Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Belt it, baby! Or not?

Belting is a grand American singing tradition, no doubt about it. Some good stuff there over the decades.
But when did we decide to belt EVERYTHING? AND when did we decide to melisma-ize everything in the pop world? Are pop singers being paid by the "note"? I call it "note" because often their melisma-izing of things like the Star Spangled Banner is so full of "pitchy, dawg" "notes" that really can't be recognized as being true notes or rhythms in some way (Music Theory 101 students-good luck notating the growls, slides, and whines and such in the clip below). Or maybe each and every melisma here, and all the belted grunts, groans, and howls are actually a  display of semiotic genius? I dunno.

Finally there seems to be a push back by more and more people at this weedy garden of pop divas and their imitators. Renee Flemings' performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl was a step in the right direction even if you didn't like the orchestral arrangement. And didn't it seem odd that people were gushing (before the fact) that a "REAL OPERA SINGER" was going to sing at the Super Bowl? " OMG, a real opera singer, I wonder what that might sound like?", seemed to be the question on the lips of every vapid, pop-world oriented person in America. Dang- seriously?

Down below is a post today by the ever insightful Michael Finke called "A Meditation on the Overworked Belter". What do you think of this? I shared this on FaceBook to friends and all my classically trained pals (but many of them also do the pop world , too) agreed with Finke. Not surprisingly "Let it Go" from "Frozen" came up in this FB discussion. I answered back to one comment with "nodes never bothered me anyway"- as in vocal nodes for those who don't know the reference! Anyway, see what you think of Finke's thoughts. Keep in  mind that he isn't against belting at all- just against it being done constantly, and without consideration of the lyrics and the plot.

But first let me present my idea of great belting in service of lyrics and plot- a performance that always brings chills to me, especially enhanced by the lighting at the end, and which doesn't turn into belting until near the end of the tune (and ever so gradually builds into it over about a full minute of singing, starting at about the 2:00 mark). Here is Liza Minnelli in the film version of Cabaret (hey Warner Brothers, hope you're okay with me placing this here).

Here now is Finke's article:


A Meditation on the Overworked Belter by Michael Finke

Before I dive into the topic of “belting,” let me begin by saying that I (like many others) always appreciate the power of a singer or performer that can reach impossible pitches at impossible decibels. It can be a thrilling moment when an actor fires off all missiles into a single word or phrase. But that being said, I have come to wonder if the modern age of musical theatre belting has come to parallel the American stereotype of overwhelming excess.

I know, I know. If a composer likes to write songs strictly for belters, and a singer only likes to perform songs for belters, and an audience wants to hear said singers belting, then what’s the harm? Sometimes such musical moments can function in an immensely cathartic way causing one to rejoice, sob, or somewhere in between. However, like most things in life, too much of one thing can ultimately impair the greater objective at hand.
Belters... let it go. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
Belters… let it go. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Belting, or screlting, or masking-belting-by-mixing, or whatever you want to call it could potentially be seen as an epidemic in musical theatre. Some nights I go out to the theatre and realize I’m being belted at for a solid two hours in which there is no juxtaposition or shifting of tone/ambiance at any point in the show. Now I am the last person to categorize rules when it comes to creating any type of theatre. But I can’t help but ponder the static feeling of hearing “belting song” after “belting song” after “belting song.”

What has lead to this type of environment? Is it the offensive skyrocketing of ticket prices, in which audiences want guaranteed moments that say their money was well spent? Is it the business of pop culture, in which the loudest tend to get the most attention? Or is it the theory that people will always be more dazzled by the flexing of a vocal range rather than the flexing of a thought or idea within a song?
Let’s create a scenario in which you, the reader, are sitting in a room with a musical theatre actor performing a song. The content of the song is about (just for the sake of an example) a woman who just lost her husband. The song is heartbreaking, the performer is equally moving, and the song generally has a reasonable range. But suddenly and without warning, the melody soars high into the stratosphere of sheet music. The performer is blasting all possible sound while sounding absolutely gorgeous. Now I’ll pose a question: is your mind still focused on all that the character is experiencing? Or is your mind focused on how impressed you are that the singer can hit those notes? Or both?

No wrong answer here. But I tend to find myself shifting my frame of mind from the content of the song to the skill set of the singer. I’m not saying both cannot be achieved at the same time, but I do believe it is a very intricate line to balance. And as a musical theatre writer, I’m constantly unnerved by having musical moments result in a muscular distraction (albeit a fun/sexy distraction, but a distraction nonetheless).
Another composer once (harshly) stated that “Some writers use belting as a means of hiding behind their own material.” That statement caught me off guard (as I’m certainly a composer who has asked his actors to hit their fair share of tough pitches). I would much rather phrase the statement in an alternative/productive way – “There’s a time and place for certain qualities of music, and sometimes the choice is in the wrong place and/or the wrong time.”

In old school musical theatre (for all of its glory and all of its embarrassments), the use of vocally charged moments seemed to arrive at very meticulous plot points. A former musical composition teacher once said to me, “The most important note should always be the loudest!” (there are those damn words again! Always or should.) And while those kinds of restrictions rub me the wrong way, I have come to understand it as a helpful tool. Take Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel for example. An incredibly emotionally draining play, Carousel handles heavy topics such as suicide, spousal abuse, misogyny, and a giant pile of pure self-loathing. And yet the one moment you hear any character belt is when the protagonist, Billy Bigelow, is deciding whether or not to support his unborn child or die trying. I’ll reiterate that: he’s either going to support his future baby or die. And that was the one moment in which Rodgers decided, “Yes. Let’s ask him to pump up the volume a bit.” (Not a direct quote, but it’s fun to imagine.)

Cabarets and concerts are a different experience entirely. With an influx of alcohol, social gatherings, and a crowd that sometimes consist of a short attention span, it’s understandable to have multiple singers stand onstage and create as much sound as necessary (although some song cycles/concerts manage to pull off the opposite in the most astonishing of ways, i.e. the works of Ricky Ian Gordon or John Bucchino). But when you’re dealing with a more direct linear narrative, such tools can often backfire.

Every show is different. Every composer is different. And more power to the composer who strictly writes song for belters (and the singers who love the material). However when the most poignant moment in a show can be as quiet as “Send in the Clowns,” “You Must Love Me” or the revelatory concluding duet, “Pierre and Natasha” (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), my brain and my heart are equally dazzled. Many new musical theatre writers are able to capture that somber but resiliently breathtaking aesthetic in wonderfully dramatic ways. Everything from Gaby Alter’s “Deep in February” to Miller and Tysen’s “One of These Nights” can stir a cacophony of emotions, while asking the singers to exercise different parts of their instrument beyond their own vocal chords.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Recap of 2014 ACDA Central in Cincinnati

Here is a PART ONE recap of some of the goings-on at the 2014 ACDA Central Division Conference in Cincinnati last week.

I could only be in town for the first few days- I had to leave Friday late afternoon to get back to Chicago and then Madison, WI for a performance in Madison of a big piece of mine by The Festival Singers, directed by my friend Bryson Mortenson.

I was there early enough in Cincinnati to hear the opening night "Festival of Anthems" at Christ Church Cathedral. This was a wonderful program presented together by the following choirs: The Christ Church Cathedral Choir, directed by Stephan Casurella; The Cathedral Choir of Hyde Park Methodist Church, directed by Neal Hamlin; and the Xavier University EdgeCliff Vocal Ensemble, directed by my friend Tom Merrill as well as the Xavier University Concert Choir, directed by Richard Schnipke.

Tom Merrill

These four choirs sang some great music interspersed by congregational anthem selections as well as readings by ACDA officers Tim Sharp, Mary Hopper, Loren Veigel, and Diane Hires (wow, Diane was choral director at my high school WAY BACK when I was a student and pianist there, not yet a choral person).

I was very impressed by the Christ Church choir- I would assume that all or most of this choir are artistically devoted paid position singers. Everything they sang was spot on, as the Brits would say. Especially solid and artistic were the Parry "I was Glad" and James MacMillan's " A New Song". MacMillan needs to be FAR more known in the US- he is a major talent with a very personal voice. We need more choirs to begin recognizing his talent. Actually Central division directors Tom Merrill and Nancy Menk have discovered him and brought him to the US for wonderful programs of his music.

The selections by the Xavier choirs which were beautifully sung were the Josquin Ave Maria (Virgo serena) and the Purcell "Thou knowest Lord". I am again very impressed by the rock-solid artistry of Tom Merrill's singers and applaud the program he directs at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Congrats, Tom!

The concert ended with a rockin' and rollin' postlude- the "Festival Toccata" by Arthur Banyon, performed by Christ Church's  multi-talented Stephan Casurella  on a pipe organ that had been a bit balky all night (cipher issues which we did our best to ignore!).

 All in all last Tuesday was a great opening night for ACDA Central.

NEXT POST: more recaps of Central Division, even though I am now in Jacksonville for the ACDA southern division, and also did a ton of stuff in between these events- blogging and keeping up is a bear of a challenge!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Convocations at Virginia Commonwealth University

At the invite of Dr. Rebecca Tyree at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA I am doing a very busy two day residency at her fine school. In addition to the two presentation outlines placed here for VCU students (and other interested folks) I will be doing composition consults with young composers one on one as well as working with 3-4 choirs on a number of my pieces. I am very excited to be at VCU Sunday through Tuesday night, and then will trot on down to Jacksonville FL for the ACDA South Conference. Here are the two session outlines:

The Craft of Choral Composing/Arranging: A Door to Creativity

Session Presented at Virginia Commonwealth University by Paul Carey, March 2014
serious and not so serious blog at www.paulcarey440.blogspot.com

Starting Points for a new piece

Parameters- generally need to be chosen in advance of composing:

Often determined by who you are writing for (is it a commission, a group you know, unknown?)

Text/Language; the tone of the text (sacred/secular? serious/ humorous? joyful/sad? modern or older in feel?) Length of piece; a cappella or accompanied; Voicing and potential vocal ranges, also key; difficulty level; length of piece; other issues.

Paramount to all of this- does the text “speak” to you? Will it speak to others? Can you enhance the text's artistry through a choral setting? Will people be excited to sing it and will audiences be excited to hear it? In other words, what is your motivation as a communicator as you start composing?

Questions to ask yourself: Do texts need to rhyme? What kind of texts appeal to you, especially in regard to setting them? Do you like rhyming texts? Do you like short or long texts (to me, I worry about this a lot- can I create a 3-4 minute piece with a poem less than eight lines?). How do you feel about complicated texts, texts with fancy words like “declivity”? http://paulcarey440.blogspot.com/search/label/Gregg%20Smith

More text issues in particular: is it a commonly set text? What can you bring to it? If you are about to create the 4,937th Ave Maria- what might set your version apart!? Do you have something new to say?

Piano accompanied settings: How involved is the piano? How well do you write for the piano? Should the piano double the voice parts- anywhere from never to always? [Give ex. of Janet Galvan's choral series].

Voicing/Key ideas: shall we avoid certain keys such as F, C, G, etc.? What ranges are we going to deal with? What tessituras make singers happy and how does key selection fit into this? Shall we be homophonic or contrapuntal? Shall we always let the sopranos have the melody? [PC: Give example of my most responded to FaceBook comment].

Copyright issues: The magic year of 1922. All works published prior to 1923 are public domain. To even begin to set a copyrighted post-1922 poem you must have written permission to set the text. You should also be requesting permission to perform and publish the work and create an agreement about the publishing scenario (one time buyout for use? ongoing royalty sharing?). Likewise, to arrange a piece of copyrighted music you must do the same as above prior to starting.

