Monthly Archives: November 2014

What I've Learned from Church Music

HymnListNewMusicBox, the online publication of New Music USA, handed the guest-blogger reins over to me for the month of September 2014. Of all the things we pondered wherein I might contribute, church music was an underserved area I could help fill in, NMBx thought, for this blog of composers writing, basically, for other composers. So I slid Twelve Things I Learned from Church Music through their transom, three per week.

This page at NMBx gathers them all together.

I might more accurately have called them Twelve Things I’m Still Trying to Learn from Church Music and Wonder If I Ever Will So That I Can Be a Better Composer Whether I’m Writing for Church or Not, but while I hope that I may always learn more, it’s not a point of pride to say that I have learned these, or at least about these, or at least imperfectly.

In starting a new piece I always wonder if I have, in fact, learned anything at all. I’ll revisit these twelve to see what foolishness I’ve committed myself to in writing.

I’ve already posted the four parts individually:

Part 1: Start where you are; Write what you know; Write for people you know
Part 2: Make them sound good; Follow the rules; Break the rules
Part 3: Write faster; Hear it, change it; Churches do tons of new music
Part 4: Stick to the text; It’s all about the music; It’s not about the music

Giving Thanks on Now Is the Time

DillonInsectsAirplanesWe’re thankful on Now Is the Time, Saturday, November 29th at 9 pm at wrti.org and WRTI-HD2. Film composer Victor Young (Shane, Around the World in Eighty Days) was a benefactor of the music department at Brandeis University, so when John Harbison had the opportunity to compose something for them, he wrote Thanks, Victor, echoing “When I Fall in Love” and other great tunes in this string quartet. Lawrence Dillon’s Second String Quartet, “Flight,” evokes flying and fugues, with, among other subjects, Daedalus and Icarus, birds, and paper airplanes.

Daedalus and Icarus also appear in William Bolcom’s Inventing Flight for orchestra, as do Leonardo da Vinci and Orville and Wilbur Wright. Bolcom is grateful for the gift of flight, and we’re grateful for the triumphant collaboration of this composer, his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and librettist Arnold Weinstein in the ever-green Cabaret Songs. The program finishes with a fun, live recording of Vol. 4.

from John Harbison: Thanks, Victor 

PROGRAM:
John Harbison: Thanks, Victor
Lawrence Dillon: String Quartet No. 2: Flight
William Bolcom: Inventing Flight
William Bolcom: Cabaret Songs, Vol. 4

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. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

For His Mercy Endures Forever

ForHisMercyEnduresForeverP1SATB setting of the complete Psalm 136, with the refrain “For his mercy endures forever.” Commissioned by Judi and Earl Reeder, in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary, for the choir of Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Abington, Pa., and premiered there 26 Nov 2014, Thanksgiving Eve. Duration 5′. Pricing.

When Judi and Earl (what a wonderful way to celebrate their 50th!), who sing in our choir (I sing bass in it, often next to Earl; my wife Jackie is the director), asked me about setting this, the challenges that immediately came to mind were two: it’s a long text, and every verse ends with the same words, “For his mercy endures forever.” That’s 26 refrains.

But I was enthusiastic about tackling this. As I read it over again, it started to suggest a solution by breaking into groups of three verses each, mostly. I then came up with three different versions of a refrain, trusting that the variety would alleviate the repetition of the words. The exuberance of much of the text recommended fast—or at least lively—music for the setting, and what I landed on has echoes, I think, of the early American shape-note genres.

The pitches are fairly easy to learn, each line being very triadic in nature. At a brisk tempo, the rhythms start to take on the character of chant, with groups of two and three beats tumbling over each other. The successful reading of this, then, will feel these groups, and will be very mindful of the quarter-note rests. Observing these with great exactness will help to propel the music forward.

O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endures forever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endures forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endures forever.

To him who alone does great wonders: for his mercy endures forever. To him who by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endures forever. To him who stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endures forever.

To him who made great lights: for his mercy endures forever: The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endures forever: The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endures forever.

To him who smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endures forever: And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endures forever: With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm: for his mercy endures forever.

To him who divided the Red Sea in two: for his mercy endures forever: And made Israel pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endures forever: But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea: for his mercy endures forever. To him who led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endures forever.

To him who smote great kings: for his mercy endures forever: And slew famous kings: for his mercy endures forever: Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endures forever: And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endures forever: And gave their land for a heritage: for his mercy endures forever: Even a heritage to Israel his servant: for his mercy endures forever.

Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endures forever: And has redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endures forever. Who gives food to all flesh: for his mercy endures forever.

O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for his mercy endures forever.

Live recording, the choir of The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, John French, director: 

On WRTI Sunday: The Consolation of Apollo, The Waking Sun

earthriseWRTI broadcasts The Crossing’s recent premiere of The Consolation of Apollo on Sunday, November 23rd at 3 pm, with David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. Conducted by Donald Nally, this was recorded October 12th at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square.

