initial conceptual thoughts/personal notes about my choir piece

it’s odd to think that my first “real” music project in several years is using an aesthetic that i’ve never felt comfortable with – singing and piano accompaniment. One of the last works i wrote as a masters student, Remembrance, is the only serious vocal piece i’ve ever written, and i think i got lucky in how successful i feel it is.

The challenge i have regarding vocal music is three-fold: a) there’s a lot of text out there, and finding text that i would feel comfortable setting to music gives me that whole needle-in-a-haystack feeling, b) once i actually have the text, i can overanalyse exactly how much meaning needs to go into the music to reflect what is occuring in the text, and c) even though i’m a pianist, i’m not that great at writing piano music and piano accompaniment.

But after talking to Jenni on the drive back from the Gustav evacuation, i determined that not using her choir as an available resource to perform some of my creative outlet is simply dumb, so we both talked about me writing a piece for their 2009 performing season.

As i was completing my drive back to NOLA, ideas started flowing into my head – oddly enough, coming up with how i wanted the beginning to start without knowing what the text was going to be. I know that it’s been done before, but i wanted to explore the idea of starting the whole choir doing a “sh” sound that led into music and then turned into text. And this led directly into the next formal idea of the piece, of starting the piece in the *middle* of the text as opposed to the beginning, mainly because i thought it would be too difficult to find a quote or a passage to use in which the first sound was a “sh” sound.

The concept then turned into a hybrid of what Steve Reich did with Proverb – instead of using a long passage and through-composing the music relating to the passage, find a single quote and build the music around the single quote. And since i was looking for the “sh” word to be in the middle of the quote, slowly reveal the quote from the middle outward.

Once i came up with this idea, i asked some people for some of their favourite quotes with “sh” sounds in the middle, and one of my former coworkers from Oregon gave me exactly what i wanted, a quote from Henry Miller:

“in this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.”

The quote is perfect to build from the middle outward because if you isolate the middle of the quote carefully enough, it can seem to convey the complete opposite message of its point: “There is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned.” And instantly the form of the entire piece was in my head. Start with the “sh” sound, develop it into the SA singing “short cut”, develop that into the SA singing “There is a short cut”, then “There is a short cut to everything.” Create a call and response between the SA of that phrase with the TB singing “the greatest lesson to be learned.”

In my head, i have the idea of shifting the perception of the order of the quote at this point to make it seem like “the greatest lesson to be learned” comes *before* “there is a short cut”, so it’s conceivable that maybe i’ll make the TB development phrase “the great lesson to be learned is:”. I may also add “in this age” as an isolated segment so that it can read “in this age, there is a short cut to everything.”

From there, the transition from the deceptive meaning to the actual meaning is still fuzzy in my head. The ending is somewhat uncertain as well, though the idea i have right now is to layer parts of the quote on top of each other as tension into a climax before returning back to “A” accompaniment material (that i use in the beginning) to set the stage for the entire quote being sung in unison at the end, but the “A” accompaniment material takes on a slightly different character (maybe something as simple as minor in the beginning, major at the end).

Having finalized that concept in my head about a week ago, i started to try to put down some of the opening on paper and discovered a couple of issues that i need to work through. The first is that the style of the piece in my head is fairly post-minimalist, but i don’t want to make the piece so minimalist that it’s not enjoyable to perform, and i need to try to keep the piece under seven minutes. Resultingly i’m already shifting some of the creative ideas in my head to allow for more interest and faster development. The second issue is that, as i had stated, i’m not the greatest at writing proper piano accompaniment – most of the piano stuff i’ve written whether accompaniment or soloish or electronic music integrationish has used the piano mainly as a backdrop to create tall chords, and i see this very similarly.

Granted, the accompaniment to Remembrance was fairly successful even with the chordal backdrop because of the bitonality and the rhythmic interest generated – even just the simple two-against-three in the beginning. i don’t conceive of this piece as having much bitonality or pantonality in it, but i may be able to create some sort of countemelody or “future fragments” to generate more interest so long as it doesn’t distract from the main ideas and prevent the choir from finding their pitches. Resultingly i may have to compose the ending fairly soon so i can swipe the material from that final singing of the quote for developmental material in the main part of the piece (a technique i’m quite fond of thanks to one of my former composition professors at West Chester).

Likely i’ll be working out some pacing in my head and then putting more ideas on paper on thursday. Next week will be busy with lots of various marching band stuff and the (hopefully) final stages of unpacking, but at least in the next couple of weeks i want to take some of the sketchwork and do some of the computer notation parts so i can see and hear how it Actually Sounds in my head and figure out if it’s going okay or if it sucks and i need to rewrite it or reconceive my idea.