Sunday, January 30, 2011

N. Arizona Univ. Holiday Dinner Concerts, pt. deux

Today I’m going to relate how I worked with the text for “Christmas Bells”, the commissioned piece for Northern Arizona University’s Holiday Dinner December 2010.

First some important background to the poem, related quite well by a certain Tom Stewart [Mr. Stewart, I can’t locate you even though this well-written article by you is all over the internet- please contact me if you would like receive more detailed recognition for this article]:

[The Story Behind]
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

by Tom Stewart, December 20, 2001

One of America's best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), contributed to the wealth of carols sung each Christmas season, when he composed the words to "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" on December 25th 1864. The carol was originally a poem, "Christmas Bells," containing seven stanzas. Two stanzas were omitted, which contained references to the American Civil War, thus giving us the carol in its present form. The poem gave birth to the carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and the remaining five stanzas were slightly rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), who also gave us the memorable tune. When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, America was still months away from Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th 1865; and, his poem reflected the prior years of the war's despair, while ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace.

As with any composition that touches the heart of the hearer, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" flowed from the experience of Longfellow-- involving the tragic death of his wife Fanny and the crippling injury of his son Charles from war wounds. Henry married Frances Appleton on July 13th 1843, and they settled down in the historic Craigie House overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were blessed with the birth of their first child, Charles, on June 9th 1844, and eventually, the Longfellow household numbered five children-- Charles, Ernest, Alice, Edith, and Allegra. Alice, the Longfellows' third child and first daughter, was delivered, while her mother was under the anesthetic influence of ether-- the first in North America.

Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. Confederate Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard fired the opening salvos of the American Civil War on April 12th, and Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident in the library of Craigie House on July 10th. The day before the accident, Fanny Longfellow recorded in her journal: "We are all sighing for the good sea breeze instead of this stifling land one filled with dust. Poor Allegra is very droopy with heat, and Edie has to get her hair in a net to free her neck from the weight." After trimming some of seven year old Edith's beautiful curls, Fanny decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. The longed for sea breeze gusted through the window, igniting the light material of Fanny's dress-- immediately wrapping her in flames. In her attempt to protect Edith and Allegra, she ran to Henry's study in the next room, where Henry frantically attempted to extinguish the flames with a nearby, but undersized throw rug. Failing to stop the fire with the rug, he tried to smother the flames by throwing his arms around Frances-- severely burning his face, arms, and hands. Fanny Longfellow died the next morning. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral. (Incidentally, the trademark full beard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow arose from his inability to shave after this tragedy.)

The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." A year after the incident, he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." Longfellow's journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me." Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow's journal. Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem, "Christmas Bells." The reelection of Abraham Lincoln or the possible end of the terrible war may have been the occasion for the poem. Lt. Charles Longfellow did not die that Christmas, but lived. So, contrary to popular belief, the occasion of writing that much loved Christmas carol was not due to Charles' death.

Christmas Bells"
(The original poem, complete with all seven stanzas)

"I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

So there you have the historical background and the full text, but what you don’t get in the familiar carol setting and in many other settings even recently is any inclusion of the important verses, the real guts of the poem, that refer to the Civil War. What is usually included is the sixth verse, but without verses four and/or five setting up the story, the sentiments of verse six really makes no sense and probably leave most readers feeling like they missed something (well yes, they did!).

What I decided to do was embrace the idea that this is as much an anti-war text as it is a Christmas text. And as soon as I decided to do that I also knew that I would be challenging singers and audience with war images at their Holiday Dinner for a few stanzas filed with cannon sounds in the muted brass and percussion and some fairly dissonant choral writing as well. I knew that this would have to be done just right, and not just be a pile of musical clichés, so I especially challenged myself as I worked to be creative and guard from falling into such traps. After all, Edie did want something festive, with a big loud ending, etc. So, I went to work and chose to use verses 1-4, 6-7, and repeat verse one. This would use enough of the war element so that the true context of the text’s creation is honored, and also the repetition of verse one would heighten the glory of the final sentiments and of course make the ever-satisfying quasi ABA musical form. And really, after passing through the darkness of the war stanzas, the final glorious recapitulation in a really bright G Major, with the handbells peaking like crazy, was pretty spectacular (if I may say so!).

Click the link to visit my website and hear the piece:

The greatest reward for me, in a sense, was after the concerts. As I said in part one of this blog entry, the singers themselves were struck by this text, its origins, and by the fact that we were singing about something important still today. Their post-concert comments to me were so beautiful, and I saw on their faces how much the text and my music meant to them. And then there was an audience member who came up to Edie Copley after the concert Friday night, and said to her (Edie told me this later that night), “That first piece sure wasn’t just some Christmas fluff, he put a lot of work into that”! Of course this comment made my day- an audience member even starting to think about what the nitty-gritty process might have been for me as a composer to bring this text to light, even though having to pass through some verses of darkness.

Thanks for reading!


Friday, January 28, 2011

N. Arizona Univ. Holiday Dinner Concerts, pt. one

The Northern Arizona University Holiday Dinner, December 2010

Part One

This past summer Edie Copley, director of choral studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ asked me to write a commissioned work to serve as the opening processional music for their 36th Annual Holiday Dinner, a wonderful event which raises substantial money for the choral program’s scholarship fund. I of course accepted, as I know Edie and Ryan Holder have a great program there, and I do need to write more holiday music. Edie requested something big and bold to grab the audience, and the proposed voicing was SATB choir, organ, brass, percussion and hand bells. Edie stressed to me that NAU has an amazing handbell program AND a great handbell arranger by the name of Doug Benton. She told me I could sketch in a handbell part and Doug would be glad to flesh it out.

(Edie Copley)

This was all an interesting turn of events, and when I called Sherri from Raleigh, NC where I was teaching she again encouraged me to consider setting Wordsworth’s “Christmas Bells”, known to most of us in the form of the 3/4 meter barbershop-ish tune called “I heard the bells on Christmas day”. Sherri had been urging me to set this very interesting text to my own music for 2-3 years, but I kept running into two blocks- I just couldn't get the usual tune out of my head, and two, the fair amount of conflict in some of the verses seemed counter to the simple mirth most people expect at the holidays (the poem references the American Civil War, war cannons, etc). So I had always told her that it just wasn’t working for me to set this text.

However, one night shortly thereafter I was lying awake at night and all of a sudden a new melody (meaning my own melody!) in 4/4 popped into my head and before a day or two had gone by I couldn't even remember what that old standard melody sounded like. So I started sketching out parts of the song, and also decided that I would tackle head-on those verses with the conflict. I was concerned that Edie might not like the text but I ran it past her and she said that it actually was a favorite poem of hers and therefore definitely a go. Sherri was, I think, a bit in shock, after all those times she urged me to set this text, here I was finally doing it (of course she has pushed me toward other texts as well, and I have gradually made them into pieces!).

So there I was in Raleigh, NC writing Christmas while the temperature outside was 90 or 100 in the daytime and not much cooler at night. When I got back to Chicago I spent the whole month of August doing three things; 1) finishing the piece, including all the parts, 2) playing Plants versus Zombies on the computer (yes, our whole household was addicted to this game for awhile), and 3), going to Kane County Cougar minor league baseball games with Sherri and Aidan for fun.

Edie was kind enough to allow me extra brass, so the final version is SATB, organ, three trumpets, two horns, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion including tympani, and a big bell part. When Doug Benton sent me his version of my bell part sketch it was fun to look at- he had taken my sketches and really put them on steroids, cool! The other thing I worked with Doug on was the idea of having a final bell peal near the end when the poem becomes joyous and positive again and references all the bells ringing. Doug devised a way to have the bells do rapid peals and not really try to be in rhythm with the main forces, so you would get the sense that the bells were from the real world and not straitjacketed into the rhythm of a composed piece. When I finally got to see this and hear it in person it was both audibly, visually, and poetically stunning. Many thanks to Doug for figuring out what I was trying to convey there! As the fall progressed I got word from Edie and Ryan that the singers loved the piece and everything was going well. Then it was time for me to fly to Flagstaff and hear a Monday night rehearsal and then attend the first two performances (Thursday and Friday nights, then back to Chicago; NAU would finish out with two more performances Saturday and Sunday).

I got on a US airways plane to go from Chicago to Phoenix (and then a puddle jumper up to Flagstaff), but the pilot got about 10-20 feet off the ground and immediately pulled the plane back down- interesting! They told us to hang on while they checked out the problems and then finally kicked us off the plane, and their ticket agents couldn’t get me out to Flagstaff in time for that evening’s rehearsal- bummer. So I decided the best thing to do was go Wednesday, and anyway I was trying to finish up a fun commission for Robyn Lana and her Cincinnati Children’s choir. Staying in Chicago two days would allow me to be home and get this done easily.

So finally on Wednesday I got to Flagstaff, my first visit there. Edie took me to lunch and showed me around town just a bit. I got to see the old hotel where Zane Gray wrote a lot of his books. Later that evening I had dinner with Ryan and a grad student by the name of Elliott Lilles- a very talented and nice guy. We were checking out one of the local microbreweries.

(Ryan Holder)

Since there were no rehearsals for me to attend Thursday or Friday during the day and Edie and Ryan were both really tied up with planning, classes and other things I decided to rent a car and go see Sedona, AZ for the first time. I am so glad I did, it was amazing. I do like nature and hiking and you could hike for weeks around the Red Rocks Sedona area. I hiked both Thursday and Friday during the day and took pictures around the usual attractions like Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock but also got further off the beaten trail to the point that during some of the hiking all I could hear was my own heart beating—not a single traffic or human noise. The weather was absolutely amazing- in Sedona during the daytime it was very sunny and in the upper 60’s. With the sun angle being what it was (December at 5,000 ft. above sea level), it was almost feeling hot and most folks were walking around in T-shirts.

I had some very low-key meals at the Barking Frog Grill and also the Hideaway. I didn’t really hit the shops there much- they were either touristy or very high end fine art. And I’m not much of a shopper dude anyway, especially with all that nature to be explored.

The concerts Thursday and Friday were amazing. My piece, as per Edie’s request, starts with about sixty seconds of instrumental intro for the massed choirs to process to- then the singing starts and yes, I was channeling Vaughn Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” a bit I suppose on this (not a bad model, eh?). People seemed to really love the piece, especially on the second night when the choir turned up the expression at least a notch or two. What really endeared me to the audience and to NAU’s young singers was this- so many people came up to me and told me how much they liked the piece, and so much of it was based on the text. The students especially liked that the text wasn’t just all sweetness and holiday fluff, and that meant a lot to me- the fact that they “got it”. A bunch of them told me it was their favorite piece on the program and actually a few even said it was their favorite piece they had sung in their life. That was amazing to hear and so sweet of them to share that with me. NAU’s students were by far the most communicative singers I have ever been around in two ways. First, they are highly expressive singers both sonically and also visually. Apparently this is not anything Edie drills into them with specific exercises, they just all seem to be such a family and so into the music and texts of all their numbers that you not only want to hear them sing, you want to watch their eyes and their face too- and not just a few singers, the whole choir. Secondly, they just seemed to want to seek me out and communicate their feelings about my piece so much.

Click on this link to go to my webpage for audio of the piece:

(Shrine of the Ages Choir)

Another thrill for me was getting to watch Edie conduct the Shrine of Ages Choir, the select ensemble at the university. I have seen her conduct honors choirs before, but never her own group. I was seated close by on Thursday so I could see most of her facial expressions as well as take in a very good view of her hands. She is a lovely conductor to watch and obviously the students are totally in tune with her. I got a kick out of a nice O Magnum Mysterium by Kevin Memley(yes, there some “Whitacre-isms” I wish would have been left out, but otherwise a nice piece) during which the singers wanted to take off on and climax way too early. It was fun to watch Edie coax them to stay patient and not open up the sound until just the right moment. Her left hand was often a gently controlling brake and kept things paced just right- brilliant conducting.

Edie and I got a chance to hang out both Thursday and Friday night after the concerts. She is a lot of fun, has a great sense of humor, and an amazing pedigree. She’s studied and/or worked with Robert Shaw, Robert Page, Weston Noble, and many others. The stories she told of how she got into music as a young girl on an Iowa farm were wonderful to listen to, and it just goes to show that you don’t have to be living in a big city to become cultured and a success in the arts.

Saturday morning I got a chance to meet Erica Kragness, who has a masters from NAU, and who had conducted my music at NAU when she was a grad student. We had not met in person yet, so we both were looking forward to meeting. We met in a ‘lil coffee shop, had a very nice chat, and then I gave Erica an intro to geocaching, as I just happened to have my trail GPS and 1-2 geocaches were waiting to be found nearby. She thought geocaching was a hoot. Then it was off to the airport and back home to Chicago- delayed only by US Airways generally crappy planes (don’t fly this airline if you can help- they are not good!).

So there you have it, my wonderful experience writing this piece for NAU and all the fun things I got to do in Arizona. But honestly three things stick out the most. First I have to thank Sherri for needling me to set this text. Secondly, many thanks to Edie and Ryan for commissioning me and being such wonderful hosts. And finally, many thanks to the NAU singers for connecting so fully to the texts and being so communicative to me during my visit. I hope to return to NAU whenever possible to continue this very rewarding relationship.

PART TWO, coming up- A discussion of the text of this poetry, how it has usually been set, and what I did differently

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More ideas from other folks about competitions

Interesting further discussion about the appropriateness of entry fees and composition competitions. This came up recently with Octarium and their director Krista Lang Blackwood, and the discussion continues with Grant Charles Chaput's blog linked below, where he tends to disagree with the thought processes of Krista, myself, and Paul Crabtree. That's fine with me, I think it's great we are having this discussion and that people are reading about it and having a response to it!

As you read Chaput's blog you'll find easy links to the related blogposts by me, Krista, and also Eric Whitacre chiming in.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Recent Interview of me posted by Reg Unterseher

Hi there folks,

As I continue my new idea of interviewing cool musical folks for my blog, composer/conductor Reg Unterseher (and stalwart member of Male Ensemble Northwest) turned the tables and interviewed me for the newsletter of the NW division of ACDA. You can read the interview by clicking on this link:

Have a great weekend!


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bravo to Octarium and Krista Blackwood

Krista Blackwood and Octarium get it right in regard to composer competitions! Here is Octarium's blog about the issue, which I have spoken out about in my own blog:

Composition Competition, not Cash Cow

by Krista Blackwood

We are in our third year of sponsoring a composition competition. Our first winner, Steve Danyew, is a composer with all of the regular accolades on his resume; a B.M. from Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, an M.M. and Certificate in Arts Leadership from Eastman and time as a composer fellow at Yale. This year’s winner, Brad Kemp, has gone a slightly different route, studying at Columbia College Chicago and serving as assistant musical director at PH Productions, an improv troupe in Chicago.

Both have written music worthy of notice. Danyew’s winning piece, “On Green Mountains,” is featured on our 2009 release Modern Masters and was hailed by arts critic Paul Horsley as “fully worthy to appear on a program of the best living American choral composers.” Kemp’s piece, an arrangement of Debussy’s “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” will receive its world premiere at our February 19th “Listener’s Choice” concert and will be featured on our Should Have Been Choral recording, scheduled for release in 2012.

While I am sure that winning our small competition does not single-handedly pave the way into the successful future for these composers, it does give them a good performance of their piece, possibly a good recording and, perhaps, more exposure than they would have gotten otherwise. They get a small $500 prize. Octarium pays for them to come hear the premiere and spend a weekend enjoying Kansas City. They might go home with some good press in their back pocket to use as they market themselves in the future.

This is why Octarium sponsors the competition; to help young composers find an audience. To help worthy music find an audience. To further the choral art.

So imagine my shock when I got taken to the mat in a conversation with a colleague about not charging an entry fee for composition submissions. In this colleague’s opinion I was lessening the vocal art by not putting a price on the luxury being allowed to enter. Another colleague shared with me her pleasant surprise at the discovery that a composition competition could become a hefty source of cash flow; a cash cow.

So, yet again, I am doing things “wrong.” I am again causing a controversy because I do things that seem logical whether or not they have solid precedent in the music business.

I have been sternly lectured to change my structure and charge a fee for entry but this quid pro quo seems backwards to me. You give us money and we’ll sing your music? Maybe? Well, actually, it’s kind of a long shot that we’ll ever sing your piece. But give us your money anyway.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t choirs support composers with commissions and competitions that don’t require a financial investment from a group of artists whose struggle is as epic as our struggle?

We are all struggling artists, true. I guess I understand charging a small fee to pay someone to administer the competition fairly. However, Octarium chooses to build the competition costs into our regular budget and fundraise through our regular channels to cover those costs. We all know that raising funds for arts nonprofits is a mine field in this current economy and, certainly, twenty-five bucks a pop for the 250 or so entries we’ve received in the two years we’ve sponsored the competition would be extremely helpful to our budgetary bottom line.

But that’s not why we do this. It’s a composition competition, not a cash cow to help us pay our bills.

This is yet another way Octarium is turning the business of choral business on its head. Composers like Eric Whitacre and Paul Carey have written in their blogs about competitions and entry fees and, being composers, they fall in line with my opinion on how things should be done.

We will not charge an entry fee for our competition. Ever. It’s part of our mission and vision to support choral music, choral artists and composers. Our competition is one small way we do that.

Interested in entering? You can find information here.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Anniversary of the premiere of Quartet for the End of Time

New York based composer Martha Sullivan reminds us that today is the 70th anniversary of the premiere of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," which was premiered on today's date in 1941, at a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia.

Please read Alex Ross' as always brilliant blog about this music and its historical importance, Alex wrote this in 2004

Seraphic Fire- Random Act of Culture!

Please read and enjoy this news article relayed to me by James Bass, an amazing young conductor who I have known since his first days directing at Western Michigan University. James caught my attention when he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 8 AM discussing fine points of advanced music theory with some people at a nearby table at a Michigan ACDA event, while I was still just trying to get caffeine into my tired soul and wake up!

Dr. James Bass

James studied with Mike Scheibe at University of Miami and now teaches at the University of South Florida and is also a member of Seraphic Fire. I believe he often sings with Conspirare too-in other words, he is one of those great young professional singers who can read like a maniac and loves to sing on an extremely high level with other young American choral singers with similar talents.

Here is the story link:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Alaskan Mirth

Here's a great story! Please enjoy the wonderfully playful and uplifting "cue card Hallelujah Chorus" video created by 5th graders at a small school in Quinhagak, Alaska (pop. 555) which went viral (as of today 475,000 hits) on YouTube in December. To tell the story a bit more succinctly than I can- here is a link to the Washington Examiner's story:

Yes, you've basically seen this idea before -the "silent monks" with the cue cards spelling out the Halleujah chorus (not sure how this started actually and not sure the origin needs sleuthing out). But this top o' the world version is actually far more creative with the premise and so charming in its display of all the wonderful personalities of the people in the video. The young teacher who put this together, James Barthelman, was so creative in his approach and wound up doing something brilliantly outside the box by getting the whole village involved- and all of this tied to Mr. Handel's groovy score proves once again that our spirits can join, in this case through classical music, in a dizzyingly joyful, transcendent dance. Click the link to see the video if you haven't already:

Can you imagine Handel's reaction if he were to see this? I can't help but to think that he would be smiling and laughing to the hilt, and amazed to see that his music had survived so many years and made it all the many miles to Alaska.

Kudos to James Barthelman, his school's students and the entire village.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Jan 2011 composer newsletter- and many thanks to you!

Happy New Year to all!

Here is what is going on in my little corner of the music world:

2010 was an amazing year for me. I attended three regional ACDA conferences (Cincinnati, Tucson, and Memphis) and met all sorts of new folks and reconnected with people I already knew. I had pieces either performed or on interest/reading sessions in six out of the seven conferences- what a delight. I also blogged heavily from each conference I attended, and I know many of you enjoyed reading the play by play (not sure how I did all that- did I sleep at all?).

The year finished up for me in grand manner- a trip to Grinnell College (with my hilarious seven year old sidekick Aidan in tow, "Roadtrip!") for a major performance, some guest conducting in Pittsburgh, and a trip to Flagstaff, AZ to hear the Northern Arizona University choirs sing a commission premiere (SATB/organ/brass/perc/handbells) on their Holiday Dinner Festival. Thanks to Edie Copley, Ryan Holder and the students of NAU for being such wonderful artists and hosts. And thanks to the big red rocks of Sedona, AZ for being so gorgeous!

There were performances all over the US of my music- pieces big-- the previously alluded to "El Limonar Florido" at Grinnell College was one (also "Play with your Food" got wide performances) and small-- performances galore by youth choirs of my wacky "Peace on earth...and lots of little crickets", which remains Walton's best-selling octavo for the third straight year. My music is also winding up in Asian markets thanks to my trip to South Korea in the fall of 2009 and through some networking in China, Australia and New Zealand, with some assists by Tim Sharp, Nancy Menk, and Mary Hopper.

Coming up in the first half of 2011-- I have four new pieces out in time for the national ACDA conference in Chicago. For young SA choirs "Night Song", with a beautiful text about birdcall by Jean Burden (Roger Dean cat. # 15/2591R) and a gentle SA arrangement of the spiritual "My Lord, what a morning" (Roger Dean cat. # 15/2849R). For HS through adult women's choirs, the long awaited treble version of "Mashed Potato Love Poem" (Walton, not sure of cat. number but it will be out very soon), and my setting of the goings on in the Garden of Eden as deconstructed with razor sharp wit by American poet Diane Lockward-- "Eve's Confession" (SSA/piano, Roger Dean cat. # 15/2838R). Let me know if you would like a free persual copy of any of these; I can easily get the Roger Dean titles to you as they are very good about getting music out there to directors. I'll make sure that next year there are some mixed titles published.

I will be traveling to Hong Kong in late February for a week long festival conducting youth choirs and coaching conductors in my music (including a commission premiere) and other new-ish music. In May I will be composer-in-residence with the Cincinnati Children's Choir, where two new commissioned pieces will be premiered. These are pretty special, as director Robyn Lana and I decided that I would set poetry by local children, and the two poems I set are really delightful. The summer will be filled with composing and another six week session directing the choir at the North Carolina Governor's School in Raleigh which is one heck of a fun, yet demanding job.

I am still always looking for advanced choirs who have interest in singing my advanced music- please let me know if you'd like to peruse longer pieces, multi-movement pieces, more difficult pieces. Many of these are my best writing, yet are hard to make known to the choral world through traditional publishers since most of them just want the easy, short stuff (arghh). In fact, I have just finished a challenging double choir setting of Billings' "When Jesus Wept"- let me know if you'd like a perusal pdf file! Another piece, "The leaves are falling", could be very effective as a 9/11 memorial piece if you are looking for repertoire for the tenth anniversary of that sad event. This piece is about three minutes long and is for SATB/piano- it alludes artistically, in a sense, to 9/11 - the text, by Rilke but in English, is much older. And by the way, I am now accepting commissions for next season. I'd love to hear from you if you have an interest in something new and special for your choir. Also, for any of you doing my music soon, I am available (for free) to meet and work with your choir via Skype, which has been a great communication tool lately for me.

Finally, I'd like to thank a bunch of people by name- folks who, in calendar year 2010, conducted/commissioned my music, did me a favor or two, mentored or encouraged me in some way, etc. I will probably forget someone (sorry in advance). Without all of you the little black marks on paper that I scribble mean nothing- thank you so much for collaborating with me-- you all touch my heart:

Kirk Aamot, David Baldwin, Angie Batey, Bryan Black, Dennis Blubaugh, Meredith Bowen, Brian Bohrer, Joani Brandon, Charles Bruffy, Sean Burton, Margaret Butterfield, Shannon Carey, Karyl Carlson, Julie Clemens, Andrew Collins, Drew Collins, Philip Copeland. Edie Copley, Valerie Crescenz, Gwen Dettweiler, Marian Dolan, April Duvic, Tim Fitzpatrick, Scott Foss, Deedy Francis, Jane Ring Frank, Lisa Fredenburgh, Lynne Gackle, Janet Galvan, Dee Gauthier, Sarah Graham, James Green, Matt Greer, Leslie Guelker-Cone, Susan Hahn, Ryan Holder, Mary Hopper, Dan Huff, Daniel Hughes, Cindy Hunter, Emily and James John, Sigrid Johnson, Heather Kinkennon, Tom Koharchik, Erica Kragness, Robyn Lana, Paul LaPrade, Sherri Lasko, Iris Levine, Brad Logan, Gunilla Luboff, Michael McElreath, Nancy Menk, Jonathan Miller, Eric Nelson, Emily Orr, Sharon Paul, Earl Rivers, Jon Rommereim, Catherine Sailer, Michael Sanflippo, Mike Scheibe, Brett Scott, Elena Sharkova, Tim Sharp, Deborah Simpkin King, Justin Sisul, Sandra Snow, Phil Spencer, Ethan Sperry, Debra Spurgeon, Ronald Staheli, Erin Stinson, Joan Szymko, Barbara Tagg, Becky Tyree, Reg Unterseher, Hak-won Yoon, Michael Zemek.

Hope to see you here in Chicago for the ACDA national conference,


Monday, January 3, 2011

Choral Interviews: Numero uno- Dr. Karyl Carlson

Hi all:

I have been meaning to launch a semi-regular feature for quite some time now- interviews of choral folks from around the country!I hope that the questions and answers you read here are entertaining and thought-provoking. As I twist the arms of various folks to reveal all, I hope we can all gain some new insights-- and especially important to me is how these folks were inspired to create music and how they go about inspiring others to do the same. Thanks to Dr. Karyl Carlson, director of choral activities at Illinois State University and the new Illinois ACDA President-Elect for being the first to fill in the blanks. You'll see my questions in italics and Karyl's answers in regular type.

PC: So, what’s new these days at the Illinois State University choral program? I believe it’s been about 5-6 years since you took over the program- tell us where you have been going and what’s new.

KK: What’s new is our continual class of students who are really excited about choral music! Thank you Illinois music educators! They have quickly adopted the ideas that quality and passion makes for a great musical opportunities. The Singing Redbirds Children’s Choir is new, so between that and the Civic Chorale, we provide life-long music-making opportunities. We’ve also been developing our public profile in an effort of arts advocacy. We’re doing this by participating in events across campus and our community, not just in our stone castle.

PC: I believe the music program is growing and growing, not just the choral dept, but the whole music program. To what do you attribute this success? How have you gone about recruiting new students to ISU?

KK: The quality of instruction is a key factor. We pride ourselves on individual attention from when we start to communicate with students and supporting them after they graduate. We invest ourselves in our students’ success. So while the university may seem big to some (although not to me, coming from Big Ten schools!) the feel is much more of a smaller school. Students respond to knowing they’re not just one in a sea of people. Also, the diversity and quality of ensembles is an attractive factor. Musicians want to be part of a talented ensemble and have opportunities to perform great repertoire. In the process, students develop into independent, confident, and skilled musicians. If they choose to teach or perform, the expectations are the same. We also have administrative support and a put forth a team effort that is incredibly invaluable.

PC:I know you have been hoping to develop the choral grad program more- how is that going?

KK: I wish I had more time to recruit grad students, maybe to connect with those in other trusted undergraduate institutions but frankly I have little time to do that. Hopefully as ISU’s visibility increases that will help attract talented graduate students. I would like to have graduate students that have already been out in the world, maybe having taught a few years. It’s important that graduates are employable after they’re finished at ISU or in preparation for further graduate study. I want them to be successful, to get out there and be brilliant.

PC: Do you have any tours coming up for any of the groups, and what do you think the true benefits of touring are?

KK: Madrigals toured in November. Their primary purpose is recruiting. Also, I really enjoy getting out into the schools. I miss that about not teaching choral methods and supervising student teachers, but now I have so many ensembles for my primary teaching load. Concert Choir has toured in the past but it’s gotten to be very expensive. We try to take an overseas trip every few years. The next one will likely be next year.

PC: Who has been the most influential teacher in your career?

KK: There are several. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Eckert is dear to my heart. She allowed me to love playing and not resent practicing in lieu of other activities. And she never told me anything was too difficult. Then there was Mrs. Turner at Keeler Elementary School. She had a little code for me to signal her when she played one of the little melodies (like Happy Wanderer!) different than what was in the book. She was transposing, but of course I had no idea what all that meant, and she didn’t tell me but she just kept encouraging me to let her know.(I think that was so some precocious 3rdgrader wouldn’t raise her hand and say “Mrs. Turner Mrs. Turner you’re playing that incorrectly!”)Then Charles Smith.Sigh.I can’t say enough about my opportunity to study with him and other MSU profs. I was so fortunate! Discovering what’s musically important in order to elucidate the intentions of gestures—the economy of means—was key in developing how I now approach music. Something like: inspire the idea then get the hell out of the way can usually works. Plus he demonstrated that a wry sense of humor and large vocabulary can be very helpful.

PC: Were there any a-ha moments for you in regard to a teacher you studied under?

KK: I have to say I received first rate music education all the way through the Redford Union Schools in Michigan. All those folks taught with great passion, high expectations and compassion. Eugene Dyer (choirs) at RUHS was a great musician. Don Burman (bands) provided so many opportunities for me to explore – I even played alto sax in a big band. My Jr. High band teacher was awesome too – handing me a bassoon knowing I’d go home and figure out how to play it, but then helping with lessons, camps, etc. At Michigan, I started as a piano major so even up until that point I hadn’t studied voice privately. Frankly I wasn’t so happy with the choral experience there because I couldn’t get into the Chamber Choir (not a grad student…) and I was in a giant choir where I felt that the director wouldn’t really know if I was there or not(and I dare say, I think he didn’t…) I had a much better time playing in the Michigan Marching Band where I learned incredible discipline and commitment. Playing in the Rose Bowl wasn’t bad either! Catherine Nadon-Gabrion was the music ed instructor at the time. She was highly influential in terms of leadership and organization. SO, all that to say, the whole of my education has been one big Ah-HA! I’m eternally grateful. I hope I never lose the idealistic hopes I had as a first year teacher at Franklin Elementary School in Sterling, IL.

PC: I know that you studied with Charles Smith at Michigan State. I’ve had the opportunity to recently observe some other Smith students such as Lynda Hasseler at Capitol University and Elizabeth Schauer at Arizona State University. You all seem to share an elegant, long line phrasing and a very gorgeous physical conducting gesture that creates this. Would you agree that that is something Smith stressed to his students and how did he teach this?

KK: Charles Smith was all about developing and maintaining the continuum of legato. He thought all gesture should be driven by expressive intentions, not habit, and all the flourish really need not be there. “Just the facts” actually includes the vital musical facts, not just the pattern. I have also tried to incorporate gestures that are supportive of vocal technique: rhythmic breath (not on the last 8th rest) and rhythmic diction. I’ve also started insisting that some of the musicality responsibility be borne by the singers, not my dictation of it. The more a conductor subdivides, whips, bounces, gyrates, not only do they look funny, the less energy the singer has to bring to the table.

PC: What has been the most amazing musical experience in your life, either as a singer or director?

KK: As a singer, the first time I sang for Robert Shaw in Carnegie Hall. Walking onto that stage was magic. Singing beautiful music in naturally reverberant places is an experience that cannot be matched.

PC: What three pieces have you still not conducted that you look forward to doing someday (and elaborate a bit please)?

KK: Britten’s WAR REQUIEM – I don’t know about ever having the space or forces to do it. I feel a great affinity for it, though. The poetry is incredibly poignant and the setting of it is perfect. I feel like it’s such an impactful work; appropriate for all time. Right now, wars are not in our faces like the world wars. We aren’t sacrificing or feeling the desperation of them now, unless we know someone fighting. These wars are crippling our country and we aren’t incredulous about it. A piece like the WAR REQUIEM, well that’ll put it in one’s face.

Monteverdi VESPERS of 1610 :Monteverdi is such a romantic. It seems intimidating, though, figuring out the sections, and then finding an audience to listen to it.
Lots of Poulenc.

PC: What are your three most favorite choral pieces, either a cappella or with orchestra?

KK: I’m having the most trouble with this one!One favorite is Durufle’s “Requiem” but recently it has fluctuated, depending on the performance. I had performed this with the Shaw singers and had that in my mind, then with organ at CWU and it was magic. The next time was of a performance with the reduced orchestration and didn’t care for it. Then the next time was a performance with full orchestration and I got incredibly distracted by string intonation issues that the magic just wasn’t there. I don’t know if I will take the chance again.

I love Henk Badings’ “Trois Chansons” and absolutely adore singing in French. The use of IPA has helped make that repertoire accessible. The piano part in this set is fantastic.

Lastly, all things Brahms! “Liebeslieder” = fun. Motets = heartbreakingly gorgeous lines. “Requiem” = iconic.

PC: I know you have tradition of everyone singing “Make our garden grow” from Candide at your final concert each school year. Did you start that tradition or was it already going on? Tell us more.

KK: I had been doing that piece in the same fashion at Central Washington University, they just wanted to keep doing it year after year, and I saw it as an alumni opportunity for building the networks of teachers. I wanted to choose a different song here (that was “theirs”, as I was chided when I left) but nothing seemed to fit the bill. I tried “My Spirit Sang All Day” by Finzi, but it wasn’t as popular. So after a few years I brought my Garden here. It tells a nice story, and has a big blastissimo ending with a high C.

PC: What do you do, like a hobby or interest, to recharge your batteries? How do you fill your summers?

KK: I’m on sabbatical in a few weeks, and am pretty excited about that. It’s giving me a chance to get caught up and do things like answer your blog questions! I write a lot of recommendations so I’m now caught up with those too. I recently got a decent piano so I can practice at home now. I’m enjoying being in an awesome relationship with Jeff Paxton. I’m a big fan of his bands; he’s an awesome bass player.Another favorite thing to do is travel and I especially like going to places where there is water and mountains. I like to be in nature, observing, appreciating, and marveling. And I like to make stuff, fix stuff, hang out with friends, cook for them and drink red wine.

PC: How is Boris, your dog? How does he contribute to the ISU music program?

KK:Boris is awesome! He just turned 11. He likes to organize parties and be the center of attention. He also has his own Facebook page and many adoring fans. He had his own jewelry company in Washington (Big Yellow Dog) but he’s too busy now. Boris is just plain good for morale, and makes for some good analogies, like “find your inner grrrr” when singing Stravinsky or Verdi or the like. Or wag like Boris, not some Yorkie. (sorry, Yorkie-owners)

PC: What advice would you give undergrads who have really been bitten by the choral music conducting bug- what things do you really wish they will keep in mind and make sure to develop?

KK: some advice for undergrads. Where do I start??? So, some points in no particular order.*Develop superior musical skills, including voice and piano. *Develop leadership skills and realize conducting has much to do with people skills. People watch! Pay attention to people’s reactions to instructions, questions, the dynamics of peer pressure. *Grip the idea that we need to be our own advocates; it’s not the case where we prepare music and people come to the concerts. *Be patient and know that careers are built, not automatic just because one has a degree. *Philanthropy pays both ways *Family first *Do a lot of listening to develop musical preferences, ideas, habits, clarity. *In rehearsal, be both participant and observer: take copious notes! *Keep programs and make notes *Go to live performances. *Support your local composer!

PC: Thanks to Karyl for that last sentiment (haha), all the other great answers, and for teaching us the word "blastissimo"!

Gramophone/Quigley/Whitacre ChoralNet threads

An interesting development occurred recently, a bit of a tussle 'twixt Patrick Dupre Quigley of Seraphic Fire fame and composer Eric Whitacre in regard to an article Whitacre wrote for Gramophone magazine. There were a few misunderstandings on Patrick's part about the title (apparently he did not know that Eric had not written or approved the title "Composer Eric Whitacre on Why British Choirs are Best") and what Eric was trying to achieve in the article. I do think Gramophone was sloppy in how it presented the headline/article, but hey, that's what most magazines do- they rarely step back and try to imagine how various readers will take in what they publish (some have felt that Eric should have foreseen this). So I thought I would try to recap this thing- not to titillate us all over any bad blood between the two cornerstones of the thing, but mostly because of the, at times, inflamed responses on Choralnet.

How do I feel about all of this? I don't think ANY country's choirs are "the best", and especially these days since we are finding so many new opportunities to share what we do via ACDA, Interkultur and the like, why should we have any desire to turn our art into a competition? When I compose I am not in competition with any other composers. I don't don battle gear when I sit down to write and I am thrilled when I hear a new piece by my contemporaries that really is a winner. I have to hearken back to Aidan (my funny and also wise seven year old) always emphatically saying when he was three or four "Daddy, everybody's different", which he would interpolate quite often when he did something slightly different that the way I wanted him to do it! I'm not saying we have to always be super polite and never enter a discussion or argument, but let's always have some manners about it. I do think it was interesting to see how impassioned people got over the various things being said in the Choralet thread even when it got off track into other areas - for that we can be thankful, as it shows that there is plenty of passion out there about what we do.

Here is a link to Whitacre's Gramophone article:

Here is Quigley's response via his blog (which also now contains some great, well thought out responses):

And here is a link to all the Choralnet posts, which are all over the map, but quite interesting to read:

And here is Whitacre's blog response in which he tried to calm matters down. I'm not sure he truly succeeds, some people have taken exception to his response, and here's why: Some of the problems to begin with were over the title "Eric Whitacre on why British Choirs are Best"-- now his blog title "A Tempest in a Teacup" seems to patronize the strong feelings this has all stirred up- to him it may seem a tempest in a teacup but things sure appear bigger than a teacup in the ChoralNet discussions!

Happy Reading and a Happy New Year!