12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Part 2 of 4)

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

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

The second of my four posts is up at New Music Box, the website of New Music USA, as part of my September guest-blog. It’s 12 things I’ve learned about composing from writing church music, so there are three in each of the four post (they say composers are good at math; that’s as much proof as you’ll get from me).

The first three, which you can read here, are:

1. Start Where You Are
2. Write What You Know
3. Write for People You Know

(Just to be clear, just because the title says I’ve learned it doesn’t mean I’ve learned it. I might better have titled it “tried to learn” or “learned about” or even “I’m still trying to learn,” but I hope the point is clear that these are things particularly from my work in church music that I’ve learned which I believe translate to composition as a whole.) In any case, this new post has the next three:

4. Make Them Sound Good
5. Follow the Rules
6. Break the Rules

Next week will be, unless I change my mind:

7. Write Faster
8. Hear It, Change It
9. Churches Do Tons of New Music

Dead Man Walking on Now Is the Time

DeadManWalkingMasks are worn and removed on Now Is the Time, Saturday, September 13th at 9 pm at wrti.org and WRTI-HD2. The flutist and composer Katherine Hoover has greatly expanded the literature for her instrument with genial yet focused music. Masks, for flute and piano, includes the movements Haida Indian mask, Huichol Jaguar mask, Afro-American Death mask, and Clown mask. It succeeds in being charming and self-effacing at the same time.

The mask worn by murderer Joseph De Rocher slowly slips as Sister Helen Prejean visits, counsels, and shows love to him in Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie’s opera from just a few years ago. We have time for excerpts from both acts, including the riveting ending, with his confession and the echo of a gospel song. Joyce DiDonato, Philip Cutlip, and Frederica von Stade head the cast.

from Katherine Hoover: Masks 

Katherine Hoover: Masks
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking, excerpts

Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. Just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware.

Trenton area preview includes Consolation of Apollo

earthriseRoss Amico surveys the opera/choral/vocal season in and around Trenton, mentioning The Crossing’s two concerts at Princeton’s Wolfensohn Hall October 10 and 11 of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion and my new work, The Consolation of Apollo. The concerts are at 8:00, and are part of the Institute for Advanced Study’s Edward T. Cone Concert Series at Wolfensohn Hall. A lecture follows the Friday October 10 concert. The concerts are free but tickets are required.

The Consolation of Apollo is for choir and percussion. It’s 35 minutes long and combines the Christmas Eve broadcast by the crew of Apollo 8, as they rounded the far side of the moon, with selections from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

The Apollo 8 broadcast famously (and in some quarters, infamously) included the recitation by the astronauts of the first few verses of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth….” This text is mixed together with the prosaic chatter among the crew and Houston as they position the craft for what are now iconic photos of Earth.

The concert will be repeated at The Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Sunday October 12 at 5:00, a great space to hear this piece!

12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music (Part 1 of 4)

HymnListI’m honored to be guest-blogging on New Music Box, the website of New Music USA. They were interested in my experience writing music for church, and as it’s not something they’ve delved into much, we thought it’d be a good area to explore.

I’m writing four posts. One will come out each week this September; riffing on all the “Three Things I’ve Learned From…” articles that the Broad Street Review has allowed me to annoy their readers with, I’ve come up with 12 Things I’ve Learned from Church Music.

These are the first three, and you can read them all here:

1. Start Where You Are
2. Write What You Know
3. Write for People You Know

Star Trek and the Dream of Composing

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 1 Sep 2014. Reprinted by permission.]

CaptKirkThe villain had the disabled, drifting starship Enterprise lined up in his sights, and his hand slowly descended toward a button on the console. He held it there for a moment, then dropped a finger down lightly but firmly, as if he were giving a tuning A at the piano. There was a loud whoosh and the monitor in front of him showed a bright ray shooting out.

The scene shifted to Captain Kirk, wearily slumped over his own console. He was grasping the outside edges of it and holding himself up with arms locked. He looked at his monitor and waited tensely. Seconds passed, and when nothing happened, he turned his head, looked up at Spock, and with wide eyes he smiled incredulously. “It worked!” Spock nodded.

