Trip to Zion

I just got back from a quick trip down to Zion National Park in southern Utah.  It was great to be back down there again.  Walking through the different parts of the parks was incredible.  Hiked Angel’s Landing and the Narrows.  Met people from across America, Europe, Australia and Asia.  There were several times when I’d  just look up and around and stand transfixed by the sheer beauty of the place.  Those moments of being left speechless, constantly looking in every direction, desperately trying to take it all in.  It reminds me of a line from a poem by Robert Bridges, “thou shalt taste nothing but sweetness, and shalt grow half sad for sweetness run to waste.”  At night, we slept under the stars looking up at meteors burning up as they fell toward earth.

All I have to say is, if you’ve never been to Zion National Park, it needs to go onto your bucket list of places to visit before you die.  Thanks to Patrick Tatman for the awesome photo.

I’m obsessed with this music

Somehow I stumbled upon this new piece by Gabriel Jackson that was premiered by the BBC Singers back in 2010 at the BBC Proms.  What an incredible work of art.  I find myself constantly coming back to this wonderful piece over and over again.  What’s also great is that I’ve never heard of this author, John Bradburne, before.  Very compelling work all around.  It takes several sections of this poem and intersperses them with wonderful meditations by the string quartet.

As lovers write each other’s names on walls
And ceiling of their fancy at its height,
I’d castle treasure up, which never falls,
However, from the Majesty of sight;
My whole desire I will express, fulfilled,
Housed in God’s name no man may claim we build.

By thought we build our fancies & by deeds
We build the growing judgment that shall come
Surely on each of us who sow our seeds;
Judged by our words amok we’ll be struck dumb
Unless the chief and first fruit of them all
Is One upon whose name we love to call:

‘What’s in a name?’ in that, applied to this
Fount of all being, is His Mount of Bliss.

– John Bradburne

Holy Minimalism: Classical Music is For Everybody

It’s time to start writing about composers who are still alive and writing today.  We love dead composers (oh dear, that sounds like a threat), but there’s something significant about listening to works by people living in the same world we are.  The work of artists throughout the ages becomes a mirror for the times they are living in.  It’s interesting to see what we can learn about our own civilizations by studying contemporary works.

Now before you stop reading and run away screaming I would like to point out a few things about modern music.  Music generally written after 1950 gets a bad reputation based on music written before 1950.  When people hear the term “20th Century music,” they think of the serialism of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (definitely not music you’d play in the car on a hot date).

Many people equate modern music with music that is “complicated,” “directionless” and, of course, “ugly.”  The music I’m going to write about is actually none of these things.  This music is meant to be simple, moving, and quite beautiful.  This is music written by composers that are often called “holy minimalists.”

John Tavener (b. 1944)

The term minimalism (in a very summed up version) basically refers to music that is written for or with limited means.  Limited melody, harmony, rhythm, ranges, text or instrumentation.  This style of music has been quite popular in the last little while especially with composers from Eastern Europe and those associated with the Orthodox faith.  Some examples have been Arvo Pärt (pehrt) from Estonia, Henryk Górecki (gor-et-ski) from Poland, and John Tavener from England.  A great example of minimalism used in sacred music is with John Tavener’s setting of a William Blake poem “The Lamb.”  A very simple setting with little material becomes an incredibly moving expression of faith.

This brings up the question, why would anyone want to create a work of art with limitations?  It comes from the idea that less is more.  Rather that looking at it as a set of limitations, it’s more about enjoying simplicity.  Let’s consider this idea by looking at interior design.  Here are pictures of two different dining rooms, one in the Rococo style of the 18th Century and the other in a modern minimalist style.

While both are beautiful, they couldn’t be more different.  Many minimalists make their case for simplicity and limitations by looking at the rococo dining room say that it gets much too busy.  There’s too much going on, the eye is constantly moving around the room examining the various ornamentations and not given the opportunity to rest.  On the other hand, the minimalist room offers less and allows the eye to rest on fewer decorations.  There is something to be said about the clean lines and smooth surfaces offered by minimalist interior design.  Composers will argue that the same thing happens to the ear as it does the eye.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)

Going back to music, there’s also something to be said about laying a foundation of simplicity paving the way for much bigger forces being saved for a specific effect.  Coldplay does this in their song “Fix You.”  The reason I listen to this song is that moment at 3:02 when the band explodes into the climax.  Everything before that leads up to that moment but it’s pretty subdued with just a few instruments and Chris Martin’s voice.  It’s not the most exciting, but the climax wouldn’t make sense without it.

