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Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Practice What You Preach, Part V

When last we left our aspiring pretend-composer, he was staring down the barrel of a deadline, albeit self-imposed. The situation was by no means hopeless … but it was starting to look like all those research papers from college: in spite of all possible preparation, he was going to be typing till midnight the night before the due date.

Like exactly none of the great composers of the nineteenth century, I played back the mp3 files that I had made of the seven anthems in this contemporary Advent/Christmas set. Just wanted to make sure that the grand sweep of the series of songs made sense … or to make sure that there was any kind of grand sweep at all, or aural evidence of a grand plan.

Turns out that the original opening song was okay in the second position, now that I’d written a prelude to it. There were a couple of slower items to start. They were followed by a subversively swingy take on a “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” text, and a fairly energetic setting of the shepherds’ adventure. Conceivably, it could have been a good place to pause (as in the middle of a service, one must pause and do other things). On the other side of the halfway point, a slow gospel anthem, followed by a Wise-Men desert camel groove (please refer to this dignified explanation for this silly description!), followed by the big finish.

Something was still bugging me. It felt like the tempo of the whole thing just kept increasing and increasing. A lot of slow and pensive stuff early, and the longer it went on, the less relief a listener was likely to get from the constant cranking-up of the intensity. I thought I needed some brief moment of repose before the last movement.

Then I remembered what complete tightrope act I had considered perpetrating, when I stumbled onto the web archive of Christina Rossetti’s poetry. She wrote the text that became the hymn “Love Came Down at Christmas”, and every time that has appeared as a hymn in a church service or come on the radio within my hearing, I’ve somehow felt – arrogantly, one could argue – that segments of the melody it was set to, well, just felt awkward to me.

So, sure, let’s go make contact with the third rail. Let’s go try and re-set a justly-famous and beloved piece of poetry that has an already widely-recognized melody attached to it – a traditional Irish folk melody, no less. If the Irish have known one thing over the centuries, it’s how to write a darn melody that’ll stick in your head.

What am I, nuts?

Well, many of you already know the answer to that.

But I thought it ended up setting the table for the Big Finish movement pretty well. A chance to take a breath before the final plunge, perhaps.

We’ll see.

So, I thought I felt pretty happy with the pieces, even if the way they’d developed hadn’t be precisely linear. More like one of those “Family Circus” comic strips with just one gigantic panel, using a dotted line to trace and little Billy’s mischievous path around his neighborhood.

Just one thing, now:

All that remains is to get it in front of live people – the actual people who we’re conscripting (encouraging) to prepare and present this material in December, as if it were an actual Large Work – and see if they think it’s worth a dang. Our church choir has presented works of Brubeck and Buxtehude, Saint-Saens and Murphy (my prolific brother-in-law and organist), … and I ain’t them! … but the style of a lot of this material has definitely not been run up the flagpole during Advent before, in our church. So, novelty at least.

We’ll see, indeed.

[Postscript: this week, we opened our 2013-14 church choir campaign with one of two Thursday-night rehearsals that will precede the first “choir Sunday”, on the 8th of the month. I gingerly passed two of the more straightforward movements out to them, and we read them down. And I must say, the assembled singers were more than kind and generous about them. Of course, while we were sightreading the “This Is No Time” movement, I could only notice what I perceived to be flaws in the writing … except that they read it so well that I was forced to pay attention to their handsome singing. Afterward, I described to a couple of folks how my blood pressure was ever-so-slightly elevated, shall we say, as we began to sing it. They seemed surprised at that; but I’m not a composer by trade, and I was hoping that wouldn’t show.

[Just hang on till we read the “City of Angels”-esque movement. Then we’ll really see what’s gonna fly…!]

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August 31, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Practice What You Preach, Part IV

When last we left our aspiring composer type, he staring down the barrel of a deadline, albeit self-imposed. The situation was by no means hopeless … but it was starting to look like all those research papers of his life: in spite of all possible preparation, he was going to be typing till midnight the night before it was due.

