Stars Over Snow – Barlow Endowment Commission Finished!

I realize that it has been a LOOOOOOOOOONG time since I last posted. I’m trying to make up for that.

Back in August, I was awarded a commission by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University. The commission was an a cappella choral piece between 5 and 8 minutes for the Brigham Young University Singers to take on tour to China. I’ve been working on it quite a bit ever since. At first, Dr. Staheli (who was going to premiere the piece) suggested that I write a mood piece with a few words, rather than setting a narrative poem. I worked on that for a few solid months and wasn’t really happy with what was happening.

I don’t like sending sketches or early drafts of my work to anybody. I try and wait until a piece is “finished” or at least thoroughly constructed before delivering it. However, because things weren’t really gelling on this piece, I decided to sent it to Dr. Staheli anyway. After sending it by email I got a call soon afterwards. After some reassuring/loving disclaimers he simply said, “It’s not working.” We talked for a bit and he pretty much vocalized all of my own doubts about the work. I was very grateful to get such honest and open feedback from a person I trust so implicitly.

We talked about possible solutions and we both agreed that the best course of action was to start over. We talked about possible texts, bounced around some possibilities and eventually he recommended a six-line poem by Sara Teasdale. It’s been a personal favorite of mine called “Night.”

Stars over snow,
And in the west a planet
Swinging below a star—
Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
It is not far—
It never will be far.

– Sara Teasdale

Eventually, work began on the piece which was going much better than before. I see the poem in two halves of three lines each and structured the piece accordingly. The second half simply expounds on the first half. Seek out that which is beautiful, true, and uplifting and it will be abundant. It reminds me of a quote by Henri Matisse: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” It’s also closely related to these words by Leonardo da Vinci: “There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” I often find myself in those last two classes.

I’ve finished the piece and BYU Singers is currently rehearsing it. I’ve already had some great conversations about making little changes here and there to polish out all the rough spots. The premiere will be on Friday, March 13th (yes, Friday the 13th) in the de Jong Concert Hall at BYU. I’ll be there in person!

In the meantime, here are the first two pages:

StarsOverSnow1

StarsOverSnow2

What I’m Learning: Listening

The-Hilliard-Ensemble-c-Marco-Borggreve

A few weeks ago, The Hilliard Ensemble visited us here at USC (but the early music department didn’t tell anyone about it till 10 PM the night before their workshop the next morning…that was an episode). They shared a lot of great things about performing and answered questions with refreshing honestly, humor, and pragmatism. It was so great to hear sensible, straightforward answers from such a renowned ensemble. One of my favorites had to do with their opinion of “authentic/historical” pronunciations. The answer essentially was “Listen, when those Flemish chaps got their hands on the latest and greatest new motet from Rome they didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s sing this like we’re a bunch of Italians!’…I’m not promoting ignorance, but I don’t give a !@#$.”

They said one thing that really stuck with me. I don’t remember who said it, but essentially told the ensemble they were workshopping that they needed to listen to each other more. He went on to say, “You think you’re listening to each other, but I promise, you’re not. People rarely ever, ever, ever actually listen.” This is SO true.

I had the opportunity to study sound recording technology as part of my Bachelors of Music, and will forever be grateful. I wish that more people actually went through that program or at least took audio and sound classes before pursing a career in choral music or as a conductor. The biggest reason I believe this is because the whole idea behind those classes and that degree was to learn to listen.

Think about it for just a second, how many classes have we taken to learn to read? How many classes have we taken to learn to write? Have you also taken classes on public speaking or debate or where presenting has been a large part of the class? Now how many classes have you taken on how to listen? If you studied music in college you’ve probably taken some ear training or dictation classes and that’s a good start.

audio-recording-equipmentOne of the first things I learned in my first class is that there are basically two different branches of listening: critical and analytical. Critical listening is all about the quality of the sound or tone. Many questions that come with this branch of listening include: “Is that the best mic for that sound? Is that the best mic placement for that sound? Is there noise in that sound? Is that pitch in tune, flat or sharp? Is that vowel unified?” It’s about getting the best sound.

Analytical listening on the other hand is all about the meaning of the sound or the emotional context of the sound. Questions about analytical listening can include, “Is this instrumentation too spare for this song? Does that line have enough feeling? Is this break/space too long here? Is this sound too assertive for this song? Do I believe the singer(s)?” It’s all about getting the best performance.

And of course, both of these branches of listening contain worlds of different aspects of that particular part of listening. The more I studied sound recording, questions were brought up, and many times that answer was (besides “it depends”), “What are you hearing?” The further I got into my studies, the more I realized my own deficiencies in my listening and how much I just don’t capture and sometimes ignore. It included a difficult trip to the audiologists to get a hearing test and seeing what frequencies I hear better or worse in each ear. Thankfully, I was made aware of what my listening lacks and how I can continue to make up for it.

