Reflection

Reflection. organ, 6′

FredJCooperOrganBook.jpgI was commissioned, along with four other composers—Matthew Glandorf, David Schelat, Kathleen Scheide, and Jeffrey Brillhart—to write a work for the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the organ’s installation.

Although the works were meant to be standalone pieces, we were assigned an order and a description of the types of pieces desired. Overall, the AGO chapter requested music that would serve for as many occasions as possible, not just for the sacred services for which most organ literature is created.

The description assigned to me was “Slow and introspective, perhaps an aria.” The title, Perhaps an Aria, tempted me greatly, along the lines of President Eisenhower’s famous quote to Leonard Bernstein, “I liked that last piece you played; it’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” Bernstein then wrote, of course, his Arias and Barcarolles.

Privately, I like poking fun (and being made fun of in return), but shy away from it in public. So, I turned from Perhaps an Aria and settled on the more neutral title, Reflection. I recall that, in early drafts of the piece, literal reflections of the rising melodic intervals of thirds, fourths, and so on appeared, but except for echoes buried deeply, those did not survive the compositional process. Nevertheless, the title stands, taking its place somewhere between a sacred Meditation and a secular Reverie.

The wonderful organist David Furniss, Dean of the AGO Philadelphia Chapter, premiered this on June 10th, 2017, as part of the Organ Day celebrations at Kimmel’s Verizon Hall. The five works in this Fred J. Cooper Organ Book are published by ECS Publishing to coincide with the premiere. Here, David rehearses the piece on the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ the day before the premiere, and below, the first page of my score, before going off to the engravers:

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The Dance of Ravel and Satie

Satie, Moulin de la Galette (“The Bohemian”), Ramon Casas, 1891

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday June 6th, 5 to 6 pm… In the last Discoveries we took a snapshot of Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Poulenc from 100 years ago. Each was from a different world of French music. Camille Saint-Saëns was old: older than the old guard, older than the director of the Paris Conservatory Gabriel Fauré (his student and Ravel’s teacher), and older, even, than Fauré’s predecessor Théodore Dubois.

Ravel was a great and rising success in 1917 in a rapidly changing mainstream. Debussy (d. 1918) had long since upset traditional tonality and conservatory-approved fugue and forms. Rather than lining up easily charted chords, he composed washes of incalculable harmonies pinwheeling as colors.

Ravel traveled in that same landscape, if not along the same musical road. Even though he gathered many admirers for his lustrous yet precise scores as the years wore on, many still held him at arm’s length. And he still smarted over having been turned down for the Paris Conservatory’s Prix de Rome, not once or twice, but five times. Dubois lost his job as director after the last time and an outcry over l’affaire Ravel broke—all the finalists turned out to be students of Dubois—but the hurt remained.

Francis Poulenc would lead in the next generation. Around 1917 the iconoclast Erik Satie called him and five other composers the Nouveaux Jeunes. Later, a critic coined Les Six. Satie would fall out and in with them, but he, even though older than Ravel, was in many ways their spark. They wanted to be new, not like Wagner, not like Debussy, and not like Ravel.

Maurice Ravel

But what they and Satie and Ravel had in common was dance. Large orchestral works became much more difficult to mount during and well after the Great War. The likes of Ravel’s mammoth 1912 Daphnis and Chloe would not be feasible for a long time. But impresarios like Diaghilev were making a good business of ballet. Artists like Picasso and Cocteau ripped up boundaries and reimagined spaces and angles. Dancers and choreographers created theater (and word-of-mouth) like never before. And composers made music from beat-up pianos, drums, and whatever instruments were at hand.

Exotic stories and myths were popular, as in Daphnis and Satie’s Mercury, but so was nonsense and non sequitur. Each minute-long section of Jack in the Box is in C major. Satie wrote it for piano, then lost it (on a bus, he thought). He died and it was found in his cluttered apartment, behind a piano. One of Les Six, Darius Milhaud, orchestrated it. Dance, and the worlds of French music, lived on.

PROGRAM:
Maurice Ravel (1875–1937): Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 1 (1912)
Erik Satie (1866–1925): Mercury (1924)
Satie: Jack in the Box (1926), orch. Darius Milhaud
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2 (1913)1999

O Thou Who Camest from Above

O Thou Who Camest from Above. SATB, 4 ‘. Commissioned for the 90th Concert Season of the Greenville College Choir and Chamber Singers, Jeffrey S. Wilson, director. The tune is Hereford by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876), the text is Leviticus 6:13 and the hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), is based on the Leviticus verse.

