Monthly Archives: July 2010

Where flames a word, July 2010

For the last Month of Moderns concert, Donald Nally included Where flames a word with works by Paul Fowler, Lansing McLoskey, Frank Havrøy, and David Shapiro. I loved the premiere performances of Where flames last year; this year was even better. Donald seemed to move the piece along in places without speeding up the tempo—an Einstein thought-experiment, that. At least that’s how it sounded to me. But it became so much more conversational, while losing none of the intensity and quality of sound The Crossing is known for.

One thing surprised me that I hadn’t noticed before. In the concert and at the recording sessions the following week this occurred to me: these 22 singers can get loud. Not wild, wobbly, shouty loud, but serious wheelhouse power, controlled. When Donald calls for it, and just when you think they can’t possibly give any more, they slip into a fifth gear and leave you shaking your head and smiling. This happened a few times, in my piece and others. It may seem like a silly observation—that they can sing really loud—but when you hear it live, silly it’s not.

Yes, yes, they can sing soft, too!

In the July 19 Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick Stearns wrote:

Frank Havroy’s Psalm, David Shapiro’s The Years From You to Me, and Kile Smith’s Where Flames a Word (all Celan-based pieces heard Saturday) were mercurial in manner and form, and they shared a harmonic sense in which innovation was born of intense expressive necessity. At times, the fusion of words and music was staggering.

Shapiro’s fine piece (which was a premiere) was full of dreamy motivic echoes. Smith’s peaked emotionally with a soprano-section outburst on the words, “I understand, I do…” suggesting a profound union of souls. Performances were particularly savvy with a clarity of diction that revealed the singular progression of each piece, thanks to conductor Donald Nally.

The recording sessions went very well. The CD, of all Paul Celan-based works, mostly from last year’s Month of Moderns, will be released on Navona. The Crossing will turn heads with this.

Encore performance of Where flames a word

The Crossing’s premiere of Where flames a word last year received such great feedback that they’re singing it again this Saturday. My setting of Paul Celan texts will be on their Month of Moderns (MOM III) season finale, Saturday July 17th, 2010. It’s at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill at 8 pm.

The very next week, we’ll be recording this and the other Celan Project commissions, for a release on Navona Records. The NEA has funded this with a matching grant, so if you’d like to contribute toward the match, there’s more information here. Just heard their MOM II concert of Kamran Ince, Francis Pott, Lansing McLoskey, James MacMillan, and Gabriel Jackson, and they’re astounding as ever. Looking forward to Saturday night, which includes their Levine Project commission of a new Paul Fowler work.

This Broad Land

This started as another piece with another title. Ursinus College asked me to compose a short work honoring President John Strassburger on his retirement, and the key to the piece came from his own writings. In his essay on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he makes a point about the flexibility of Lincoln’s poetic voice. Strassburger quotes these words from an earlier Lincoln speech, the first inaugural address of March 4th, 1861:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

There’s a piece here, I thought. “The better angels of our nature” became the focus and title, and I composed a chant-like beginning to an ethereal work. Trouble started, though, when I started hearing chords under this chant-snippet, two chords, actually, the tonic in root position followed by the tonic in first position,

an unremarkable progession, but heard to great effect in Puccini’s La Bohème*


all the way to the piano coda of Clapton’s “Layla,”**


with, I confess, #2 sticking in my head the most. So, this was a chant no longer, but a tune with accompaniment. The angels slowly ascended to another (perhaps future) piece, and as I worked out the tune, it became less angelic-sounding, less ethereal, and broader, more determined.

The angels ushered in other spirits, though, the spirits of Gettysburg and Independence Day, whose anniversaries were barely a week after the 26 June 2010 premiere. It may be making too much of it, but I feel that this is a peculiarly American work, inspired by Lincoln, echoing a British guitarist immersed in Southern rock, and an Italian opera on a French subject, written for the Midwest-born president of an originally Pennsylvania German college.

Bassoonist Jeffrey Centafont accompanied by John French performed this with great sensitivity, and I was almost overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception by those assembled for President Strassburger’s honor. I’ve already transposed this for performances on soprano saxophone, and believe that any number of instruments might play this successfully.

* To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know what that second Puccini chord is. Sometimes it sounds like a tonic major 7th (with that tonic E delayed all the way to the third beat), and sometimes like a simple mediant (with that melodic E just a pedal holdover). It depends, as with much chordal analysis, on your point of view, I suppose, which is why I bother with chordal analysis, I suppose, very seldom.

** In the lead sheet that 2nd bar is a Cmaj7, but I always hear that with E in the bass, don’t you? And actually, I read that the coda was written by drummer Jim Gordon.