Prelude - A Disclaimer
I have played many different roles in the past four weeks. I have been choir manager, traveller, couch surfer, dog-sitter, teacher, composer, and Ed Snowden look-alike. For the first time I'm finding it impossible to keep my thoughts redacted enough to cram everything into a single blog entry, so there will be three parts. In all honesty, the order of events is completely lost to me given all that has happened. My apologies to those of you who were there and may be able to recount these events in their entirety and in chronological order.
Part I – Orbits
On April 6th the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir began its monumental journey to the United States to combine with Westminster Williamson Voices in Princeton and New York City. I'll admit that I was slightly nervous to return to my alma mater (be gone, emotions!), but I was far too focused on ushering thirty-one university students onto international flights and getting them through customs to worry about how I would react to being back there. One of the many super powers that I have been mysteriously granted after managing an international tour is the ability to cool my head on command. Not that I'll use this new found talent very much... I quite like having emotions.
The first time I returned to Westminster Choir College was roughly six months after graduation, in November of 2013. It was too soon; I hadn't spent enough time away to come back and actually enjoy myself, and I was caught in the wistful misery of a nostalgic emotional crisis. This time around was completely the opposite. It was wonderful to see the school was thriving and evolving as always in my absence, to see old friends and make new ones. There's also a thrill in showing someone you love around a familiar place. It was such a joy to have Sarah there with me.
Sarah, Peter, Theo, and I were housed at “The Tavern,” a famous house that has been continuously occupied by Westminster's finest since choirs of dinosaurs roamed New Jersey. Our Williamson hosts, Corey, Austin, Ryan, Joel, and John (and his dogs Bookie and Ralph), pulled out all the stops to make our stay not only comfortable but hilariously enjoyable as well. The Tavern is ideally located, less than a block from Westminster and just a stone's throw from the infamous Hoagie Haven and the ever buzzing Ivy Inn. I was back on my old stomping ground, and was loving every minute of it.
All in all our schedule allowed for a great deal of leisure time. We took walks, enjoyed late nights and unhealthy food, gained a stone or two, and laughed until our faces hurt. I had the great pleasure of meeting Sarah's mother, Debbie, who I felt incredibly at ease with and who joined us in several of our outings. Our actual scheduled events were great dollops of poignancy and profundity in the happy soup of the week. Notable among them were Chamber Choir's evensong session in Steve Pilkington's Sacred Music Lab, Brandon Waddles' incredible lecture on African-American music during Jubilee rehearsal, and the life-changing masterclass given by Nova Thomas and Sean McCarther. We were also given permission to sing Paul's arrangement of Ae fond kiss at the 9/11 memorial during our day in New York City, a truly unforgettable experience. As an American it was very moving to see our friends from across the sea reacting with such honesty and respect to the subdued atmosphere of remembrance in that place.
Early in the week I had the honour of being interviewed by Chris Titko for a series of videos about new music that are being produced by J. W. Pepper this year. I have taken part in other interviews like this, but I was so pleased to discover how switched on Chris was. He seemed to know more about me and my career than even I did, and had come prepared by reading the previous entries of this blog and reading about the collaboration between my mother and myself as we composed “A Child's Requiem.” It may actually have been the first time I felt completely at ease in the hot-seat, which I've come to find is a rare thing indeed. Definitely a highlight of the week.
Of course, the whole reason we were there was to sing. The feeling in the room when Chamber Choir and Williamson Voices sang together for the first time was far different than I think any of us had been expecting. I had been imagining that it would take us at least one whole rehearsal to find each other sonically, given the differences between the American and British choral styles. But right from the first chord of Paul's Shadow of Thy Cross there existed a remarkable synergy of sound that was both deep and effortless. Credit must go James Jordan... if anything is a sign of his abilities as a conductor and his trust in the musicians he brings together, it was that moment.
I was in an interesting position, as the combined choirs were also giving the world premier of a major work of mine that was completed last summer, titled “Songs of the Questioner.” The work had been in progress since I was a junior at Westminster roughly three years prior to the tour, so to hear it for the first time was both thrilling and slightly terrifying. But I trusted in them and in James, and the final product was nothing short of staggering. The many words, messages, and emails that I received from singers and audience members alike following each concert were evidence enough for me that I have touched on something in this work that really reaches people. As a composer, there can be no better outcome than feeling as if you have provided some valuable personal experience for both the performer and the audience. It was oddly humbling as well, so much so that I'm still unsure of how to react to the overwhelming content of a few of the messages I received. I can say however, that Songs of the Questioner may be the first piece I have yet composed that has to potential to be widely performed in years to come.
I have to pause in the general flow of this post to offer thanks to two people. First, to James Jordan, whose interpretation of Songs of the Questioner was so much more beautiful than what I could have possibly imagined. Second, to Corey Everly, without whose skills at the piano the performances would never have happened. Both of these men really get this piece, even more so than I do.
Following a stunning concert and drinks reception at 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, the realization that our week together was over began to set in. If you happened to be at Princeton Junction train station on the evening of the departure of the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir, you may have thought that someone had died given the number of tears. You may have also been alarmed at how quickly those tears turned to laughter and back again, and again and again, until an American choir manager stood up and yelled that if the Brits didn't get on the damn platform they would miss the train. Sometimes I'm glad for my new ability to calm my emotions...
But it never lasts long. I was sad to see them go, and I did not want the week to end. My two second families who had come together for a brief spell, only to separate again so soon. My heart was split between the people on the departing train and the people on the platform.
And that was the most beautiful feeling in the world.
Two stars once on their lonely way
Met in the heavenly height,
And they dreamed a dream they might shine alway
With undivided light;
Melt into one with a breathless throe,
And beam as one in the night.
And each forgot in the dream so strange
How desolately far
Swept on each path, for who shall change
The orbit of a star?
Yea, all was a dream, and still they must go
As lonely as they are.
- Richard Le Gallienne
Part II – Closing a Circle
As hard as it was to say goodbye at Princeton Junction, I was glad that I was not making the journey back over the Atlantic just yet. My gallant hosts had agreed to let me stay with them for a further three days, so that I would have time to say my goodbyes in my own fashion. As my managerial duties had been passed off to Sarah for the return journey, I found myself with an abundance of freedom for the first time in several months. There is something special about doing nothing after a period of doing seemingly everything. Certain things start to make sense, and for a composer this is the time that imperative subconscious connections are made.
But in all reality I really was doing nothing of direct, work-related importance... and it was awesome. I was able to reconnect with some of my old college friends, enjoy a few more late nights and some more unhealthy food, and play an enormous amount of guitar. The one thing that was loosely work-related was attending a Williamson Voices rehearsal in which Rachel Beeksma, a grad student at Westminster (and, oddly enough, a Yooper!), conducted my “Lux aeterna” from A Child's Requiem. The sound that choir produces... you have to hear it in person to believe it.
The Tavern was gracious enough to host a going away part of sorts for me on my last night, and the following day I travelled to Philadelphia to stay with Dad and Susan. One of the reasons that my trip extension was an exceptional experience was that it allowed me to spend some time with them in Philly again. It has been over two years since I had been to their house, and quite a bit has changed in that time. The animals are all significantly older (though Lulu and Crumb are still plugging along somehow) and Dad and Sue have taken it upon themselves to turn their corner of West Philly into a jungle. So many plants! And each has its own “guardian,” a small porcelain creature or action figure stuck in the soil and tasked with keeping its host safe. It makes me happy to see that as time goes on their appreciation for all things that grow increases. They seem happiest when they are doing their morning “tour” of the garden, which I have often watched from the third floor turret, unbeknownst to them.
I shall have to sum up my time in Philly by saying that it has been a very happy, relaxing time. Almost too relaxing if I'm honest, as my ability to do work here has been greatly diminished by the desire to mimic this host of lethargic cats and dogs. Despite this period of relative inactivity, I'm so glad that it has happened. I rarely get a chance to spend time with these two, and I really do love them to death.
About mid way through my time in Philly Susan embarked on her own fascinating journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, and I boarded a train that would take me from 30th Street Station to Yardley, Pennsylvania. This short trip was the first of the professional opportunities that were the reason for extending my trip past Chamber Choir tour. The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir, conducted by Jim Moyer, was to give the American premier of my new setting of Salvator Mundi at the end of the month in Princeton University Chapel, and so I figured I would join them in rehearsal about a week beforehand.
Once again I was lucky enough to have wonderful hosts; David Reimschussel, another conductor at Pennsbury, and his wife Traci. I had met the whole Pennsbury team in Leipzig, Germany when they gave the world premier of the work back in February. As I wrote in the previous blog entry about the Leipzig trip, sometimes you meet people that you get along with immediately with no effort at all. The Pennsbury choral program, its conductors and students alike, are these kind of people. I had the opportunity to introduce my music and do a little bit of composition and theory teaching while I was visiting the school, and the students proved themselves to be very bright and welcoming to new ideas. This is, of course, a sign of excellent teaching as much as it is a sign of excellent students.
I returned to Philadelphia in high spirits, spent the better part of a week there, and then took the train yet again back to Princeton. So many memories of that train route! I remember so clearly composing much of my Alleluia aboard the New Jersey Transit trains between Trenton and Philadelphia. Upon arrival, Austin of the Tavern crew picked me up at the train station, and I spent a further two days in Princeton in much the same manner as before (late nights, unhealthy food – you get the general idea here). It was so good to spend some time with my old house mates Jared and John (who are completely bonkers by the way), and Ryan Cassel, who I never lived with but who is also pleasantly bonkers.
The Pennsbury High School Concert Choir gave the American premier of Salvator mundi on the 29th of April, as a part of their Big Sing concert in Princeton University Chapel. Being in attendance at this concert felt as though I was closing a circle with the choir at the end of a journey that had spanned several thousand miles. I can't imagine not having been there, just as I can't imagine not working with this fabulous group of people in the future. I had gotten so used to their presence in my life that I forgot that my last chance to speak to them as a group was upon me. Here's hoping that I impressed upon them how much they mean to me when I said my goodbyes.
As I was walking back to the Tavern by myself after the concert, flowers given to me by the students in hand, I began to realize that my life's calling, however fraught with financial worry and stress-related headaches, is possibly the best that one can have. Simply to make music with people such as these is really all I can ask for in life.
Part III – 48 hours.
When I got back to the Tavern I found a couple of my hosts sitting in the living room. I had an early flight the next morning, so Austin and Julia had agreed to drive me back to Philadelphia late after the concert. We affectionately dubbed this final half hour of sitting as the “coda” to my time in Princeton. Very tough to say goodbye to these guys, but especially tough to say farewell to Corey as he and I really rekindled our friendship and musical kinship during my time there.
After arriving late and sleeping restlessly, I found myself at the Philadelphia airport the following morning, set to embark on my last professional gig of the trip. The Fort Myers Greenwave Singers, conducted by Matt Koller, were set to perform the world premier of my new choral work, “The Same Stream,” that night in Fort Myers, Florida. Given the fact that my flight landed only half an hour or so before the concert, I had to change into my concert attire in Washington. This was the first time I have flown in professional dress, and oddly enough it seemed to make me more approachable. As I sat at the gate, working on the final proof of Songs of the Questioner for GIA, several people approached me and asked if I was a composer. It's a nice feeling to talk to complete strangers about things you are genuinely excited for.
And so began 48 of the strangest and most amazing hours I have yet experienced.
I was picked up from the airport by Matt's charming wife Christy, who is also a choral conductor in the area. The drive in from the airport was very surreal, as I was wearing a black suit in the hot Floridian weather, shooting past palm trees and people in summer clothes. Arriving at Fort Myers High School, I couldn't help but feel a little bit nervous; unlike the Westminster and Pennsbury folks, I had never met any of these people in the flesh before. Nevertheless, after entering the choral room I was greeted enthusiastically by Matt, who let me directly into the concert hall for the performance.
What I found there was the last thing I could have ever expected for a world premier concert venue. The hall had been decked out in psychedelic decorations, with lasers and multi-coloured lights beaming and shifting on-stage. As we found our seats, Christy explained to me that this was the final concert of the year, the “prism” concert. Every year, the students chose the theme of the concert and auditioned to sing or play solo or small ensemble pieces of their liking. Most of the repertoire was music of popular genres. The Same Stream was nestled cosily in between Freebird and Play That Funky Music, toward the end of the program. A unique location for a world premier, to be sure.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn't slightly taken aback and worried about this at first. As the concert commenced however, my worry turned to fascination and pure enjoyment. There was not a single act on the program that wasn't tremendously well performed and well received, and many of the students had voices that professional performers would kill to possess. By the time my piece came around, I was so used to the nature of the concert that the transition from Freebird actually felt quite organic. At that point I was so enamoured with the students' abilities that I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
One of the inherent problems of flying in just before the concert is that I had no time to hear or rehearse the piece beforehand. The world premier was literally the first time I ever got to hear them sing the piece, and I was shocked at how easily they navigated the difficult sections. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and surreal experience, punctuated only slightly by the crackling of the faulty speaker overhead. Immediately afterwards (while Play That Funky Music was ringing out), I remember feeling nothing but joy and thankfulness that I was able to make it Florida to witness that very strange yet satisfying premier. Many of the students introduced themselves and shared words of their own thankfulness after the concert, which only sweetened the deal.
In the ten years or so that I have been doing this, I've come to realize that the actual concert, the presentation of a world premier, is merely a celebration of the journey that is learning and preparing the work. That is why I will always love spending time with singers outside of the concert hall and in the rehearsal room. Thankfully, the following day I was able to spend an hour and half with the students during regular school hours. Some of this time was spent talking about my own life experiences, about the life of a musician, and answering whatever questions they had. Then we rehearsed the piece and sang it again in the entryway to the school itself, with an audience of teachers, students, and what seemed to be custodians toting garbage bins. To me it was this short moment in time that was the crux of the whole trip; an hour and a half to be together and to commune in music without any of the expectations that a concert brings.
It was also remarkably pleasant to just sit in Matt's office and talk to the students about their lives, their passions, and their music-making. Many of them are planning on going into music as a career, so I hope that I was able to offer some kind of valuable insight to them as a professional musician. Halfway through the day I gave an impromptu composition lesson to Matt's bright young son, Christian, who I hope continues composing no matter what musical path he ultimately chooses. I shared Songs of the Questioner with a group of them at the piano, and their responses to the piece reignited my own confidence and joy in what I do.
I got to know Matt and Christy remarkably well in such a short time, and had many moments of both paralysing hilarity and deep conversation. It honestly felt as though we had known each other for years, not hours. They also introduced me to the legend that is their friend Aaron, who I seriously hope also becomes a long time friend. Just as with the Pennsbury entourage, this was a group of people that I felt completely at home with from the get-go, and for that alone the trip was worth the work.
That night was the second performance, which was slightly less pristine given that the choir was standing in a quite inopportune formation in the hall. But that didn't matter to me. The deal was sealed, and as we drove to the airport the following morning I felt nothing but love for every person I met during that crazy, whirlwind trip. I sincerely hope I get to work with them again in the near future.
Coda – The Last Leg
I'm sort of at a loss for how to wrap this up. My internal self is a big slush of positive emotions right now, for the first time in a very long time. My Dad, Ryan Cassel, Austin Turner, Julia Gallagher and many others gave me bits of excellent advice on this trip that essentially lead to the same conclusion...
Much of my work leading up to this point has been influenced by negative experiences in my life. Now, in spite of the fact that this PhD is very hard work, it seems that I'm at a time when positivity and love for the people I work with is rising above those dark times. My journey forward will be learning to compose out of happiness, to draw upon these experiences and these people as new sources of inspiration, and to look forward to making music with any and all who come my way.
And so, it's back over the Atlantic once more. Life is good. Thank you to everyone who made this possible.
Until next time,