can find another line of work.

But assuming I go ahead and set it, whence the music? Well, I dig it out of the words. I don’t shoehorn them into whatever musical idea I happen to have at the moment. I don’t start with a groove, but with words, and dig, and dig, and dig some more, until I lift up the words with the music I unearth. With all that digging, I’d better enjoy it. More than that, I have to fall in love with it, just like with any text I set. I fall in love with the text, or I don’t bother setting it.

11. It’s All About the Music

Still, I’m a writer of music, and the text, in this case, is the way to get there. Words are not to be worshiped. Composers pretty much manhandle them, in fact, elongating syllables and pulling words out of their natural state. Even in a short piece like an Alleluia verse I may repeat a word or a phrase, as long as I don’t muck about too much. (The people have just stood up and are waiting for this to end so that the Gospel reading may commence.)
Score featuring musical setting of the words "truth and the life"
Music in church has been a great reminder to me, therefore, that my writing needs to be efficient and strong. It needs to get to the point, and the point had better be a good one. I’ve never liked oohs and ahs in music, and now I think I know why. They’re weak. Sometimes you want a sonic cushion, but I’d much rather get it from the text itself than from a mercenary ooh hired from outside. “Alleluia” has lots of vowels, and therefore lots of built-in cushions should I want to use them that way. Those triple leading tone D-sharps against the E fall on the word “truth,” as ooh a moment as you could have.

Once I see the text this way, as a carrier of musical information, I can get beyond the words and to the music itself. There are a myriad of ways texts suggests this, of course, with rhythm and accent and consonants and so on. All of these factors change, depending on my reading, and so a vast musical landscape opens up as I fall deeper and deeper in love with the text. I move things about, finding even deeper meanings as I move through the text and discover that I am no longer reading but composing.

12. It’s Not About the Music

And composing is what it’s all about, right? Ooh, no, actually. Church music is about church. I have to get on with it, I have to hit my marks, and then move on—like an actor, and it’s much like theater in that sense. Things more important than music are going on. They didn’t invent church to provide me with composing opportunities.

So what about composers who have nothing to do with church? What about me, when I’m not writing for church?
Well, just as they didn’t invent church for composing, neither did they invent choirs or organs or string quartets or orchestras for composing. But without composing, we say, there’d be no music and no orchestras. Of course, but people don’t get together and play—and people don’t get together and listen to other people play—because they love composing. They love something else, something inside, around, below, and above themselves. They love…that’s it; they want to love. Even if they don’t know it, they want to love.

Composing has to serve that. We have to serve the words and what they want to say. We have to serve the notes and where they want to lead. We have to serve the performers, how they play and sing and how they ought to play and sing and how they want to play and sing. They want desperately to sing to each other and to the listeners. We serve listeners, performers, words, notes…everywhere we turn, there are double basses and parallel fifths and altos and more, to love and to serve.

Listen to a cello and an oboe as they serve each other, as they match a quintuplet in a duet, as they listen, lead, and follow at the same time. They cannot do that without love. The listeners in pews or concert halls lift their faces to the music; their minds race ahead and follow behind at the same time. A leading tone desperately wants to resolve up—but, maybe, not this time; maybe this time there’s a deeper resolve.

All these we think of as musical choices, but ultimately they are not. They are choices to serve, choices to love. I keep having to remind myself of this. For me, in these twelve lessons and in many more things I’ve tried to learn about composing, I’ve learned them most neatly in church music. When it’s late and when I’m tired and when for hours I’ve been composing, I have to remember that it’s not about composing. I have to ask myself, Do you love? Do you serve? Do you remember?

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Parts 7-9): Write Faster; Hear It, Change It; Churches Do Tons of New Music

Image of a clock with additional hours

Photo by Bin im Garten via Creative commons on Wikimedia

Say yes. A busy drummer I know—a busy drummer/band founder-owner/recording engineer/audio engineer/p.a. engineer/d.j./contractor/recording-studio-booker/instrument-renter and did I mention that he’s busy?—once told me that he just says yes, and figures out how to do it later. That’s how to get work, whether it’s composing work or any other kind. The people who are busy say yes. Figure out how to do it later, but say yes now.

Often, especially when we’re starting out as composers (but not just then), people come to us because they’re desperate. It may be their lack of planning, or their failure to get someone else. Maybe they’re cheap and they’re hoping that we are, too. Or maybe it’s because they’ve said yes and they’re just wondering if we’re part of the figuring-out part.

So we think about the finances, but the truth is, we don’t improve as composers unless we compose. Whether the job comes our way from desperation, friendship, or dumb luck, it probably has to be done right away. To get the work, we need to say yes, and to keep the work, we need to produce. But to produce, from what church music has taught me, we need to write faster, rewrite when necessary, and write for the people who actually want new music. If we do, our music will keep getting performed and performed well.

7. Write Faster

A deadline, like the hangman’s noose, concentrates the mind wonderfully, and churches have been helpfully suspending a perfectly knotted deadline each and every Sunday for a couple thousand years. Liturgical churches offer an ever-changing buffet of themes and sung texts each week, translating to a menu of deadlines for introits, psalms, verses, prayers, anthems, and instrumental set-pieces.

Repeated rehearsals, in an ideal world, are—what’s the word?—ideal. The director probably schedules four weeks of them for anthems. But smaller pieces will be run once at, say, the Thursday night rehearsal and just touched up on Sunday morning before the service. This Thursday/Sunday turnaround (and Sunday/Thursday to compose the next one) is an educational goldmine for the composer. Writing a four- or eight-bar verse, or a chanted unison introit over two or three chords, is efficient, practical, and a priceless apprenticeship. Writing it so that a choir can snag it in one pass, then polish it in one or two more, may go unnoticed by the choir, but will turn the director into a lifelong friend.