In April 2016 I was the guest composer for the Greenville College Schoenhals Fine Arts Symposium in Greenville, Illinois. At the end of my few days’ residency there, during which I taught classes and heard performances of works of mine, the chair of choral activities Jeffrey Wilson asked me if I would be interested in composing a work for their annual choir tour. They tour every year, and in 2017 they would be coming to Philadelphia and the East Coast, as it happened, during their 90th concert season.

[Live recording from Greenville’s Spring ’17 Home Concert]

I was happy to be asked to write for his excellent choir. Greenville is a Free Methodist university (previously a college, they received university status on 1 June 2017), and Jeff wondered if I might like to arrange this work by the great Methodist hymnodist Charles Wesley, set to music by Charles’s grandson Samuel Sebastian Wesley. I did not know the hymn but immediately liked both words and music, the tune Hereford.

Noting that the hymn was an application of one verse from Leviticus, I decided to set that verse as well, using it to open and close the arrangement. While setting those words, I only then noticed the assonance of its final words “go out” with the opening of the hymn, “O Thou,” so that explains the musical overlapping. To transition back to Leviticus at the end, I added the “Amen,” which in earlier generations ended the singing of every hymn.

Written for a college choir of about three dozen singers, this is of moderate difficulty and workable for any church choir with balanced sections.

[Here is the Greenville College Choir singing it at the WRTI studios, stopping by on 17 March 2017 to rehearse some of their tour concert. Jeffrey Wilson conducts:]


The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out.
—Leviticus 6:13

O Thou who camest from above
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart!

There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze;
And trembling to its source return,
In humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for Thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.

Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat,
Till death Thy endless mercies seal,
And make the sacrifice complete. Amen.
—Charles Wesley (after Leviticus 6:13)

I Could See the Sky

I Could See the Sky. For SATB, 2-part Treble Choir, Keyboard, optional String Quartet, 17 minutes (Treble Choir may be boys and/or girls or a few women)

The editing process is usually severe. Many good things—music, text, both—are often left on the cutting room floor, and you grieve for a moment but you move on. In 2011, I left texts behind when I wrote the song cycle Plain Truths for David Yang and the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. It set the writings of Newburyport authors, professional and amateur, and two years later, when David asked me to expand the cycle, I was able to add more, but still, grudgingly, left some behind. I never really know why something strikes me more or less than something else. Much of it may simply be timing.

If that’s true, then the timing for this new cycle turned out to be crucial. When David called me about writing this new piece, I was driving in my car. I pulled over to talk because I saw his name on the phone and I always enjoy talking to David, who is warm, brilliant, and soulful.

I also was in no hurry. I was driving to my brother’s house, where he had taken his life a few days before. The next day was trash day in his town. The trash cans needed to be taken around to the curb, and that is what I was driving there to do. [I have written more about this here.] So, I was in no hurry to return to the house. I told David where I was driving and he would not talk any more about music or business but only about my brother, and about my family. My older sister Carole had died the year before, after a long battle with cancer. Of the children, Susan, the youngest, and I remained.

Later, when I looked for texts in earnest, the John Lagoulis account of his near-drowning came roaring back to me out of the Newburyport writings I still held onto. I knew I had to set it. Everything else fell immediately into place.

These words, with a poetry that screams from within their commonplace garb, bludgeoned me. There is a little bit of my childhood in each of these, but the Lagoulis pulled them all together. I made that one the final section and dedicated it to my brother and sisters.

For the premier concert David also asked me to arrange something of the Plain Truths cycle for solo organ, so I chose the one most closely aligned in spirit to this new cycle, “Annie Lisle,” and also the rousing “Spirit of Freedom.” I call this new set for organ Ballad and March.


First performance Saturday, 19 August 2017, Central Congregation Church of Newburyport, Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, David Yang, artistic director; George Case, conductor; Newburyport Choral Society, George Case, music director; Greater Newburyport Children’s Chorus, Gina McKeown, music director; the Choir School at St. John’s, Margaret Harper, director; Yonah Zur and Yuri Namkung, violins; David Yang, viola; Claire Bryant, cello; Margaret Harper, organ. Text for Nos. 1-4 from Life in Newburyport, 1950-1985, collected by high school students of Jean Foley Doyle, edited by Jennifer Karin. Text for No. 5 from Newburyport: As I Lived It! by John Lagoulis. Commissioned by and dedicated to the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, David Yang, Artistic Director.