Learn the copyright laws as well as you can- it will benefit you to know them. Visit www.copyright.gov
also www.fairuse.stanford.edu Actually read the copyright law- it's quite short! What constitutes a copyrighted work when you compose or arrange [“set in final form”, “lifting the pen from the page”?].

What are the differences between composing a new work and creating an arrangement? What are your ides on this? One key question when arranging, do you have something original you can add; can you find a “hook”, or something else worth noting, that works for the arrangement? To me, arranging is an art and something more composers should be doing. It is also a great entry point for beginners! It can be very satisfying to take something already formed and reform it with your own voice and talents.

My Arrangement of A City Called Heaven

Let's look at my arrangement of A City Called Heaven. This began because of my love for spirituals and my belief that they are an important part of our American musical heritage. I have arranged about ten spirituals for concert use and also included one in a recent large-scale work about the Civil War. My starting point for A City Called Heaven was a recording of the song by the famous African-American soprano Marian Anderson. Her version (with piano) is very straightforward. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtA6tuEhwo4 To set it for choir I would have to come up with something very dramatic and something I could call my own as an arranger. This was an interesting project- it was four years from start to finish [explain why].

Opening- setting the dramatic scene- the hummed a cappella opening is full of deep sadness, loneliness and inner turmoil. The humming is what actually cannot be expressed in words.

First verse- simple setting, unison and piano. The fermatas here and there are a definite element on the piece. They represent the sadness and turmoil- that nothing can progress without some sort of turmoil blocking the way.

 Second verse- a natural progression to two and three part writing (in stretto).

Chorus: the first rising of high intensity dynamics, strong use of unison (and octave) sound, more fermatas which the choir sings through with intensity. This section explodes, especially with my hook for this section- the shocking A flat chord in the piano at mm. 49-50. Finding this harmony was what unblocked finishing this arrangement for me. It was something unique which gave the piece my signature and freed me up to become more creative as I continued working.

Third verse- back to introspection. This becomes very personal for the textual voice. “My mother” painted in heavenly tessitura both for sopranos and piano; “my father” very dissonant for altos and piano. Then more sadness when sisters and brothers also are part of the abandonment.

Final Chorus: same material as before but more complex, including more fermatas. The pause at m. 86 sets the stage for a very dramatic, yet quiet ending. There is a final, a cappella few measures of music which is actually new material as far as harmonies go (my “create something a bit new at the ending” mantra). The song finally ends with some rather ghostly harmonies on the word “home” which closes to a hum and thus connects to the very beginning. The singers sing all the way through to the end (another mantra- “keep your singers engaged” as close to the end as possible).

This piece has had many performances- I think for two reasons. It is very dramatic- it's impossible to not connect to the drama and pathos of this text when sung well. It's also a rarity in that it is a spiritual set specifically for women's voices, not just an SATB setting rehashed for women.

Staying Alive?:
A Talk by a not-yet-dead serious composer about
surviving in today's pop-music world

Session Presented at Virginia Commonwealth University by Paul Carey, March 2014
serious and not so serious blog at www.paulcarey440.blogspot.com

A Composer's Toolbox:

  1. self-confidence, even in the face of various rejections along the way
  2. a great business card
  3. a functional (or GREAT) website
  4. score samples in some form- whether in part or full- online, paper, etc.
  5. getting started: can you actually get to hear your music besides a Finale playback? Enlisting friends, colleagues, your professors, street people, etc.
  6. knowledge of copyright laws
  7. graphite or electrons? The composing process in regard to your tools of notation
  8. learn some counterpoint- you'll be unique!
  9. If you will write choral music, jump into the deep end and read a ton of poetry, collect texts

Getting out there:

  1. sending out scores/recordings, targeting conductors, [does anyone want to listen to a synthesized performance?]
  2. attending ACDA conferences (NafMe, AGO, Kodaly, etc. conferences) What else can you learn there?
  3. is it schmoozing or networking?

More getting out there- publication:

  1. Your view of publication: does publication through various mainstream publishers prove the value of your work? What do you think?
  2. Publish through mainstream publishers? Only “self-publish? Do both? What are the pros and cons to this whole situation today?

Back it up: how do you publish with mainstream publishers????

Submission process with mainstream choral publishers: doing it your way or theirs? [how it should work, and how it often goes wrong]

  1. are you willing to give up control of your copyrighted piece?
  2. Are you willing to do that for a return of 10% of the selling price?
  3. Can you call some of the shots about how this happens?
  4. Goofy stories about the publishing world [anecdotes about Oxford and James, and Reg, missing scores, POOP (Permanently Out of Print), etc.
  5. what are realistic sales goals?

Can you make a full-time living as a “classical” composer today?

My advice, start this as a part-time venture with the goal of getting better and better at it, then see how the world responds to your work. Give it time and be patient. Endure rejection (I save my rejection letters!). Try to be an eclectic composer/arranger- why limit yourself to, say, just sacred music, or some other self-imposed limitation? Consider other types of composing- music for films, video games, etc. Other than teaching music in K-12 or college and side supplemental music jobs like conducting, judging festivals, giving music lessons, etc. here are your possible income streams as a composer:

Commissions (once they become fairly consistent for you this will be your largest income)
Consider writing film music, video game music
Royalties from mainstream publishers
Sales of your own “self-published” music through your website
Giving talks/residencies at high schools and colleges

(I view my 10% royalties from publishers as a promotional item, in other words, even though I resent the low royalty rate, I consider them as my hired help for publicity).

Conclusion: If you think you have something to say to the world through your music, go for it. It sure as heck will be an interesting life! Doing this part-time makes a lot of sense, but that doesn't mean you can't be artistic, serious, and proud of your work.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Here We Go: The 2014 ACDA Central Conference in Cincinnati

I am in Cincinnati (well actually I'm staying in my fave spot in Newport, KY across the river- the Newport Landing area full of restaurants, book stores and such) for the Central Divison ACDA conference. It is danged cold out- but what else is new this year in the middle of our country?