We love our ideas, but having ideas is not composition. Composition is slapping ideas onto paper and working them into a piece. The more we do this, the quicker we get past the idea and on to the piece, and the better at composing we become.
This is the genius of the deadline. We hope for a better idea, and the deadline snickers. It scoffs at chin-stroking, guffaws at rumination, and laughs at mulling.

But we get the last laugh. The quicker we turn out the piece—the more we hit Thursday and hear it Sunday—the quicker the ideas come, the quicker we discard them, and the quicker we slap the good ones on paper, which is where the composing happens.

8. Hear It, Change It

So we cherish deadlines, but what we need most of all are hearings. As a musician may overcome stage fright through repeated performance, we loosen up from hearing our music over and over. At first, we’re mortified over the squeak or the missed entrance or the page falling to the floor or the baby crying. But after we’ve been around the block a few times, we relax. (Okay, we begin to relax.)

This is not only good for our souls, it’s good for our composing. The more relaxed we are, the more we can ignore what can’t be helped and the more we can hear what can. The first-time symphonic composer who’s fit to be tied because the double basses don’t, oh, punch enough, soon realizes—or ought to—that double basses never punch that way. Changing an f to an fff or replacing an accent with a marcato hardly makes a difference. The fault is not in our stars, but in our orchestration, or in the piece itself, but we’ll never know it until we hear it (and sometimes, not until the fourth time we hear it). Hearing your Kyrie every Sunday for a couple of months, you see that the sloppy second eleison entrance (the one that will not fix itself) is—surprise—your fault. So you improve.

We also begin to relax about whom we’re writing for. We’re so trained to use our ears, to laser in on the precise combination of instruments to achieve an effect, that we dig in our heels rather than change our field of vision. But there comes a time when we get over it, and we get over ourselves. If Mozart and Verdi can rewrite, maybe we can run it up the flagpole, too. When the younger brother of the violinist shows up at church with his alto saxophone and the director comes to you because she has to rehearse the bells and it’s 45 minutes before the second service, what do you do? You grab a sheet of blank paper because that’s all that’s around, you draw staff lines on it, and you write out an E-flat part; that’s what you do.
And you know what? It’ll be fine.

9. Churches Do Tons of New Music

The plight of orchestras attracts attention. Perhaps we worry about their commitment to new music, but until we can agree if or how much we should worry, at the very least, let’s think about putting our new music in front of people who adore new music. I can’t think of any institution more committed to new music than the church. It devours reams of brand-new music every Sunday and has been doing this, around the world, for centuries.

Regardless of opinions on what kinds of new music churches do, or should do, the fact is, all churches agree that they should be doing it. They all proclaim, together with multiple biblical admonishments, that they should “sing unto the Lord a new song.” And they do.

Composers ought to write for orchestras, and for bands, and for string quartets in bars. We ought to be on the lookout for any venue in which we can utter our soul’s deepest cry of meaning within meaninglessness, of humanity within horror, of something within us and around us and above us. While we’re on that quest, let’s not overlook the one place—the church—that’s been looking for us. It says to us now, and has been saying, the one word we’ve been wanting to hear:
It says yes.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, Parts 4-6: Make Them Sound Good, Follow the Rules, then Break the Rules

Break the Rules! (photo by Scott Kleinberg) via Flickr Creative Commons

Break the Rules! (photo by Scott Kleinberg) via Flickr Creative Commons

“You write the best alto lines” is among the dearest compliments I’ve ever received, made more so because it was offered to me by an office worker who sang alto all her life in a church choir. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I believed her, although one of my goals as a composer has always been to keep the altos happy. Nor do I equate “church music” with “amateur music.” I love writing for professionals. I treasure the artistry, and the comments, from those who’ve experienced the greatest variety of music at all levels. But the fact is, the non-professional will be the usual musician in a church environment. So when someone who doesn’t do music for a living appreciates what I attempt to do, that’s a special thrill. In the 12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music, this leads me to:

4. Make Them Sound Good
Much choral writing is in four parts. The traditional way of teaching composing, going back hundreds of years, encourages writing the top line first, then the bottom, then the middle. It makes sense. Nailing down the melody and anchoring the bass helps to build a strong sound. I usually write (in bits and pieces) this way.

But Top/Bottom/Middle is three parts, and the result is that altos and tenors are often scrambling for leftovers. Just like hornists and violists who roll their eyes at yet one more “um, bop, um, bop” march or the “wait-boop-boop, wait-boop-boop” waltz, altos wish they had a nickel for every C and G they sing in C major. (The “dominant” scale degree is named for the chanting tone in the old church modes, but it’s also dominant in tonal music because it plugs holes in more chords than any other. When a composer can’t think of anything else to do, flipping a dominant into the alto line usually fits the bill.)

Altos, however, just like tenors, sopranos, basses, and all musicians, want to sound good. They want to sound like they matter, like they’re making music. Professionals want to; so do amateurs. I love the German editions of piano music that proclaim: für Kenner und Liebhaber. For professionals and amateurs, yes, but reading it in another language highlights that professionals (who, we hope, also love music) are those who know, and that amateurs (who, we hope, know a thing or two) are those who love.
I don’t want to jilt them.

