Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Tis the season

I've been silent again, busy with work, and various other forms of writing that have kept me from saying anything of import here. However, now that my teaching semester and Christmas concert season are both over, or nearly there over, I can relax a little and write and do some less essential things. I've already spent hours this week playing with the Canadian Music Centre's new online toy, Centrestreams. It's delightful, and will undoubtedly become a thorn in the side of the wider world's ability to continue ignoring Canadian music.

It seems we're in for another so-called "black Christmas" this year. (I suppose Finns would call it green if there were enough daylight to see the ground – or if they weren't Finns.) Last winter was the worst I've experienced since moving here, with no snow at all and a heavy cloud cover that kept daylight out for weeks on end. If not for my month in Seaside, Fla, I might not have made it through the S.A.D. – never an acronym more appropriate, by the way. This year, though, the weather trends and bird migrations seem to be pointing toward a more normal season. With the addition to our home furnishings of a full-spectrum sunlight lamp, and hopefully a little skiing, I may survive this one.

It's also the season of endless Christmas gigs, both as a performer and audience member. I keep thinking I'll get sick of Christmas music, but I haven't yet. It's the one remainder of my Anglican/Catholic upbringing that I haven't left behind. I love the season, the mood it brings out in people, the pageantry and especially the music, from all periods. My choir did a Schütz motet this year, "Die Himmel erzählen die ehre Gottes", that knocked my socks off, and aroused interest in a composer I hadn't paid much attention to previously. Another recent highlight was the première of my friend David's new piece Resonance, for violin, strings and two horns, an evocative, soulful, warmly diatonic piece full of Celtic undertones, which I'm going to pay him the respect of stealing ideas from in my horn concerto next year. In terms of my own music, it's also been a more active season than usual. My carol In the bleak mid-winter, written last year, will be broadcast across Europe and North America as part of the Finnish entry in Euroradio's annual Christmas concert series, in a performance by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and my friend Nils Schweckendiek (info here, here and here). The December 21st concert date is a pleasing coincidence as well – in the actual bleak mid-winter.

I'm very much in a choral phase at the moment, trying to get an 80th anniversary piece for HOL off the ground and done by the time our rehearsals start again in January. I was a bit wary of taking on yet another choir piece this year, feeling kind of tapped for new textural and formal ideas. When the request came while I was working on, say it with me, a choir piece in Seaside last winter, I toyed with the idea of setting a favorite E.E. Cummings poem as a 40-voice motet, just to give myself something unusual to think about. In the end, though, I decided I couldn't get my head around the text well enough at the moment and needed a few more years to think about it. However, it was ultimately another experience this past summer that drew me away from Cummings more forcefully.

My wife and I spent a month crossing Canada and the U.S. visiting family and friends for the first time in several years. One of our stops was Amherst, Massachusetts, where I spent three of the happiest years of my life as a student at UMass. Our hosts there took us on an extensive tour of rural Western Mass, which was a delight. The landscapes in New England are much the same as where I grew up, just north of Vermont, and it felt like a return home in many ways. One of the places we visited was Hancock Shaker Village, a former Shaker community-turned-museum which I'd heard of, but never been to before. During the day, we heard a demonstration of Shaker worship songs, including the very famous Simple Gifts, most memorably used, of course, by Copland in Appalachian Spring, and which I made an arrangement of a couple of years ago for HOL. The most affecting song I heard, though, was a much more modest one called Love is little:

Love is little, love is low
Love will make my spirit grow
Grow in peace, grow in light
Love will do the thing that's right

It was on permanent loop in my head for weeks afterward, so I figured I'd been given a gift that would form the basis of the new piece, a sort of fantasia around the tune. The melody itself is so perfect that any harmonization would be a travesty, and given that it has no climax per se, I didn't want to impose a linear narrative on it. Given what we were told about the Shakers repeating songs over and over during their ceremonies, much like the way I couldn't seem to turn off my mental fixation with it, the idea that occurred to me for a possible setting was a deconstruction of the tune achieved by slowing down various melodic fragments, constantly creating new layers that gradually move off into different speeds, ultimately giving every singer their own part.