Tonight (Wednesday) there is going to be a ton of sacred music sung at one of the churches here. Looks like a gonzo event, especially for sacred musicians. I'm not up on who is doing the concert but I am pretty sure Howard Helvey and Tom Merrill are involved.

Tomorrow (Thursday) the whirlwind starts off bright and early. I'll be attending as much as I can as well as meeting old and new folks. It looks like a great conference. FYI, my new book of carols for women's voices will be on sale at the Musical Resources booth. Dennis Blubaugh will be running a $2 discount on the book. I hope those of you with women's choirs (appropriate for HS and up, as well as advanced children's choirs) will take a look at it at the booth or over the internet. Those choirs who used it this past December really felt that they enriched their programs with the carols they choose from the book.


Thursday AM Pearl Shangkuan has included Summer Bounty ( the uptempo first movment of my three movement piece "Play with your Food"- one of my bestsellers) in the Intercollegiate Reading Session. This is a great event  (two different sessions)- a large, very talented pool of central division university singers performing music that Pearl has chosen to be featured.

Pearl Shangkuan
 The singers get their packet about an hour before the session- so for them they are on the spot! Summer's Bounty will challenge their skills since there is a whole lot of mixed meter going on. They'll also have to not get distracted by how crazy-witty the words are! Here's the text:

Summer’s Bounty by May Swenson 
berries of Straw apples of Crab beans of Lima
berries of Goose apples of May beans of Jelly
berries of Huckle apples of Pine beans of Green
berries of Dew apples of Love beans of Soy
berries of Boisen nuts of Pea melons of Water
berries of Black nuts of Wal melons of Musk
berries of Rasp nuts of Hazel cherries of Pie
berries of Blue nuts of Chest cherries of Choke
berries of Mul nuts of Brazil glories of Morning
berries of Cran nuts of Monkey rooms of Mush
berries of Elder nuts of Pecan days of Dog
berries of Haw nuts of Grape puppies of Hush 
You can learn more about the piece and hear Steve Zielke's excellent choir sing it here:
Many of you may know "Play with your Food"- it is published by Walton and contains the middle movement "Mashed Potato Love Poem" (hey, would you choose to be with your lover or a third helping of mashed potaties?) and "Vending Machine", about a boy and his Dad buying some peanut butter crackers at a vending machine. All the texts are witty- not just generically humorous. I balk when people sometimes call these "novelty" pieces- they are more than that thanks to the quality of the texts. Btw, there is also now an SSA/piano version of Mashed Potato Love Poem (it is also selling very well).
I'll update as the conference goes- time allowing. I am on a whirlwind tour of conferences, residencies,and concerts featuring my music. Over 5-6 weeks I will be in Cincy, Madison WI, Richmond VA, Jacksonville FL, Little Rock AK, and New Orleans. I am totally looking forward to visiting those warm weather cities! 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dordt College Choir Tour- don't miss it!

Hi all!

Yes, I haven't blogged in forever! Why? I have simply been swamped composing, arranging, self-publishing an entire book of 18 Christmas carols (sales have been great) traveling, trying to be a good dad, etc! I will try to get back into it ASAP, especially since I will be at three ACDA conferences and usually try to post about them. I will be at Central, Southwest, and South. In between all of this are residencies (Virginia Commonwealth University), choral judging, performances in Madison, WI and a trip to Nawlins!

Today I want to turn your attention to the 10-day Dordt College Choral Tour (directed by the very talented Ben Kornelis). They will be singing some great music (including a shape-note tune arrangement of mine) in some great cities (six different states and one in more in Canada!). Go hear them if you can. Also scroll down for the repertoire. or go to  http://file3.dordt.edu/~benk/tour/index.htm  for all this info and more.
Ben Kornelis

Here are the tour dates:

Thursday, March 6
7 p.m. concert
First Christian Reformed Church
801 15th Avenue
Fulton, Illinois

Friday, March 7
7:30 p.m. concert
Wheaton Christian Reformed Church
711 E Harrison Avenue
Wheaton, Illinois

Saturday, March 8
7 p.m. concert
Ridgewood United Methodist Church
6330 Ridge Road
Parma, Ohio

Monday, March 10
7:30 p.m. concert
Lafayette Federated Church
180 New Jersey 15
Lafayette Township, New Jersey

Tuesday, March 11
7:30 p.m. concert
Fairlawn Christian Reformed Church
305 Goldwaithe Road
Whitinsville, Massachusetts

Wednesday, March 12
7 p.m. concert
Rochester Christian Reformed Church
2750 Atlantic Avenue
Penfield, New York

Thursday, March 13
7 p.m. concert
Talbot Street Church
13 Talbot Street
London, Ontario

Friday, March 14
7:30 p.m. concert
LaGrave Christian Reformed Church
LaGrave Avenue SE
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Saturday, March 15
7 p.m. concert
First Christian Reformed Church
16248 South Park Avenue
South Holland, Illinois

Sunday, March 16
9:30 a.m. worship service
Bethel Christian Reformed Church
3500 Glenwood Lansing Rd.
Lansing, Illinois
6 p.m. worship service
Bethel Christian Reformed Church
521 S Halleck St
DeMotte, Indiana

Dordt College Concert Choir
March 2014 Concert Tour Program

I        Praise God for the Breath of Life (Ratcliff)

Opening Prayer

II      Gaudete Omnes (Sweelinck)

III     Dem dunkeln Schoss der heilgen Erde (Brahms)
         I Know That My Redeemer Lives (J.M. Bach)
         Take My Hand, Precious Lord (Dorsey, arr. Lojeski)

IV     What Stood Will Stand (Halley)
         The Promise of Living (Copland)

V      Dúlamán (McGlynn)
         Catania (Sicilian Folksong, arr. Mignemi)
         Balleilakka (Rahman, arr. Sperry)