I was watching a documentary on the Star Trek movies, which showed clips explaining points the narrator was making. I forget what was being illuminated by this scene, but I do remember that Kirk had re-jiggered something in a computer to make the Enterprise appear somewhere it wasn’t. The villain thought he was blowing up Kirk and the Enterprise, but was shooting into space instead.

Capt. Kirk speaks Swedish

Kirk went on to describe his boyhood to Spock, something from his boyhood that had made him think of this desperate evasion, as the camera panned over his head, taking in the console, a different one from what I had remembered. The two were alone, but this was a different room, not the normal bridge. Kirk’s ancestry was Swedish, which I had forgotten; his monologue included a few Swedish terms for food. At the mention of one of them, Spock’s eyebrow lifted; Kirk smiled, and explained that you have it at breakfast with—and here he spoke another Swedish word.

I kept thinking that they would stop the scene and that the narrator would take over any second, because it had been going on for a while, but I didn’t want it to stop. I noticed things I had never noticed before. Kirk’s hair, for instance. I had heard about a hairpiece, but I could see his scalp through the hair. That was interesting. I was impressed, no, moved by William Shatner’s performance. He’s taken his hits, which he’s riffed on delightfully in his long career, but I have to say that he was completely in the moment, just talking normally, with the merest touch of wistfulness, about growing up.

At a third Swedish term, though, I thought they were pushing it a little, and what was funny, so did Spock. But Kirk wasn’t rattled. Here, he wasn’t talking about food, and from the context you couldn’t infer any meaning. Spock repeated the word as a question, and I thought, yes, of course, this is odd, Spock would probably have memorized the Swedish dictionary or something, why wouldn’t he know this word?

But Kirk shook his head. No, the meaning changes, he said. It isn’t food, it’s drawing a picture, and everybody does it. It’s your girlfriend, he said, your girl then, and as she gets older. “You draw your girlfriend. You keep drawing.” How very odd.

And at this I woke up.

Whence inspiration?

I had dreamed all of it. The scene, its placement in a Star Trek documentary, the narrator’s voice-over, my growing anxiety that the narrator would cut in, and every detail, most of which I have left out: the precise blocking of the actors, the way Kirk sat in a chair and shifted his weight, the sweat on his forehead. A quick acrobatic move mid-monologue and an actual Spock smile should have cued me that this was a dream, but didn’t; it ended where it ended. I’m no trekkie, so I have no idea what Kirk’s ancestry is (if one is known), or what actual scenes or villains or dialogues I’ve conflated.

Perhaps this should be made into a musical work, my own Enigma Variations. Perhaps I should be psychoanalyzed. But what occurred to me most strongly was that I never dream of music this way. I’ve heard composers talk of it, and I’ve envied that gift. Because it is a gift if a composition can indeed come to you just like that, like a scene in a movie, in a dream. What I wouldn’t give to have that! But I don’t.

No, wait, it did happen once. I did dream a piece. The word that came to me while dreaming it, and as soon as I woke up and could still remember it, was “glorious.” I remember almost weeping. I was enraptured by the music, and wrote it down as quickly as I could, in the middle of the night. When I was satisfied that I had captured it, I went back to sleep.

A wake-up

In the light of day I played through it again, and you may guess by the words “in the light of day” where this is going. I’ve written some fairly bad music in my life, and some badly fair, most but not all of which I’ve destroyed. Others may decide how much more I should have rounded up. But no one will ever hear my dream music because it was without a doubt the worst thing I’ve ever invented. I crumpled it up and tossed it out immediately. Its treacle and self-importance out-treacled and out-self-imported any piece, any draft of a piece, any idea in any draft of any piece, that ever I composed. Its badness humbles me to this day, that I am, oh yes you are, Smith, capable of such a thing.

I haven’t dreamed music anymore, thankfully, I don’t try to, and I’m happy just with sitting down and trying to write music while awake. Benjamin Britten said to someone who asked him if he dreamed music that such talk was all nonsense. Nighttime was for sleeping, he said, and I’ll agree with Britten.

I wish I could remember those Swedish words, though.