It’s the same in Arvo Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis.”  Arvo Pärt is a composer from Estonia who has become one of the great living composers today because of his use of minimalism.  He writes in many different genres including sacred music for the Orthodox faith.  This piece, “Nunc dimittis,” comes from the Vespers portion of the liturgy and are the words of Simeon after he has seen the infant Jesus at the temple.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

The first 4 minutes are all a very subdued foundation. This of course expounds the idea of a man who is finally at peace and ready to lay down his life.  At 4:03 the piece takes a new direction at the words “Which thou hast prepared,” leading to 4:43 where the choir explodes at the word “lumen” or “light.”  The way that Pärt writes this section makes you feel as if you’re seeing light for the very first time, the same way that Simeon might have felt seeing the infant Christ for the first time.

Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)

Another great composer who often writes in a simpler, minimalist style is that of Henryk Górecki from Poland.  Górecki’s third symphony, often called the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” has often been referred to as his masterpiece.  While it’s not a sacred piece, nor meant for worship services, it uses sacred texts associated with the virgin Mary in the context of suffering, agony, and lamentation.  It relates the suffering of Mary weeping at the cross of Jesus with the suffering of holocaust victims in Poland.  The second movement uses a four line poem written by an 18 girl on the walls of a Nazi concentration camp.  It’s written for orchestra and soprano, but it’s not a very complicated piece.  Very simple and accessible music, but highly expressive.  While the sound of the video isn’t the best, I love the performance and images associated with this music and felt it was as important as the music.

A final example of sacred minimalist music is found in John Tavener’s “Song for Athene.”  While Tavener wrote this for a friend of his who passed away it was made most famous when it was performed at the funeral service of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey.  The text is taken from Shakespeare as well as the Orthodox funeral service.  This recording by the Sixteen.

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me O lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest O Lord to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The choir of saints have found the well-spring of life, and door of paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song:
Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

Remember, if you like what you heard, share it with someone else.

Tour to the United Kingdom

BYU Singers performing in Gloucester Cathedral.

For the past month I’ve been touring the United Kingdom with BYU Singers.  It was a fantastic tour.  Out of the three I’ve done with BYU Singers, this one was by far the most rewarding and the most fun.  Our tour itinerary looked like this:

Somewhere around Embankment.

  • Church of Christ the Cornerstone – Milton Keyes
  • Emmanuel United Reformed Church – Cambridge
  • St. Andrew’s Hall – Norwich
  • Gloucester Cathedral
  • Bristol Cathedral
  • Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – Cardiff (recorded for a later broadcast on BBC Radio 3)
  • Exeter University’s Great Hall – Exeter
  • The Sheldonian Theatre – Oxford
  • Crawley Stake Center – Crawley
  • St. Peter’s School – Bournemouth
  • St. Mary’s Church – Hitchin
  • St. Giles-in-the-Fields – London
  • Guildford Cathedral
  • St. Paul’s Cathedral – London
  • St. John’s, Smith Square – London

The whole tour was a string of incredible venues.  I’ve never had the opportunity to sing in so many rewarding and historical places.  In addition, it was great to just be back in the UK.  As we were preparing for the tour, a man came in to talk about England to us.  He asked us to raise our hands if we had ancestors from the UK.  Turns out, all but one of us have forefathers from the UK.  He mentioned to us that, in a way, we were going back home.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  The idea of home is something that has always alluded me.  There really hasn’t been a place that has felt like “home” to me for many years.  The few moments that have felt like home have been with groups of people rather in a specific place.

