Week 15: On hard work and good times.
I am two days late in posting I am afraid, but I feel I have very good reasons for putting it off. This week and weekend could not have been more different from the last; very productive and busy without much frustration of any kind at all. The week was spent finalizing my piece for the University of Aberdeen Chamber Choir's tour to Belgium and Holland, a work for SSAATTBB chorus with soloists titled Phaenix alumna mortis. I thought that I had pretty much finished the conceptual work on the piece during Chapel Choir's tour to Canterbury, but on returning to Aberdeen I began questioning some aspects of the composition and ultimately decided to rewrite some sections. It is a very difficult piece of music, but Chamber Choir is more than up to the task of performing it and Paul and I have chosen four wonderful soloists to sing some essential musical lines; Lucy Hole, Emily Harrison, Josh Baxter, and David Paterson. I can't wait to get started on the piece in rehearsal!
When I began the PhD here in Aberdeen I made the decision to consciously challenge myself with new styles of composing. What would be the point, I asked, of pursuing the terminal degree in my chosen field without actively pushing myself to explore musical material that I was not necessarily comfortable working with? The first step down this experimental road was my angular, jagged setting of Ave verum corpus for chorus and string orchestra, including harmonies the likes of which I never would have expected to see cropping up in my own music. From there I moved on to My True Being, delving into much more complex rhythms and employing techniques found in traditional Indian vocal music. Then, of course, I composed Phaenix alumna mortis, a very difficult piece due to the quasi-minimalist and constantly moving textures that serve as the backdrop for the text.
Just as Phaenix has been drawing to a close, two new works have started to blossom in the past week. Despite being very different in style, Ave verum corpus, My True Being, and Phaenix alumna mortis all have one thing in common; the trajectory of the piece is always aimed at achieving some sort of major climax on or near the golden section of the work. I didn't plan them that way necessarily, but the golden section is so ingrained in my musical sensibility that it came out naturally in my writing. In fact, it seems that every choral work I have ever written is aimed at reaching some great height of musical tension followed by falling action and resolution. But what if I removed the climaxes entirely? Would I be able to compose a cohesive piece of music without reaching any great heights?
This is exactly what these two new works seek to accomplish. I don't want to remove tension entirely, but to use it in a more linear, atmospheric way. The first piece is a new setting of the well known text Salvator mundi, commissioned by James D. Moyer and the Pennsbury High School Concert Choir for their upcoming tour of Europe. In contrast to many settings of this text, the dynamic will never rise above mezzo piano, creating a very somber and introspective atmosphere in which harmonies will unfold naturally in response to the words. One might naturally assume that the louder the music the more potential it has to command the attention of the listeners, but in my experience I have found that it is often the quietest of passages that are most effective in drawing the audience in and captivating them. To compose a piece entirely this way will have a very eerie effect on the room, especially in the halls of Salzburg and Leipzig where the choir will be performing next year.
For the second piece I have chosen another brilliant text by Rabindranath Tagore, whose seminal work Gitanjali has provided a great deal of inspiration to me in addition to the text for My True Being. Although the new Salvator mundi will be different in construction to much of my work, it still maintains the general harmonic palate that I have been using and developing over the years. This will not be the case for the other newly composed work, as I will yet again be exploring some Indian techniques and harmonies in both the choir and string parts. I do not have a title yet, but the choir will be accompanied by classical guitar, violin, and cello. Similarly to Salvator mundi, the piece will remain quiet and without climax for the entire duration, but in this case the dynamic will never rise above piano. The whole work will just float along, with odd intervalic relationships working their way out of the texture due to the harmonic relationship between the singers and the players.
But enough about work; I realize that the compositional process might be as boring to readers as it is fascinating to me! Friday was a busy day, as I was able to witness the stunning Dunedin Consort give a reading session to benefit some of the Masters/PhD composition students at Aberdeen. They did a tremendous job with My True Being once we got it up to speed; what a difficult piece! In the evening we made our way down to Cowdray Hall in city center to attend the Ogston Prize final, the last round of a scholarship competition made possible by the incredible generosity of local legend Derek Ogston. Five wonderful competitors gave superb performances; Greta Dilyte on Piano, Katie Doig singing soprano, Maria Vilberg on piano, Ruth Potts on violin, and Savia Iakovou also singing soprano. In the end the prize went to Maria for her excellent interpretation of Scriabin and Bartok, but all five competitors should be praised for their talent and commitment to their craft. To cap things off, Greta, Migle and I went to celebrate afterward and had a tremendous night out on the town.
Saturday was an equally amazing day. I was invited to take a tour of Fyvie Castle with Paul Mealor, John Hudson, Raemond and Kirsten Jappy, and Sam Jackson, managing editor of Classic FM and one of the judges for the Ogston Prize. A great day spent in good company in a truly beautiful environment – what more can one ask for? I even had a chance to try out the piano in the gallery after high tea had been served. I would love to return to the castle at some point to do a bit of composing and spend a bit more time with that superb instrument. It seems I have been drawing a lot of inspiration from architecture lately, whether it be the Italian Hall Arch in Calumet, Canterbury Cathedral in England, or Fyvie Castle in Scotland. Perhaps there is an architectural suite for solo piano coming in the near future (hint hint)...
After a much needed nap following the Fyvie expedition I found myself at Marine Meyer's birthday party near the University, surrounded by French people. I think it is about time that I say a few words about this group, as I have increasingly been spending time with them and have been enjoying every minute of it. I can't quite remember, but I believe it was the legend that is Leon Giguet who first introduced me to the rest of them. Most of the French that I know are here in Scotland as Erasmus students, meaning they are essentially foreign exchange students studying in Aberdeen for the third year of their University careers. Unfortunately, this means that most of them will be gone once term ends, which makes me a very sad panda indeed.
I'm not entirely sure whether certain personal characteristics that they exhibit are typical of the French as a whole or if it is just this group in particular, but I find that their behavior is slightly more akin to what I am used to in the United States than what I have found here in the United Kingdom. There is a certain openness and passion to the way that they speak that I greatly admire in them and miss about my friends back home. Perhaps this is why I feel so comfortable around them, although it is true that they are just extraordinarily accepting and easy to talk to - that is, when I can understand what they are saying. I took three years of French in High school and at Westminster, but it is not nearly enough for me to fully understand their conversation. Luckily, someone usually takes pity on me (usually it's Marine, Thomas, or Leon... thanks guys!) and either translates for me or diverts the conversation back to English. All in all, the time I've spent with these crazy Frenchies has been fantastic, and I'm certainly going to miss them next year.
There is always more to write – at some point you have to admit defeat and just go to bed. Congrats to all of the Ogston Prize finalists and to David Lawn on a tremendous recording session today in St. Machar's Cathedral; my vocal chords still haven't recovered from singing so many low notes! Happy belated birthday to Marine Meyer, whose celebration last night was legendary but made my morning so very, very difficult.
Most importantly, a very Happy Mother's Day to my wonderful Mom and my two Grandmas, AND a supremely happy birthday to Dan, my step dad. Skype is such a great thing - I can't wait to see you all in July! I couldn't have done this without you.
Until next time,
Culture shock of the week: “Bumper Cars” are called “Dodgems” here. What?
Music of the week: Move Your Feet by Junior Senior