Monthly Archives: May 2015

A 3rd Vespers review from Florida


Patrick Dupré Quigley and members of Seraphic Fire

Vespers,” writes Sebastian Spreng in Miami Clasica, El Nuevo Herald (the Spanish edition of the Miami Herald), and Knight Arts, “astonishes the listener.” He praises Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, the Renaissance Band for “the tapestry masterfully woven by angelic voices and rare instruments” at the last of four concerts, saying that the “group headed by Patrick Dupré Quigley was at peak performance level.” Seraphic Fire “proved yet again the virtues of a choral ensemble that reaffirms its artistic growing year after year.”

Spreng thought that “the aural impact” of Vespers was due to “atypical—yet curiously familiar—sounds, harmonies and melodies”…“from Monteverdi and the German Renaissance to the present and a hint of the future.”

For the “resounding success” of Vespers, he said “you could apply a term bastardized in our time through use and abuse, a word that describes it as no other: spiritual.”

Once again I’m grateful beyond words for the marvelous artistry, and the commitment, of Patrick Quigley, Seraphic Fire, and Piffaro.

Read the entire article here.

Memorial Day

[First published in the Broad Street Review, May 26, 2015.]

"Assumption of the Virgin," detail, Frei Carlos (1517-40)

“Assumption of the Virgin,” detail, Frei Carlos (1517-40)

Many people wrote and spoke to me after my brother died. I learned how important it was to hear from people, to hear anything. Any word from a human being was important. That any word was helpful became apparent over the days and weeks because the first thing most people say, literally or in some variation, is this: “I don’t know what to say.”

We stumble over how to put a voice to our feelings when we’re confronted with the grief of another. This is right. We should stumble over what to say. The best thing to say to someone suffering may well be the first thing that comes to mind, which is what comes from the heart: “I don’t know what to say.”

This isn’t a regretted expression of helplessness, though. It’s a fact. We are helpless, and we share that. This is always true; tragedy simply reveals it.

The unimportance of importance

Throughout my years of becoming a composer, I now recognize, I struggled with an added burden. I wanted to be a composer, but I was trying to become an important composer. A few years ago, I stopped that. It wasn’t out of frustration; my music was being performed and (from what people told me) enjoyed. I just noticed that the pieces that worked—I mean, those that really hummed right out of the box, the ones that leaped into the audience—were…how shall I say this?…childish.

I’d prefer admitting to ″childlike,″ but I don’t mean that. There are innocent moments, to be sure, but I mean the simple, even stupidly simple bits of music, the na-na-na-na-na-na bits that just flat-out work, and work magnificently. When I noticed those, when I saw how well they took off, and most importantly, when I stopped trying to change them, it was a breakthrough for me. Whether anyone else noticed or not, I was entering an important phase of composing.

It was important because I stopped trying to be important.

Working out of order

In Vespers—which the Renaissance Band Piffaro commissioned as a project with the new-music choir The Crossing—the opening of the second movement was one such breakthrough moment. I composed that one-hour, 13-movement work out of order. The ninth movement, for voices alone, I wrote first, and I had a glorious time working out the 16-part voicing. Next came the first movement, which is mostly for recorders alone. I was starting to find my way into the Renaissance sound-world and means of expression, but I was still feeling my way through the piece.

I still hadn’t found the key into Vespers. I still didn’t know what to say.

And then came the second movement. It was to be a setting of the hymn “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“How fair and bright the morning star”). It had to be a big statement after the subdued introductory movement. I tried, and discarded, a number of attempts at this big statement.

Beyond bad Bach

It was no help knowing that in the J. S. Bach catalog of more than a thousand works, “Wie schön leuchtet,” his cantata setting of this exact hymn, is No. 1. That was, I admit it, a nagging elephant in the room. Everything I wrote sounded like bad Bach, and out of all the bad-fill-in-the-blank-famous-composer pieces you can write, bad Bach is the worst. Well, bad Bruckner…no, bad Bach is worse.

After a week of head-banging, I was still no closer to solving Vespers, when out of desperation I closed my eyes and tried to picture what would happen in the concert after that soft introduction. Ah: a blaring fanfare, and, aha, on the instrument which, out of the entire Piffaro instrumentarium, is the antithesis of the recorder: the shawm, the loud double-reed shawm. All those pictures of angels playing those long, straight wind instruments? Those are shawms. I came up, on the first try, with six utterly childish notes—na na na na na na—that a shawm would play as a fanfare.

