Monthly Archives: November 2013

Magnificat, from Vespers, with harp and organ

StMarksTympanumThe premiere of the re-cast Magnificat from Vespers takes place tomorrow, December 1st 2013, in the first Advent Lessons and Carols of the season at St. Mark’s, 16th and Locust, under the direction of Matthew Glandorf, at 4 pm.

Since I composed Vespers for choir with Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, I’ve been re-sculpting parts of it for modern instruments. Already, choirs have sung Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern with two oboes (or two trumpets, I forget now), cello, and organ, and early next year, with strings and harpsichord. (I’ve even underlaid my own English translation into the new keyboard-reduced octavo.)

Psalm 113, originally accompanied by two sackbuts and early harp, has been sung a few times with piano (piano!—the Piffarites were aghast, but we’re still on speaking terms). Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn was and remains a cappella for 16 separate voice parts. It has (surprisingly to me, for its vocal challenge) become the most-performed part of Vespers; St. Mark’s will take it up again at its Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols, December 24th, 4 pm.

And now, Magnificat has been transformed from its original 3-dulcian, 2-sackbut, early harp, and theorbo accompaniment to one of modern harp with organ. The voice parts have not changed, including the 3-soprano canon on the Magnificat antiphon. And as if there weren’t enough Lutheran chorales in Vespers, another one—”O Jesu Christe, wahres Licht”—snuck in, set in tenor counterpoint against the final antiphon of the three sopranos, right before everything breaks loose in the Gloria Patri.

If not for this, then for any other reason do try to hear what Matt Glandorf and the choir offers at St. Mark’s sometime. The music there is thrillingly beautiful.

A Kennedy Portrait on Now Is the Time

JFKportraitIt’s an elegiac walk among portraits, surrounding the remembrance of JFK on Now Is the Time, Saturday, November 23rd at 9 pm—our new time, every Saturday night at 9 on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

In Gallery for solo cello, Robert Muczynski takes us past paintings, similar to how Mussorgsky does in Pictures at an ExhibitionA Kennedy Portrait for narrator and orchestra uses the words of President Kennedy and also some from the composer, William Kraft, in this work of exhilaration and hope.

From the CD Portraits & Elegies is Philip Lasser’s Vocalise, poignant music for violin and piano. Returning to the single cello, Andrew Waggoner’s Le Nom (Upperline) is a beautiful reminiscence of his hometown of New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina. John Harbison walks us again through a gallery, but Six American Painters is more about the artists themselves—including Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer—rather than their work.

If you’re new to Now Is the Time, just go to and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top. Day or night, that brings you the classical stream, and at 9 pm every Saturday, you’ll hear Now Is the Time. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM, HD2, or find all the frequencies here, depending on where you are, from the Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Dover. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!

from Philip Lasser: Vocalise 

Robert Muczynski: Gallery
William Kraft: A Kennedy Portrait
Philip Lasser: Vocalise
Andrew Waggoner: Le Nom (Upperline)
John Harbison: Six American Painters

Every Saturday night at 9, Kile Smith brings you Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Softly and Tenderly, Grace University Lutheran

GraceUniLuStephen Self plays Softly and Tenderly at Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis this Sunday at the 10:30 service.

I wrote this short work for solo piano quite a while back, and revised it in 2012. You can read a description of the setting of this old revivalist tune here; for the Broad Street Review I wrote about the revision process here.

Stephen runs a thriving and active music program at Grace University Lutheran, located next to the University of Minnesota and one of the most important hospital complexes in the Twin Cities. Along with choirs and a healing ministry it includes a Composer in Residence program with composition students from UM. I’m grateful that I’m able to participate long-distance in the life of this church on Sunday!

Stopping in mid-air

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 19 Nov 2013, as “It’s all in the timing.”]

fermataWile E. Coyote falling off a cliff isn’t funny. Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, stopping in mid-air, looking down, looking at you, and then falling—now, that’s funny.

Comedy is all about timing. So is music.

Since timing is so crucial, you’d think that music notation—the composer’s language—would be accurate. But notation isn’t as precise as you’d think. It doesn’t speak so much as it hints, points, glances. It does very well relating elements to each other, but all those arcs, lines, and dots plotted on music paper, all the pictographs precisely drawn, and all the foreign terms spelled out, can’t cover the fact that making music is an inexact occupation.