5. Follow the Rules
Voice-leading rules exist for a variety of reasons, but school didn’t teach me what might be the most important one. Parallel fifths, we say, destroy the individuality of the line. This is true, as it is also for doubled sevenths, which want to resolve in the same direction to the same pitch. Doubled major thirds emphasize sketchy intonation. Leaps following leaps in the same direction sound ungainly. All true. But the main reason to follow the rules—in the majority of cases and for the majority of ensembles—is that when you don’t, the music is harder to sing.

I’ve witnessed this over and over in choir practice. A piece will break down at one spot. A fairly easy anthem comes to grief in one bar; we sing it again; we stare at it. It shouldn’t be this difficult. But don’t you know, exactly there, a cross-relation monkey wrench, a tenor F-natural following on the heels of a soprano F-sharp. Same or different octave, hardly matters.

Men have to sing parallel fifths in oh, how many anthems. It’s tonal, it’s not fast, it’s not chromatic, yet one or the other or both voices are fishing for notes. Leaving aside the (usually) boorish effect, it ought to, you’d think, lock in. They’re fifths, after all. On paper it looks locked in. But it doesn’t lock in, nope. Sure, the guys get it eventually, with a good will and with good direction. But they have to fight for it. Next week, at the next rehearsal, they fight for it again. When they should be working on dynamics, say, or on another piece, they’re fighting parallel fifths. It’s one more item the director doesn’t need on the to-do list. It’s one more strike against the composer.

The rules are short cuts to easier music-making.

6. Break the Rules

I’ve never forgotten what a tenor said after a rehearsal of a Bach chorus. It was challenging, as Bach often is, and chromatic and snaky and kind of fast and rhythmically akimbo and, well, in German. It necessitated repeated work with individual voice parts. There was a lot of sitting around and keeping quiet (just as hard for volunteer grownups, by the way, as for kids) while other parts sang their lines over and over.

The tenor, thus made to listen to the sopranos, altos, and basses all by themselves, had a revelation. He told me afterward, as we reshelved our music, “That Bach, it’s like he makes every voice line a melody.” My knees buckled. Flags unfurled, fireworks burst, popcorn popped, fish were jumping, and the cotton… I wanted to high-five him. I had no idea what to say, but I looked him right in the eye and said, “Oh. Yes!” He had gotten Bach. He works in a bank, he screams at the Phillies on TV, and he gets Bach.
He gets music. He understands what should be—this I believe—the goal of all music: each line, a melody. Every moment in every voice (whether sounded or not), indispensable.

But to get to there, rules must be broken. The music of Bach is riddled with cross-relations, doubled major thirds, hidden parallels, and galumphing sequential leaps. Well, maybe not riddled, but they’re easy for the motivated freshman to find and present with an “Aha!” to the putatively blockheaded theory teacher. The answer isn’t, as the deserved smackdown often is, “He’s Bach; you ain’t,” as if genius comes with a pass to break rules.

The answer is, of course, that there are no rules. Or better: That there is a deeper rule, and Bach knew it. Location, location, location becomes, in music, the line, the line, always the line. As Aslan says in The Chronicles of Narnia, “The Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still.”

For, despite my schoolmarm finger-wagging above, the point isn’t to have everything easy. The point is to have everything sing.
Keep the altos happy, and find the deeper magic.

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music Parts 1-3—Where You Are plus What and Who You Know

List of four numbered hymns on placard
In choir practice I was shaking my head not because of all the parallel fifths and octaves, not because of the doubled leading tones (and one tripled), and not because of the wacky key (three sharps, but not A or F# minor…hmmmm, E mixolydian, except for those D#s half-cadencing on, what, E over A, I guess). Nor were my lips pursed because I had been singing this almost every year for 15 years yet had forgotten these theoretical hiccups. No, I was shaking my head, pursing my lips, and smiling, because I had composed it, and wouldn’t change a thing.

Believe me, there is music I’ve written over the years that I’d edit heavily if I had the chance, and music that I’ve ritually burned in the fireplace, but this is not one of those. No, this Easter Alleluia verse is a keeper because it works right out of the box. It sits well, it sings well, amateur choirs pretty much nail it from the get-go, and it sparkles “Alleluia” from beginning to end. The choirs in two churches, the smaller one I wrote it for and the larger one I’m in now, just sound good when they sing it.
This little piece, to be sung right before the Gospel reading, sums up almost every reason I can think of to write music. And better than anything else I can think of, writing music for the church taught me how to compose.

1. Start Where You Are

When I’ve been asked how to have a career in composition (it’s actually happened twice), my first thought is to look behind me for a composer who can answer. Seeing none, I’ve said the only thing I can think of: Start where you are. Then repeat.
I started in church. My parents were those types who took their kids to church, which some oddly consider to be more abusive than sending them to school, but while at some point with great enthusiasm I stopped going to school, I still go to church.
Like many composers, I write orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, for any sort of concert opportunity that comes up, but since I started composing I wrote church music because that’s where I was. In the churches I’ve gone to, that meant writing for choir. If I played in a band or a string quartet I’d write for them, but what I know, from the inside out, is choral sight-reading, choral rehearsing, and choral singing in my fair-to-middling but quite untrained bass/baritone voice. (I’ve sung in every school choir available to me, also; I was only, oh, half-kidding about school.)

