Tag: religious music

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.