July 26, 2012
When Seth McMullen, conductor of “Sonous,” the select chorus of Eagle High School in Eagle, Idaho called me in the summer of 2011 and said “We have been selected to perform at the 2012 Northwest ACDA conference in Seattle next March, would you write a piece for us to premiere there?”, I was thrilled to say yes. Seth is one my Male Ensemble Northwest brothers, and I have written for him and Sonous before, a setting of “The Tyger” by William Blake. The next thing he said, “I want you to challenge them!”, made me even happier. I knew this would be an interesting journey.
Text selection was the next thing on my mind. As the project began to swirl in my head, I began to hear sounds and textures and colors, but not words. None of the backlog of poems I want to set someday jumped forward and presented itself as the right one. I had several projects to finish before I could dive into this one, so I did not push it, hoping for something to magically appear.
As time went on, though, no words seemed to step forward. In my writing in general, there are things that seem like they are mine to do and things that are not. I want my writing to be grounded in where I am, physically, emotionally, and philosophically. Instrumental writing allows contrapuntal devices as well as colors and textures that are not driven by words, and this often obscures words, which I think is one reason we don’t hear as much contrapuntal choral writing these days. Liturgical Latin, while familiar enough to allow such things, does not appeal to me.
I scheduled a meeting with Seth and Sonous very early in the process. I always like to have specific singers in my ears when I write, even if it is a brief meeting. With the time rapidly approaching for my trip to Boise, I still did not have a text.
So, with the urgency building, I went hiking on Badger Mountain, my favorite close-to-home hill to climb. It is one of a line of hills that looks like a string of dinosaur or dragon backs, bodies mostly underground, that stretches through the arid lands of Eastern Washington where the tallest plants are the sagebrush.
From the top of Badger, I looked out over the confluence of the Yakima River and the Columbia River, north to the Hanford Reach National Monument, which is the last remaining free-flowing segment of the Columbia River. The sky was completely covered in the distance in very dark, blue-gray cloud, but I could see all the way across the Arid Lands Ecology Preserve and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the birthplace of the Nuclear Age and the most stunning juxtaposition of natural beauty and human contamination that I know of. The far edge was the white bluffs of the Wahluke Slope. As I stood, watching, I saw a sudden flash of white against that ominous distance, with the tiny outlines of the B Reactor and the N Reactor remains. I could not tell what that light was, at first, even upon a second flash. All at once, a whole flock of large white birds wheeled and turned and caught the single shaft of sunlight, and it was as if the sky was suddenly full of them. From that distance, they appeared to be American White Pelicans, a bird that had almost disappeared in the 20th century due to DDT and degradation of the wetlands, but now has returned to the Reach. It was a scene of amazing stillness and movement, from the deceptively motionless sky in the background and the rivers below to the flocking birds above them, flying in turning, flowing patterns, reacting to unseen forces and pursuing a hidden, co-ordinated goal through the air.
I immediately knew that I needed to express those contrasts in the music. Darkness and light, nature and technology, war and peace, movement and stillness. I wanted those three elements in the music–the imperceptible movement of the rivers below, the flashing and flocking of the birds above, and the darkness surrounding it all. The words “glory above” and “peace below” came to my mind. All spiritual traditions that I know of have some form those words. In Greek, we have Δόξα Σοι τῷ δείξαντι τὸ φῶς, “Glory to you who has shown us the light.” In Latin, “Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra, pax hominibus”. I knew I wanted to reference those ideas in the most stripped down, bare bones way that I could, and not be limited by a particular religious tradition.
The first bits of music that came to me were the chords for “glory above” in the upper voices. I few days later, I went to visit Sonous in Eagle, Idaho, near Boise.
I was in the rehearsal hall as they arrived. It is a tribute to the quality of the program that the select choir has around 60 singers in it, and they all deserve to be there. After Mr. McMullen warmed them up a bit and introduced me, I asked them to sing some music they knew, just to give me a mental image of their sound. Even though it was early in the school year, they sounded fantastic. I walked around, listening to them, and asked to hear the individual sections alone, and just generally got a sense of their energy and spirit. Next, I told them the story of the piece as it was so far, explaining where I was in the process. I asked them to tell me what their most and least favorite pieces were that they sang. Consistently, they like things that took them a bit to learn, things that stretched them. They told me that their parts were often way too limited in range, and they just wanted more.
That led me over to the piano, to experiment with sections a bit and see what they were really capable of. In the process of this playing around, while talking a bit about color of sound and the color of that sky, it suddenly occurred to me to have them start opening and closing their mouths while keeping the sound going, and it made this amazing thrumming sound that I knew was going to find it’s way into the piece somehow. While vocalizing the sopranos, I discovered that there were quite a few of them who could easily vocalize up into nearly “Queen of the Night” territory. As a voice teacher, I know that this is more common than people know, and they girls who can do it love getting the opportunity. We talked a bit about how so often all the singers could sing much higher and lower than their choral parts asked for, and out of that, I just had them start a scale. We had the basses start with their lowest note, and asked the singers to join in as soon as they could reach the notes, and just keep going up the scale until they reached their upper limits. It was such an amazing, unified, unearthly sound that I knew that it had to figure into the piece as well, some way.
Lastly, I asked them to tell me what they really wished they got to do that choir music did not ask them to do enough, and they were very eager in their responses—they wanted challenging music, not too limited in range, that was physically fun, and beautiful while including dissonance. I felt like I could not have scripted their responses to fit what I wanted to do even if I had tried.
I went home with my inner ear and my heart full of them, and began to write. A week later, as part of my Composer-In-Residence activities with the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, I did a presentation on what I had done so far, including quite a bit of video from my time in Boise with the kids as well as some recorded audio experiments I had done. It is good for us composers to explain ourselves. Sometimes it clarifies things for us when we try to explain what we are doing to others. The audio experiments were also a departure for me, playing with recorded sounds first rather than marks on paper or a display in a computer program.
As I refined the approach to the sound of opening and closing their mouths that we had stumbled upon, I decided that it was more effective to have the individual 8 parts do it as a section rather than just randomly. It also occurred to me as I listened to it that the sound was the sacred incantation “AUM,” which seemed to me the perfect response to the scene. Second, I knew that I needed that flash of light above.
In thinking about the flocking behavior that I witnessed, I began to ask myself what flocking really is. Fish do it, birds do it, it looks like magic to us. It struck me that flocking and counterpoint are very related. I discovered that flocking and swarming are the result of the individuals making very quick steering maneuvers to maintain a specific distance from each other, maintain a common directional goal, and avoid or pursue things that we who are outside the flock cannot see. That led me into the contrapuntal sections. Then, with the image of the birds flying off, I used the idea of the flock of singers starting with the lowest notes and rising all together as one voice, with us not being able to tell when one section enters or exits.
When the piece was done, I presented it with a bit of trepidation. I knew that I had stretched the singers, and I was really hoping it was not too far. On the page, it does not look at all like normal choral music. That can be a bit scary to choirs and conductors! I knew, though, that all the way through I had employed really very few elements, with a lot of repeated patterns, and I believed very firmly that they could do it. I did tell him, though, that I was, as always, very interested in the collision of inner vision and external reality and would do whatever I could to make it a piece that they could do and adjust whatever needed to be adjusted.
After a few rehearsals, I got a call saying that they could do it, but that their program was a very big sing already, could I possibly shorten it up a bit? I said yes, thought no, and then looked at the piece. It was several weeks after I had delivered it, and I had purposely not looked at it at all in the interim. It was immediately apparent that not only was it possible to edit it, it was a better piece that way, so I made the adjustments and sent the score off.
While people who know my work recognize my voice in this piece, it is also different from anything I have ever presented. It felt like a huge risk to be doing something like this for a conference. I kept hoping to hear from the choir, but not much was forthcoming.
Soon, it was time for the NWACDA performance. I met the choir in Olympia the night before for a preparatory performance. First off, the signs of a quality program were all there. Strong parental presence, and the principal of the school was even traveling with them. Excellent spirit in the kids, as well. They were excited about the event, and we were happy to see each other again. They had very nice things to say to me about the piece, which was good to hear, as I have a genuine high regard for high school musicians, and remember what it felt like to be one. The kids had traveled a long distance by bus over several days, doing several coachings and events along the way, and they were clearly quite tired. I arrived just after they had started rehearsing in the space, and sang the piece for me to get my input. As I had never heard it outside my head before, and with a piece as far outside all of our comfort zones as this one is, my inner inclination was to want to rehearse it for about 3 days. I had about 2 minutes, and what they needed was confidence and rest, it seemed to me. We played a bit with sound color in the opening section, I tried to talk them into as fast a tempo as they could handle, and left it at that. We ate a meal together, and then they sang their complete program. It was an amazing collection of big works, and I could see a bit into Seth’s mind— he was thinking some variation of “hmmm, that’s a lot of big and challenging material for a high school group…” Everything on the program had the same issue. They were tired, and simply were not singing as well as they usually sang. Pitch level and rhythmic clarity were suffering in all pieces. Here is where Seth’s skills, experience, and genuine good-heartedness really kicked in. Rather than berating them, he simply encouraged them to sleep well and laid out the plan for the AM. The next day, I was able to meet them for breakfast and spend some time with them in their warm-up period. As it was an AM concert, this all happened way too early for my comfort, but I did my best to take Seth’s lead and just project confidence in them and their conductor. As the concert approached, my nerves were pretty raw. It was a regional ACDA conference, I was surrounded by fantastic conductors and composers, I wanted way too much to make a good impression, and I was in quite a bit of physical pain from a knee injury combined with too much walking, too many responsibilities at the conference, and too little rest. One of the important skills for a composer, though, is to let go and truly give the piece over to the performers, so I took a few deep breaths and just listened.
As soon as the first piece rang out into Town Hall, I felt better. Preparation and trust was paying off. As they began singing “Glory, Peace” in the middle of the program, it was cloudy outside, which seemed quite normal for a March day in Seattle. The color of the opening sound was marvelous, better than the day before, different than anything I had heard from any other choir. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Just as they sang the first high bit, that flash of light from the upper voices, the stained glass windows (Town Hall is a church building now used as a concert hall) lit up as the sun came out. They kids sang the “flocking” section with commitment and spirit (even though I still wanted them to go faster!), and the audience seemed to me to be riveted to them all the way through to the last bird flying off into the distance, and applauded them and me warmly. I could hardly breathe. As soon as they were done, I got to go outside with them and congratulate them, I was so proud of them! Quite a few of them then shared with me their stories of how it was a piece that took them awhile to find a way into, as it was so different from what they were used to, but that the fact that I had spent time with them in the fall helped keep them on track, and that when they finally got to the place where they were starting to “get it,” they really fell in love with it. Nothing could have made me happier.
I got to spend some time with some colleagues soon after the concert. They had such nice things to say, it was very gratifying and a giant relief. The thing that made me feel the best was how both the folks who were familiar with the specifics of the location described in the program note said they could really see the scene, and how the folks who did not read the description at all said that it made complete musical and emotional sense to them.
Since the premiere, I made a demo video of audio with the score imbedded in the video which is now on YouTube. The score and SoundCloud audio of the demo are on the page for the piece.
Thanks to Seth and Sonous for your excellent work, and for asking me to write this piece for you, and for taking this journey with me.