It's not particularly new, and I've been intrigued with this sort of sea-of-voices textural idea for years, since a friend and I accidentally caused a feedback loop of a Palestrina motet while copying course tapes in the music library at Stony Brook late one night. (Later that year I used a fragment of the same motet, "Sicut cervus", looped over and over itself, in a tape piece.) Another formative experience was my first hearing Brian Eno's Three Variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D about ten years ago, which begins with a few bars of a very Romantic interpretation of the famous Canon, but in which all the parts quickly slow down in increasing proportion to the depth of their register.

The other appeal in this type of process was allowing myself only the pitches of a diatonic scale. After writing a pretty dissonant chamber duo in the summer, I've been leaning further toward total diatonicism this fall as a counterweight, and the Eb-major scale has been particularly attractive for choral music: not too high or too low for amateur singers, it allows for maximum use of the choral tessitura. However, establishing interesting, varied textural ideas within those restrictions presents a problem. I don't use MIDI much for vocal music because the timbres deaden my inner ear, and I figured working blind with thick layers of diatonic clusters could potentially lead to unexpectedly turgid results. So I decided to conduct a little experiment.

Using a 250-voice choir and one of the biggest organs in Helsinki.

Allow me to explain. Every year, the university club choirs gather for a massed Christmas concert in Helsinki's Kallio church, the biggest, most cavernous worship space in town. Each group presents a few minutes of its own selections, interspersed with traditional songs and carols sung by the audience. It's a relaxed, fun, family event that almost always sees the church packed. The final number for the massed choirs is usually something traditional, the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah or some such, but this year I asked to contribute a similar-minded deconstruction of a Christmas tune for the group to perform, a kind of semi-improvised piece around something the audience would be familiar with.

The whole idea came to me in the type of rare, late-night flash that popular culture seems to think is how artists actually work most of the time, and which hardly ever happens to me. I'd been playing around with a setting of Adolphe Adam's "Cantique de Noël", known to the English-speaking world as "O Holy Night". I'd wanted to do a simple four-voice setting using only the diatonic pitches of the E-flat scale (plus an A that occurs in the middle), but one that was still quite dissonant, if not non-tonal as a result. It worked for a while, but I quickly got bored with the texture and, swtiching my Clavinova to "Strings", started smearing the notes of the final cadential 6-4 progression together. Throw in a recent listening to Charlemagne Palestine's Schlongo!!! daLUVdrone, a piece which moved me to blog last year and voilà, instant inpiration!

The choice of "O Holy Night" is another personal story. I've loved this carol for as long as I can remember. As far as carols go, it's pretty bombastic in that nineteenth-century French way. It's also one of the great tunes ever written, on par for mastery with Schubert's "Ave Maria", but it's been done no favors by countless cheesy arrangements, bellowed out every year by big-voiced pop divas and operatic tenors. And yet, I have an abiding affection for it, so I decided to scrape of the decades-old patina of Elvis, Mormon Tabernacle Choirs, Perry Como, Pavarotti and Dog knows what else to see what lay beneath, if that tune could be rehabilitated into something more insightful than a stadium anthem.

I'll leave judgment on the "insightful" part to others, but so far I'm quite pleased with the result. After a verse and chorus of my initial four-part setting, the final cadence stretches out infinitely, becoming a pianissimo hummed cluster. The organ enters, slowly building a cluster held down with bits of cardboard, à la Palestine, and the organist starts pulling out stops. The choir, meanwhile, starts playing around with fragments of the tune and its hamonization, varying in density and tonal emphasis, getting louder all the while. The organ's bass spends a lot of time osciallating around C rather than E-flat, and when it finally resolves up to E-flat near the end, the effect is pretty impressive at maximum volume, for all its obviousness. My friend Susanne Kujala graciously agreed to play the organ part. Having just recorded a CD on the organ at Kallio, she knows the instrument like the back of her hand, and is so far rocking the house, quite literally.

I still haven't heard it all performed together, as the one and only rehearsal with both singers and organ is tomorrow just before the concert. There are bound to be issues, but the improvisational, box-structure of the choral part, not to mention the total diatonicism of the piece, allows for things to go wrong, even encourages it. I'm looking forward to it in the extreme. I've wanted to write something like this for a long time, and Christmas provides an unmissable opportunity to thumb my nose at critics and colleagues alike, write with no regard to aesthetics or form save making a piece I want to hear, and hopefully make a few people joyful at the same time.

Best wishes for the season, to any and all who read this!