The fermata exemplifies this perfectly. It’s the “bird’s eye” over a note to tell the performer to hold that note. That’s all it says. It doesn’t say how long to hold it.

A musician’s job

A while back, some composers began writing exact durations, in seconds, over fermatas. But in their pursuit of accuracy they missed an important point: Musicians aren’t stopwatches.

Timing how long to stop is what musicians do. Timing of any sort is what they do. Take that away from them and you take the music away from them.

Sure, musicians can pop out rivets of dotted eighths and sixteenths, and they can split a 6/4 bar into 6, 3, 2, or even 4. But like some Einsteinian thought-experiment, they can also linger any old way you want over the second beat in a Viennese waltz and still get to the next bar line in time. And like a sous chef working a clove of garlic, they can slice a septuplet so thin that you can see through it.

Musicians know that the fermata (from the Italian fermare) just means “stop.” They’ll figure out how long.

From a moving train

Besides, musicians know that nothing ever stops, not really. They know, as Shelley put it, that “Music, when soft voices die, / Vibrates in the memory.” So musicians don’t stop notes. They let them go; they release them.

Did you ever notice? Ever look out the window of your train, at the houses and trees rushing by, and then, as you glide into the station—still looking out the window, but now down at the platform slowing to a halt—you keep waiting for it to stop completely, yet it never does?

It’s an illusion from the remembered motion still running past the back of your eyes. But yes, that platform, barely but perceptibly, seems to keep moving.

Over the cliff

Music is a train of notes pulling into the station. Maybe it’s after the first bar of music, maybe at the end of a melody, or maybe not until the very end of an hour-long symphony, but somewhere along the line the composer may place a fermata over a note. That bird’s eye is the composer looking at you—even, if you will, the coyote, in mid-air, looking at you. The music stops…but music never stops. You wait, you wait for the musicians…

See what music is doing to you? It’s making you do something you never wanted to do. It’s making you stop.

This is where the music happens, in the silence, in the space just over the cliff, when you stop running, when you stop chasing. You face the music. Look it in the eye, and it looks back at you. At that moment, you understand. At that moment, you both understand each other.

At that moment, in the mid-air, in the silence, is the music.

Plain Truths 2013, premiere of the new version

NewburyportWhat a blessed community is Newburyport, Massachusetts, briefly seen for four days during the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. On Saturday night, November 16th, in a packed auditorium at Newburyport’s City Hall, the Festival presented my Plain Truths along with other works from its 12-year existence.

Led by that most rarified of ensembles, the string quartet, it was all new music; every work by a living composer, including two premieres, choir, electric guitars, foot-stomping, and sound effects; the audience—not a new-music audience, mind—had a blast.

It was a delight hearing all the pieces. Peter Gilbert‘s Awake and Shine for acoustic guitar and string quartet is an utterly delicious treatment of three hymn tunes, using the gorgeous playing of guitarist Daniel LippelCaptain Samuels Speaks to the Sea, for string trio and narrator, is by Melissa Dunphy, and it was very effective. A local gentleman from the choir narrated, the emotional power doubling by the calm plainness of his recitation.

Cellist, composer, and recovering guitarist Kenneth Woods premiered his Demonstrations for electric guitar and string trio, a wild ride of dueling declamations and nuance. He even put down his cello at one point, and picked up a second electric guitar to mash into Lippel’s virtuosic playing.

Andrea Clearfield‘s Three Tenses of Light used chorus (with soft sound effects including the swishing of fingernails on music folders) with the string quartet. It’s a setting of text by local poet Rhina Espaillat, undulating haikus celebrating the play of light on the northern Massachusetts landscape of marsh, loosestrife, and black grasses.

I could not have been happier with Plain Truths. (More about the piece here.) This was the world premiere of the new expanded version. The changes from the 2011 original version included adding two new songs, and adding chorus to those and to two others (it can now be performed with or without chorus, with string quartet, or with piano). Also, the original was written for the wonderful bass/baritone Jeremy Galyon, but 2013 brought baritone Randall Scarlata to this Festival. So we came up with a couple of optional notes here and there, but that was really the only adjustment.

