Back on April 14th I ranted a bit about the narrow expectations of publishers and their desire for all newly composed choral music to fit into their model of accessibility. That blog got some positive response from some fellow composers and directors. Tonight I’m going to blog about a wonderful group who purposely did not want that “make it easy for me” music when they commissioned me to write for them.
The group is the Goldenaires from HD Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Illinois, a highly skilled auditioned chamber choir directed by a very talented young conductor named Andrew Collins. For the 15th anniversary of the groups founding, Andrew wanted to commemorate the event with a commissioned work. When he first inquired about my interest I was struck with his seriousness and high artistic standards. Andrew did the opposite of what many high school directors would have done- he purposely asked for an a cappella piece and welcomed (virtually insisted actually!) that there be divisi writing at times. In other words, Andrew wanted nothing dumbed down for this piece- he wanted a challenging piece, sans piano help, that his singers could do some serious work on.
Well of course as a composer this was a delight to hear. So Andrew and his wife Polly joined Sherri and me for dinner and an evening of text discussion between Christmas and New Year’s. Prior to the evening we had already agreed on using some of the poetry from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, so the evening was all about trying to find the specific poems within the massive 103 that comprise Gitanjali that Andrew thought he liked. We leafed through a bunch of them and Andrew found ten he liked a lot. After a week or two, I was able to find a way to link three of these poems with a fourth that really appealed to me, thus creating a four movement work. I was happy that I had found something which could function as an underlying linking element to the piece- an introductory poem (and music) that talks about singing and the joy of singing about creation and humanity, an apt choice for a commission celebrating the founding of a choir. Set as an introduction, the rest of the poems relate in some way to the first poem, as well as giving a taste of the other main elements of the vast Gitanjali collection. This was important to me—to pay homage to Tagore’s lyrical brilliance by creating a multi-movement work which musically distills some of his main themes. I did not want to write just a 3 or 4 minute piece because I felt that it would just be too lightweight and not really impart what Gitanjali is about.
With this introduction plus three form I was off and running with the composing all though the cold month of January, writing virtually every night. I also decided to try something new for me-- I took the poem with the most raw passion, and even though that would be movement three, I decided to write it first and link musical motifs and keys from it as I composed the other movements. Thus the center of the piece, not the beginning, is literally the germinal music, an idea I wanted to try at least just as a compositional process for myself, whether it matters or not to a listener. Actually, I think this idea worked quite well since the emotional content of this poem is quite breathtaking and using it as the starting point creatively actually does make the piece quite interesting musically.
I also kept in mind Andrew’s desire for musical/choral challenges, and of course I didn’t purposely set out to write anything difficult, I just knew that if I ventured (and I did) into extended harmonic regions, dissonances, divisi, etc that he had welcomed that.
Once the piece was done I was pretty pleased with it and I sent it off to Andrew. This is always a “keep your fingers crossed” moment for any commissioned composer. Does the director like it or hate it, does the choir like it or hate it? You just hope to hear back something good at this point. I did hear back that everyone was digging the piece (yay!) as they started in on one movement at a time. Andrew set up some Monday evening two hour rehearsals for me to attend. When I did so I was very pleased-- the students were singing their hearts out, they “got” the texts on many levels and enjoyed the variety and connection across the four texts, and were proud of what they were doing. We also took some time out during a couple of these rehearsals for them to ask me questions about composing, music careers, etc and I was happy to share my opinions about a number of things, especially in regard to some of their questions about majoring in music in college.
The premiere is tomorrow night and I am going to be very pleased to attend and cheer on this fine young choir and their amazing director. They will have the Tagore texts printed in the program as well as my program notes, and I will share all that here with you as well now below.
Finally, a word about some of the links across the movements, the architecture which unites the music and the text on a few different levels: probably the most important link is a chorale in movement three; the text being a song about love lost morphing into love of the universe. The chorale signifies spirituality/connection to the divine on a deep level. The music there is a rich F Major and sounds kind of like good ole J Brahms, who I think liked F major a lot (yes, I know F major doesn’t tune well for singers, but I am not going to avoid it always). The chorale theme appears momentarily in other movements as well to signify similar emotions (I seem to write these chorales a lot lately; I’ll blog more about the chorale significance sometime soon). There are also other motifs and keys which span across movements and unify the four movements of the piece. This is all very standard structural stuff, but discovering these structures is not necessarily easy, mind you. And I say discover them, because you can’t force these things to happen, it’s more like starting with some very basic material and then letting the material discover its form while you watch it and nurture it. This is a crazy part of the creative process that many composers and other artists talk about a lot- the fact that often the music starts writing itself and you are just there shaping it as it develops. I have a few philosopher friends with IQ’s double mine that I intend to talk to soon about what this all means and how the universe makes these things happen!
