Tag Archives: Piffaro The Renaissance Band

Hitting a Brick Wall

[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]


This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.

No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.

Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.

Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.

When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.

As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.

And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.

A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.

You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…

A Mighty Fortress.

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhhdahhhdahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.

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.

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.

Red-tail and Hummingbird "The two most interesting portions of the program"

Michael Caruso reviews the Orchestra 2001/Piffaro concert in which Red-tail and Hummingbird was played twice, adding a beautiful word about Vespers.

The two most interesting portions of the program came on either side of its intermission. Prior to the interval, Piffaro’s shawms, sackbuts and dulcians played Kile Smith’s Red-tail and Hummingbird. Following the break, it was the chance for a brass quintet plus bassoon from Orchestra 2001 to perform the Philadelphia-based composer’s score. Piffaro’s musicians played without a conductor while Smith led the modern players.

Piffaro then paired an excerpt from Smith’s Vespers (commissioned in 2007) with Praetorius’ “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” Played from the church’s loft, the sound of the old instruments floated out over the audience as it must have done in centuries past in the Praetorius and with a sweetness in the Smith that reminded me just how lovely a work his Vespers truly is.

Michael Caruso, Chestnut Hill Local, 8 March 2013

LocalArtsLive on Red-tail and Hummingbird

Sharon Torello is an active observer of Philadelphia’s music scene, a great booster for all things music here. She points out that this is not a “critical review,” but rather “the viewpoint of a ‘regular member’ of the audience. I think her comparison of the early and modern instruments is about as good as it gets.

“Kile Smith’s Red-tail and Hummingbird followed in the first of two performances. Piffaro played first and Orchestra 2001 repeated the performance following an intermission. I had read Smith’s wonderful blog series that described the inspiration and creative process for his work. This greatly enhanced my experience in hearing it for the first time, and provided me with visual images to match the music. The first thing that struck me was a new appreciation for the talent of the Piffaro musicians. Of course, when Smith composed the work he needed to make sure it was playable by Renaissance instruments, but they are notoriously tricky and temperamental, so I never expected such a rock solid performance. Orchestra 2001’s modern instruments provided a more refined version of the piece that helped me to appreciate not only the beautiful tones of the modern instruments but their fine dynamic control as well. The musicians enhanced portions of Smith’s work through crescendos in tight formations that were not apparent with the ancient instruments. Truth be told, however, I preferred the ancient instruments. Their more rustic construction made for an edgier sound, and since I’m not as familiar with their sonority, the new piece sounded even newer with old instruments. Go figure.

Music next emerged from the rear of the church as Piffaro surprised us by setting up in the choir loft. They performed old and new music again with another work [“Steht auf, ihr lieben Kinderlein!”] by Kile Smith from Vespers.

Sharon Torello, LocalArtsLive, 26 Feb 2013