Weeks 34-38: On Carols and Castles
I have been much busier this term than the last. In addition to my normal composition routine I have been made manager of the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir, taken leadership of the postgraduate reading group, and started my teaching duties for the second year composition students. All good experience, but I can't deny that it has taken some getting used to. There is so much music to be composed, and I feel that I haven't quite fallen into a productive stride yet. This past summer I discovered that I operate best when my thoughts have time to breath. I'm not one of those that needs to be constantly busy to be productive. I need time to sit and think, or pace around my room singing fragments of melodies until things fall into place naturally. My new flatmates must think I'm mad, but that's how I work.
As of this weekend I have finished work on what I feel is a fairly important commission for me; a new setting of Adam lay ybounden for a Nine Lessons and Carols service in London, set for early December of this year. My first time ever visiting London will be to conduct Chamber Choir in a world premier of my own work. What a treat! The text is likely a 15th century wandering English minstrel song:
Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter,
Thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took.
As clerkes finden,
Written in their book.
Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie,
Abeen heav'ne queen.
Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen.
What I find most interesting about this text is how the author plays with concepts of time and numbers. According to medieval theology, Adam supposedly lay in bonds in the limbus patrum (limbo) for four thousand years, from the time of his death until the birth of Jesus Christ. Certain of the speech sounds contained in the poem sound best when drawn out for their full effect, i.e. “bounden in a bond,” the alliteration of which causes the speaker (or singer) to stretch time when uttering the words. “Four thousand winter,” is also, of course, a very long time, something which I attempted to convey in the music.
The challenge of conveying four thousand years of limbo in a short piece of music is immense. It was the numbers that in the text that ultimately gave me the structure of the work. Four stanzas, four thousand years – it was a short leap to realize that the piece should land roughly on the four minute mark. I used the first stanza as the A section of a quasi-rondo form, placing it in between each of the other stanzas as a sort of refrain. The first A section is doubled to include an introduction and the final line of the last stanza, “Deo gratias!” became the coda, returning to the melodic material of the introduction and A sections. Thus the full architecture of the work is A(introduction) – ABACAD – A (coda). Discounting the brief coda there are then four true iterations of the refrain, matching both the four stanzas of the poem and the “four thousand winter,” included in the text.
The melodic material itself is constantly swirling in a chromatic descent. To me this downward spinning motion, in combination with the alliterative bilabial nature of lines like “bounden in a bond,” feels like the swirling, oppressive nature of Adam's time in the limbus patrum. The harmonic language I chose was purposeful; I employed reasonably standard western chromaticism, purely for the fact that this is an advent carol for a Nine Lessons and Carols service. In my past advent and Christmas were always accompanied by hymn-like arrangements of carols, so this piece is also paying homage to my own traditional family holiday experience as well. The goal here is to expand the piece into a three carol set, one each for Advent, Christmas, and Easter.
Composer-ramblings aside, I'm incredibly excited to perform this piece in London with Chamber Choir. Chamber has become a second family to me, just as Williamson Voices was during my time at Westminster Choir College. Our tour to Wales in September was absolutely lovely and I am so grateful that they went easy on me as the new manager. St. Asaph is a beautiful little town in North Wales, I would I highly recommend stopping in there to anyone passing through the area. We performed two concerts at St. Asaph's cathedral, incidentally where Paul's first composition teacher (and therefore my “grand-teacher”), William Mathias, is buried. One of the concerts was actually dedicated to Mathias, and was performed on what would have been his 80th birthday had he still been alive.
Two weeks ago I had the enormous pleasure of spending a weekend with friends at Culzean Castle, a stunning structure on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Western shore of Scotland. Three nights of intense merry-making, word games, rounders, cave exploring, bathrobes, and dodging the resident ghosts. We essentially took over the top floor of the castle, the Eisenhower apartment, so named for the United States president's regular visits and fondness of the castle. One night, after a spectacular dinner in full tuxedos and gowns, we sang for the owners in the domed atrium containing a sweeping staircase at the center of the castle – an experience I will never forget. I seem to be forming a great deal of unforgettable memories here...
This weekend Sarah and I trekked down to Edinburgh on a day trip. Neither of us had been there before, but I think it's safe to say that both of us will be going back more often from now on. It's a stunningly beautiful city. After a lunch of fish and chips we spent most of the day exploring Edinburgh Castle, an immense structure perched above the city on a high cliff. To cap the whole experience, we were finally able to meet up with my step-brother Alex, a native of Edinburgh, for a pint and a plate of nachos. It was so good to see him again; the last time we were in close proximity was over a year ago when I came to Aberdeen to see the University and decide if I wanted to move here. The journey back on the train was long (hampered by a nosebleed on my part while trying to get tickets), but the conversation was wonderful and Sarah and I arrived back in Aberdeen that evening exhausted but in very good spirits.
Overall, life continues to be very kind to me. I feel slightly stressed, but everything will work out just fine, as it always does.
Until next time,
Culture shock of the week(s): Forgetting that the stove needs to be turned on like a wall socket. I know it saves energy, but staring at a raw egg in a skillet for half an hour and wondering why it won't cook makes me feel stupid. Really stupid.
Music of the week (well, really because the video itself is beautiful... not a huge fan of the guy's voice): Hell Bent - Kenna