2. Write What You Know

It’s what Jo March had to learn in Little Women. Prof. Bhaer disapproved of her serialized potboilers, which had no basis in real life. His tut-tutting meant nothing (as he told her), but lunatics, vampires, and “The Sinner’s Corpse” also meant nothing—to her. Even if she made money at it, what was the gain for her soul? When Jo writes the book about her sisters, however, she discovers real writing, real love, and herself.

It isn’t a matter of writing what I know and then moving on to what I don’t know. It’s rather like turning to additional things I know, or rediscovering things I had forgotten. Composing leads me down paths I thought I knew but didn’t—until I walked them. A critic once told me that after a concert, an acquaintance asked him what he thought of the performance. He replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t written my review yet.” Composing is very much like that for me.

The Renaissance wind-band Piffaro asked me to base my Vespers, written for them and the new music choir The Crossing, on the music of the early Lutheran Reformation. They knew that I’m Lutheran and that I adore this music. So I did. But I had no idea what lay in wait for me: I found counterpoint through Vespers. I “knew” counterpoint, of course, the way we learn it, more or less, in school. I had learned it but never really liked it. But a light went on—no: fireworks, cannon, sequential bombs went off—as I composed. I wrestled with my utter ignorance of counterpoint and ended up falling in love with it. I had started with what I’d known—strong chorales and ruddy-faced texts—and ended up in undiscovered territory, right in my own back yard.

3. Write for People You Know

Often we write a piece, show up for the concert, maybe give a talk, and shake hands afterward. Writing for church, however, at first meant, and still often means, writing for my church. That’s a good experience, a very good experience, and a learning experience.

It’s good because I know the choir’s strengths and weaknesses. An average church choir comprises a dozen singers: ten women and two men, typically. One or two women will be legitimate amateur sopranos, meaning they have a high G; A if you’re lucky. Both men are baritones; one sings tenor but shouldn’t. That would be me, by the way. (I’m in a bigger and well-balanced choir now—about 20 with three real tenors!—but that explains why some tenor lines in my anthems go no higher than E-flat.)

It’s very good because I’m writing not for an imagined audience, not for any audience at all, but for a community, my community. They know me, and what we do for people we know is this: we cut them a break. Choirs have gotten to know, and have gotten to like, new pieces of mine much more readily because I was there, singing it with them. After one gnarled moment (maybe that one with the tripled leading tone), I’ll hear, “Thanks a bunch!” but with a laugh. They know I detest descants because I’ve told them. So when I write a descant and confess that this is my penance for having such harsh opinions, that makes it special, and it makes it their own. There’s no gaming, it’s just living together.

It’s a learning experience, this living together, because we discover that there are opinions other than ours, and we have to deal with them. I’ll hear what’s more difficult to sing than I’d thought and, if I’m smart, I’ll figure out why and fix it. But I’ll also hear about things I’d never considered, and that’s where the real learning begins. There are thousands of Alleluia models. But when you hear your own choir, even your own voice, rambling through your own Alleluia, rosy-fingered dawn appears, or fireworks go off, or a light bulb goes on. I may change the piece or just smile and shake my head, but I have at least learned, in community, a lesson. I have learned how to compose.


Photo of Kile Smith

Kile Smith

Kile Smith is Composer in Residence for Philadelphia’s art song ensemble Lyric Fest, the Helena Symphony, and The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, as well as a classical host at WRTI-FM where he hosts the contemporary American music program Now Is the Time and Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection. He is also a Contributing Editor for the Broad Street Review and teaches composition. In addition to his residencies, he is currently working on commissions for The Crossing and other groups.

Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

"Your Second or Permanent Teeth" (anatomical diagram)

From Harrison Wader Ferguson, D.D.S., A Child’s Book of the Teeth (1922).

In his 1547 treatise Dodecachordon, Heinrich Glarean, having lionized the likes of Obrecht, Ockeghem, and Josquin (especially Josquin), made sure—like you do—to despair that the younger generation was ruining everything. To be sure, even Josquin had his infelicitous moments: “in some places in his songs he did not fully and properly restrain his impetuous talent, although this ordinary fault may be condoned because of his otherwise incomparable gifts.” Those coming after Josquin, however, made this exception the rule, as Glarean complained:

The art now displays such unrestraint that learned men are nearly sick of it. This has many causes, but mostly it is because composers are ashamed to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who observed the relation of modes exactly; we have fallen into another, distorted style of song which is in no way pleasing—it is only new.

It was probably coincidental that, for the May 10 and 11 premiere performances of Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the string ensemble A Far Cry preceded the piece with Josquin at his most elegantly, explicitly generational: his “Déploration” on the death of his elder colleague Johannes Ockeghem (in an arrangement by Shaw). But, then again, after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita (the youngest composer to ever receive the honor), Shaw came in for a share of Glarean-like grief courtesy of John Adams, who implicitly held Shaw up as an example of “extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight” music: “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” He went on:

If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.

So to have the “Déploration” on the program, that road from Ockeghem to Josquin to implied musical perdition, was a nice reminder that, if you read even a little history, you see that these sorts of bumpy transitions are nothing new. Music in Common Time is, among other things, a border stone marking one of those most porous yet most impassible of barriers: a proximate, parapatric stylistic divide.

* * *

A Far Cry, seven seasons old, has, since 2010, been the in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where I heard this program on May 11). They are a conductorless gang of energetic fashion. (Their standard-repertoire contribution to the program, Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), was incessantly high-contrast and bracing.) Roomful of Teeth charts a line between musical polish and enthusiasm. Their singing in the Josquin, for instance, channeled the precision of an early music outfit but eschewed the homogeneity: individual voices could still be heard amidst the collective. Both groups are cut from similar cloth: younger-skewing ensembles proficient enough to slip into the churn of the classical-music performance business, and idiosyncratic enough to create the sense that they’re reprogramming the machine. An additional layer of professional and personal connections between the two groups (which Shaw hinted at in a breezy program note) made for a natural collaboration; Shaw’s new piece—somewhat mind-bendingly, her first formal commission—provided the occasion.