1. The Ide of Jay
Anne Teel

Right near our house, and this does not exist today, there used to be a little boatyard. There was only one boat in that boatyard and that boat was called the Ide of Jay. It was a beautiful sloop sailboat. Every year the Ide of Jay would get launched. It was a very wealthy man that owned it. He would go south with the Ide of Jay and in the fall he brought her back up. They would bring her back up into the shed. And I could remember it was almost a holiday when the Ide of Jay got launched. This huge boat being launched into the water. If they tied her up for a week or two before he left for the south, we would sneak up on her deck and dive off the fantail. I had a wonderful childhood.

2. I had a brother, Harold
Betty Doyle

I had a brother, Harold, they called him “Gramp.” And I had a brother, Norman, they called him “Boogie.” Don’t ask me why. And this was part of the gang. “Goat” Perkins, “Cowie” Little, “Duke” Little, and “Farmer” Hamilton. Years ago everybody had a nickname. There was “Spud” Pollard, “Fishy” Morrill and “Gumdrop” Lawler.

3. We lived everywhere
Bob Fuller

We lived everywhere in Newburyport. Most of my time was spent in the northend. The people are different from the southend; I think this still applies. There’s a difference. I always liked the southend. It was older, warmer.

4. I have lived in this house
Sid Weiner

The square, at that time, was not what you see today. I have lived in this house for eighty-five years.

5. I was looking up
John Lagoulis

I was looking up. I could see the sky and the wharf and my sisters and my brother looking down at me.

When I pulled hard on a rope to bring the dory in, it responded like a spring, the anchor was entrenched. I pulled real hard. A boulder was under the surface. I hit my head. I had a comfortable feeling like sleeping in a bed and had no desire to move. I was lying on my back at the bottom of the Merrimack River.

I was drowning and I didn’t know it.

I saw my brother leap into the water. Jumped right in after me with all his clothes on. He lifted me up with one arm and with his other arm held to the rope and pulled us toward the wharf. My sisters helped. They rolled me back and forth over a barrel. People on the river knew, it was common knowledge among sailors and people.

All my life I have been proud of my brother and sisters.

Peaceful Choral Music by Living Composers

Just ran across this today, but it’s been out there for awhile, apparently: a list of 50 titles on Spotify, Peaceful Choral Music by Living Composers. I don’t know if they’re listed in order of preference, but at #10 is, from my Vespers, the 16-part a cappella Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn.

The recording by The Crossing on the Piffaro CD is also on lists here and here and elsewhere, but another list here has it at #9, linking to this video, by the Virginia Chorale:

It’s uplifting and gratifying to be included on any list with Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre, Morten Lauridsen, David Lang, John Luther Adams, Joby Talbot, Robert Moran, Francis Pott, and on and on. I don’t know how these things come about, but thanks to whomever, and enjoy (“Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” is available separately from Vespers, by the way, and also in English)!

How Do You Compose?

[First published in the Broad Street Review 8 May 2017 as How to Write a Theme Song]

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

By throwing everything out, that’s how. Anyway, that’s the answer I don’t give when I’m asked how I compose. Though it’s true, it sounds facetious, so here’s a recent example, if only to defend myself against the charge of flippancy.

First attempt

I’d never written a theme song, but was kicking around an idea for a new top-of-the-hour 30-second station I.D. at WRTI, the radio station where I work. It had previously been the spoken text alone, the wonderful voice of Dave Conant. We were thinking of bringing in different voices—women’s, other men’s, non-prime-time announcers—and rotating them with the existing one.

When we started Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection (scroll to movement 3 at the link) 15 years ago, I took music from my one symphony and made it the theme. Nine years ago, I did the same with a four-guitar piece when Now Is the Time hit the air. But I’d never composed a theme song from scratch.

Since we’re a dual-format station of classical music and jazz, I thought I’d meld the two into one theme. A piano would serve both, as it’s natural in both. But something else made me choose piano as the foundation for this. I couldn’t ask the station to pay for my experiment by hiring an orchestra, so I’d generate all the music from my computer. The sounds are pretty good, sampled from live instruments, but not as good as the real thing. And of all the samples, the piano, to my ears, sounds more natural than most.