Intermission & Offering

VI     Blow ye the trumpet, blow (Edson, arr. Carey)

VII   Weather Report (Anglican Chant, as sung by The Master Singers)
         Stormy Weather (arr. Althouse)
         Light of a Clear Blue Morning (Parton, arr. Johnson)

VIII  The Best of Rooms (Thompson)
         Nunc Dimittis (Lukaszewski)
Closing Prayer

IX     Pilgrims’ Hymn (Paulus)
         O Lord God (Tchesnokov)

Optional Selections:
         O Love That Will Not Let Me Go (arr. Phelps)
         Praise to the Lord (arr. Christiansen)
         Dordt College Alma Mater (Grotenhuis)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Summer 2013 Composer Newsletter: New pieces available

I hope you all had a great 2012-13 school year and concert season. Many thanks to those of you who performed works by me- it is truly gratifying to know that there are so many directors and choirs out there who want to perform music by living composers. This was also a season during which I Skyped with many choirs around the country- always great fun and such a great opportunity to work together through the magic of the internet.

I have a number of pieces that were commissioned and successfully premiered this past season. These pieces are now available to all choirs through me directly (I am not actively working with any traditional print publishers at this time). These pieces are:

"...to balance myself upon a broken world" (SATB, piano), commissioned by the Ithaca College Choral Music Festival, premiered last November with Larry Doebler conducting. The process of composing this piece was discussed in an earlier blog which you can see here. The singers and audience loved this anti-war text by Amy Lowell. I attended the concert festival and loved everything about Ithaca College- Larry Doebler, Janet Galvan, their fine students (winners of the ACDA student chapter award), the town- it was great!

"At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" (SATB/piano), commissioned by Lexington Catholic HS in Lexington, KY, premiered this spring with Adam Beeken conducting. This is actually a three section piece with the final section using the John Donne-titled text. While I like the Williametta Spencer setting, I chose to take more time in telling Donne's story. I also blogged about the process of writing this piece, which you can see here.

"In the Moonlit Garden" (SATB/cello/piano), commissioned by Elysian Voices and premiered this spring with Paul Laprade directing. This is a very evocative Chinese love poem (set in English). The piece is very lyrical and wistful- there might be a bit of Madame Butterfly in there!

For treble choirs: two "peace pieces" commissioned by the group Spirito under the inspiring direction of Molly Lindberg: "Peace" (easy SA/piano) and "Dona Nobis Pacem" (more challenging SSA and at times SSAA/vibes/orch bells/cymbal). These were premiered to a gigantic soldout house in May.

Some other pieces (generally recent) that have been getting great performances and excellent feedback from singers and audiences:

"Dirge for Love" (SSAATTBB a.c.) premiered by Paul Crabbe's Prometheus (they will sing it at Iowa ACDA in July) and also performed by Kathy Fitzgibbon's fine choir at Lewis and Clark College in Portland (and also including on their recent tour to Egypt-I think that's the first time my music has been sung there!). This is a fun, quasi-madrigal battle of the sexes text by Philip Sydney.

My sometimes gorgeous, sometimes gnarly double choir re-imagining of William Billings round “When Jesus Wept” received two more performances. This is a piece no publisher will touch- they don't want double choir, counterpoint, or anything really creative- so it will remain self-published. The performance led by Patrick Dill (recent DMA student of Richard Sparks) at University of North Texas was excellent. You can hear a recording here:

"Fishing in the Keep of Silence" (truly great text by Linda Gregg) was performed by the Xavier University Choir directed by Micah Pfundstein (student of Tom Merrill) as well as by Brad Logan at Bemidji State.

I was also pleased that two more choirs performed my setting of gorgeous Antonio Machado texts in the multi-movement piece "El Limonar Florido". Diana Saez' Washington DC group Cantigas did the piece this spring and John Jost's wonderful choir at Bradley University also sang the piece this spring and took it on tour of Spain. I actually went with the choir to Spain and it was truly memorable in so many ways. John's students are great people and great singers, and it was fun to watch the Spanish audiences perk up when all of a sudden the choir was singing to them in Spanish! El Limonar is a piece I am truly proud of- I hope some of you will consider programming it. The texts are quite magical which made my job as the composer fairly easy. You can see more about it and hear sound files from Joel Navarro's Calvin College Kappelle) here.

Ready to talk Christmas/Holiday repertoire (I can hear you groan- haha)? Here are some pieces of mine which might really spice up your December programs. Let me know if you would like any free perusal scores of these pieces. I will just highlight a few- you can view a complete listing with details, score samples, etc. of all of my many Christmas, Hanukkah, and Winter Solstice scores by visiting:

One of my holiday bestsellers is the Hanukkah song "Unending Flame" with a truly nice text (so many Hanukkah texts are awful, I think you will agree). Voicings available are SA or SABar. There is also an orchestration for this piece which really makes it pop.
Another bestselling piece which can be either with piano or orchestra is my very dancey SSA version in mixed meters of I Saw three Ships:

If you are looking for SATB works, Nancy Menk made a very nice recording of my lyrical “Hush my Dear, Lie Still and Slumber" which you can hear:  
I also have a piece with a similar feel to it- my arrangement of “Gabriel's Message”, available in manuscript.

Finally, some pieces with brass. First up is “Christmas Bells”, which was commissioned by Edie Copley at N. Arizona University. This is big and festive (yet with a very introspective middle section)  for SATB/brass/organ/perc/handbells.  The ending will ensure that your entire audience is awake:

The other brass piece is not as festive since the text by the brilliant Thomas Merton is generally more reflective- it's called “The Winter's Night Carol”. I don't have a good recording yet of the piece due to miking issues at performances, but I can certainly e-mail you a score if you like!

