Saturday, May 2, 2015

Compline Geek

In my late teens I tried to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. (Looking back at this, I think you need to be a bit older to read Eco. But I digress.) Even being a Cradle Catholic, this was the first time I ever read or heard about Compline. Admittedly I probably would have been the only kid in CCD class (Sunday school) who would have been interested in the rich, somewhat esoteric history of the Catholic Church when I was a kid—I was that geek. I still am 

As part of the Liturgy of the Hours, Compline is the final ‘office’ or service at the close of the day. When I came to Minneapolis and began singing in the Basilica of St. Mary choir, I found that Compline was still done at the Basilica. Compline is the prayer before sleep.  Personally I view Compline from three different standpoints.  From a rational standpoint it is a time to begin to let the mind rest.  From an emotional standpoint it a time of gratitude for the day that has past.  From a spiritual standpoint it is a time of awe and wonder at the universe of God.

A bit less than two years ago I began singing with the Minnesota Compline Choir. This is an ecumenical choir—it’s not just Catholics who do Compline. This was part of reason I joined this choir. It is important to me to sing in a choir that crosses denominational lines. (In CCD I was also listening to some of the lessons of the Second Vatican Council.) Twice a month from September to May we sing the service on Sunday nights at 8:00 PM in the Basilica of St. Mary


Each time part of the service consists of a psalm setting, normally done as a chant, sometimes with minimal harmony added. I wanted to write a simple psalm setting. These settings are normally written and prepared quickly. To me, that was the challenge. Chant is the original musical minimalism and from a compositional standpoint one must write it while thinking ‘less is more.’

I approached our director, Aaron Humble, and asked if he would be willing to look at a psalm setting I would write for the choir. After he said yes I asked if there was a particular psalm I should set. He said set one that speaks to me.


Geek that I am, I began doing some research into psalms that have a long-standing relationship with compline. I decided to use Psalm 4. Although this psalm, according to the Rule of St. Benedict, is to be performed straight through without antiphon, I decided to structure the piece in an antiphon/verse format using the last line of the psalm as the antiphon: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.”

Now for the truly ‘esotericcomposer-speak: Since the text referenced sleep I decided that I wanted to begin the piece with a downward melodic gesture. I did not want to use any pre-existing plainchant melody, but rather write my own. I also decided the antiphon would be metered (in 6 8 time) while the verses would be done in un-metered chant style. From a harmonic standpoint I choose to pentatonic scale, but not be strict and allow myself to borrow notes from other scales.


I am so thankful that Mr. Humble has included this setting in our service tonight (May 3, 2015 at 8:00 PM). I am looking forward to hearing the setting in the reverberant space of our Minneapolitan Basilica.



Psalm 4 from the King James Version 
Antiphon:

I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety. 
Verses:

Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.

Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.

There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.

Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sometimes the text finds you.

This coming Sunday a new work of mine will be sung at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church in Golden Valley, MN.  In the Fall of 2011 Wendy Gennaula, my wife, began to sing there as a member of the quartet of choir section leaders.  Jerry Rubino, the director of music at the church, asked if I would be interested in writing a solo piece for Wendy.  I love to write music for Wendy and jumped at the opportunity to do so again.

But the first question that came to my mind was "what text to set to music?"  And my go to answer for this question is "the Psalms."  In my experience, all the emotions of the human experience can be found there.  When I was young I had the idea that the Bible was like a users manual for life.  It told you exactly what you should do.  As I've grown older, I have found that that approach is not very helpful.  Instead of finding the best answers in the Bible, I have found the best questions.  And a perfect place to find those questions is the Psalms.  There one will find joy, rage, loneliness, emptiness, fullness, companionship, peace, and sorrow.  But which Psalm?  There are 150 of them!

Sometimes the text finds you.  I honestly can't remember where I first heard Psalm 31 in the Fall of 2011. Was it at the wedding of friends?  It might have been during a service at First Covenant where I sing in the choir once a month.  It could have also been the Sunday that I visited Spirit of Hope to hear Wendy sing with the rest of the choir.  In any case I remember hearing a Psalm Response based on Psalm 31:24.  "...all you who hope in the LORD."  Hope in the Lord.  A Spirit of Hope.

Sometimes the text finds you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hello, again, hello....

Yes. I am quoting a Neil Diamond song. (Not that I'm saying there is anything wrong with that...)

It's been a while since I last posted anything here. Since my last post I've written 2 pieces for 1st Covenant Church in Minneapolis and started singing in the Gospel Choir there. Gospel singing was always something I've admired from a far. When I found out that 1st Covenant was starting one up with Robert Robinson as director I thought I can't let this opportunity pass. It's been great. A very different experience from singing in a cathedral or classical choir. I'm still trying to get use to the concept of learning things by rote without music. (After years of dealing with printed music it makes me feel exposed--vocally naked. I can't look at a page--I have to just use my ears. I'm not saying one is better than the other--just different.) Also it's been fun to just open up the vocal chords.