So, I could have a pianistic flourish, peppy to get your attention, but not jarring. Over jazz chords I’d bring in a saxophone—no, a clarinet, also at home in both worlds—for a languorous denouement. A soft background string orchestra would be the combining agent. A little offbeat, with plucked strings for rhythmic punch, a little sweet, and in 30 seconds wrapped up. Here’s what it sounds like.

Second attempt

Not bad, I thought, but after a day or two I hated it. It sounded like a ’70s sitcom, one where the kids fight over who threw the football into the tree, and the car blows a tire on the way to the campground, but everything ends up just fine. It was cute and nothing more. I got to the point where nothing I tried worked. I never got to any interesting chords, the punctuating piano was jarring, and the clarinet never did do anything. It was a boring mess.

So, I threw everything out. Taking out the garbage is one of composing’s most important tactics, although it never feels like a tactic when you’re doing it. It feels awful. Much of the time, awful is what writing music feels like.

Our production manager, a radio guy from way back, got me on track. I played it for him, he listened, and shook his head. “Don’t do a theme. Do a signature.”

“Like N–B–C?” I sang it.

“Yep. A theme gets in the way. We have to play it 24 times a day, remember.”

He was right. I went back and the only thing I kept was the key of D. I made a halo of strings: a D-major chord. My first thought for this signature was to spell out the chord from top to bottom: A-F#-D, but I figured the triad was merely a placeholder. I had that high string halo and the piano picking out the chord. As soon as that ended I landed on a G-major chord, that old standby, the subdominant of D. Now I had drama. I intensified it by keeping the strings resolutely on D major and repeating the signature triad.

From there, I just nudged the bass line along. Following my ear, I moved the G to B. Each bass move was preceded by a ta-dum (I added a soft bass drum and plucked double bass notes). B went to C#, grinding low against the D major, every bass move coupled with corresponding notes thrown into the halo.

The tension increased. The bass C# hopped over the D to E, then hopped again up to G, an octave above where it started. I didn’t think about chords, let alone jazz chords, at all. I just increased the pressure. After 21 seconds, it was time to resolve, so the bass finally settled from G to D, under a slow repeat of the signature.

Funny thing is, I never did change the triad, never made it “more interesting.” I ended with a soft bloom of brass: three trombones and a tuba. The piano rolled out a final D major, and I snuck a lone B into the violins. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s an add-6 chord.

Third time’s the charm

There was one more addition, which you may have heard. When I overlaid it with the voice, I felt it needed more sparkle, so I picked out details with a harp. I also had it click the beat softly throughout, and had the piano hit the offbeat kicks a little harder. I adjusted volumes for inner voices. The final, with Dave’s fantastic voice, sounds like this.

It’s mixed differently for airtime and for different voices, and we deleted the “also available in HD,” which is old news. It was a fairly ridiculous idea to meld (whatever that means) classical (whatever that means) and jazz (ditto). Get people’s attention, don’t annoy them, work the music, don’t get in the way of the voice, create tension and release, and work, work, work the music. That’s how I compose.

And when I don’t, every once in a while, I throw everything out.

Bubbling Up on Now Is the Time

from the CD cover, Juri Seo: Mostly Piano

It’s the spirit of jazz on Now Is the Time, Saturday, May 6th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. We wanted to call #three “Pound Three” but our (increasingly numerous, as the years go by) younger colleagues said, “Hashtag. Duh.” Unperturbed, we contacted the composer Juri Seo (younger than some of our young colleagues), who assured us that saying “Three” was just fine. So there, colleagues. Tune in to see if we pronounced it correctly, but in any case, #three is a rollicking bit of jazz-lick-inspired fun, with riffs tumbling awry among the piano, bass, and percussion.

Allen Shawn performs his own Four Jazz Preludes, which are at the same time lyrical, entertaining, and dearly felt. Philip Thompson brings a big-band feel to a small ensemble in the propulsive yet haunting Separate Self, inspired by fabric sculptures. “Ragtime is in my blood,” says Judith Zaimont, and her Bubble-Up Rag—here, arranged for flute and piano—is a juicy example of her concert rag repertoire. All fun, thoughtful, and brilliant pieces on Now Is the Time!

PROGRAM:
Juri Seo: #three
Allen Shawn: Four Jazz Preludes
Philip Thompson: Separate Self
Judith Lang Zaimont: Bubble-Up Rag

Well, what would you call a piece for wah-wah tubes? Wah by Juri Seo:

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!