Philadelphia Premieres: Four Composers, Three Countries

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday September 6th at 5 pm

Anatol Lyadov (1855-1914). Ballade (From Olden Times) (1889)
Ernest Chausson (1855-1899). Two Dances from The Tempest (1888)
Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937). Ramuntcho, Suite No. 2 (1907)
Joaquín Turina (1882-1949). Danzas fantasticas (1920)

Miranda—The Tempest (1916), John William Waterhouse

Miranda—The Tempest (1916), John William Waterhouse

We continue to admire the scope of the Fleisher Collection, with a look at four more works premiered in Philadelphia by the Symphony Club, founded in 1909 by Edwin A. Fleisher. He had traveled throughout Europe to collect all the orchestral scores and parts possible to obtain for his collection, now housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia. A trip for us through three countries provides a good taste.

Anatol Lyadov from Russia and Ernest Chausson from France were both born in 1855 and the works we’ll hear today were composed within a year of each other. In the Ballade (From Olden Times), which Lyadov composed originally for solo piano, he addressed what many other composers were addressing in Russia: music that was specifically, undeniably Russian. Nationalism can have a negative connotation, but the impulse is innocence itself, being the search for your own origin. In music this translates into the search for a folk language unsullied by commercialism and unaffected by outside influences. This going back to go forward, this building of a musical personality on a foundation in your own soil, is musical nationalism, and is heard to warm effect in Lyadov. He orchestrated the Ballade in 1906.

There’s no denying the Frenchness of Chausson, yet he turned for inspiration to that most English of authors—and ironically, the most international—Shakespeare. We’ve looked at The Bard in the Fleisher Collection through Hamlet, Falstaff, Macbeth, and others; this time it’s Chausson’s incidental music Two Dances from The Tempest.

Staying in France but turning to Gabriel Pierné, we find an unexpected connection. There is not a lot of Pierné orchestral music, so this is a good opportunity to meet him through Ramuntcho, also composed for a play. It is filled with the exotic sounds of the Basque region as the smuggler Ramuntcho, in between forays into Spain, loves, and loses, Gracieuse. The play was a success in large part because of Pierné’s music.

He was also a widely regarded organist, being César Franck’s student and successor at the Saint Clotilde Basilica in Paris. As a conductor he led the premiere of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking Firebird ballet. So what is the surprise? Stravinsky’s composing job had earlier been offered to, and turned down by, Anatol Lyadov.

We’ll end this journey with our own excursion into Spain, and Joaquín Turina’s Danzas Fantasticas. As Lyadov and many other composers have done, Turina wrote this work first for piano, and orchestrated it later. He lived in Paris himself for a while, studying with Vincent d’Indy and getting to know Debussy and Ravel. Back in Spain, he composed among other works these dances, operas, and music for guitarist Andrés Segovia.

The sound of Spain is as marked in Turina as is France’s and Russia’s in our other composers today. Edwin Fleisher reveled in collecting as much orchestral music from as many countries as he could, and it would be at his Symphony Club concerts that these works were first heard in Philadelphia.

Organist Diane Bish plays the Gabriel Pierné Prelude on the world’s largest church organ, in West Point Military Academy’s Cadet Chapel:

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 12 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Melomanie CD Release Party, includes Nobility of Women

MelomanieCDReleaseMélomanie’s new CD Excursions is about to be released, with my dance-suite sextet for Baroque instruments, The Nobility of Women on it; the release party/concert is Saturday, September 13th, in Wilmington. All the edits have been finished for about two weeks, and I’m delighted by how it all came out. A special treat for me is that my daughter Priscilla Herreid joins Mélomanie on Baroque oboe.

I’m honored to be included with the composers Roberto Pace, Ingrid Arauco, Jennifer Margaret Barker, and Sergio Roberto de Oliveira on this project, with, of course, the wonderful players of Mélomanie. They bring their energetic and beautiful sound to everything they do, whether it’s in their concerts of “provocative pairings of early & contemporary music,” or in this all-contemporary CD Excursions. Thanks to Tracy, Kim, and everyone at Mélomanie!