Right now I'm busy working on the music for YARRRH!!! which will be presented at the Minnesota Fringe Festival this summer (August 4th-14th, 2011). Women! Pirates! What more do you need to know?

That's all for now. More to come. Really...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Time to become a Note Head again

I've been more of a code monkey for a while now. I need to get back to being a Note Head. Mainly been loading new tunes to my iPod shuffle. Latest additional was actually the song "Code Monkey"--a really fun tune! Also got an old recording of La Traviata with Maria Callas recorded live at La Scala. It was the first opera album I ever bought. Although I know there are better sounding recordings, there is something to be said about your first love of a recording.

Sometime I need to blog about hearing most of my music now of days through my iPod shuffle instead of live performance. I think one would expect me to be quite snobbish about the superior quality of live performance--and yet for the trade off to enjoy music anywhere I don't really have much of a problem with my shuffle.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Bells (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

"Then, all at once, behold!--for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,--behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony."



[ Link ] to The Bells.

For the opening of the Hunchback of Notre Dame Leah, the director, wanted to have the house lights up. The cast would wander onto the stage as music would be playing on the sound system.

"First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert."

I used the chant Ubi Caritas as the basis for the bell peel. “Where charity and love are, God is there.” This summarizes the time that Quasimodo and Esmeralda will spend together at the top of Notre Dame.

When the bell peel is done, one of the cast members would have a guitar and they would start playing along with the song.

"It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations."

Italics text is a quote from The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Journey to Opening Night, part 2

To recap from part 1, In September or so I became part of the design team (as composer) for an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The director (Leah) and I agreed that I should get a copy of the script and start looking at it to determine what musical cues to write. I had assume that Leah had found an adaptation that was already written and had been performed. Turned out it would be a bit more exciting. Mitchell "Bucky" Fay, long time member of the Cromulent Shakespeare Company, was doing a new adaptation. So Leah, Bucky and I met to discuss the show. I found out the script was going through some revisions and I would get hold of it when those revisions were done.

Leah told me this was a play, not a musical, which was somewhat of a relief. I have worked on a few musical projects now, and they are big jobs and very time consuming. I was looking for something a bit smaller in order to try to keep my sanity between family, work, and fun music projects. In my mind I thought this would just be a few sound cues to set scenes. I was wrong.

It didn't turn into a musical, but when I got my hands on the script I found out that there were 5 songs in it—and a number of them for the entire cast. Writing songs is very different than writing instrumental music for me. With instrumental music I can just thinking of where I want the melody and harmony to go and then write out the music. With songs, everything has to fit in with those pesky words. That takes more time. The other “problem” is that I love doing it.

The chance to write music for Quasimodo and Esmeralda was a really exciting prospect for me. Also I wondered if Frollo might have a song or two. But I had to remind myself that this was not a musical. Also Leah had told me that the casting had been done without regards to musically ability. I didn't know if any of the cast felt comfortable singing on stage.

So the next step was to send out a survey to the cast to ask what kind of musical background they had. Once I knew that I could start thinking about specific songs. You don’t need to be classically trained singer to sell a song. But I believe the performer has to feel comfortable. In order to do that the composer needs to have some understanding of the performer’s voice so that an appropriate piece for both the performer and the character can be written.

The surveys came back and it was clear that we had a real mix of people with musical experience and without. Esmeralda could sing, but Quasimodo and Frollo did not have a lot of musical experience. Since we had a mix of experience I needed to take that into account as I wrote the songs for the entire cast.

(Next time: the writing of the songs begins…)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Journey to Opening Night, part 1

Well, it is one week and one day later, but Hunchback of Notre Dame had a great opening night. Since about September I've been working on original music for an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel. The Cromulent Shakespeare Company had decided to do this in repertory with Richard III and not only share the cast but also the set and costumes. Now this is a BIG undertaking.

I first heard about this when I saw a status from Leah Cooper that she was going to direct Hunchback. That caught my attention for several reasons: 1) I have seen Leah's work before and have great respect for what she brings to the stage, 2) I had worked with Leah before and knew what a wonderful collaborative experience she creates, and 3) I only knew Hunchback through the Disney movie.

Now for all lovers of Hugo's novel, I can just imagine the rolling of your eyes regarding Disney. Culturally Hunchback is just part of us. Even if you never read the book or saw any of the many adaptations for the screen, you know the basic characters of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Since I was not familiar with any adaptation before Disney, I didn't have a strong negative ("This is an Abomination!!!") reaction to the movie.

The movie is not a Ratatouille, but it is not horrible either. It took the broad outline of the story and combined characters, made at least one villain good, and came out with a happy ending. The happy ending part has been done before--see the 1938 movie version. But even having not read the book, I knew you had to approach it as something different from what Victor Hugo intended.

I knew Leah well enough that I knew I could ask if she was thinking of music for the adaptation and so I did. And to my great happiness she said she would love to work with me again! (Yea!!!) Next step was to see the script.