So there you have it- all the pieces I am composing while not sleepwalking, crashing stock cars, daring my son to try hot sauces, or lobbying Congress to make the Congo Buffalo our official national pet. And please accept my sincere thank you to those of you who perform my scores. Without YOU they make no sound!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Into this World-Performance news for 2013/14

I've been away from blogging as the last month or so has been very filled with searching for texts for commissions I am writing this summer for performance next season plus a great trip with the Bradley University Choirs to Spain. I will blog about the Spain trip soon. It was magnifico!

Today just a quick entry about news I was glad to hear via a 2013/14 season preview brochure I received from the Festival Singers of Madison, WI where I was composer-in-residence a few years ago. To commemorate their 40th anniversary this coming season this excellent group, under the excellent direction of Bryson Mortensen, is repeating pieces they have commissioned over the years for a concert on March 1, 2014. The composers on the program will be Stephen Paulus, Elizabeth Alexander, Dwight Bigler, Jean Belmont, and myself. The two years I was the composer in residence for the group were awesome- the folks in this choir and the people in leadership roles are all wonderful.

Bryson Mortensen

I am especially happy that they will again perform my four movement piece "Into this World: Four Choral Seasons". In composing this piece I took four poems which suggest a season, and travel from spring through summer, fall, and finish in winter- in order to also suggest the seasons of human life: birth through release (death). The poems I used, in my opinion, are brilliant, artistic, and of great substance. The fall movement, a short text by Rilke, can also be viewed as a reference to the victims of 9/11, although I don't broadcast that openly. The piece is for SATB/piano and is of medium difficulty.

Here's how I describe the piece on my website and the texts are below as well. Many thanks to Bryson for choosing to perform this pieces next year- I hope to be there. It is very rewarding to have longer pieces sung more than once at their premiere- so far, the only performances of this piece were the premiere and a performance by David Howard's fine college choir in Texas. If anyone reading this blog would like to see the score and perhaps consider the piece for performance I would be happy to send you a pdf file of the piece. The "Tropic Rain" movement is the longest and could easily stand alone, btw.

This four movement piece (completed October 2008) was premiered February 28, 2009 by the Festival Choir conducted by the composer. The texts are about the seasons of our lives and are by Elinor Wylie, Robert Louis Stevenson, an adaptation of a Rilke text, and Natalie Goldberg.

Four different seasons, four different poets—yet a collective wisdom about what each season mean to us as human beings, all of the seasons’ very obvious signs but also all those hidden beneath the surface as well. This is the goldmine of texts I was able to assemble for this piece premiered tonight.  

Fair Annett’s Song, by American poet Elinor Wylie, speaks of Spring’s joys but also hints just a bit at what lies beyond in almost an English madrigal way. In fact, the decidedly quaint and quirky collection this tiny poem comes from is all about fairies, goblins and other such oddities. I have reflected that fairytale feel in the music to allow this poem to act as a simple introduction to the whole four movement piece. 

Tropic Rain at first appears to be nothing more than a poem about a wild rainstorm, yet by the time Stevenson has concluded, he has delved into the depths of our questions about light and dark, good and evil, conflict and peace. 

The Leaves are Falling, by Rilke, may seem to be the darkest poem of the four and is certainly set in a somber way. Yet, while it seems resigned to us “falling” it also implores us to believe that someone or something is also breaking that fall and holding us, supporting our lives and psyches. 

Finally, Natalie Goldberg’s winter poem Into this World is about resignation and the wisdom of simply letting go—not at all surprising since it is written by a woman who teaches creative writing, journaling, and who also practices Zen meditation.

There are musical devices connecting each movement to each other- key relationships, motivic devices, etc, but these technical concerns are not that important. My ultimate goal was to write a lyrical piece which would communicate to all in the audience about the seasons of our lives through the communal power of these poems

Spring (Introduction)

Fair Annet’s Song (Elinor Wylie)

One thing comes and another thing goes:
Frosts in November drive away the rose;
Like a blowing ember the wind-flower blows
And drives away the snows.
It is sad to remember and sorrowful to pray:
Let us laugh and be merry,
Who have seen today the last of the cherry
And the first of the May;
And neither one will stay.
One thing comes and another thing goes:
Frosts in November drive away the rose;
Like a blowing ember the wind-flower blows
And drives away the snows.


Tropic Rain (R.L. Stevenson)

As the single pang of the blow, when the metal is mingled well,
Rings and lives and resounds in all the bounds of the bell,
So the thunder above spoke with a single tongue,
So in the heart of the mountain the sound of it rumbled and clung.

Sudden the thunder was drowned -- quenched was the levin light --
And the angel-spirit of rain laughed out loud in the night.
Loud as the maddened river raves in the cloven glen,
Angel of rain! you laughed and leaped on the roofs of men;

And the sleepers sprang in their beds, and joyed and feared as you fell.
You struck, and my cabin quailed; the roof of it roared like a bell.
You spoke, and at once the mountain shouted and shook with brooks.
You ceased, and the day returned, rosy, with virgin looks.

And I thought that beauty and terror are only one, not two;
And the world has room for love, and death, and thunder, and dew;
And the face of God is a rock, but the face of the rock is fair.
Beneficent streams of tears flow at the finger of pain;
And out of the cloud  that smites, beneficent rivers of rain.



The Leaves are Falling
(adaptation of Herbst, by Rilke)

The leaves are falling, falling as if from afar;
Wither'd they fall from distant gardens of the sky.
And through this deep night,
The earth falls away from the stars into solitude.
Yet the leaves, the earth, our souls, are gather'd, gather'd gently.