Some highlights for me would have to be Cambridge, Gloucester, Cardiff, Oxford, and of course, London.  We also got to see places like Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, got to attend a rehearsal of The Sixteen in Exeter Cathedral, and was allowed to take high tea at the high table in Christchurch College at Oxford.  There really are more things that I can mention here.  Ruth, a member of the choir who graduated from Oxford, kept mentioning that we have opportunities that our ancestors would never have had.

BYU Singers performing in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

All of our concerts in London, St. Giles, Guildford, St. Paul’s, and St. John’s Smith Square, were just incredible and an amazing way to end four wonderful years in BYU Singers.  St. Giles was one of the finest acoustics we’ve sung in.  Singing in Guildford, there were a LOT of people and we had a great interaction with the elected officials from the city.  St. Paul’s was a very intimidating but remarkable experience.  St. John’s, Smith Square has become one of the top three performances I’ve had with this remarkable ensemble.  Some of the finest performances of some of our pieces, especially Ferko’s “O vis aeternitatis.”  Also, in attendance were two of my heroes: Gabriel Jackson & Tarik O’Regan.  These two, in my opinion, are among the finest composers in England right now.

After the tour was over I stayed behind with two friends, Chris Downard, and Mark Zabriskie.  We spent most of our time in London, but also went out to Cambridge and Oxford.  Among other things we saw concerts by Tenebrae, the Tallis Scholars, the Cardinall’s Musick, the Sixteen and the BBC Singers.  All were remarkable performances, and it was a dream to hear these choirs in person, either again or for the first time.  Tenebrae sang “Funeral Ikos” by Tavener, Requiem by Howells, and “Evening Watch” by Holst.  The Tallis Scholars sang a number of works by John Cornysh and Jean Mouton.  The Cardinall’s Musick sang an entire concert of Byrd, including the Mass for Five Voices and “Infelix Ego.”  The Sixteen performed an all-Flemish concert with works by Josquin, Brummel and Lassus.  The BBC Singers performed Israel in Egypt by Handel.  In addition, we got to attend a rehearsal of the BBC Singers preparing Israel in Egypt.  It was difficult to come back down to earth after each of these performances.

That final concert of BYU Singers in St. John’s, Smith Square was very difficult.  Everyone was trying to mention to me that this was my final concert with BYU Singers and ask me how it felt.  It might have seemed a bit rude, but I had to immediately interrupt and say, “I’m not talking about that!”  And indeed, talking with others in the choir, with whom it was their final concert the same thing happened (rather mutually): “We’re not talking about that!”  I didn’t want any sort of sadness to overshadow what was a very important concert for the choir.

Our final concert at St. John’s, Smith Square, London.

Just before the concert, I had a small word with Prof. Rosalind Hall about this though.  Since she had been in the choir for four years as well, I asked her how she coped with leaving the choir.  Her response was very telling: “You know Matt, you never do.  You never get over being in BYU Singers, and frankly if you did, it means we didn’t do our job.”  Another friend who was in the choir years earlier mentioned, “After being in BYU Singers, you find yourself working to replicate and imitate the experience there the rest of your life and never really succeeding.”

I feel immensely blessed and privileged to have been in BYU Singers for four years and in BYU Concert Choir two years prior.  These last four years have shaped my life in a way that very few things have.  Being in these ensembles completely changed the course of my life and I feel that I am a better man because of it.

The next morning after our concert I couldn’t bring myself to go downstairs and see the rest of BYU Singers who were flying home.  It was too much.  I just lay in bed trying to deal with this new hole in my life.  I felt very empty and void with it all being over.  So much of my life these past few years has been spent revolved around this ensemble.  I took a shower, got dressed when my friend Chris came in with some breakfast.  He asked how I was and why I didn’t come down to see everyone leave.  After a bit of talking, we both became silent and I just started to cry.  A little at first and then a huge wave of sadness came over me.  After a while, I looked over at Chris and he was crying too. “Now why are YOU crying!?” I asked.  We both laughed, hugged and cried some more.

It’s not like I’m the first or only one to experience this sort of transition.  I’ve seen it happen to my friends, I just never expected it to actually happen to me.  This was my paradise and I never actually expected it to end.

At the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.