Along with Donald’s commentary, the program concludes with the 2011 live recording of The Waking Sun, my setting of the words of Seneca for The Crossing and Tempesta di Mare.

The broadcast also streams at wrti.org.

For a sneak listen to Consolation, click through to the WRTI post here for the brief last movement—the sound in Holy Trinity’s sanctuary is fantastic! (This is also what the Westminster Williamson Voices sang last weekend, under the direction of James Jordan.) Here’s the Boethius text to that final section (all the program notes are here):

The stars shine with more pleasing grace when a storm has ceased to roar and pour down rain. After the morning star has dispersed the shades of night, the day in all its beauty drives its rosy chariot forth. So thou hast looked upon false happiness first; now draw thy neck from under her yoke: so shall true happiness come into thy soul.

The Crossing performs Consolation and The Little Match Girl Passion again, January 3rd in Chestnut Hill and January 4th in Wilmington.

Textures on Now Is the Time

LanskyTexturesThreadsDifferent quartets evoke different textures on Now Is the Time, Saturday, November 22nd at 9 pm at wrti.org and WRTI-HD2. Geology dominates Paul Lansky’s Textures. It’s for two pianists and two percussionists, and movement titles use words like striations, substrates, granite, and round-wound (makes me think of bass guitar strings). Hammering keyboards and lyrical mallets comprise this unusual foursome.

Philip Glass composed a string quartet, his fourth, in memory of the artist Brian Buczak, who died in 1987, and was a friend. The lilting, pulsing music carries a smooth sadness as its predominant Glassian texture; the great quartet Kronos brings this to us to close the program.

from Paul Lansky: Textures 

PROGRAM:
Paul Lansky: Textures
Philip Glass: Quartet No. 4 (Buczak)

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. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The stars shine, at Westminster Choir College

earthriseMy great thanks to James Jordan, director of the Westminster Williamson Voices, for their performance of the last movement of The Consolation of Apollo, “The stars shine.” Their concert Saturday Nov. 15th, “Spiritual Lights,” included music by Bruckner, Forrest, LaVoy, Mendelssohn, Pärt, Poulenc, Stanford, Whitbourne, and a gorgeous new work written for them by Westminster alumnus Cortlandt Matthews.

The Grammy®-nominated Westminster Williamson Voices is named for the founder of Westminster Choir College, John Finley Williamson. The entire concert was a complete delight, beginning with unconducted chant. The sound of their 60 voices was clear, focused, unforced, and exciting. It was thrilling to hear my work on that program. My thanks to them, and especially to James Jordan, who heard the premiere of The Consolation of Apollo last month in Princeton and wanted to excerpt it as the closing piece of his concert.

The Church of the Holy Trinity performance of the entire Consolation by The Crossing airs Sunday Nov. 23rd on WRTI.

Premiere of Mark the Music

ShakespearePritchard

Batik artwork by Laura Pritchard

So many thanks to soprano Jessica Lennick, tenor Eric Rieger, baritone Michael Adams, and pianist Laura Ward for the rousing Lyric Fest premiere of Mark the Music, a trio using Shakespeare’s text from The Merchant of Venice, which includes the words “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” Complete text, notes, and a sample of the score are here.

This was my musical introduction to Lyric Fest audiences as Composer in Residence.

The song was the closing piece for “Much Ado about Shakespeare,” a concert at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pa. We’re repeating it on Friday November 21st at the Girard Academic Music Program School in Philadelphia.

The actor Jim Bergwall wrote a script which he and Charlotte Blake Alston recited and acted (with the singers and audience) to create a moving look into songs written on Shakespeare texts. Jim and Charlotte are inventive actors, narrators, librettists, and storytellers, and crafted a thoroughly engaging program.

The singers were entertaining and powerful, throughout the music of Britten, Blitzstein, Hoiby, Quilter, Schubert, Vaughan WIlliams, and others. Little surprises of meaning met me in my scena, in which I was delighted to hear new discoveries, brought out by these wonderful musicians. Jessica is busy with lots and lots of singing, Eric, who also teaches at Westminster Choir College, brought his wife and two young children to the concert, and Michael is in the middle of L’italiana In Algeri performances these two weeks at the Academy of Vocal Arts. They were exquisite on Mark the Music. And Laura, well, she just makes the piano sing every time; what a thrill, I can never say enough about her.

[Update: Friday morning’s concert on Nov. 21st at GAMP was given in front of almost two hundred students from there and, brought in for the occasion, Central High. A crew recorded and videotaped the concert, and interviewed the musicians and composer, for a future documentary about the residency.]

Thanks to Laura and to Suzanne DuPlantis for creating this program! Thanks also to the American Composers Forum, Philadelphia Chapter, for supporting these concerts, and to Main Line Reform Temple for hosting us. I can’t wait to get started on the Waxing Poetic song cycle; Lyric Fest premieres that in March.