This past week here in Pittsburgh was the American Guild of Organists, Mid-Atlantic Regional Convention. Whew! A lot of words there. As I was and am a part of the steering committee, I have had my hands ties up with many things not organ-improvising related. BUT, one of our local members, as a part of promoting the event, has gone around and visited many churches and recorded their instruments. I was featured recently and I improvised on the tune HYFRYDOL, something well known that I could throw easily into a prelude/fugue/toccata; something typically flashy and French. Enjoy!
(PS: In my most French manner, I am wearing street shoes and they make a cameo!)
I had the privilege to be a part of the First Readings Project in Minneapolis, MN. For the 2014-2015 Season, they were looking for women’s chorus works in particular. On my colleague’s encouragement, Zvonimir Nagy, I wrote a new piece for this particular event (though there is another choir interested). I had never written for women’s chorus before and it was quite fun to work with that particular scoring.
The text to Ave Maris Stella has always fascinated me. The early Christian church used many nautical images and this text is no exception; Mary is the star that leads. There is a “star” in the piece, but it’s not so much thematic as aesthetic. To keep the piece in the time limit, I had to choose my verses, leaving several of the middle verses out. I think the text still makes sense in the order in the piece. Here is the text:
Hail, star of the sea,
Nurturing Mother of God,
And ever Virgin
Happy gate of Heaven.
Receiving that “Ave”
From the mouth of Gabriel,
Establish us in peace,
Transforming the name of “Eva”
Bestow a pure life,
Prepare a safe way:
That seeing Jesus,
We may ever rejoice.
Praise be to God the Father,
To the Most High Christ (be) glory,
To the Holy Spirit
Be honor, to the Three equally. Amen.
*There’s an error in the video: it should say Minneapolis, MN, not Minnesota, MN.
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.