Sadly, I’ve met a number of people who only listen one of these ways, and even a few who don’t really hear either way. Their brains receive the information their ears pick up, but fail to really discern the quality or the meaning of the sound. I’ve seen this happen in choral rehearsals from both sides of the podium, conductors who fail to hear what’s really happening in the room. I’ve even seen conductors pretend to hear things that AREN’T happening to cover that they’re not really hearing anything at all; They’d rather pretend that they’re hearing things and make stuff up (and end up chastising the choir).

I’m not saying I’m perfect at hearing what’s honestly happening in the room, several of my recordings tell me the truth about stuff I’m not hearing. One thing a mentor taught me was to record (but not videotape) a rehearsal and see what I miss in the moment, but catch later on. First time I did it, I was shocked by what I wasn’t catching during the actual rehearsal, but grateful that I was able to notice these errors another way.

One of the most rewarding experiences I have is to sing next to a friend, listen to their voice, and then adjust my own voice to complement their voice and then notice our sound get better. The best part is when that friend returns the favor and begins to listen and adjust to complement my voice. I have a few friends who I know can do this day or night, rain or shine, without even being asked. When Gabriel Crouch (former King’s Singer) did a Q&A with us at BYU, he told us about his experience auditioning for the King’s Singers. As he rehearsed with them, he said that it was like having 5 sets of ears riveted to sound of his voice. He said he had never experienced anything like it before and that it was one of the most moving experiences he’d ever had.

Listening is a big deal, and we rarely ever do it. We should fix that.

Singing with the Rolling Stones

Did I forget to mention that I recently sang with the Rolling Stones for three of their shows a few weeks back? Well, I did! USC Chamber Singers got invited to sing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for their two shows at the Honda Center in Anaheim and then at the Staples Center in downtown LA.

It was a great experience and a good way to end my first year at USC.  We all got in-ear monitors, got to rehearse with the band, was given our own suite, and got to watch the show three times. I have to admit, I’m not that big of a fan, but at least I can understand how big of a deal this is.

Because of an agreement I signed I couldn’t take any pictures or videos while onstage or during rehearsal. However, someone in the audience got a great video during that actual show. You can only really hear us at the beginning and end, but I was there (on stage and screen). Here it is:

New Job at KUSC

kusc cat top media_2This last week I started an internship at KUSC, the classical radio station for the Los Angeles area. Currently I’m writing content for their apps Soundsnips, WorldVenues, and Geotunes (an app with Spotify).

Soundsnips which lets you listen to great music and then gives you some info about the music and it’s composer while you’re listening. WorldVenues is a great little encyclopedia about various concert halls around the world which pictures and video. Geotunes is like geocaching with music showing different music written for different locations.

It’s been great! I get to read and write about classical music all day and work with great people. The work I’ve done so far won’t be available until we do an update, which we’ll do soon. Until then, go ahead and download these and see what you think. You can also download KUSC’s regular app.

That’s one bit of news. I also got a car! More news might come later.

New Commission for Cantorum

cantorum

A lot has been happening since I last posted. I might cover the other goings on later, but right now I wanted to share that I’ve received a new commission from Utah-based, early music ensemble Cantorum. This is the ensemble, directed by my friend Allen Buskirk, that I sang in as well as directed.

It’s a great ensemble with a great sound specializing in sacred music from the Renaissance and early Baroque. I had a lot of fun both singing in and directing this wonderful group of singers. The piece they have commissioned is for their advent-themed concert this December. We both agreed to a great advent hymn called “Vox clara ecce intonat.” Here are the words (with a poetic translation):

VOX clara ecce intonat,
obscura quaeque increpat:
procul fugentur somnia;
ab aethere Christus promicat.
A THRILLING voice by Jordan rings,
rebuking guilt and darksome things:
vain dreams of sin and visions fly;
Christ in His might shines forth on high.
Mens iam resurgat torpida
quae sorde exstat saucia;
sidus refulget iam novum,
ut tollat omne noxium.
Now let each torpid soul arise,
that sunk in guilt and wounded lies;
see! the new Star’s refulgent ray
shall chase disease and sin away.
E sursum Agnus mittitur
laxare gratis debitum;
omnes pro indulgentia
vocem demus cum lacrimis,
The Lamb descends from heaven above
to pardon sin with freest love:
for such indulgent mercy shewn
with tearful joy our thanks we own.
Secundo ut cum fulserit
mundumque horror cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.
That when again He shines revealed,
and trembling worlds to terror yield.
He give not sin its just reward,
but in His love protect and guard.
Summo Parenti gloria
Natoque sit victoria,
et Flamini laus debita
per saeculorum saecula. Amen.
To the most high Parent glory be
and to the Son be victory,
and to the Spirit praise is owed
from age to age eternally. Amen.

I’m very excited to get started!

The Atlanta Singers Premiere “Desert Pools”

I just learned that the Atlanta Singers, directed by David Morrow, will be performing my composition “Water Lilies,” and premiere my piece, “Desert Pools” on Friday, April 26th at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center. Both are settings of poems by Sara Teasdale. If you’re in the Atlanta area you should go check it out! I wont be able to be there, but I’m sure it’ll be great. Here’s a poster of their event:

Atlanta Singers