With three days of a summer vacation remaining before I had to dive back into the world of faculty meetings, lesson planning and lunch duty, I had written five songs. My plan had been for seven. So, three days and two songs. No problem.

Which is, on its face, a pretty absurd statement. No, I wasn’t going to be writing the equivalent of the Pathetique Symphony – perhaps a Pathetic one! – but it’s over-the-top to expect to whip off a decent anthem in a day. Which, I reminded myself, is why we sleep on it and the next morning we edit. Hard.

Right. To the poetry pile! I looked at what had been written so far and it was severely lacking in shepherds and angels, which is of course one of the fun parts of the Christmas story. Many years ago I imagined writing a piece that properly conveyed what the shepherds might have felt. I don’t care who you are: if you are suddenly set upon, in the middle of the otherwise quiet wee hours of the morning, by blindingly-lit supernatural figures that claim to be angels, you are terrified right down to your regulation sandals. But back then, I imagined a much less contemporary-music-sounding thing, and frankly it was probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for the Offertory music slot at the local Methodist church.

Two things happened almost simultaneously. First, I recalled having thought that it would be a fun experiment to write a tune based around one of those four-guitar-chord riffs that go around and around and around and are in fact the entire harmonic structure of a Green Day or a Michelle Branch tune. Especially since at one point way back when, I remember mumbling, “well THAT’S not very creative.” I was a Gershwin snob, I think.

And second, remarkably, a poem hurled itself at me, out of the Christina Rossetti catalog, that started out, “Shepherds watch their flocks by night…”

Well there ya go.

And after a morning and an afternoon, and then another morning of polite but ferocious editing, I had a song in 6/8 (up to that point I hadn’t gotten into compound meter, and was beginning to consider the monotony of having most of seven songs in 4/4), driven forward by a pair of ’90s pop guitar riffs. Not my usual. Kinda fun.

The other element of the Big Story that was still glaringly absent: Wise Men of any kind. And again … I don’t know who exactly was choreographing this wild poetry-goose chase, but amazing! This time the Madeleine L’Engle catalog stepped up and delivered a curious poem, written in the first person, from the perspective of the three kings. Its structure was intriguing: each of the six stanzas had a six- or seven-syllable line, followed by a pair of very similar two-syllable lines, followed by a last eight- or ten-syllable line. So? Tenors and basses sing the longer lines, punctuated by sopranos and altos interjecting the short lines, and we potentially answer the question “so, are the men going to have any melodies in this collection of songs?”

And possibly the question “how much Philip Glass -grade repetition can a choir stand before it throws up its collective hands in frustration?”

And possibly the question “can I get away with overlaying a piece with a stereotypically Lawrence-of-Arabia, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ percussion ostinato?” Well? They traversed the desert, after all … and we’ve got a couple of fine percussionists in the congregation (one is seven years old, one is a recent college graduate, and both rock-solid), so of course we utilize!

Is our hero finally finished? Do seven songs actually equal one complete work? Will our hero step back and admire, or will he perpetuate his irritating habit of writing a lesson plan ahead of time and then straying from it halfway through the class? Find out … in the final installment of … “Start Rehearsals Already”!

August 30, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Practice What You Preach, Part III

When last we left our musician-with-a-fledgling-composition-gig, he was thrilled with having two anthems in such shape that he didn’t hate them, even the next morning. He was also giving a faint edit/update to that “Part II” post, thanks to a stray paragraph that got copy/pasted incorrectly. He was also recognizing that all he had to do was find five songs just like the first two.

(Theme music UP, then fade DOWN. Narrator speaks.)

I’m still trying to decide whether writing two pieces out of a total of seven … and then spending two weeks on the road, away from a computer or piano keyboard … is a BAD idea (you’re on a roll and you stop?!) or a GOOD idea (give the material an opportunity to marinate inside the brain; step back and get some perspective). But it’s what I did. Went on the road with DMA, and to visit various friends, over the course of 15 days – give or take a 36-hour stop home to do laundry and not much else.