Into this World
(Natalie Goldberg)

Let us die gracefully into this world
like a leaf pressed in stone
let us go quietly breathing our last breath
let the sun continue to revolve in its great golden dance
let us leave it be as it is
and not hold on
not even to the moon
tipped as it will be tonight
and beckoning wildly in the sea

Monday, April 22, 2013

BBC Music Magazine keeps getting dumb and dumber

A short while ago I came across the blog "Slipped Disc" by longtime music commenter Norman Lebrecht. In a recent short blog he examines (while certainly also dismissing as ridiculous) BBC Music Magazine's breathless announcement of the "50 people who changed classical music...forever" (wow, the dot-dot-dot, is that supposed to make it more amazingly important- a "wait for it" moment for the classical crowd?). As Lebrecht states, this is more about selling magazines than anything- but it really is such insulting, silly drivel. And why isn't Justin Bieber there somewhere? After all, you know this sequence will play out in history:

Step #1: Bieber, for God only knows what reason, visits the Anne Frank House. Apparently overcome with emotion, he experiences  a moment of spiritual clarity wherein he divines that "Anne was a great girl" and that she would have been a "belieber" if she were alive today.



Step #2: A young person, inspired by Bieber, decides to research music of Anne Frank's day- wholeheartedly searching for someone to "beliebe" in from back in those charmingly gritty retro black-and-white days. At first totally ignorant of musical history before the year 2010, he/she eventually discovers Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (composed and first performed in the Gorlitz prisoner camp)  and becomes inspired to pursue a career as a great composer- hopeful of uniting Messiaen's palindrome and additive rhythms, chromatic durations, bird-calls, etc with Jehovah-inspired auto-tuning and the brilliant rhyme schemes of Bieber and Busta Rhymes in seminal works such as Little Drummer Boy (see way down below for full lyrics and try not to get too dizzy from the white-hot brilliance). Did you know these "rhymes" were possible? Well maybe not for simple folks such as you and I, but in the world of beliebers they are:

Playing for the king, playing for the title
I'm surprised you didn't hear this in the bible
I'm so tight I might go psycho, Christmas time so here's a recital
I'm so bad like Michael, I know i'm still young but I go, I go
Stupid, stupid, love like Cupid, I'm the drummer boy so go (go)

And later: 

Now lemme get straight to it, yo.
At the table with the family, havin dinner,
Blackberry on our hip and then it gave a little flicker.
Then I took a look to see before it activates the ringer
came to realize my homie Bieber hit me on the Twitter
Then I hit him back despite I had some food up on my finger,
sippin' eggnog with a little sprinkle of vanilla,
even though it's kinda cold, pullin out a chinchilla,
Bieber hit me back and said, "Let's make it hot up in the winter."
I said "Cool." Ya know Imma deliver

Step #3: After a number of years of epic struggles with the forms and models, the young composer succeeds in creating the greatest new musical form of all-time, thus creating a new Bieber musical world order. 

Anyhoo, here is Lebrech'ts take on the BBC matter- and maybe you can peek here and there and try to figure out who all these folks are in the illustration- and yeah also, where is Arthur Fiedler or Leroy Anderson, dammit?!

Jesus Christ and Charlotte Church: the ‘saviours’ of classical music

Among the silly lists that music magazines publish in a desperate bid to claim readers’ attention and raise their blood-pressure, none in recent memory has been sillier than ’50 people who changed classical music… forever’ in the February issue of BBC Music magazine.
bbc music
About 45 [personally I don't think it's even close to 45- PC] of the changers and saviours are obvious names. The rest are provocations, Jesus gets included with the rather tame excuse of ‘imagine life without Handel’s Messiah’. And Charlotte Church is there because she inspired ‘the mother-and-father of all bickering over what constitutes ‘classical’ music.’
Oh, really? Much of Handel’s Messiah uses Old Testament texts, not much Jesus there. And few remember or care what Charlotte, the Jackie Evancho of her day, got up to when she was 12. No one, surely, takes these lists seriously.
The more so when BBC Music has omitted from its transformational 50 the two opera singers who invented the cult of celebrity, Maria Malibran and Jenny Lind. Not to mention the founders of the conducting profession, Hans von Bülow and Artur Nikisch. Or Gustav Mahler, who introduced irony and spatial awareness to the symphony. Or Charles Ives who proposed polystilism. Or George Gershwin, the first crossover composer.
It does, however, include Donald Grout.
How silly is that?
PC here again, and here you are, friends, the entire lyrics to the Bieber/Rhymes Little Drummer Boy- sure to put you in the Holiday spirit once the season rolls around.

Come they told me, pa rapa pum pum
A new born king to see, pa rapa pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rapa pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rapa pum pum
rapa pum pum
rapa pum pum

Rum pa pa pum rapa pum pum pum
Yeah I'm on the drum, yeah i'm on the stand drum
Yeah i'm on the beat, coz' the beat goes dumb
and I only spit heat coz' i'm playing for the son
Playing for the king, playing for the title
I'm surprised you didn't hear this in the bible
I'm so tight I might go psycho, Christmas time so here's a recital
I'm so bad like Michael, I know i'm still young but I go, I go
Stupid, stupid, love like Cupid, I'm the drummer boy so go (go)

Little baby, pa rapa pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rapa pum pum
(gather round the mistletoe real quick)
I have no gifts to bring, pa rapa pum pum
(matter of face, lets gather round the fire place
its 'bout to get hot in here!)
Thats fit to give our king, pa rapa pum pum
(people what up? Yeah, yeah, yeah)
rapa pum pum
rapa pum pum

Busta Rhymes:
Now lemme get straight to it, yo.
At the table with the family, havin dinner,
Blackberry on our hip and then it gave a little flicker.
Then I took a look to see before it activates the ringer
came to realize my homie Bieber hit me on the Twitter
Then I hit him back despite I had some food up on my finger,
sippin' eggnog with a little sprinkle of vanilla,
even though it's kinda cold, pullin out a chinchilla,
Bieber hit me back and said, "Let's make it hot up in the winter."
I said "Cool." Ya know Imma deliver
let's collaborate and make the holiday a little bigger
Before we work I gotta get this off,
see the other family members and drop gifts off.
Then I'm headed to the studio cause ain't nothing stopping how
you know we bout to turn it up and really get it poppin now
People everywhere and all our Twitter followers,
"Merry Christmas, Kwanza, happy Hanukkah!"

