4. Would you describe your experience working with Piffaro and The Crossing?
They couldn’t have been nicer to work with, and from very early on, the process had a family feeling to it. To this I attribute the leadership of Joan, Bob, and Donald, who kept everything going smoothly. George handling the recording had a huge part in this, also. Sehr gemütlich!
I remain astonished by the preparation of all the musicians, and Donald’s handling of all the forces over the days of recording—almost exactly a year ago now.
5. Could one draw links between the Lutheran Reformation and this reformation of the Vespers?
Well, I never would’ve set myself the task of reforming the Vespers service—it certainly doesn’t need any help from me. But I hope there is a link to the Reformation, and the only way I know how to do that is to put myself completely in the service of the text. If I cannot respect the words and believe them I should not go anywhere near them. That goes for any text; I don’t know any other way to write and remain honest. Serve the text, submit to the text, then write what you want. That’s what the Reformation composers did—Walther, Crüger, and later, Schütz and Praetorius and others—so much of it unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. I hope that they continue to reform me.
[I recently wrote the following to a friend and fellow composer, but it applies here. I hope I improved some of the grammar.]: I’m in love with all the words in Vespers. No review has yet mentioned the translations, but I spent hours on those, hours I should have been composing. And making them rhyme, too, what was I thinking! But it all starts there. In “Herr Christ,” there was no plan to take the voices up and drop them out one by one to leave a high soprano by herself. But the words are “thirst for you.” And “thirst for you” made that happen. Donald, by the way, got that right away. He let that hang, and waited a long, long time before starting the last verse. I never had to say anything, it was perfect. I never had to say a word.
I wasn’t trying to bring the Reformation into the 21st century, or the old into the new, or to shape my harmonic language—whatever that is—around ancient instruments. I would have frozen had I thought any of those things. The fact is, I’m in love with the chorales. There’s nothing like them anywhere. And so I set them. I’m in love with chant, and so I wrote some.
But it didn’t happen all at once. First I wrote “Herr Christ,” which goes to 16 voices. When that was done I thought, okay, I like that. But I hadn’t done a thing with instruments.
So I started “Wie schön.” And at ﬁrst it didn’t go anywhere. I struggled with it and it ﬁnally dawned on me that I was trying to write Bach. So I pared it down, kept making it simpler, and rougher. I looked again at Luther’s composers, fellows like Johann Walther, not big names but full of heart and full of the spirit of that time. When I wrote the opening shawm fanfare echoes, so simple, I knew I had it. I put the theorbo in there because of “Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara” and I thought I just want it to sound like a guitar, nothing more than that. A simple guitar and those simple shawms. That was the sound. And then the whole chorale blasted off. Only at that point did I know that I could write this thing.
Then I composed “Veni.” It took so long to get those recorder voicings just right, before the sackbut comes in. And there’s hardly anything going on, just ﬁfths clunked against each other. But when that alto recorder D comes in and blooms, off-beat in the third bar, to me that’s one of the best spots in the whole Vespers because right there is when I knew that I had the right sound-world. That is Renaissance music right there. Piffaro saw it right away. I knew I had nailed it.