Let me get back to that

I didn’t stop to think what marvelous transformation I could produce, because I used the notes as a bookmark, thinking that I would change them down the line. I simply overlapped the same notes onto a second shawm. Then I repeated the overlapped phrases, but with a couple of faster notes, and did it again with a couple more thrown in. The rest of the band punctuated, the singers came in on the hymn, and before I knew it—I was composing. And I never did change the notes.

I had solved Vespers. I stopped trying to be important, or wise, or Bach, and “Wie schön leuchtet” flew onto the page. The rest of Vespers followed.

I didn’t care if it sounded childish. I didn’t care if it sounded like I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t care, because I didn’t know what to say. If people respond to it, that is, if it goes all the way in, it’s because it comes from all the way in. “I don’t know what to say” comes from the heart.

The ultimate sacrifice

On Memorial Day, we remember those who died for our country. We call it the greatest sacrifice, and that’s true even though the ones who died didn’t want to die, even for their country. It’s true especially because of that. They went ahead and did it anyway, even though nobody wants to die.

No, that’s not true: Some people want to die, some people take their own lives. To the ones they leave behind you say, “I don’t know what to say,” and the ones left behind nod, and look you in your eyes, and acknowledge the truth they hear from you. They know it, and they love you from all the way in, for your stumbling and for your saying something that’s not wise and not important.

Streetscape on Now Is the Time

AmericanPortraitsIt’s all spontaneous fun this weekend on Now Is the Time, Saturday, May 23rd at 9 pm. Paavo Järvi conducts a substantial orchestral work by Charles Coleman, Streetscape, then Patrick Beckman plays his own Funky, from his all-piano CD Street Dance. On the CD Dream Streets violinist/composer Cornelius Duffalo performs with an imaginative use of electronics; we’ll hear introduction and cosmic clouds.

From a piano concerto whose movements are all in the key of D, Stefania de Kenessey has assembled a solo piano work Spontaneous D-Combustion. Charles Coleman returns with another Järvi, Kristjan, conducting his Absolute Ensemble in Young Worlds.

from Charles Coleman: Streetscape 

Charles Coleman: Streetscape
Patrick Beckman: Funky
Cornelius Duffalo: introduction and cosmic clouds
Stefania de Kenessey: Spontaneous D-Combustion
Charles Coleman: Young Words

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

A 2nd Vespers review from Florida

vespersGreg Stepanich writes in the Palm Beach ArtsPaper, May 10th 2015, on Saturday’s Vespers performance by Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, the third out of four concerts ending Seraphic’s 2015–15 season. In one of the most detailed and perceptive reviews of this work yet (he knows his Giovanni Gastoldi!), he says, “The merging of a Renaissance wind band with 21st-century American choral music is an idea that may sound odd on the surface, but composer Kile Smith showed it could work, and work beautifully.”

Calling Vespersan absorbing and fascinating piece, with lush choral writing and imaginative use of the seven-piece Piffaro ensemble,” he considers that “the combinations of voice and ancient instruments were remarkably atmospheric,” and that

Smith’s choral language is rich, sweet but not overripe, and crafted with emotional intensity. He likes word-painting, as one could see by following along with the text, and in both the instrumental and the choral writing the harmonic language grew steadily in complexity and color until it presented an almost palpable representation of faith.

He justly praises Patrick Quigley, Piffaro’s playing throughout and in their instrumental set-pieces, and for Seraphic Fire, “the singing was ravishing.” For the Magnificat, Stepanich especially mentions the canonic singing of the three exquisite soprano soloists Kathy Mueller, Jolle Greenleaf, and Jessica Petrus, “singing something of a written-out echo; the central melody had a sinuous, perpetual-motion elegance as it floated above harp and theorbo, giving an effect of a constant magnifying, an endless song of heavenly praise.”

He concludes his review this way:

This was an unusual and very rewarding concert, one that introduced South Florida audiences to a prominent early-music group and a fine American composer, and also demonstrated that music of deep faith written according to a hallowed tradition is as alive as it ever was.

Read the entire article here.