Scarlata was magnificent, changing emotional color as needed throughout these mini-operas. He has to sing the violent table-slamming of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the eccentric blustering of “Lord” Timothy Dexter, and be both boy and girl in a romance novel. Tender in “Annie Lisle,” haunting in “Remember Meho,” celebratory in “Homing In” and Garrison’s “Spirit of Freedom,” Scarlata became each persona and took the audience on a wild journey through the cycle’s half-hour. His performance was vibrant all the way through; how wonderful to hear him sing these!

Bill Plante, the young-looking nonagenerian and retired Newburyport newspaperman, whose poem I set for “Homing In,” was at the performance. He set the stage beautifully (and effortlessly) by reciting his poem before the cycle started. I was so glad to chat with him after the concert and hear more about the town’s history and renewal.

Jay Lane conducted the Candlelight Chorale in Clearfield’s and my works. They have a charming, well-balanced and warm sound. What a brilliant addition they were to the concert! Communities need such treasures as the Candlelight Chorale.

Violinists Angel Valchinov and Heidi Schaul-Yoder, violist David Yang, and cellist Ken Woods make up the quartet and were superb. With a glowing, supple, and precise sound they were relentlessly good. I had to shake my head at how much new music they were playing, and how bristling and unflagging they were, strong, detailed, and singing throughout.

The Music Director of the Festival is David Yang, who’s a house afire of ideas and energy. Newburyport resident Jane Niebling runs the Festival with David, and with her husband Mark and a bevy of volunteers graciously hosts gangs of musicians marauding through town. She juggles all the never-ending details of concerts, previews, and lectures at a growing list of venues.

I’m fortunate indeed to have been in the middle of all this musicianship, talent, and love, even for only four days. What a community is Newburyport.

Plain Truths tonight


Randall Scarlata

Looking forward to tonight’s concert! Plain Truths—world premiere of the new expanded version—at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival; one more rehearsal in about an hour, with the chorus, then showtime at 7:00, in a quite nice old wooden auditorium in Newburyport’s City Hall.

Also on the concert are works by Peter Gilbert, 
Melissa Dunphy, 
Andrea Clearfield (heard a rehearsal of hers and it sounds luscious), and a world premiere by cellist/conductor/guitarist Kenneth Woods, Demonstrations for electric guitar and string trio.

Ken is cellist in the quartet, with violinists Angel Valchinov and Heidi Schaul-Yoder, and the Music Director of the Festival, violist David Yang. Daniel Lippel is guitarist on the Gilbert, and Jay Lane conducts the Candlelight Chorale in Clearfield’s and my works.

Randall Scarlata sings Plain Truths. He and the quartet simply brought the house down in two of the seven songs at the discussion/preview last night, held at the Maritime Museum. Wow, was that exciting. Fortunate indeed is the composer who has musicians of this talent and love as advocates.

Where Flames a Word, a competition winner

khorikosI’m thrilled to report that my choral work Where Flames a Word is one of the ten winners of the 2014 ORTUS International New Music Competition, for Khorikos, directed by Jesse Mark Peckham. Khorikos will perform this and all the winning pieces March 8th, 2014, at St. Anthony’s in Soho, New York City.

More than 600 scores were submitted from around the globe. After finalists were chosen, the ten winners were selected by members of Khorikos.

A brief music video about each winning composition will be showcased at in the coming months. Then, on the evening of the performance, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners will be chosen through “votes, digital reach, audience feedback and general buzz.” Not sure how that works, but should be fun!

Here are the other winners and where they’re from. I’m proud to be named with them!

Marianne R. Eriksen, Norway
Alec Galambos, USA
Frank La Rocca, USA
Alexander Litvinovsky, Belarus
Guillermo Martinez, Venezuela
Nick Omiccioli, USA
Forrest Pierce, USA
Evelin Seppar, Estonia
Ingrid Stölzel, Germany

Congratulations to everybody! My thanks to Khorikos, and great thanks to Donald Nally and The Crossing, who commissioned, premiered, and recorded Where Flames a Word, on the haunting texts of Paul Celan. More about my piece here, including excerpts from the three movements, but here’s one: