As I with most communion improvisations I post, and I do post quite a few, this one never climaxes or gets particularly big and ends rather abruptly. Normally I opt not to post improvisations that don’t have an arc I like, but everything else is really tight and concise. (The presider moved a little more quickly than I expected at the end.) I did record the postlude for the day, but it wasn’t nearly as nice as the communion improvisation.
Whenever a composer discusses their own work, it can be quite treacherous. I only say that because I have had some really bad (and I really mean stupid) experiences with composers talking about themselves. Can I really be objective? Of course not. So, I’ll be honest. And this is how the story goes:
I wanted to introduce my Monastery choir to Maurice Duruflé’s works, particularly his Ubi Caritas. With that in mind, I made a rather feeble attempt to arrange it for my choir. Since that didn’t work, why not imitate Duruflé? Why not do my best impression? That turned into what was the first verse of the Ubi Caritas which is very doable by most choirs.
But then, asked by others, what about the other verses? Is there a way to create a version of the Ubi Caritas that includes all verses and is still singable? In my compositional process, I decided that it would be much more important that the text be strictly understood. That meant, if there is to be any drama in the work, it must not come necessarily from the text, but the build up of tension through modulation. I love the idea of using other aspects of music to create the anticipation of something to come, until the very end, when the Amen coda is strongly modal.
I try to give small insights into my own compositional process and this piece is interesting for me in that I went back and changed it. The choir that sang was a make-shift group that did really well with the short amount of practice. THAT FACT is a sign of how truly accessible the piece is for average choral groups when a professional group can nearly sight sing it.
The Seven Last Words was originally written for my Masters of Music, Sacred Music, Degree Recital (whew! that’s a lot to say). I chose to present the piece in a series of meditations on the Passion and the service was on the afternoon of Palm Sunday. It went something like this, There would be a reading, then a repertoire piece, followed by a meditation from one of the Passionist priests. The last part of the service was the Seven Last Words with the Monastery Choir, instruments, and me conducting. I have always felt that the piece, though an oratorio, works best as a meditation. The ending, for example, is a sigh, not a dramatic gesture.
The revisions that I have started doing are happening to again, make the piece more broadly available. The revision is going to encompass four areas: a new organ accompaniment, a new version with no solos and the choir singing all the words, and SAB and STB versions, also with no solos. The latter revisions are being done out of sheer practicality. Even my own small choir is better with the STB version right now than the full SATB. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of revising and even rewriting some of the piece is simply that I’m older and different and it has been a challenge to take myself back to a piece from a different time. Not all composers seem to struggle with this, but I certainly am! It will be a pleasure to share the revisions, hopefully next year, when they are done!
Happy Holy Week! This post and the next will present the oratorio “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” that I wrote back in 2009. Of course, there is nothing more appropriate for this week than a setting of this work. Currently, I am revising the piece, something I don’t do very often. I suppose it is because the piece is very dear to me and at the time I wrote it, I poured everything I had into this single work. The most important parameter that I gave myself for the piece was simply that my choir at the Monastery could sing it. One challenge I continuously face is simply one of accessibility. And not accessibility in the sense of whether the music is “traditional” or “contemporary,” but accessibility in the sense that a small choir of about ten people can pull it off. Out of that was born this piece. I’ll explain the revisions when the second post comes later this week.
During this time of Lent, music that is of a meditative, more serene quality is always appropriate. During communion this evening, I found myself without a theme. When that happens, I often like using three note motives to get things started. What unfolds is a process by which the three notes expands until, in this case, it becomes a canon. In retrospect, I should have gone elsewhere for the ending. I will freely admit that I went for the obvious and easy ending. But hey, who’s keeping track! All in all, a very stark, simple, but perhaps elegant little improvisation to accompany the procession.
Happy Valentines Day! Or rather, the last weekend before Lent begins. In most Christian rituals and services, that means the end of singing and saying Alleluia until Easter comes. So, I often like to brandish an alleluia of some kind as a last hurrah. This particular morning, it’s about -2 here in Pittsburgh and that meant a very light attendance of church goers. Put those together and I did something a little wilder than the usual fare I improvise. I have to admit, it’s always nice to cut loose once in a while.
Happy New Year! As belated as that is, here is another improvisation in a very Duruflé manner. I sometimes wonder why these end up being the ones I record, but such it is. I’ve been trying to get one of my contrapuntal improvs, but I often forget to turn the camera on. Not that I’m complaining; this one is pretty cool. One of these days, there will be a solid FUGUE. Enough complaining though because this improv has all the elements that make improvs great. There are some clear moments that show my multiple endings having to be extended. There is also something very satisfying about the scherzo/adagio contrast that Duruflé often uses to elicit a mood that fits so well to liturgy. It is the sum total of the elements that I enjoy – particularly watching the spontaneous change of registration as the improvisation necessitates.
PS: The text of the chant is “‘Follow me, I will make you fishers of men.'” Where upon they, leaving their nets and their boat, followed the Lord.” Dare I say that this improv was affected by my experiences growing up and fishing in Alaska? Fishing, for me, is a very peaceful act of communing with God and nature. I hope that comes across – enjoy!