Mary nodded, pa rapa pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rapa pum pum
I played my drum for him, pa rapa pum pum
I played my best for him, pa rapa pum pum
rapa pum pum
rapa pum pum

If you wanna give, it's the time of year
JB on the beat, yeah yeah, I'm on the snare
It's crazy how some people say, say they don't care
when there's people on the street with no food, it's not fair
It's about time for you to act merrily
it's about time for you to give to charity
Rarely do people even wanna help at all
'cause they warm by the fire, getting toys and their dolls
Not thinking there's a family out hungry and cold
wishin' wishin' that they had somebody they could hold.
So I think some of you need to act bold
give a can to a drive, let's change the globe.

I'm the drummer boy so go (repeat 5x)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A wonderful documentary on the life of Mstislav Rostropovich

The cello is my favorite instrument due to its amazing expressive qualities, its ability to imitate both the male AND female human voice due to its extended range, its gorgeous vibrato, plus effects such as pizzicato which give it even more variety of sound. I ask you, is there anything more profound than the Bach Cello Suites or more gorgeous than the Heitor Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras for soprano and cello ensemble? Here are two takes- the first is one of my favorite singers, Victoria de los Angeles, on the solo, and the second one is by newcomer Elina Garanca:

Beginning with Pablo Casals, we have been blessed over the last 75 years or so with an enormous number of great cellists- and certainly Yo-Yo Ma is virtually a household name in America. And while I like Ma, my all-time favorite has easily always been Mstislav Rostropovich whose playing is generally far more virile and gutsy than Ma's. In surfing the intertubes I came across a powerful 30 minute documentary honoring Rostropovich's life, including some fascinating footage discussing the difficulties of his life under Soviet rule including his harboring of Solzhenitsyn.

I hope you will watch this film and learn more about a truly great musician and man. I especially love to watch  him throw his whole body and soul into the music- there is no hesitation in his seizing of the day! Young musicians could certainly benefit by observing this man sing passionately through his instrument.

By the way, Rostropovich and his wife the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (who passed away recently) formed the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation, a non-political, non-partisan organization whose mission is to improve the health and well-being of children in need through selected, sustainable, and transformational public health programs (the program continues under the leadership of their daughter and others.

These programs are nationwide in scope and focus on the following areas:
• Modernizing the routine vaccination of children by introducing vaccines recommended by the  World Health Organization (WHO)
• Accelerating the elimination of vaccine-preventable diseases through large-scale vaccination initiatives targeting children, youth, women of child-bearing age, and at-risk health care workers.
• Screening and treating pregnant women to prevent perinatally transmitted diseases such as hepatitis B and HIV.
•  Screening and treating children to  eliminate intestinal parasites.

Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya

The strategy underlying Foundation programs is to create mechanisms of sustainability by strengthening the existing health care infrastructure and avoiding the establishment of parallel structures. The Foundation staff works with local health authorities to plan every aspect of the programs. Regular training and educational seminars for health care workers ensure that each program meets international standards. All programs are implemented by local health professionals. Foundation representatives monitor and assess progress and work with health authorities to solve problems as they arise.  Each program is designed to be self-sustaining within 3 to 5 years from inception.

Visit this wonderful foundation's website here

Monday, April 15, 2013

Wise words about music and life by a consummate musician, Joel Navarro

 Here's a great address by Joel Navarro to the Philippine choral community. I saw it shared by Mark Anthony Carpio and liked it enough to ask Joel if I could share it here on my blog. Always a great gentleman and consummate musician, Joel agreed to let me post it. Wise words here...


"It's never about us."

Joel Navarro
"Dear Philippine choir conductor friends, students, and former students,

As one of the more senior choral conductors in your midst, allow me these words for you to chew on. I do this because I have invested my life mentoring many of you even as I now live so very far away from you. You are all dear to my heart. I am deeply grateful that many of you have surpassed me. This is the best tribute you can give your professor.

I wish you could all invest and pursue long-term and lifelong learning opportunities to study deeply from other great choirs, conductors, and repertoires of those from the other side of the world, as they, too, must learn from you. It's not enough to win competitions, do adjudications, workshops, choir clinics, and gigs. They all serve a purpose, to be sure. But you need to replenish and refuel yourselves. Do regular and thoughtful score study of music your choir may not even perform. Get away from the hustle and bustle and retreat to your own mountain of solitude. Study with and learn from the masters. Be an apprentice to great conductors. Read books on choral music. Establish a roundtable of conductors that caucuses regularly and exchanges research on choral music. Reserve time to sharpen your saw--retool, re-imagine your life ministry/calling, reflect, re-assess, re-educate and re-dedicate yourselves to your life-callings.

Developing over-competence in one area (e.g. performance, etc.) often results in an under-competence in another area. Doing too much leads to that dreaded burn-out, we so often bring upon ourselves. It also leads to ossification. There is nothing more important than time for your own soul. Your soul needs to breathe. I have learned that doing so many things all the time often leads to accomplishing very little. Is this the example we want to leave behind to those who follow us? If we live often inside our own bubble, we become comfortably ensconced in our world and think the world revolves around us. Never rest on your laurels. This doesn't mean pursuing more laurels. Step back. Go out of your bubble. Take time off. Request, even insist, on a sabbatical every 7th year of your work. Learn. Then, learn some more. There is a big world out there and it keeps renewing every day. Genius grows everywhere all the time. Learn from its fresh and awe-some ideas. When you keep learning, your choir will thank you for it, your audiences will grow with you, and you ensure an enduring legacy of continuous growth and renewal to your successors.

Remember that we're all servants of the music, and the Great Spirit who guides the music of the spheres. It's never about us.

Yours always~

Joel Navarro, DMA
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan"

Used with permission from the author.