So I had what I felt were solid bookend pieces … and needed to fill in the guts of the Large Work. Piece o’ cake.

 

Back to the poetry of Ms. Rossetti and Ms. L’Engle, as has been previously discussed to death. I found a poem by Christina Rossetti that began, “This Advent moon shines cold and clear, these Advent nights are long…” and for the first time, a musical idea leapt to the forefront and demanded my attention. Thus far, I had finished [1] a sort of slow, straight-ahead opening song (don’t honestly know how else to describe it, other than perhaps “your choir will shine with this pensive Advent text treatment”) … and [2] a showy, funky final movement that was trying not to be a disco song. Early on, I’d wanted to have something swing out a little bit, since a few years ago I wrote an Easter anthem in the style of an Ellington big band original (Just Not As Good! … I am still humble) which kinda caught on.

Weird, I thought, to have a song swing out when the only loud part of the Advent story is usually the angels carrying on about peace on earth, goodwill to men (and women). BUT that first line of text transported me musically to the land of Guy Noir, Private Eye. I refuse to write a Christmas Pageant script with a Philip Marlowe-style narrator … but I did hear a muted trumpet wailing in the distance; I sensed Manhattan Transfer-esque choral harmony with lots of stray ninths and 13ths; and I felt a slinky, slightly desperate swinging of eighth notes coming on. At the very least, it could cause people to sit up and scratch their heads.

I will now admit that shortly after that tune got into some next-to-next-to-last-draft form, another poem wandered in front of my eyes that caused me to teeter on the edge of musical composition mimickry. This past spring, I heard a choral piece that knocked my socks off. It was slow; it was written specifically for a large number of voices, in four parts, emoting in a contemporary gospel genre (not the classic spiritual style, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, so much); and it was a monstrous hit with the audience of which I was a member that night. I admit … I’m not for plagiarism; and I’m trying to be original here … but I really wanted to write something that would have a comparable effect.

The poem I was looking at, describing the newborn baby Jesus, had relatively few words in it. Perfect for a slow tempo. Problem: as is often the case with Christina Rossetti’s poetry, it was basically in hymn form. So, no refrain to hit the listener over the head with … to put a big pretty bow on the package … to be the earworm that listeners can’t get out of their heads.

Solution? Simple. Re-visit Latin class.

Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te … and Gloria in Excelsis Deo, for good measure.

(‘Twould have been truly odd to have a Large Work, written for Advent and Christmas, without that line in it. Phew. Rescue!)

There was one more item that would come out of the week following the fortnight of my Mid-Atlantic Summer Tour. A Madeleine L’Engle poem called “The Glory” turned out to be a text that I really liked, a text for which I immediately came up with an appropriate idea for a musical setting, and a text that with a lurch I realized had to be presented prior to the text that comprised my current “opening song”.

Hmm.

I had written that opening song, and especially the beginning of it, to be absolutely the beginning of the Large Work. Two quotations of that aforementioned four-note motif, like a call to prayer from a minaret (use your imagination; go with me on this one, for the moment). Brilliant. And now, the high General Effect score might have been in danger from the actions of its own composer?

Yep, pretty much. The new opening song was lots more contemporary-sounding than the old opening song, and probably laid out that element of the Large Work much more effectively. But I was still a little deflated. Wish I’d seen that coming before. Ah well.

 

So, a productive week following the Summer Tour. Then, a productive week following that – just not productive in the service of the Large Work. A brief, previously-scheduled trip to Cape Cod … and then the few days that remained between my Cape return and my re-immersion into School Teaching (oh yes! –my day job) were going to have to be pretty productive. I had no illusions: once the school year kicked in, accompanied by the beginning of the regular church-gig program year, composition time was going to be sparse…

Will our hero finish two more anthems before the giant stone door slams down and leaves summer vacation on the other side of it? Will the basses finally get something melodic to sing? Find out … in the next exciting installment of … “Humility Takes a Holiday”!

August 24, 2013 Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment