Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Alice Parker at the 2011 NCCO Conference

Change of Plan- I will blog about Alice Parker's work on Saturday at NCCO- then write a new blog about the rest of Saturday's interest sessions.

Saturday began with Alice Parker recounting how she wrote what are known as the Parker/Shaw arrangements. From her recounting of the process, it was pretty obvious that these arrangements were mostly her work, and that Shaw guided and helped her tweak them. I was not aware of this- the fact that Miss Parker wrote most of the notes and created this music first by herself, with tweaking by Shaw coming after her first inspirations. She has told me, when I questioned her politely on this, that the designation Parker/Shaw was and still is the right name for these works because Shaw guided her so well when she was quite young (she started working when she was 21) and not fully confident of her work. And she has reminded me that later on a number of the arrangements have only her name on them, as she was becoming more confident and far less in need of the guidance/editing of Shaw. In our correspondence on this Miss Parker is quite sweet about how she views their early collaborations- she was ten years his junior, and she says that at that time she truly needed his experience to help her compositional and arranging skills.

We had a whole packet of these pieces and we sang them through with her leading. She was tough on this crowd of choral directors, some of whom (including moi) may have been up too late the previous night! In fact, someone nearby whispered to me- "Hey, I though she would be like a sweet Grandma, I didn't think she would yell at us for sucking at singing!" And yes she was tough on us- at one point telling us that 5% of us had gotten a phrase right and the other 95% were terrible, and berating us for always crescendo rising lines. Personally, I thought it was great fun!

I would also add my opinion that the quality of these arrangements is not totally even- there are many brilliant arrangements which stand the test of time, but also some things which go on too long without fresh ideas warranting the length of them. But there is a great heritage here and so much to like-- and I will always have to say that I love her adamant statement (which she iterates quite often in her appearances) that all the arrangements pick a key and stay there- no knee jerk, "Hey Judy, let's add a half-step up modulation, and another, and another" stuff going on.

Some Parkerisms for y'all:

"Some people were 12 tone composers- I turned into a 5 note composer"

"Phrasing shouldn't be about beats- it should be like waves or a current"

"Never ignore a text comma"

And to counteract the usual performance tendencies of most people conducting "Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal" she said, " It's not ALL joyous. It's more dramatic, and at times tearful- it only gradually grows in its affirmation." What a brilliant soul- would that we all could be so cool and full of energy at age 86!

On Saturday night Alice Parker was named an Honorary Life Member of NCCO- here is what she said as her accepted this honor:

"I am honored more than I can say by this award, and also totally humbled by the fact that I’m standing on the stage before wonderful music is going to be made here. I will be brief in my remarks so we can get to that. I want to thank NCCO for inviting me here, and giving me the chance to be with a delightfully enthusiastic and varied group of people who love what I love, vocal music, and are searching after its many means of expression, with true humor and intelligence and diligence.

We are all here because we have ears. We are taking part in a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the human race, wherever we can find it: people have always listened. People have always learned songs and carried them on. The styles of music vary enormously, as do the languages in which people sing, but the reality is that music is a form of expression that we humans share all over the world. It does something for us that nothing else can do. Words are a basic part of it, but what happens when we combine words and rhythms and tones, is really miraculous. And what it allows for us is a language for our emotions, for sharing in those things which are most human about us and which unite us one to another. All of the different walls of race and color and age and language, political beliefs, everything else falls when we begin to sing together. And I can only wish that all the world would do a lot more singing. That if our Congress always sang a folk song to remind them of our common beliefs, we might be better off. And the same thing at the United Nations. Our rational brains get us into trouble. They are amazing things, but they get us into trouble when they are not balanced by our intuitive brains. And I honestly believe that when I am singing, or making music in this way, I am using all of the faculties at my disposal in a way that nothing else challenges me to do. My mind, my heart, my spirit, my body, my breath, everything I know, all the sounds I’ve ever heard, all come into it. And the incredible thing is that it all happens right now, right here. And the challenge for all of us is to keep learning, to keep hearing better and better, finer and finer distinctions in tone quality or in text accentuation, or the purity of the vowel, or the kind of rhythm which calls forth a certain kind of dance, which indeed calls it into being. So we listen more and more.

When we have the chance to be at a weekend like this, concentrating on both hearing excellent groups sing, and talking about the things that go into making it possible, it is a marvelous opportunity. And it is capped off in a superb way by tonight’s concert, where we are all in communion with Bach, through Helmuth Rilling, and his lifetime of absorbing himself in that language. So we kind of take fire from this. We are part of that tradition. We all are part of what we have been taught by the many visionary teachers who have influenced us. But we are also that next generation that needs to hand it on. So be very aware that we are all, each one of us, a fulcrum between the past and the future, and the only time we have to express that is right now. So don’t hold back: express it, learn tonight, listen tonight, revel in being a human being that is part of the same race that can produce this music that gives to each of us this chance to drink at those springs of inspiration that keep us working and singing together."


  1. The last paragraph would be highly meaningful to share with our next GSE choir post-final concert! "A fulcrum between the past and the future...." Love it

  2. This is a great rundown on a wonderful event, which I also attended. The thing that struck me most was her insistence on the fact that the score is only 5% of the music...a very imperfect template for the sound, and that there are a million things that simply can't be conveyed on paper...the subtleties of phrasing, dynamics, feeling, etc.

    SO important, not said nearly often enough.