Music in Common Time is not quite a concerto, although the eight voices tend to move more as a unified group than the string orchestra, which is frequently divided into distinct factions. An opening stretch—a staggered, rising, arpeggiated triad (D major, picking up where Partita left off)—shifts into the sturdiest of diatonic progressions, then gives way to a vocal break, one of two sections with text: “Over the roads,” the voices sing, in a tongue-twisting interlude of traveling music. (That dialectic, one ensemble gently interrupting the other, happens throughout.) After a bit of folk-tinged, almost Holst-like atmosphere, the opening section returns, only to be undercut by thickets of snap-pizzicato, becoming a conventionally plucked accompaniment, over which the voices embark on a short study in portamento, sliding up and down into pure harmonies.

The center of the piece was engrossing, a negotiation between a perpetually rising sequence of secondary dominants in the strings and faster, descending parallel chords in the voices, occasionally meeting up for chance cadences. It was chased with a brief dose of ringing-partial throat-singing—one of the piece’s few congruences with Partita’s more exuberant kitchen sink of vocal techniques. That led to the final section: first the voices introduced another bit of sentimentally elusive text (“years ago, I forget; years to come, just let them”) set as a sweetly unsteady shape-note sing; then a tranquil standoff of a coda, half the strings staying put while the other half, along with the voices, moved to a different key center.

The overall effect is that of a linked chain, a point-to-point sojourn. Arrivals are based less on contrapuntal resolution and more on the satisfying effect of a particular sonority. (The sound of a widely spaced triad—roots, thirds, and fifths saturating the overtone spectrum—is a recurring component; it also featured in Shaw’s Josquin arrangement, suboctaves from the double basses trundling in to give crucial harmonies a boost of widescreen warmth.)

But what’s most interesting about Music in Common Time is its relationship to style. Current usage of the term “post-minimalist” can be a little squishy, but in a way that goes beyond historical chronology (and to a more immediately apparent extent than Partita), Music in Common Time is truly post-minimalist, at least in the lower-case sense: the structure and gist are not minimalist, but almost all of its building blocks are minimalist signifiers, tropes and gestures that evolved along with minimalist practice. The triad as object; overlapping consonance as a stretched canvas; the chord-to-chord movement of basic progressions turned into scene and act breaks; variation via altered phrase length rather than elaborated melody—all of these figure into Shaw’s rhetoric, but in a way far removed from minimalism’s deliberate, patient process.

The tropes become objects of recognition at least as much as objects of exploration; the garnishes—the Bartók pizzicato, the more exotic vocal excursions, the polytonality—play off of expectations of what we might be accustomed to hearing those other ideas do in a minimalist context. In other words, Shaw is most definitely not observing the relation of modes exactly, at least by the lights of her elders. Which is as it should be. Music always does this, always has done this, always will do this. Music in Common Time is only unusual in the genial straightforwardness with which it repurposes inherited goods.

It reminded me of my favorite piece of curmudgeonly compositional grumbling, coming a century after Heinrich Glarean, when the Baroque era was just getting traction, but was far enough along for Samuel Scheidt to complain about where things were headed:

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times…. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

This is both supremely sarcastic and basically true. It is a remarkably elevated art that is so incapable of settling down, constantly inspiring its practitioners to use the output of one set of rules as the input for a completely different set of rules. Musical style is a moving target. It certainly must be.

New England’s Prospect: Pulvis et Umbra

Mohammed Fairouz’s oratorio Anything Can Happen is a serious piece of music. No, that doesn’t work—“serious” has become far too slippery a word in music, referring in various proportions to tone, or ambition, or size, or merely in opposition to “popular.” (Never mind that plenty of popular music has also become serious, in all its different guises.) So try this: Mohammed Fairouz’s Anything Can Happen—which was given its Boston premiere on March 17 by the Back Bay Chorale, one of the work’s co-commissioners—is a piece of music in which multiple strategies for communicating connotations of seriousness are utilized with unusual skill.

Mohammed Fairouz Photo by Samantha West

Mohammed Fairouz Photo by Samantha West

That’s a little unwieldy, but it gets at the effect of Anything Can Happen, and also its effectiveness as a serious piece now, in 2013, when most corners of culture have become permeated with seriousness’s prodigal sibling, irony. I am not criticizing irony: I think that, over the past century or so, ironic cultural responses have acquired ever-increasing validity. But it does mean that there are a lot of contexts in which seriousness can no longer be taken for granted. It is now incumbent on composers to somehow signal to their audiences the absence of any sort of wink, however rueful. Fairouz, a composer with a penchant for seriousness, has developed one of the more interesting toolboxes in that regard.