Vespers Review in South Florida

SeraphicVespersDavid Fleshler writes in the South Florida Classical Review of last night’s performance of Vespers by Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band.

Describing “the unique tone of the Vespers by American composer Kile Smith,” he writes that “the work sounds like no other music,” and goes on to say that it’s “a serious, ethereal and searching setting of German and Latin texts…the words…inform every note.”

He mentions details from the score, and has this to say about Vespers overall: “The work spans centuries. In style and cadence, it has much in common with 16th-century choral music. Harmonically, with its soaring polyphony and gentle dissonances, it could be from any time in the past 80 years or so. The predominant tone is reverent and serene. There’s never a sense of the composer trying to awe the listener into spiritual submission through sheer choral grandiosity.”

Piffaro, Seraphic Fire, and artistic director Patrick Quigley receive genuine and deserved praise for their riveting and finely-honed concert. I was thrilled and moved by their performance, and happy to have found new friends in South Florida. St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral is beautiful, with a bright and exciting sound. Three more concerts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in other venues, details of which are here.

Seraphic Fire, Piffaro, and Vespers: A Preview

SeraphicVespersWhat a nice preview of the four Vespers concerts in and around Miami this week with Seraphic Fire and Piffaro, the Renaissance Band. I’m so excited to work again with Piffaro, and honored that Patrick Quigley and two-time Grammy nominee Seraphic Fire, an outstanding group that has fast made huge waves in South Florida and beyond, have chosen Vespers as their 2014–15 season finale.

Piffaro commissioned this one-hour work; the 2008 premieres, and the recording and subsequent performances have been with The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally, who also brought it to Northwestern University’s Bienen Contemporary Ensemble with Piffaro earlier this year. Individual sections of Vespers have been performed by a number of groups, either a cappella or with piano or with various arrangements I’ve made for other instruments.

Eric Simpson’s preview in the South Florida Classical Review of the concerts in Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Ft. Lauderdale is a well-written, in-depth look at our collaboration of old instruments and new music. About my music he writes:

There is an unmistakably modernist harmonic language in Smith’s writing, but Vespers shows none of the academic opacity or pop influence that is heard in much contemporary music. This is a piece rooted firmly in the tradition of the Lutheran Renaissance—-not just in its form, but in its sound, which Smith tailored specifically to the abilities and historical instruments of Piffaro, all of whom play multiple instruments.

I think I’d better keep last month’s In This Blue Room a secret, since he might have to delete “pop influence” from that sentence! But it’s not in Vespers (except for one or two dulcian licks), so I’m obliged to his generosity. He goes on to quote Patrick Quigley:

“What I think is most fascinating about this work is just how reverent it is to older traditions,” said Quigley. “How attentive it is to the really wonderful things and the limitations of Renaissance wind and percussion and plucked instruments, and at the same time managing to sound like something that was composed yesterday, in an accessible, gripping sort of way.”

“From the first moments, it felt like there was this simultaneous inspiration from Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach, and John Adams all at the same time,” said Quigley. “In many ways it is able to channel four hundred years of music instantaneously.”

I’m touched by that. All instruments have limitations, but I know what he means. I’m delighted by his appreciation, and by being mentioned with those names.

You can read the whole article here, with more about Seraphic Fire, Piffaro, and my inspirations behind Vespers.

Unseen Sounds on Now Is the Time

PrismSingingGobiWe can almost see the music on Now Is the Time, Saturday, May 2nd at 9 pm. Robert Moran took snippets of words from a 30-year correspondence with John Cage and worked them into this delicious three-part work for chorus, Seven Sounds Unseen.

Nicolas Scherzinger spins musical motifs within a chamber ensemble and imagines what they would sound like if held up to Fractured Mirrors. The particular sand of the Gobi Desert, they say, sings when the wind blows a certain way. Bright Sheng conducts two ensembles in The Singing Gobi Desert, Music from China and the Prism Saxophone Quartet, with whom he imagines hearing the sand and viewing a mirage—the archetype of seeing and not-seeing.

from Robert Moran: Seven Sounds Unseen 

Robert Moran: Seven Sounds Unseen
Nicolas Scherzinger: Fractured Mirrors
Bright Sheng: The Singing Gobi Desert

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At 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!