So, time to wrap up this very gabby blog-here are the texts to Endless Worlds and my program notes. And for any of you directors (especially university directors, since this piece is really university difficulty level) who have read this far, send me an e-mail if you would like to see a perusal score of the piece. Meanwhile I look forward to the premiere tomorrow night by Andrew and his young, very skilled and inspiring singers.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Rabindranath Tagore (1861- 1941) took the western literary world by storm with the publication of Gitanjali (Song Offerings). This collection of 103 poems speaking of god, nature, spiritual journeys and meditation, translated from earlier Bengali versions into English by the author himself, was published in 1912. Such was its immediate popularity that it won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. The introduction to the book by W.B, Yeats distills the essence of Gitanjali; here are a few quotes from Yeats’ introduction:
[The poems come from]… a tradition where poetry and religion are the same thing…gathered from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion.
Tagore has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity. Tagore is so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring in his passion, so full of surprise.
We are moved… because we have met our own image…our voice as in a dream.
Yeats’ introduction is worth reading in its entirety, which may be found along with the complete Gitanjali (now in public domain) at www.sacred-texts.com/hin/tagore.gitanjali.htm
When Andrew Collins asked me to write a commissioned piece for his amazing choir, we talked about a few different authors, but eventfully landed in Gitanjali territory. This is obviously a deep treasure trove of very lyrical, metaphysical, pantheistic poetry, and I eventually felt that I needed to at least imply, via multiple movements, the depth of the collection yet not wind up with a two hour piece of music. I eventually found a way to present many of the core textual elements of Gitanjali by constructing a four movement work.
The first movement speaks of music, and specifically about singing-- of Tagore’s belief in the spiritual intersection of singing with god or the absolute. The second movement speaks of the duality of humankind and of nature—while children play in a serene seascape there is also the knowledge that nature can be fierce. Dualities abound in Gitanjali, just as they do in Eastern thought. Here they are readily accepted as yin and yang, as opposed to the way that duality is often a battleground in western thought. The third movement is reminiscent of themes in Sor Juana and St. John of the Cross— the pang of earthly love transforms into love of god, and acknowledgment of the vastness of the cosmos. The fourth movement is in praise of the kaleidoscope of nature and time, and reaches an electric ecstasy. I have tried to capture the energy this poem implies -- yet all along one could imagine Tagore, with no difficulty, peacefully meditating with a slight samadhi smile on his face through all this busyness of the universe and this particular music!
All the movements are linked by a tonal center of C, and often there is use of modes- Dorian, Phrygian, etc. F major sections in movement one and three are almost chorale-like, echo each other, and are tied to the textual beauty of those moments. F major (historically a pastoral key) appears as well in the playful uptempo sections of movement two. There are also some juxtapositions of the tonal center C with its seemingly most opposite tone center, F sharp. Some of these are very subtle, but the most obvious one is the “tempest music” in movement 2, starting at m. 63.
Melodically I of course wanted the music to be extremely lyrical. There is quite often a rising element in most of the melodies, as if envisioning Tagore reaching his hands to the skies for communion and inspiration. To also imply the otherworldly beauty of Tagore’s poetry, some of my voice spacing is purposely unusual. There are also hints of the odd dissonances often heard in Aarvo Part’s music, probably most noticeable in movement three, which was actually the first movement composed and really is the expressive crux of the whole piece.
Introduction: The Light of your Music
The light of your music illumines the world,
I ever listen in silent amazement.
When you command me to sing
it seems that my heart would break with pride;
I look to your face, and tears come to my eyes.
I know you take pleasure in my singing.
I know that only as a singer, I come before you, before your presence.
On the Seashore of Endless Worlds
On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
and the restless water is boisterous.
On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand and play with empty shells.
The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea
Tempests roam in the pathless sky,
ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad---
yet children play, children play with shouts and dances.
In Desperate Hope
In desperate hope I go and search for her in all corners of my room; I find her not.
My house is small and what once has gone from it can never be regained.
But infinite is your mansion, my lord, and seeking her I have come to your door.
I stand under the golden canopy of your evening sky and I lift my eager eyes to your face.
I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish---
no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.
Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness.
Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe.
The Abounding Joy
Thy sunbeam comes upon this earth of mine with arms outstretched.
All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind,
no power can hold them back, they rush on.
Keeping step with that restless, rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away---
colours, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy.
To the readers
5 years ago