It was especially apparent in comparison with the other piece on Sunday’s program, that paragon of classical seriousness, Mozart’s Requiem (in Franz Süssmayr’s completed edition, itself a musicological funhouse of serious intent). Start with the text: the very opening of Mozart’s opus would have been enough to create a serious aura. (No one was writing ironic requiems in Mozart’s day.) The framework of Anything Can Happen, by comparison, is a trio of poems by Seamus Heaney, leading up to the title poem, an evocation of the 9/11 attacks. Even that is not enough to create an automatically serious framework: Heaney’s imagery is oblique, distancing, playing with metaphor in a way that could plausibly be interpreted in an ironic manner as well. Two of the poems are portents: “In Iowa” wrests unease from the sight of a mowing machine, abandoned in the field after the harvest, covered with snow; “Höfn” surveys a melting glacier with strings of hyphenated compounds, Hopkins-esque streams of description flooding the meter. The title poem, too, is layers upon layers. It is a loose translation of a Horatian Ode, number 34 in Book I:

                      namque Diespiter
igni corusco nubila diuidens
plerumque, per purum tonantis
egit equos volucremque currum

In Heaney’s version:

You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky…

The connection to 9/11 is made explicit (“Anything can happen, the tallest towers / Be overturned”), but that’s balanced by the connection to antiquity, the name-checking of the Roman god, the gap between Horace’s Latin and Heaney’s deliberately colloquial English—one mediation after another. Even the source is tricky: Horace’s original is a seeming conversion story, the clear-sky thunder (“per purum tonantis”) jolting Horace into jettisoning his Epicurean ideals in favor of piety; but scholars have argued for two thousand years about whether the ode is sincere or not, whether the literal bolt from the blue is meant to be a warning or an irony.

Fairouz’s frame works multiple angles to banish any ironic ambiguity. The first is textual: he buttresses Heaney’s poems with a pair of passages from the Injeel, the Muslim version of the gospel story. “In Iowa” is answered by the moment of Jesus’s death, the veil of the temple torn in two; “Höfn” by the image of a deluge unleashed by a Lucifer-like dragon. This yokes the poems back into an apocalyptically sacred space. That translates into the music as well. The choral writing might best be described as ritualistic: chant-like, largely homophonic, slow and declamatory. Mozart’s Requiem is thick with imitation—the fugue of the Kyrie, the clipped echoes of the Confutatis. But in 2013, such contrapuntal play is possibly too pleasurably ingenious for a serious atmosphere; Fairouz’s excursions into counterpoint are brief and, one suspects, only to better set up the next massed block of sound.

Mozart’s orchestra is big, colorful, flexible, the work’s seriousness embodied in added trombones and timpani; a full quartet of solo singers is on hand for coloratura commentary. Fairouz, though, augments the chorus with only a single solo viola (Roger Tapping, in this performance), and a solo bass-baritone (David Kravitz). The viola writing is not the long-line melodic thread of Romantic practice, but more motoric, at times a kind of implacable tabulation, be it the cross-string arpeggios of the opening movement, or the winding five-note ostinato that binds the fourth movement. The bass soloist functions more as a cantor or a preacher than as a virtuosic extension of the chorus. (Indeed, much of the soloist’s material is accompanied by choral drones.) Part of this is practical, of course, lowering the barriers, logistical and financial, to performance, but it also felt like a posited alternative to older orchestral luxury—a luxury, perhaps, too well hijacked by film, television, and pop-song aspirations to grandeur.

The major-minor axis, too, is more purposefully blurred than in the Mozart, where a simple D-minor triad is enough to establish the work’s thematic weight. Fairouz is more interested in accent and atmosphere. The melodic material often borrows from Arabic sources, while the harmonic material is more traditionally European—there’s a neat premonitory move that Fairouz uses, particularly in the opening “In Iowa” setting, in which the major-minor inflections in the scale seem to prompt major-to-minor shifts in the harmony. But the tonality is grey, brooding, only intermittently cathartic.

It’s that color that is the work’s most obvious banner of seriousness. The sound of Anything Can Happen is sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful, the depth of sound changing as it goes; but the sound is never bright, never sparkling. Even at its grandest, there’s an overcast quality to everything. A lot of this is in the way Fairouz treats the choral parts—where Mozart might put his widest intervals on the bottom, giving the upper voices clearer overtones to sing into, Fairouz reverses that, most often putting hollow fourths and fifths up top, while the lower voices trouble the waters with more closely spaced parts. (This can be tricky for a chorus to pull off, but the 120-voice Back Bay Chorale, under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett, was confident and precise, every texture dropping into place on cue.) Everything is dark metal and clouds—I thought of the famous description that opens William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, of the sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

The brief of Anything Can Happen is not an easy one: sustain a consistently grim mood, dreadful in the older sense of the word, while still maintaining enough textural interest to carry a half-hour of music. But it works: angry and reflective all at the same time, the piece doesn’t merely assert its seriousness, it explores it, comes at it—like Heaney’s poetry—from various angles. But it also makes plain the qualities necessary to conjure this type of seriousness in an era in which seriousness needs to be conjured, and the qualities are austerity and bleakness.

Horace, in general, regarded the vagaries of life and death with more wryness than despair. Still, every once in a while, he turns serious—and when he does, the colors he draws are those of Anything Can Happen, stark and grey, the imagery of serious intent, then and now. Nowhere is the contrast more acute that in the seventh Ode of Book IV. Horace pays homage to spring, to its warmth and renewal—only, it turns out, to contrast it with the inevitability of death. The “swift moons,” the passage of the seasons, will always make good the losses of winter, but when we descend to the underworld, all that we leave behind is pulvis et umbra: dust and shadow.

Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare: New Season, New Commissions

The commissioning of new works is the life blood of contemporary music. Whether large or small, from consortiums, ensembles, foundations, or individuals, these nods to compositional creativity provide practical support for composers as well as career-boosting validation. Texas Performing Arts and Conspirare are two of the strongest players in the music scene in Austin, and their commitment to the commissioning and performing of new works is significant. Recently, both groups commissioned and premiered major new works within only a few days of one another. Fall is always overflowing with great sounds, and this embarrassment of new music riches, coupled with a bit of mercifully cool weather, made for an exciting start to the season.

Dan Welcher

Dan Welcher

The double string quartet is a bit of a rare avis. If you happen to attend a concert with a new one programmed, you’re also going to hear either the Shostakovich or the Mendelssohn. It’s going to happen. Or you may hear both as bookends to the new work, which is what the audience experienced when the Miró and Shanghai quartets came together to premier Dan Welcher’s new work Museon Polemos. ** The Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet, which preceded the Welcher, featured a common setup for the performers which (from stage right) is the standard quartet configuration (vn, vn, vc, va) but doubled. A little weird, like driving an unfamiliar stick shift, but still quite workable. However, Museon Polemos’ antiphonal requirements not only had the quartets set up opposite one another but also had the viola and cello switch their conventional position such that both groups (when viewed from the audience) were mirror images of violin I, violin II, viola, and cello from the front to the back of the stage on a bit of an angle. I imagine that after a few decades you get pretty used to having the viola right there, so doing a shell game shuffle with the seating positions could be, you know, problematic; something like driving in England with the stick in your left hand, the clutch under your right foot, in the rain, caught in one of those endless roundabouts. Yet during this performance, you’d never know anything was unusual, either from what you could see or hear, all of which was dynamic, compelling, and flawlessly performed. Labeled as a “25 minute ballet without dancers,” Museon Polemos pits the two string quartets against one another in an Apollonian/Dionysian contrast of music and mood with the Shanghai quartet as the thoughtful, cool former and the Miró quartet as the visceral, earthy latter. While the forthcoming Rite of Spring centennial is in the near future, Welcher took inspiration primarily from Stravinsky’s later ballets of the ’30s and ’40s when composing his work.

The Shanghai (top) and Miró (bottom, photo by Nathan Russell) Quartets

The Shanghai (top) and Miró (bottom, photo by Nathan Russell) Quartets

The work opened with a short, sharp tutti chord which contained the harmonic profile of both groups, combined in one thorny punch. This led to an introduction to the character of each quartet, starting with the Shanghai’s bright, clean lines in the violins bolstered by pizzicato in the viola. The Miró responded with sneering, blocky double-stops, violin I rising against accents in violin II. The sabre rattling took the shape of solos with both groups firing shots over the other’s bow until the movement ended, the matter unresolved, illustrated by another statement of the opening chord. The second movement began with Miró weaving a unison line contrasted by chords performed by Shanghai. A solo broke from the unison line, dramatically contrasting and ultimately dominating the chords in the Shanghai. However, before a death blow could be dealt, a slow, melancholy, barcarolle-like motion emerged from the remains of the chords Shanghai had all but abandoned. Miró joined the procession, the music building inevitably to a climax before both groups returned to their introductory material; a quiet ending which left the conflict of the work still unresolved. For the third movement, Welcher pulled out all the stops including rhythmic elements from “Dance of the Adolescents” from part I of The Rite of Spring, his one nod to the centennial. Following the initial onslaught, a calm section provided a break; a gathering of forces for the final push. A Gregorian chant of sorts developed in the violins, pushing forward and mimicking the inevitability of the barcarolle from the second movement. This gave way to big pizzicato lines traded among the players as trills erupted, both providing tension and effectively freezing the forward motion of the work. A high note traded between both first violins was caught in a web of pizzicato and served to illustrate the two groups locked in combat; a conflict neither side would win. Acknowledgement of this dichotomy came by way of another long held chord by both quartets, now spent, which ended the work.




Conspirare is one of the real gems of the Austin art scene. Their recent release, Samuel Barber: An American Romantic, made its debut at #10 on the Billboard Classical Music charts and is the most recent result of their $1 million dollar expanded recording program with the label Harmonia Mundi. Their Legacy of Sound initiative also provides significant funding for the commissioning of new works, and two of those works, If I Were A Swan and To Touch the Sky by Kevin Puts, were recently premiered by Conspirare with the composer on hand. Conspirare’s focus is always on the music, but their presentation is also compelling. As they have in previous concerts, Conspirare began by entering from the back of the room and populating the aisles for the first work, Rene Clausen’s Tonight Eternity Alone. The work began with gentle minor pentatonic melodies slowly cascading as two sopranos broke through, rising above the texture. As the piece closed, Conspirare continued to the stage to perform Steven Stucky’s O sacrum convivium (in memoriam Thomas Tallis). In marked contrast to the Clausen, the Stucky was rhythmically explosive and tonally ambiguous with symmetrical chords sliding up and down in the propulsive texture.

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts

Following the Stucky was the world premiere of the first commission, Puts’s If I Were A Swan. Starting almost imperceptibly, the male and female voices traded staggered entrances, with the women ultimately yielding to rapid sixteenth notes in the male voices on the plosive “puh.” [1] At moments, these sixteenths were (Phillip) Glass-like as they appeared and faded, playing hide and seek as they traded places with other rising and falling lines. An eventual return to the initial texture intimated an ending, but not before the sixteenths reappeared, giving a bright ending to the work. This concert was part of the Conspirare “Signature Series” in which new works are paired with those that have become part of the Conspirare canon [2], so the remaining works on the first half were terrific arrangements of (and new works based on) spirituals. The second half began with the centerpiece of the concert, Puts’s To Touch the Sky. Set in nine movements, the work was described by Puts as his first “mature attempt at writing for unaccompanied chorus.” Based on the concept of the “divine feminine” manifest in many of the world’s religions, Puts found a variety of texts reflective of this phenomenon to use in the work. The smooth polyphony of the first movement, “Annunciation,” acted as a strong counter to the rising chromaticism of the second, “Unbreakable.” The third and fourth movements also had a paired quality, the former driving, pulsing, (recalling the sixteenths from If I Were A Swan) the latter gentle and quite short. The fifth movement was the longest and served as the centerpiece of the work. Initially evocative of early church music, the quasi-modal language and rhythmically simple delivery was quite effective. The 3/4 time signature was largely populated by a half note/quarter note rhythm which anchored the piece as the soprano line broke from the pack, rising as a string of suspensions played out below. Pairings not dissimilar to the opening movements followed, highlights of which were the whispering susurrus of the seventh movement, “Who has seen the wind?” and the high, clean, and pure boys choir quality of the final movement “Most noble evergreen” which, after a few cadential teases, brought the piece to an end.

The final portion of the concert mirrored the collections of spirituals, this time drawing from arrangements of Sondheim and Bernstein as well as folk music icon Woody Guthrie and local favorite Eliza Gilkyson. I attended the show on Sunday, but both Friday’s and Saturday’s performances of To Touch the Sky were recorded by Harmonia Mundi for an upcoming live concert CD. This recording will be produced in collaboration with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with a recording of Puts’s Fourth Symphony under the direction of Marin Alsop.

2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Texas Performing Arts, and this is the 20th anniversary season of Conspirare. Both organizations are shining examples of the world-class art that Austin has to offer; compelling evidence that alongside the spectacular popular music festivals, high-tech industry, amazing food, and dynamic lifestyle, Austin has an art music scene worthy of the world stage.

And these two groups are just hitting their stride.


** Dan Welcher is a professor of composition at the Butler School of Music at UT Austin where I’m a doctoral student.


1. Try it. Puh puh puh puh. It works quite well.

2. Make no mistake; this audience knows its Conspirare canon. The concert program was divided into four sections, some of which had works listed in the program that were not played. For example, the first section had five pieces, of which only three were played. When it was announced that the Tarik O’Regan work I Had No Time To Hate was not to be played, a loud groan rose from the crowd.

Sounds Heard: Volti—House of Voices

The San Francisco-based Volti has been a consistent innovator in vocal music for over 30 years. The mission of the 25-member a capella ensemble is to think outside the box of choral music, and to continue expanding that landscape by commissioning new works and championing the music of living, breathing composers. In its latest CD House of Voices, Volti brings its exceptional musicality to the table once again.

The first piece, by Yu-Hui Chang, uses text from two poems by Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001-2003. Both movements of Being: Two Collins Songs address personal awareness of both the mental and physical realms. However, “Shoveling Snow with Buddha” is energetic, employing contrapuntal lines and conveying the conversational tone of the text, while “The Night House” relays more vertical chordal structures with a rich, though more subdued sound.

Ted Hearne’s five-movement work Privilege is the most wide-ranging and dramatic of the pieces on this disc. As the composer chosen for Volti’s 2009-10 Choral Arts Laboratory, he has asked a great deal of Volti in this adventurous work, and they have certainly delivered. The first and third movements use texts written by Hearne himself, from the standpoint of a privileged member of American society, and the texts of the second and fourth movements are snippets from an interview with The Wire producer David Simon that address the income divide between rich and poor, while the final movement, “We Cannot Leave,” is a setting of an anti-Apartheid Song translated into English. The tart harmonies and sinewy lines of this composition seem to be recorded at closer range than the other pieces, bringing a sense of intimacy to the piece, placing the listener very near the ensemble as if in a small, intimate performance space.

By comparison, the works that immediately follow seem almost conservative, although they are no less elegant. In Daglarym / My Mountains, Donald Crockett attempts to recreate the landscape of Tuva by using melodic and text material from Tuvan folk songs gathered by musician and researcher Katherine Vincent. Crockett stays largely within Western harmonic language in this piece, straying only occasionally into a slightly nasal singing technique during the interpretation of carefully chosen Tuvan words. Eric Moe’s The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away is a characteristically energetic and effective setting of an equally characteristically quirky choice of text dealing with antidepressants that come packaged with… tiny ponies. It’s disconcertingly whimsical and somber at once. As with the Yu-Hui Chang piece mentioned earlier, Wayne Peterson creates two clear, no-nonsense settings of texts by a single poet—in this case, Delmore Schwartz—in this case about the beauty of art and of contemplating the free-spiritedness of childhood as respite from the pains of contemporary life.

The big finish on House of Voices is the 15-minute tribute to the power of the moon, Luna, Nova Luna, by Volti composer-in-residence Mark Winges. This lush, dramatic work combining Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir includes a cornucopia of texts with moon references, and really does travel to the moon and back in its range of dramatic contrast and musical language, laid bare by deft combinations of child and adult voices. Winges is obviously extremely familiar with the voices of Volti, and supremely comfortable working in the realm of choral music in general, as if driving a well-loved car that has been in the family for ages.

Within the choral music world this recording might be considered crazy, heady stuff, but to these ears it is first and foremost inspiring, magnificently performed music. Virtuosic? Absolutely. If this recording doesn’t make every composer who listens to it crave to write choral music, and in particular for Volti, I don’t know what will.